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 Shocking Grace

Sermon - 9/18/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 20:1-16

Today's story comes after the very familiar encounter with Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he has to do to get into heaven, and Jesus says 'go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor', and he leaves very sad because he can't do that. And then Jesus gives that famous saying about the eye of the needle and how hard it is to get into heaven, and the Disciples wonder 'gee, if the rich can't do it, what about us?', and Jesus assures them that they're OK.

That section in Chapter 19 end with this saying, this aphorism of Jesus, that we read many times in the gospels: 'that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first'. And this parable, then, is a story that's told to expand that aphorism.

Chapter 20, 1-16:

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
 

Just as Jesus taught so often with stories, I have a few stories. So I'd like to share one that I think helps us to understand this parable. There once was a man with a dog named "Mace". This dog had the unusual habit of eating grass. He thought that wasn't healthy for the dog, so he kept the dog inside most of the time. The grass was getting kind of long, so he decided to get out the lawnmower, but the grass was so long, the lawnmower had difficulty and bogged down, and eventually stopped. The man got out his tools to fix a lawnmower, and he dropped his wrench. He dropped it in the long grass, it was so long he couldn't find it. He wondered what am I going to do, the lawnmower is broken. And then he said "Ah, Mace!". So he let Mace out into the yard to do his thing.

The next morning, he gets up to the shining sun, and there, sure enough in the newly, freshly-chewed grass is a shiny, silver object -- his wrench. He was so thankful, he wrote a song about it -- you know it, right?

A grazing mace,
How sweet the hound,
That saved a wrench for me.
It once was lost but now is found,
Was gone but now I see. . . . it :)

Alright, so maybe Jesus had better stories than I have :)

The story of the workers and the vineyard is a story about grace. Only it's not 'amazing grace', so much as it is 'shocking grace'. So let's put it into modern terms to get the full impact:

An employer goes out to hire a bunch of day laborers, for the standard daily wage. Now, that's a little code -- the wage here paid is basically sustenance living. It's the minimum wage of that time. Minimum wage is what, $8.75 an hour, right? I read this week it's going up to $8.80, whoopee. So, $8.75, a full day's work, would be about $70 a day (they worked more than 8 hours a day back then, but you know, we have labor laws now). So about $70 a day. OK, that sounds pretty good, I need the work, good deal.

So picture yourself -- you're out there working, you're working out in the hot sun, it's hard work. I picked strawberries as a kid, I know, it's hard work (especially when you eat half of your profits :). They come in, the worker goes out, the employer has hired a bunch of other folks, and in the last hour, he's hired more to the crew, a lot of work to be done. So the last hired are first paid -- very intentional here. So you're standing in line, and you see those people who have only been working for 1 hour get paid $70. And you think, huh, the rate just went up! This must be a union job! This is great! And then when it comes your turn, you get paid the same $70. Well how would you feel about that?

Is that fair? And of course, it isn't. And so you can understand why these workers would grumble. Now, keep in mind Jesus most likely is talking to a bunch of folk who worked precisely these kind of jobs. From day-to-day, looking for work, working at minimum, sustenance wages, you can imagine that they too would identify with those first-hired folk who feel a little resentful. That's not fair. You can bet they walked away scratching their heads, thinking "Hmmm, the kingdom of heaven, is like that vineyard where everyone gets paid the same no matter how long they worked. How is the kingdom like that?"

No wonder Ayn Rand didn't care for the Bible, or religion in general, if you're familiar with some of her philosophies. I find it very ironic that so many Christian politicians today are touting her economic philosophy, when she was a devout atheist, and many of her ideas, I think, are simply just plain counter to the teachings of Jesus.

Episcopal Bishop Edward Little, writing in a recent edition of Christianity Today, noted at her funeral (I think she died in the 1970s) at her funeral there was a 6-foot tall wreath formed in the shape of a dollar sign ($). If you're familiar with some of her ideas, you'll understand the symbol of that, it's very big in her book "Atlas Shrugged". He said that he himself found her ideas of rational self interest very persuasive early in his life. He thought that made sense. But then he became 'convicted', in that sense of faith, turned his life over to Christ, went on to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and he writes now in this article: "That ethic of rational self-interest is incompatible with the Gospel and leads to social as well as spiritual disaster".

