Rev. George Miller
June 12, 2016
Last week we heard a message from Antonio, a local entrepreneur upset with how Jesus was messing with the local economy.
Antonio preferred the way things were, in which people were scammed, loans were given at high interest rates, and it was easy to make a buck off of people’s religious beliefs.
Antonio did not approve of the Kingdom of God in which compassion, not greed, ruled the day.
To show just how provocative Jesus really was (and continues to be), we can look towards one of the most controversial parables he taught.
In Matthew 20 Jesus tells of a landowner who goes out in the morning and hires people to work all day in his vineyard for the usual daily wage.
A few hours later he goes out, and upon seeing some idle people, he invites them to work, saying he will pay them what is right.
He does this again at noon and at 3 pm. At 5 pm he sees more people who are idle and asks them why, and they state “Because no one has hired us.” So he invites them to also work in the vineyard.
When evening arrives the vineyard owner has the workers come to receive their wages. Those who had been working since daylight assumed they’d be paid the most. But instead, everyone, from the 6 am shift, to the noon shift, to the 5 pm shift, all receive the equal amount of pay.
Those who’ve been working all day become mad, they grumble, they complain.
The owner of the vineyard responds “Friend, I have done no wrong. Take what belongs to you. I choose to give to the last what I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what I have, or are you that envious that I am this generous?”
This story always illicits a series of reactions when I teach it. This story flies in the face of logic. This story flies in the face of the Protestant Work Ethic.
This story, if told by one of our presidential candidates today would sink their campaign.
A Kingdom in which all workers are treated equal not matter how long they have worked or been idle? A Kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first would be last?
How do you think Antonio, or the Roman government, or the Temple Priests would feel about this story?
In the words of theologian Fred Craddock, this story is an example of the “offense of grace.”
God’s Kingdom goes against the world’s ways of what’s fair, how things should be done and the assumption that in order for some to get more others need to be given less…
…But what if, in God’s Kingdom, the event of Jesus Christ means that everyone gets what they need to live an abundant life?
What if, in God’s Kingdom, the event of Jesus Christ means that everyone, every single person, is a winner, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey?
Does that give you great comfort, or do you find great offense?
Today we study Galatians, a letter Paul wrote in response to a painful experience at a local church.
Religious leaders from the outside came into this particular congregation to tell them that in order to truly reap the benefits of Jesus Christ they would have to embrace the Laws found in the Old Testament.
Laws about eating kosher, laws about being circumcised, laws about being clean and unclean, laws that created insiders and outsiders.
Paul disagrees and passionately hustles for the Lord, using all the theological tools he can to prove that what God did for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was “enough.”
In today’s reading Paul becomes like a lawyer and gets all courtroom on us. He uses legalese to explain how we’ve already been acquitted and pronounced as righteous.
In other words, we are “justified by faith in Christ.”
But what does that mean? What does the “grace of God” refer to?
Does that mean God is like a figure-skater gracefully moving too and fro?
Can a fairly progressive, welcoming congregation like ours, in the year 2016 even have an idea what words like “justified” and “grace” meant back in the year 50 CE?
Here’s something that may help: years ago in Psychology Today there was a section that examined how creativity can become stifled and limited.
One article was called “Fear of Failure Narrows Vision.” It stated that in physical or tedious tasks, we do our best when we know we are being evaluated.
But in tasks that require insight and creativity, we do better when we’re not evaluated.
Why? Because then we are not afraid to fail.
A psychologist ran an experiment in which participants were asked to make something creative. A panel of experts evaluated them on being coherent, meaningful, original and surprising.
Some people were told their works would be judged. Others were told their works would be entered into a contest with prizes. Others were told not a thing.
Who did the experts say had the most creative, original and meaningful projects? Those who had no idea their work would be judged.
Why? Because they were just playing.
They were creating art for arts sake, not for judgment or reward, to be liked or to become famous or better loved.
Another psychologist theorized that positive emotions broaden our views and thoughts, allowing us to create in new, exciting ways.
But negative emotions narrow our imagination because we become focused on the idea of being judged, rewarded or punished.
In other words, you can’t force people to be creative or tell them to try harder. Creativity comes from “playing” rather then aiming to please or for praise.
Theologically, I believe this can be applied to Paul’s notion of being justified. Because of Jesus Christ, we are not being judged by an expert panel or by a list of do’s and don’ts.
Because of Jesus Christ, God is not keeping a scorecard and lining us up to be loved according to being coherent, creative, meaningful, or surprising.
Because of Jesus Christ we are justified and deemed worthy of God’s love for once and for all.
For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us in the manger on Christmas Day.
For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us by healing the sick, raising the dead, and welcoming no-good girls and no-good boys at the table.
For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us at the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Easter Morning.
It is worth repeating and it is worth remembering: because of Jesus Christ we are justified and deemed worthy of God’s love for once and for all.
Meaning there is nothing we can do. There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s favor, to earn God’s love.
We can just accept it, embrace it, and not doubt it.
We can just be and play, have fun and create, and have faith in God’s love for us.
Do you find the story of the workers in the vineyard to be wonderful or woe-full?
Do you find today’s message incredibly offensive or do you find it incredibly freeing?
Is it possible that in Christ everyone wins, or do we have to have losers?
Is it possible that in Christ everyone can have enough, and folks don’t have to go without?
As Americans, we are people of reward and achievement. Because of this, there have been amazing strides in culture and science.
But we are also people who are so into pleasing others: our parents, friends, teachers, bosses, spouses, peers, co-workers, team mates, and pastors.
Why? We want their love and we want to know we are loved; we want to know that we are a person of worth.
We want that gold star, that certificate, that praise.
What about God? How many here have struggled with trying to please God? To earn God’s favor? To be guaranteed a place at the table? A space in the Kingdom?
How many have gone to houses of worship where you were told you didn’t belong? Or weren’t good enough? Or you were to be left behind unless…unless you tried harder, did the right thing, said the right words?
That’s not what Paul is saying here. That’s not what Paul is talking about when he refers to faith, grace and justified.
We’re not a kid who thinks he can only get his mother’s love by hitting a homerun.
We’re not a toddler with a tiara who thinks she can only make her father happy by winning first place.
Being justified means there is no magic number we have to hit on the scale.
We do not have to give the best sermon, sing the best solo, play the best postlude, host the best hospitality hour, create the best VBS, or design the best website in order to be accepted, loved or deemed worthy by God.
Because guess what? In Jesus Christ we already are.
In Jesus Christ we already belong, we are already good enough, and we will not be left behind.
In Christ we are justified by faith, meaning that we have already won, so we can just… be.
In Christ, we have already won, so we can play.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to create.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to do for the sake of doing, because it brings joy into our life, and the lives of others.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to be the best version of ourselves that we were initially created to be, freed of the snares and defeatist attitudes of others.
In Christ, we have already won, so we are even free to be Left Sharks, to hit topes, and to free the cats from the chancel.
Through Jesus Christ, we’ve been shown for all time that we are forever acceptable in God’s sight, so we can stop trying to earn God’s favor and instead start faithfully living the best life we can.
A life that is creative, magical, meaningful, and surprising.
Amen and amen.