A RELENTLESS AND CHALLENGING GOD
September 21, 2014 by Ken Dale
Last Sunday we ended with Barbara Brown Taylor?s wonderful words about experiencing God?s forgiveness in such a way that one could not pass up a single chance to do the same.?? That afternoon Kathy told me she was almost in tears when she heard it ? I said ?so was I.? As the preacher I offer you my heartfelt thanks for the encouraging comments on that message. More importantly, I hope you did sense God?s forgiveness and especially then found opportunity to do the same and pass it on.
When I read this week?s gospel lesson it was challenging to say the least ? talk about shifting gears! It probably is the most difficult and challenging of them all. Some work all day and some work the last hour and everyone gets the same pay. There are so many unanswered questions too! Why? Why did the landowner go out and get more workers at 9, noon, 3 and 5? Did they discover more grapes to be picked or something? Did he just hire them because they were there and they needed work and he had the work they needed? And the real problem is why did he pay them all the same wage? Regardless of how long they worked ? they all got the same pay!? It?s just not fair. Those who worked longer should have gotten a bonus or something if the one hour workers got the same as one day workers. So many unanswered questions. It just goes against our cultural upbringing with good solid work ethic which is based on competition ? pay and reward are based on performance. You know ? ?no pain, no gain? ? ?get what you deserve nothing more, nothing less? ? ?there?s no such thing as a free lunch? ? ?the early bird gets the worm? (I love the follow up to that ? ?but the second mouse gets the cheese?).
To connect directly to where we left off last week let us think in terms of envy and gratitude. Both are powerful forces in our living and are undoubtedly rooted back to our need in infancy to secure ourselves in relationships. Melanie Klein, an Austrian born psychoanalyst, says that gratitude is closely related to maternal goodness and the experience of love. She said that when one experiences gratitude one wants to return the goodness one received. So gratitude becomes the foundation of generosity. Envy on the other hand attacks what we experience as good. Think about when envy is present ? there is a spirit of comparison ? there is bitterness, frustration, jealousy, greed, even hatred and hostility. The mindset becomes one of ?me? and ?them? and our eyes turn inward. We become greedy and selfish and lose a sense of community. According to Klein cultivated gratitude is strong enough to overcome envy. (LH08)
Now that we have our psychoanalytical background, let?s look at the parable because it will reveal something about ourselves. The very basic line of the story is all it takes. At first it seems unfair doesn?t it? Some of the workers have spent the whole day working in the vineyard and others have worked only an hour ? yet they all get paid the same. And if that?s not enough, the ones who worked only an hour got paid first ? and if THAT?s not enough, the ones who worked all day have to sit there and see the ones who only worked an hour get paid for the whole day! — salt on the wound. Wouldn?t it have been nicer if they didn?t have to sit there and see that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?
Again ? this is a tough parable. It does seem to be honest, after all, each worker had a agreement with the landowner and the landowner fulfilled the deal and paid what he promised. Especially in our culture it is just common sense that the one who works more would get more and the one who works less should get less. But this is about the ?kingdom of heaven? ? the realm of God ? the way God operates.
If the vineyard represents the world and the landowner represents God and the workers represent all those who live with that sense of being called ? hired if you will ? by God — God?s people ? then the wages or pay could be understood as fellowship with God or living in relationship with God ? eternal life ? the life of faith. If we see it that way we could conclude, (as Julie Adkins does in Amazing (and Completely Illogical) Grace) that at the end of the day ?the full day?s wage is really the minimum because nothing less would be sufficient? and the full day?s wage is really the maximum because nothing more is possible. Eternal life, she concludes, is like the mathematical concept of infinity. Infinity times three is still infinity ? infinity squared is still infinity ? how can someone ? anyone ? get more eternal life than someone else? This is not about us ? it?s about God! The grace of God is generous and the grace of God is sufficient for us all.
Are we really touched by that? Really. We?re quick to side with the all-day workers and how they feel. How about those who only worked for an hour? In your mind, be one of them. Imagine what it would be like to go home that night and say ?Honey you won?t believe what happened today?.I was worried because I had no work, didn?t get hired in the morning, but at the end of the day at 5 o?clock I got hired, and I ONLY GOT TO WORK ONE HOUR, but the boss paid me for a whole day?s work, just like all the others. Did he know we all needed the money?? Think about it ? the landowner gives them not what they earned but what they needed. Again ? this is not about us ? it?s about God. This one gets it! ? I only got to work an hour? wishing for more opportunity?
But it is about us ? how do we respond to such love, such grace? If we see the landowner as always on the search for workers in the vineyard ? getting more people involved in that work so they too can take part in both the work and the wages ? if we see the landowner as God and we are the workers that receive those wages ? ?eternal life? – the life of faith ? in God?s reign ? call it what you will – there is no one who should be standing on the sidelines at the 11th hour thinking they are unwanted or undeserving to take part in the work.
So how about this current state of the mainline church? This is the God we proclaim ? unlike ?other? Christian churches we do not operate on the fear of God and threats of hell ? we speak of awe instead of fear, and a loving, gracious, God as portrayed in the parable before us this morning and the prodigal son, as seen in the life of Jesus of Nazareth who we do proclaim as our Christ and revealer of the fullness of God. We say no matter what God loves you ? and then we wonder why people don?t come to church. How do we respond to that divine love?
If God is that committed to us how about our commitment to God and to the life of faith God calls us to? How is our worship attendance compared to our membership or parish list ? here at 51 Main Street ? yes ? but all over that mainline church whatever the sign out front says? What is our level of commitment to be the church ? the Christian Church ? the Body of Christ. It?s a mix here as I?m sure it is in other churches. We could lift up individuals whose commitment to the church, to the life of faith, is inspiring to say the least. We know who they are. And when that commitment is a group ? people committed and working together ? I think there?s no better example than the choir. Working together in all that they do and are and offer to the life of this church ? there?s something very special they experience together ? call it eternal life, realm of God, faith based relationships – whatever.
Yet sometimes we see lack of commitment where we need it. Sunday School for our kids is a good example where we find both a lack of teachers and a lack of those willing to be taught. Sometimes those who do teach prepare lessons and come Sunday there are no kids to teach. Imagine that vineyard worker preparing for nothing. Again just two examples and there are exceptions.
This church, in my view, is made up of some pretty awesome people ? if we were all committed to be here and be the Church ? the Body of Christ ? offering our gifts of time, talent and treasure in response to that precious gift of God?s grace ? perhaps we too would experience the joy of the 11th hour worker. I only got to be there for an hour! Worship that God who is like the landowner of that vineyard and be reminded of the joy of getting to work in that vineyard considering the ?wages? of eternal life. That grace calls us to share that grace in many ways.
There?s no better closing than Buechner?s words about grace ? you?ve heard it – now in part – hear it again:
Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There?s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? A crucial eccentricity of Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There?s nothing you have to do. There?s nothing you have to do. There?s nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn?t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don?t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It?s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There?s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you?ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.