Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hot off the press...a fresh sermon

Matthew 20:1-16
“Stuff I’m Not in Charge of”
If I were in charge of stuff, things would be different. Chocolate would be a dietary requirement. And everyone would like it. And it wouldn’t have fat or calories, only antioxidants and yummy goodness.
If I were in charge of stuff, everyone would get a day a month (at least) off for mental health days, and our health insurance would pay for us to do something therapeutic on that day. Like kayaking. Or shopping. Or puttering in the workshop.
If I were in charge, it would be acceptable to end a sentence or a phrase with a preposition. I wonder how many teachers and writers and grammatically-careful folks are sitting out in the congregation right now, looking at the bulletin, and thinking today’s sermon title is poorly phrased.
Well, it is, and it isn’t. If I were in charge, it would be fine to publish a phrase like, “Stuff I’m Not in Charge of,” because saying, “Stuff of which I am not in charge” sounds more than a little silly. But that’s something I’m not in charge of. And there’s an awful lot of that.
We have a saying in our family that we use often when there seems to have been some decision made by some beaurocracy somewhere that doesn’t make sense to us, or benefit us the way we think it should. Why do they do it that way? I don’t know, they didn’t ask me. I’m not in charge of that.
I believe the last time I said this I was in the coffee shop with a church member…and she agreed. Life would make a lot more sense if they just asked us first. Sit us down in a room with the power to make some real changes and unlimited coffee, and we could fix everything, right?
Or maybe not.
The problem with the power to change the world is that we are human and we are finite. I can’t know everything, and I can’t foresee all the consequences of all the decisions I might make. If I were in charge of all that stuff, I bet I’d make some pretty big mistakes.
And in this election season, part of what we’re seeing and hearing on TV is one candidate capitalizing on another’s mistakes…even mistakes they haven’t made yet. As we’re deciding whom to elect to be in charge of an awful lot of stuff, we might want to remember that whomever we elect will be human, and finite, and can’t know everything, and can’t foresee every possible consequence of every potential decision they’ll ever have a hand in. We just count on them to have better resources than we do, and to be able to make those decisions in a more educated manner than we do.
So there’s my moment in politics. You can relax. It’s over now.
Today’s parable is a story about being in charge of stuff. A landowner went out to choose some day laborers to work in his vineyards. He went out first thing in the morning and hired a crew, promising them the usual daily wage. A few hours later, he noticed that he could use a few more workers, so he went out and hired some more, promising to pay them what was right. Twice more he went out and hired more workers, and finally, late in the day, close to quitting time, he went out once more, found some men who still hadn’t found other work that day, and hired them too.
When the workday ended an hour later, the landowner sent his manager to pay all the workers, starting with the last hired and ending with the first. When he paid those who had only worked an hour the entire amount of the usual daily wage, those who were hired first began to get excited, thinking they might receive some bonus for working all day in the sun and heat. When they too received the exact pay they’d contracted for, they began to grumble and complain.
The landowner replied gently, “You received the wage you were entitled to, and that you contracted for. Have I done you wrong? Take what you have earned; it’s my privilege to do what I want with what I have. Or does my generosity make you jealous of others who receive it?”
We know this is a parable because of the way Jesus starts the story: “The kingdom of Heaven is like…” Now, because this is a parable, we know a few things about it. First, this never happened. Jesus was not recounting an event he’d witnessed—this was not news. Second, this is not really about earning wages, nor is it about money, although generosity is certainly a factor here. Instead, it is about who is in charge of stuff like mercy and justice and salvation, and why we should be grateful that it’s not us.
This parable has a lot in common with that of the Prodigal Son, the one I call simply the parable of the prodigals, which is about generosity and our wrong expectations of who is entitled to what. In that story, a younger son claims his inheritance early, runs off and spends it on transitory things, and comes home in disgrace, hoping that perhaps he might be hired by his father as a common laborer. Instead he is received by his father with open arms and generosity of spirit, and by his older brother with some resentment for the father’s generosity.
We tend to empathize with the younger brother. Many of us can tell stories of when we ourselves have been prodigal children, and have been met by others with love and generosity and grace we did not deserve. It’s become commonplace among some Christians to tell those stories with pride…as if God somehow loves us more if God forgives us of more sin…which is dangerously close to thinking of God as rewarding our bad behavior. It’s somehow easier for us to see in the younger brother a reflection of ourselves, to see him more sympathetically than we see the older brother, in whom we see a sort of stinginess of the spirit.
Our reaction to today’s parable is somewhat different. It is again a story about generosity and wrong expectations about who is entitled to what, yet our first response tends to be to sympathize with the workers who were hired earliest in the day, to grumble to ourselves that it’s all well and good to be generous with forgiveness, but that “a laborer is worthy of his hire.” We can’t mess with the money!
And yet, to say this misses the point. The laborer is indeed worthy of his hire…but no one was shortchanged by the landowner in this story Jesus has given. No one is hurt, no one misses out. Everyone gets at least what they deserved, and some are fortunate, even blessed, to receive more than they might have. And remember, this is not about money, although we could have a fine sermon here on the need for living wages and an end to poverty. With the market doing the roller-coaster ride it’s done the last few weeks, we might even need that sermon, and a soothing talk about Jesus being with us always to ride out these storms. But I’m not preaching stewardship today—not of money, anyway.
