Saturday, September 20, 2008

Laborers in the vineyard

I got in trouble once preaching this story. It was at a preaching station and the three ladies who attended did not like the idea that they were graced in equal measure with the rest of the world. It was the only time someone in that congregation commented on one of my sermons and it was not complimentary!
Every three years, though, as I study this text, I still hear Jesus telling us that when we come to believe in him matters not at all, this the believing is all that is necessary. I am liberal enough to think that grace comes *before* belief but that's another discussion for another time.
So here's my sermon from three years ago, cleaned up slightly. Parts of it will likely show up in my sermon tomorrow morning.

Proper 20A RCL
Matthew 20:1-16

The drive into work in New Orleans took us right by a temporary work agency. By 7:00, many folks had already been hired on for the day. But all day long, more would arrive and some of those who arrived very early weren’t always hired early. Kind of like being picked last for the team. Even when we drove home at 4:30, there were still people hanging out. Whether they were still hoping to be hired, I don’t know.
Now the word slave is not politically correct and it is jarring when we hear it in the context of Scripture. Today’s parable does not talk about slaves, though, and that gives us all the information we have about these workers. You see, slaves have guaranteed employment.
If you recall the parable of the prodigal son, he planned to ask his father to make him one of the slaves for slaves were treated relatively well and had job security. Some of them even got paid for their work.
Not so laborers. If you found work, you ate. And finding work was chancy unless it was harvest time when more workers were needed.
So the landowner goes out early to the marketplace and hires laborers at the going rate. Jesus does not tell us whether all the available workers are hired, but hiring of at least some happens. At nine, the landowner hires more folks and tells them he will pay what is right. Naturally, they assume it will be less than a full day’s wage. Three more times, he hires laborers
and the last time, he asks why they aren’t already working somewhere. "No one has hired us,"
they reply.
Now, the usual interpretation here is that these people arrived late, maybe partied too long the night before, or that they are known to be poor workers so no one wants to hire them. But Jesus doesn’t tell us that. He simply says that at 5 o’clock, there are still workers waiting to be hired.
Already, this story is departing from the normal. It was common to hire laborers and it would be done early in order to get a full day’s work done. So going out again and again is a little strange and the hearers must have wondered why the landowner is so anxious to get the harvest done quickly. While there are lots of possible reasons, Jesus doesn’t tell us why. Our speculation is interesting but not overly useful.
But the command to pay the last first is really out of the ordinary. At this point, Jesus’ audience is on the alert. And they are right to be so for the landowner pays every single laborer the full day’s wage. I guarantee you there was murmuring going on!
Even in the early church, the listeners were deeply shocked by this turn of events. We know this because there are five endings to this parable plus Matthew’s own saying about the last and first. The original ending was “friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” This is a bitter pill to swallow but it does make sense. The first got what they had agreed to.
After that, the endings get more and more bizarre as the church tries to explain what happened.
“Take what belongs to you and go” is not the least bit helpful. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give you” really just restates what Jesus said. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me” is beginning to get the point. But “are you envious because I am generous” seems a very odd thing to say especially if it really means “is your eye evil because
I am good?” which is a literal translation of the Greek.
And then we have Matthew’s own end to the parable. To understand it, we have to go back to the end of the previous chapter.
The rich young man has just been to see Jesus and learned that all his good works won’t get him into heaven. In fact, Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for the wealthy to enter the kingdom than it is for the poor. He doesn’t say they won’t enter but that possessions shift our focus from the kingdom of God to our own kingdoms. The disciples ask, “who then can be saved?” and Jesus tells them “for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
And Peter once again puts his foot wrong and says, “we have left everything for you so what will be our reward; what will we have?”
Jesus does not rebuke him this time. He tells Peter that the disciples will sit on thrones around him and pass judgment on the tribes of Israel. Then he says that anyone who has left their old life behind to follow him will receive a hundredfold and have eternal life. And he ends by saying,
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
It is quite possible that today’s parable is aimed directly at the disciples who, still thinking in earthly terms, expect to receive a greater reward than those who have only come to believe
in the last few days or weeks. To emphasize the point of the parable, Matthew returns to the words of the last teaching about the kingdom. “The last will be first, and the first will be last”
he ends this parable.
I’d love to say that settled it for the disciples but the very next scene in the Gospel of Matthew
is where James and John – in Matthew’s telling, it’s their mother who does the talking – ask if they can have the seats on Jesus’ left and right. It is hard to think in heavenly terms when all we know are earthly ones.
Okay, what does this mean for us as well as for the rest of the household of God?
Grace, like forgiveness, comes in one size only and is available to all. No matter how long we have been followers of the Christ, we receive the same amount of grace as everyone else. We can’t work for it. We can’t stockpile it. Grace belongs to God and God seems to bestow it freely without any evidence that the bestowee ought to get it. Apparently, God does not see
with our eyes or judge with our kind of judgment. And that's good news for all of us, isn't it?
You and I actively work for the kingdom of God. Saying our prayers, attending services regularly, sharing in the Eucharist, helping out whenever and wherever we can, giving part of our wealth to the church in thanksgiving for God’s grace and love. There are myriad other ways
that we work for the kingdom. But we do that work because it is what God’s people do not because it earns us points or a better seat at the banquet.
Jesus has racked up all the points. He has done the hardest work for us.
Does it really matter if the last are first or the first are first? Not at all. We are given our invitation to the banquet at birth. Some begin their labor in the vineyard as soon as they can walk and talk. Others come and go or choose to wait until the last minute and there are lots of people who don’t even know they have labored until they see God.
God loves each and every one of us and God blesses us all with grace in exactly the same measure, just enough.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forgiving and forgetting

