"Chiles and Grace" by Vicar A.J. Houseman
There’s a gathering place in El Paso, TX, probably many of them, where men and women gather early in the morning before the sun comes up to be chosen each day to pick chile peppers in the fields. Carlos had sprained his ankle 2 days ago, so he wasn’t able to work yesterday. That was a hit for his family. So today, despite the pain, he was one of the first ones out there that morning. Waiting in a huge lot as the trucks began to file in to pick up the workers they would need to pick in the fields that day. He was absolutely elated when the man looked out his window and pointed at Carlos and the three others behind him. He had work.
Leon doesn’t live in El Paso, he lives just outside the city. But if you want to get the good paying jobs you have to make your way to this place. The problem is that it takes three buses every day for him to get there by the early morning role of 5am. And like many places, the buses in El Paso are not always reliable. And in 2020 even if they do arrive they may already be at the 50% capacity limit. Today was one of those days and Leon didn’t get to the lot until 8am, long after the first round of trucks came in and picked up most of the workers for the day. When he arrives, there are just a few stragglers praying that this might be a day that someone comes back for more. Leon takes a seat against the wall and after a few hours he is just about ready to head back home, give up for the day, when a truck pulls in. It’s his lucky day!
Christina got on a truck early in the morning, but the farmer didn’t actually have a lot for them to do that day so he took them back earlier than normal to the lot. She wasn’t unhappy with her wages for that day, but she had been trying to save up extra because her 4 year old son’s birthday was coming up. They didn’t have much but her whole family would gather and she wanted to do something just a little extra for him that day. And just before she gets ready to leave a truck pulls up and asks her if she wants a few more hours of work that day. This is just what she needs!
At the end of the day, the whistle is blown and everyone begins making their way in from the fields to turn in their baskets and collect their pay. Typically in chile fields, you get paid by how many bushels you pick. Carlos is still limping and isn’t as fast as he usually is so his haul today isn’t as good as he would like it to be. He is absolutely astonished when the farmer comes around and gives him a full days wage. He is so grateful… until he sees that the farmer gave that same wage to the guys who got there at noon, and then that chick that came at 3 pm, she barely even picked a full bushel!
These are not real stories, but these places do exist. I visited this very place a few years ago and spent time talking with the workers. These men and women work long hours for very little pay based solely on what they can pick in a day. Their families depend on these wages and it can be very competitive. It's a dog eat dog world out there and the early bird gets the worm. You snooze, you lose. First come, first serve. That's the capitalist model of labor practices employed in most places. First come, first serve….
Jesus’ parable gives us some good insight into equality versus equity. This is a tough concept for us to swallow in the design of our society. Equality we can all get on board with easily, its the equity piece that alludes us.
For example, three people go to a concert and are in the back and can’t see. Let’s say its Vicar John, who is a little over 6 ft tall. Then it’s me, coming in at 5’5”, and say a friend I went to high school with that barely grazed 5’ by the time we graduated. Equality would be giving each of us a 6 inch stool to stand on to see over the crowd. Well, Vicar John can see now, but my high school friend and I still cannot. Equity is bringing us all to the same height. Vicar John gets a 6” stool, I get a 12” stool, and my friend gets an 18” stool. This brings us all to the same height.
Often how it would work is whoever gets there first gets the stool they want, then whoever gets there second gets their choice and the last person just gets whatever stool is left. First come, first serve…
That’s fair right?
In the design and structure of how human society is arranged, going back several millennia, this is how humans have best found to conduct ourselves in a way that seems fair and reasonable.
And this is why this guy Jesus is so unreasonable. This is why his ideas are radical to the point of getting him killed: he suggests this isn’t good enough.
We talked about this last week, that grace is illogical. This gift of God that puts the last first and the first last seems not just crazy, but unfair. What do you mean that even though I was here first and worked hard all day that not only would I get the same as everyone else but that I would get paid last? It’s almost rude.
There is a Christian philosophy that we call “works righteousness”. This philosophy is based on the idea that you do good things and you get points in your God column and when you die, if you have enough points you go to heaven and if you do something bad it subtracts points from this column. So It’s really important that you do good deeds while you are here on Earth for your whole life to make sure you have enough points. Seems fair, right?
See God is not a good accountant. God was like yeah, I’m done with this. So God sent Jesus to wipe out the whole accounting system. The gift of grace from Jesus on the cross blows this entire system away.
Whether you are first to the table or last, the gift of grace given through Jesus by God to secure our full day’s wage in heaven is given to all. Freely and fully. That’s fair, right?
Uh no, Jesus it is not. Why should I receive the same grace as someone who showed up at the very end of their horrible life and asked for the same gift?
My favorite line from any song is from Be My Escape by Relient K and it says, “the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” Let me say that again, “the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”
This gift from God that makes the first last and the last first, that is given equitably to the one who has been working all day and the one that showed up at the very end, is not fair. It is illogical and so unfair it's ridiculous. Thanks be to God for that.
This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
But then you may say, “A.J. what is the point of doing anything if we aren’t earning our salvation anyways?” Martin Luther said it best. He said, “God doesn’t need your good works… but your neighbor does.”
Jesus gave his life for us to understand that the way to heaven is not a dog eat dog world, it is not first come first serve, it is not the early bird gets the worm. So slow down. Instead of trampling people to get to the kingdom like a black friday sale on new iPhones, take the hand of your neighbor and help them to the counter… There's enough for everyone.
You get that? There’s enough for everyone. God is not going to run out of grace.
The beauty of Grace is that it makes life not fair. Amen to that. Get in the front of the line or the back of it, there's always more grace. Amen.
Reflection Songs: By my Escape by Relient K and The Servant Song ELW #659 recorded by Vicars: A.J. Houseman, Elizabeth Peter Eckman, and Taylor Berdahl.