I think that's absolutely right. That's why it so greatly concerns me because I think that is the disaster to which we as a country are headed. And I worry greatly about that. And so even as I strongly disagree with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and find it contrary to many of the teachings of Jesus, I'm not suggesting that we develop economic policies on the basis of this parable. I think that would probably be even more disastrous than the teachings of Ayn Rand, frankly. So just imagine what would happen on day two, when that same employer goes out to the marketplace and says "You come and work, out in the hot sun, all day long, and I'll pay you $70". No thanks, I'll wait until you come back -- put me on the 5:00 p.m. crew, right? No work would get done.

So this is not any kind of basis for sound financial planning or economic policy. Just as equally, the story is not about making death-bed confessions in order to get into heaven. You know, "I'll just live my life as a I want, and I'll catch the last train to glory". Confess your faith in Jesus before you die, and all is covered, right?

That's not what it's about. In fact, the story is not about getting into heaven at all. The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is once again not about us living with God in the next life, it's about us living with God in THIS life.

Now, I think maybe I could take a lesson from President Obama's rhetoric. If you caught his last speech on the jobs bill, you know, you can summarize the speech pretty easily: "Pass this bill". I think he said it 57 times :). I think I've said this so many times in so many ways, I probably sound like a broken record. And yet I keep hearing some of the same old bad Sunday school lessons (not that all Sunday school lessons are bad, please, thank you Sunday-school teachers for all your good work :) -- I'm talking about lessons from a long time ago :). You know, the kingdom of heaven is waiting for us, just waiting for us, for our time to go be with God in heaven.

No, no, no, that is not the message! It's not God waiting for us to get into heaven, it's God waiting for us to get the kingdom of heaven. To get the message of Jesus. To get it here, and to get it now. That's what this is about. Get it?

So, if Jesus is talking about this world as it ought to be on earth as in heaven (heaven's OK, I'm not denying the reality of heaven, that's OK, that's good, that's there), it's about here. So if Jesus is talking about this world as it ought to be, what on earth is he saying? That everyone be paid exactly the same? Doctors and ditch-diggers? Lawyers and farm-workers? Football coaches and preachers? YES! I'm ready Lord, lay it on me!

No, no, no -- that's not it at all. Jesus is telling a parable to make a point about the character of God's way of running this world. Of the way things ought to be, even the way things are for those who live the way of the kingdom of God.

So no, this is not about economic policies, although it may have implications for that. It's not about politics, although it might have implications for that. It's not really even about religion. It is about the way we live. Or, how this world would be if we really took this seriously.

The first thing that I think is clear in this parable is everyone is invited to work in this vineyard. Everyone has a place. Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a role to play. That in and of itself is a pretty radical message, isn't it? It's not about Us vs Them. It's not about the team in the cool Nike uniforms that scores 56 unanswered points, vs the team in last year's hand-me-downs who can't score again after the first opening drive (not that I have any game in mind). That is not the kingdom of heaven. It's close, it's so close :) Especially when you're there at Autzen Stadium, as I got to be yesterday.

In this game, we're all on the same team. In this vineyard, we are all working to the same end. Now, maybe life isn't always like that. Maybe the world is rarely like that. But could it be? Can you imagine such a world? Can you imagine a Congress where everyone is working to the same end, on the same page? No? I understand, it's pretty hard to imagine.

But could it be. You see, that's the ideal of the kingdom of God that Jesus holds up for us.

The second thing that I think is evident from the story is that the kingdom of God is not a reward for living a righteous life. Rather, working in the kingdom, working for God, is the reward in itself. Anything you get paid at the end of the day is just icing on the cake.

Lastly, most importantly, the kingdom of God does not work on a merit system. It's not about collecting chits for all the good work you do, so you can get a better place in heaven, a place closer to Jesus. Right there overlooking Autzen :). That's not what it's about.

And this one is really hard for me. It's not even really about justice. A better way to say it: it's not ONLY about justice. Now, certainly correcting injustice is a big part of the kingdom of God. Making sure that none of our children have to fear that they're going to get beat up because of the color of their skin, right? In this story, no one is paid less than what they are due, less than what has been promised to them. That's justice -- those ones first-hired, they get their just wage. But the ones hired last get more than a just wage, they get a gracious wage.