Instead, today’s story is about mercy and grace, and about what God wants to do for us. It is not so much about what we can do for God. It is not about what we can do for God, it is about what God wants to do for us. It is about envy versus generosity, about what it means to be human and what it means to be God, and it is mostly about a loving and generous God who seeks us out—again and again—so that everyone can be included in the kingdom. It’s never too late with God, never too late to receive the mercy and salvation God offers, never too late to claim a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, because the reward is the same: God is love, and God offers perfect love to us—all of us, all the time.
And that’s just not fair, is it? We who were raised as children from birth to know God, to have a relationship with Jesus, we got there first, didn’t we? Don’t we deserve something more than the one who lives his own life his way until the very end, who squeaks in at the last minute? Shouldn’t there be some kind of sliding scale, some way to prorate God’s grace, some rewards system so that those of us who welcome Christ into our lives first get some kind of preference? Wouldn’t that be fair?
Isn’t that absurd?
One of the purposes behind Jesus’ practice of teaching in parables must have been to lead us gently to the places where we are most broken, where our sin peeks through, where the gulf between people and God is deepest…and to show us that often, that’s where we live…where our logic meets God’s mercy, and we see how small we really are sometimes.
How can we ask God to subdivide grace? How could we ask Jesus to take the redemptive gift wrought at the cross, and only give a little to certain people? And, most frightening of all, how can we know that our smallness, our foolishness, our selfishness doesn’t put us right back at the end of the line? Isn’t it good that we are not the ones in charge?
It is good. Because often we’re wrong. Because we can be, sometimes, small and foolish and selfish. And because God is categorically NOT any of those things.
Parables help us understand these hard truths about ourselves without having to be confronted with them head-on—and thanks be to God for that! It’s no fun to hear that we’re sometimes wrong, but at least we can know that God is always right. With that in mind, let’s look again at the story—this time at the landowner’s responses to the grumbling.
I think we can safely assume that the landowner in this parable is Jesus, speaking to us as the laborers. We do sometimes find God a little hard to understand, find ourselves questioning the grace of God, wondering at how it all works out. Here are Jesus’ answers, as the landowner, to us:
Verses 13 and 14 say, “He replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” The workers were asking, in essence, for more than they were entitled to—or for an extra blessing. Instead they received the pay for which they had contracted, the just wage for their days work. When we question God’s grace to another as these workers questioned the landowner’s generosity to the other workers, we’re crossing a line we perhaps don’t want to cross. We’re putting ourselves in the position of deciding who deserves what in the Kingdom of God…we’re acting as if we are in charge of some stuff I don’t want to be in charge of.
It’s the last part of the landowner’s response, though, that makes me nervous. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” On the one hand, it’s simplest just to say, “Who are we to question God?” but that doesn’t get at the real issue: it’s best that God is in charge of stuff and we are not, because God can handle it and we just can’t. Sometimes we do respond to God’s generosity with envy…we wish for ourselves the gifts we see in others, and fail to recognize our own. Worse, we seem to judge for ourselves who is worthy of God’s love and the gift of salvation…that truly is envy, and a kind that does not become us. It is better for God to be in charge of stuff than for us, because God can handle it, and we cannot, because God’s heart is big enough and ours is not, because God can see everything, knows everything, and we do not.
As chaotic as our world has been lately, I find great comfort in knowing that there’s a lot that I’m not in charge of, but that God’s in charge of my future. I’ve watched the stock market fall and rise this week, and I’m glad that someone else is responsible for agonizing over my pension. I don’t know enough to manage that money very closely, and so I’m not in charge of that. I’ve watched the news and the weather…storms and mudslides and terror and death. I’m really relieved that I’m not in charge of that!
What I am in charge of, what you are in charge of, is how we live our lives, how we place our confidence in God, and how we manage to avoid taking charge of stuff we’re not in charge of. We’re in charge of watching for envy to crop up in our lives, and of remembering in those moments that in our salvation, Jesus Christ has already given us the best he has. We are in charge of learning to look at others and seeing them as God sees them, of not worrying about who is last and who is first, but simply rejoicing that we all have a share in God’s inexhaustible mercy and grace. These are the things that we’re in charge of, and you’ll notice that they apply to our own lives and no one else’s, because we are in charge of living our own lives only, and no one else’s.
In a sense, Jesus through the story of the landowner was telling us gently and lovingly to mind our own business, and our business is this: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Our business is to share the love and relationship God offers to us with others, but not to decide which others or how they respond. Our business is to give generously in response to what God has done for us, but not to decide how others must spend every nickel. Our business is to worship God with our hearts and our lives, and not to speculate on what our neighbor is doing. Our business is, simply put, to love with all that we are and all that we have, and to let God worry about the rest. To do otherwise is to behave as if God is not in charge of stuff, and we are…and we’re not good enough to be in charge of that kind of stuff. Thanks be to God, God is.

1 comment:

  1. ooo...oooo...oooooh! the intro pulled me right in... very nicely done. it resonates on a somewhat different level right now, in that many are trying to tell me how to *live* my life right now... and i just want to scream at them... back off! you guys are not in charge of my life... augh!!!! ;)

    ..............and of course, i needed the reminder that in the parish, even tho i pretend to be in charge of so much, really as pastor i'm not... God is. always has been. always will be. my job is to keep the wax out of my ears, my eyes open, and my heart available to hear, see, feel where God wants me to lead... good stuff there Anne!


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