After much thought and prayer - will I ever really understand forgiveness or do I understand and refuse to acknowledge that? - here is the base for my sermon tomorrow. Whether it will come out this way is anyone's guess, of course, but it is what I think God is calling me to say.

How many of us come to church today intending to say the General Confession while still hanging on to a hurt, anger or grudge which we have no intention of forgiving? I am in that number and I daresay I am not the only one here who is.
Three years ago, when I last preached these texts, I said that there was someone in my past who had hurt me and that when I thought of or talked about that experience, the hurt always came back. Except, by the time of that sermon, I realized that the hurt was no longer there, that there was no power in the story to make me angry with that person anymore. This week, as I read that sermon again, I discovered that I no longer remember what the person had even done and I felt really good about that. I still do.
But that event was more than twenty-five years ago! For way too long, I didn’t let it go nor did I attempt to do anything to reconcile with the person who I felt had hurt me. That’s a lot of General Confessions said while still carrying the burden of my lack of forgiveness.
Let’s face it, we are not good at forgiving. Even those of us who think we are probably aren’t. We are willing to say a quick “Oh that’s all right. It wasn’t that big a deal” to most infractions against us but we don’t always mean it. How often when we see the person we have “forgiven” do we once again think of the unkind thing she said or the lack of respect we feel from him? If we aren’t really going to forget these things, can we really say we have forgiven them? Are we just acting the role of the morally righteous in the hope that no one will see through the fa├žade?
Jesus says we are to forgive way past the point of reason. But it is only recently that I have come to understand that forgetting really is a major part of forgiving. If we can’t forget, then we still need to forgive. If we hold a grudge or still chew over the painful events, we are being slowly consumed by our own anger.
It the parable, the servant who owes several lifetimes of debt ought to go away from his master’s room joyful and feeling lighter than air not that the heavy burden has been lifted from his soul. But instead, he lashes out in great anger when he sees someone who owes him a much smaller debt. We all know what’s wrong with this picture and we don’t see ourselves in it because none of us, I am sure, has incurred debts of such magnitude. And we are not too quick to move the parable from the realm of monetary debt to any other kind
because monetary debt probably doesn’t divide us from one another.
Harsh words, deeds done intentionally and especially unintentionally, things done and left undone are far more likely to separate us. And those may, in fact, be harder to forgive than a debt of money. Why? Because those things cut into the fabric of our life together in ways that money never will.
When your brother dies, you expect me to call, don’t you? Well, let’s say I forget to do that and when I next see you at the door after church, I don’t say anything about him or ask how you are doing. It is perfectly natural for you to think, “Maggie doesn’t care about me. She isn’t the least bit pastoral.” And when a friend is in need of care, you will say something like, “well, don’t call the church for help. Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care.”
Now what if I never knew that your brother died? Perhaps, in your haste to go to be with the rest of your family before and after the funeral, you didn’t call but you assumed that someone else would do that for you. But you try to brush it off by thinking that I must have been really busy and you want to believe that I still care about you even though it looks like I don’t.
Simply brushing this aside with an “Oh that’s all right” isn’t forgiveness. The only way to begin forgiving is, as we heard last week, to come see me and lay out the problem. Because if I don’t know that I’ve hurt you, how can I ask you to forgive me?
St. Paul warns us against passing judgment. I think that sometimes we confuse judgment and forgiveness. If you can just make the flat statement , “Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care” then you have passed judgment and think you can put it behind you. Forgiveness requires us to confront the one who has hurt us, remember the hurt even though that means living it again, and then being willing to see it from the other person’s eyes. One person’s throwaway line may well be another’s knife in the back. One person’s pain of rejection may be another’s unawareness of events.
When we judge others, we rarely forget why we have made that judgment. There is no forgiveness in our judgment of one another. That is why Paul exhorts us not to judge. Judgment leads to self righteousness and superiority and that leads right back to our need to ask forgiveness. For when we act out of our own sense of right, we very often cause deep pain for someone else.
Paul and Matthew are writing to and for specific communities, both of them very new Christians. Despite two thousand years of Christian history between them and us, we haven’t advanced all that far in our own faith that we cannot still learn the lessons these new believers had to learn.
We pray today that the Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts in all things. More than an annual collect for the day, that prayer needs to be one we say daily, even more than once a day. For the Holy Spirit is very good about opening our hearts and mouths to say the right thing and our minds and hands to do it. And by living a Spirit-led life, we will find the way to forgive each other our transgressions and then to forget them altogether. Then we can go forth into the world with joy knowing that God has forgiven us and our burden has been lifted from us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Five - School?
1. Is anyone going back to school, as a student or teacher, at your house? How's it going so far?
While the dog could use a refresher course, no one is going to school this semester. I am, though, preparing to teach church history next semester and that could be going better. It's the first time I've taught for the Diocese so it feels different.