And this is the point: that the kingdom of God is that place not only where justice happens, it is that place where grace happens. Where the two, those who benefit from grace and those who benefit from justice working side by side in the same vineyard.

There was a very troubling moment in one of those Presidential debates for the Republican nomination, I suspect many of you may have seen it (you can watch it on YouTube). Senator Ron Paul, who is a physician, was asked what should be done in that case of a young person who declines to buy health insurance. They're healthy, they don't need it, why would they need it, right? Then, struck with a debilitating illness or injured in some way, and needs life-saving treatment, the question is: does that person get that treatment, and who pays? Or do we let that person die, because they've made that choice?

Senator Paul, as a physician should, said no, of course we would provide that. Someone in the crowd, however, shouted out "Let him die!". And others cheered.

People, that kind of world is a world without grace. It is a world where everything is a cold calculation of natural consequences; for every action there is an equal reaction -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You make a mistake, you pay the penalty, you pay the consequences. It's fair, it's clean, it's just.

And it is not grace.

Do you want to live in such a world that knows no grace?

We heard a wonderful story Friday at the memorial service for Bill Dugan. About his life as a young child, grew up in the Great Depression in Kansas, no work to be found, the family decided to move west. Wanted to come to Idaho, but it looked too much like Kansas so they kept moving :) Arrived here in Oregon, came to Eugene first, then Oakridge. Bill graduated from high school at the top of his class. Was the valedictorian. But the family was, as we say, poor as dirt. They could not pay for him to go to college. And what's more, no one else in the family had a degree past high school, you know, why did you need anything more than that? So a decision was made for Bill to stay home to help work and support the family, and his siblings. You know, if you're going to make it in this world, you've got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It's just the way it is. Of course, that only works if you have boots, and straps.

Well, the Preacher didn't see it that way, the way preacher's are, you know. The preacher went to the family and said 'Bill needs to go to college'. If you're willing to let him go, I'll pay for his first semester. Back in those days, I guess you could that on a preacher's salary :) And so they said "OK", and so began Bill's life-long career in education, and giving back many more times. That is grace. The kingdom of God is where grace happens.

Ray Clark is a pastor in a large city, serving a suburban church, and he volunteered once a month for an urban inner-city ministry as their Chaplain. He had plenty of work in his own church, but he figured it's the least he could do, a couple hours once a month. He showed up at the appointed time and they asked him if he would be willing to take a young man and give him a ride home. Sure, that's easy. Young man was clean-shaven, good looking, well dressed, but looked a little down.

So they got in the car and Ray began asking him some questions, said 'You are dressed really nice, looks like you're headed somewhere important today'. The young man said "Well, I was. Supposed to be my first day at work but they found out I have a prison record and fired me before I showed up". And pretty soon his life story came out -- he was raised in a good family, went to college, made some bad choices, got involved in drugs, ended up in prison. Now, whenever anyone found out they wouldn't hire him. He tried to hide it, but it didn't work, they found out anyway.

So Ray asked him what kind of work he had done in the past, and he told him some of the things he'd done, and one job was as a short-order cook. And Ray said "I have a member my congregation has a restaurant, I happen to know he's looking for someone to cook, right now, would it be OK if we drive by and just see?". Sure.

They drove to the restaurant, the Manager was there, interviewed him, he was very open about his past and history, very honest, and they decided to take that chance and they hired him on the spot. He was so excited and elated. He gave Ray a great big hug. And he said to him: "I have come back from the dead". Ray said, "What do you mean?". He said: "Well, I had decided that when I got back home I was going to do one of two things: I was either going to score me some drugs and go back to that previous life, or I was going to kill myself because my life was over".

And Ray thought, what if I hadn't been there? What if I hadn't given those 2 hours? If I hadn't shown up that day? And I wonder, is there some other person who deserved a job, who hadn't been to prison, equally deserving, or more deserving? Would they resent the fact that this convicted felon got a job?

Yeah. But you know what? The kingdom of God is where grace happens. Grace that extends to all of us.

 


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