September 21, 2008
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Sermon Title: "The Unfairness of God"
Let me tell you a story: A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates.
St. Peter says "Here’s how it works. You need a 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of point for each item. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"OK," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years, never cheated on her, not even in my heart."
"That’s wonderful," says St. Peter, "That’s worth three points."
"Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithes and services."
"Terrific!" says St. Peter. "That’s certainly worth a point."
"One point?!?...I started a soup kitchen in my community and I worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that’s good for two more points," he says.
"Two points!?!!" the man cries. "At this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God."
"Bingo!" says St. Peter. "100 points. Come on in!"...
...Ever wonder why Jesus was killed? People will talk about the reasons why Jesus died for us, but just why was Jesus killed? After all, wasn’t he a nice, warm man with a big heart who healed people and shared meals?
What was it about him that was so disturbing that people felt the need to call for his death? What could he have done or said that was so upsetting people decided to nail him to a cross?
For starters, Jesus told stories; parables as they are often called, and more often then not these parables which Jesus told totally turned the world upside town, challenging conventions to the point of angering and offending its listeners.
Take for example today’s readings. Words can not describe just how disturbing this story has been for people throughout the ages. Not one, or two, but every single theologian I read this week discussed just how upsetting this scripture is.
Steve Patterson, a professor of mine, says this parable leaves one slack jawed. Thomas Long calls it fracturing and most challenging of all. Marguerite Schuister says it is "calculated to offend". Fred Borsch says the story makes one angry. And Eugene Boring calls it "deeply disturbing."
Those are all awfully strong words to describe a story that is ultimately about the grace of God, the amazing grace we so often and so lovingly sing about.
What is it about this parable that can elicit so many strong responses?
Basically, it’s a story that plays against our own sense of fairness and justice, our own finely honed understanding of punishment and reward, and our own egotistical stance that if we were any character in the story, surely we would be the first in the field...
...There is an aspect of Christianity that has always bothered me; actually two aspects. The first is the severe focus on being rewarded in the afterlife: folk who appear to be controlled, shaped by the notion that they want to get into heaven.
We all know people, don’t we, whose every utterance, every act, every moment of volunteering or evangelism is bred out of the need to make it into heaven. But faith based on wanting to go to heaven isn’t faith: it’s self-centered fear.
But there is another aspect of Christianity that has bothered me even more: the notion that there are those who will make it into heaven and the notion that there are others who will burn in hell.
Why is it some Christians feel the need to compare and contrast, label and separate who they think is going to glory and who they think will be left in total damnation, where they will spend eternity being punished for their sins?
Even more bothersome, for me, is that there are folk who seem to get enjoyment over who will go to hell, and the laundry list they use to pass judgement and decide who gets there and who doesn’t!
I don’t like those kind of lists. They scare me.
Why is it that part of our human nature is to judge the sins of others and deem their sins worthy of eternal punishment, while completely ignoring our own sins or thinking ours can not compare to the sins of others.
And who gets the right to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? It’s such a dangerous game.
A mass-murderer seems to be a shoo-in. But how is a mass-murderer different from a president who sends thousands of young men and women off to fight a war? And how is he different from a CEO of a company that puts plastic in milk?
How is the CEO different from a manager who cuts corners by ordering subpar materials that results in the sinking of a ship? And how is that different from a mother trying to save pennies by purchasing her goods at the dollar store where items where produced in a sweat shop?
Why does someone who has committed adultery get the right to condemn someone who has stolen bread to feed their family?
Why does someone who overeats get to point to a druggie and say they have a problem?
Why does an ex-cocaine addict get to decide who gets the electric chair?
How can someone condemn you for washing your car Sunday afternoon, but its Ok for them to sneak out Sunday night to hang up their laundry?
Where does it begin? Where does it end?
Is there anyone so righteous enough that they even think about throwing the first stone?
Of course not. We are all sinners. We are all flawed. All imperfect. All not worthy of any kind of reward.
Yet, we all read and hear this scripture and get upset that the last called to work in the field gets the same pay as the first. But we should actually rejoice.
See, the truth is that almost none of us fit the criteria of being the first shift workers, or the second shift, or even the third shift. Many of us are the workers who have been fortunate to squeak in, be invited, and given the days pay.
We are all, each and every one of us, recipients of grace. God’s good grace. God’s amazing grace.
The grace that knows no bounds, that knows no understanding, the grace that is extended to all, each and everyone one, from the oldest to the youngest, from male to female, from those born into the church to those just making their way in.
And that grace is what Jesus is talking about.
This parable is a parable about grace. It’s a parable about a landowner who is not so worried about the crops or output or finances, but a landowner who is worried about the workers.
The landowner goes to the marketplace where the poorest of the poor stand and says "Come and work for me." The landowner comes back to where the poorest of the poor are still standing and says "Come work for me." The landowner returns, even as if looks as if the day is about to end, and says "Come work for me."
And the gift he gives, the reward he shares, is the same for all. He grants each and every one grace. Grace that says you are forgiven. Grace that says you are welcome. Grace that says you are loved.
Obviously, the ones who were hired last are the most happy. How long they waited. How idle theie life must have seemed. How scared and worried they must have been.
To be called was a gift itself, to receive a days worth of pay a sheer blessing, nothing less.
The ones called first? Obviously they are a bit upset. Haven’t they worked longer, worked harder, been there from the very start? Why should they receive the same as the others? Where is the fairness of it all?
But the story is not about fairness. It’s about grace. And grace is grace. It does not come in increments. It does not come in subsidies. It comes 100% or it doesn’t come at all.
God, as Jesus reminded his original listeners, as he reminds us today, is a God of unlimited grace. A God who forgives, a God who blesses, a God who shares.
A God who is unfairly generous.
A God who grants grace to all, no matter how long they work in the vineyard.
And that is good news. It is good news because it reminds us that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. It’s good news because it frees us from feelings of guilt and doubt about what we’ve done and haven’t done and where we’ll go.
It’s good news because it frees us from wasting time deciding who goes to heaven and who gets left behind.
It’s good news because it frees us from working ourselves into a frenzy trying to please God out of fear, and allows us to work for God because we want to, because we are called to, because we joyfully love to.
We can stop trying to accumulate points and we can stop calculating points for others. We can let go of our anger, let go of our fear, and we can just...be.
Be children of God. Be brothers and sisters in Christ. And be all that God has called us to be.
No longer afraid. No longer full of judgment. No longer judges of men.
We don’t have to worry about standing at the gates of St. Peter adding up our points or wasting time adding up the points of others.
But we can be grateful recipients of grace. Amazing and mighty, life giving and loving.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. God has saved a wretch, like me.
All thanks be to the Spirit, moving through us, the Son speaking to us, and the Father who is calling us. Amen and amen