Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept. 23 Sermon: It's not fair!

Sermon Texts:
1 Tim 2: 1-8
Matthew 20: 1-16

We live in a culture that has its roots firmly planted in fairness. You get out what you put in—You reap what you sow. Some attribute the economic success of the United States to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” The idea that we are masters of our own ship that was cultivated by the Puritans who arrived in the 17th century.
The liberation of the Bible from the priest and into the hands and languages of the laypeople was a powerful force of the Reformation, and it led to strengthened sense of individuality and personal responsibility. Indeed, many scholars say the Enlightenment itself was planted in the enhanced philosophy of the individual, which was a byproduct of the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. A result of the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century was the notion of “individual rights” which led to the democratic revolutions. Individual rights as you know sit on a see saw with individual responsibilities. The balance of the two is an agreed upon notion of fairness.
This scripture passage has chafed me since I was a kid. Perhaps it’s that it gnaws at my modern sensibilities of “fairness.” It’s the same thing with the prodigal son’s brother who sticks around and helps out on the farm, or the other sheep who stay in the fold while the shepherd goes off looking for the lost sheep. I don’t remember being an extremely cynical child, but for some reason I always sided with the person who was seemingly wronged in the parable. Those who showed up first and worked all day DESERVED a better pay than those who showed up and worked an hour in the coolness of the evening. Why would the shepherd leave unattended those 99 sheep who had enough sense NOT to go wandering off? The father who rushed out to welcome back his wayward son who showed him no respect and spent all his inheritance in a binge seemed to be revealing an embarrassing degree of FAVORITISM in my book—his other son stuck by him the entire time and he didn’t get a big party?!
Part of me still wonders what kind of time this hypothetical landowner had the next day when he went out into the town square early in the morning and tried to recruit some workers for his vineyard. He likely wouldn’t have any success rounding people up until 5pm if you ask me! Of course, Jesus mentions no “next day” in his parable.
No—Jesus boldly proclaims the beauty of a God who transcends or perhaps simply pre-dates our concept of fairness or “right and wrong.” The landowner who is recruiting help and paying what he wishes inhabits a story where there is no “next day.” Instead, the generosity that he offers, and in turn the unbelievable grace that his generosity points to in our God has no concern for the “next day” when he may or may not be able to get any help. The generosity and grace is ultimately tied to the present moment. It is found in every breath we take and has no concern for our past or our future. IT is given to us because it is a product of God’s eternal nature.
Jesus continuously reminds us that we are given grace not according to our faithfulness, but according to God’s ever abundant generosity. Though it may offend my sense of right and wrong, Jesus tells us that God’s generosity extends beyond the boundaries of fairness. Is this a welcome word? Is this Good News? It isn’t if we consider Fairness to be God’s chief virtue. Here’s a thought—perhaps our cultural picture of a God who judges us eternally based on the life we lived, or who rewards hard work and lasting faithfulness with all the bounty we can comprehend is simply a byproduct of our fairly young and fairly immature culture. The Gospel lesson tells us of a God who is radically UNFAIR—Our God might be accused of being na├»ve by our worldly standards. The indiscriminating outpouring of grace and love toward all who come with open hands is a beautiful picture—but we would probably call someone who enacted this kind of ethical standard in our day and age an idealist.
Perhaps my problem with this story and the others is my own haughty assumption that I can even identify with the early workers. My concentration on the “fairness” of the passage probably means that I, consciously or not, believe that I am an “early worker” when the reality is that I’m probably showing up at around 4:55 to the market square to look for work. While I may be more prone to grumbling about fairness, I should actually be rejoicing at the undeserved grace I’ve been given.
Perhaps the reality is that we’re all showing up late to put in an hour’s work. In the cultural context in which this Gospel lesson was written, Gentiles would probably have taken comfort to know that even those who had shown up late to the game were given the same reward as those who had been part of the project for so long. The God of Christianity was and is the God of the Hebrews. There was competition between Jewish adherents of Jesus and Gentile adherents of Jesus. In a way, this parable spoke to the early church in a way that still speaks to us today. Those Gentiles who were new to the faith, and thus “late comers” to the vineyard, were given the same reward as those who had practiced the faith of the fathers for their whole life. Matthew gives his audience a fresh vision of the radical inclusiveness of this God we worship. We aren’t rewarded for how long we’ve believed: There are no company watches given in God’s Kingdom—we are rewarded by God’s grace. God’s grace can’t be quantified into a little grace for you and a much larger portion of grace for you. God’s grace is immeasurable and infinite in every circumstance it is given.
We are all recipients of this grace—if we must think in terms of “equal measure” then the story tells us it is an equal measure. But the truth is that it is quantified and multiplied by what we do with it. Jesus also tells the story of the talents, where a landowner gives talents to each of his slaves, and they bring glory to their master based on what they DO with those talents. If we share the grace we are given with others, we multiply that grace in the world, and our master is glorified because of it.
We have such a bad habit of drawing lines around ourselves and between ourselves. There are those of us who are old Christians and new Christians, there are those of us who have “gotten what was coming to us” and there are those of us who are living “charmed lives.” There are insiders and outsiders, latecomers and early risers. Our cultural norms reinforce these lines of distinction and convince us to act in accordance with their rules and laws.
But we have a God who refuses to pay attention to such things. God extends grace to every living soul on the face of the earth. There is no contract to sign, there are no hours to put in, there is nothing on this earth that can squeeze out more or less grace than what is being offered us when we draw our first breath. God loves us all to our cores at that moment. We are loved as much at our first moment, without doing a thing about it, as we are loved at our last moment, with a life of service to God behind us. God loves you and me as much as He loves his greatest servants, like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or John Wesley.
God loves you and me as much as he loves our greatest enemies, or those people we believe don’t deserve God’s grace. The story of the generous landowner tells us that God’s love is radically and eternally present and pouring over each of our lives. The story of the talents gives us a deeper perspective in that we realize that we must open our hands and receive God’s outpouring of love. We must be filled and in turn spill over with God’s redeeming love. If we are given God’s grace and talents and then bury them in our hearts for only our consolation and hope, then we are like the workers who bury their talents in the ground, waiting for the master’s return.
If we delight in the grace given us at the end of the day instead of grumbling about God’s generosity—if we take our “earnings” and share them with our neighbors, God’s grace will multiply in the world through us. We will become conduits of God’s grace! Thanks be to God! Amen

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