2. Were you glad or sad when back-to-school time came as a kid?
I liked school so I looked forward to going back each fall. The only year that was hard was firt grade and that was because my mother was about to have a baby so life was less normal than usual. I think Daddy went off to band camp about then, too, and I was staying with oen family while my sister went to another. Nope, I was not happy.

3. Did your family of origin have any rituals to mark this time of year? How about now?
When I was in elementary school, part of our August vacation was going to my great-uncles' store in Mars Hill and getting school supplies. One year, we bought readers too for my younger sister. I do remember never liking the socks.
We didn't have any rituals for my kids. When we moved to New Orleans, I remember having to find new stores for shopping for new school clothes. One day, I saw a store I knew I'd seen advertised and suggested we stop and see what they had. It was all we could do to walk all the way through the furniture store and back out before laughing ourselves sick! :-)

4. Favorite memories of back-to-school outfits, lunchboxes, etc?
Not a one. I'm sure I must have had a lunchbox at one point but I don't remember. And there's very few outfits I remember wearing ever. Now if you asked my sister, Barbara, I'm sure she remembers every single one.

5. What was your best year of school?
I'm not sure one year stands out more than another. I loved most all of them right through both master's degrees. First grade was memorable because I walked home with Mrs. Boone and her children many a night - kept after for not completing Today's News which I learned was more fun than finishing it. In fifth grade, I got to work in the library for the first time and that was a real treat as well as setting the course for my first career. In 12th grade, I was a chemistry lab assistant - a clear case of the halt leading the blind - and it was a lot of fun. That year, I only had four major subjects so I could fit choir into my schedule and I love to sing.

I remember a lot of my teachers. So many of those men and women pushed and prodded me into being more than I wanted to be - type B personality traits came out early. I saw that same dedication in some of my kids' teachers, too. I so admire those who feel called to teach and don't lose the call part of that when they finally get into the classroom.

School starts early in upper East Tennessee. Our kids have been back for over a month now. My great-nephew, who lives in Illinois, had his first day a few weeks ago. He is a first grader and still trying to decide if he wants to be one. His brother starts pre-school in two more weeks and can hardly wait, having watched his brother love those three years in Montessori. May they both love learning as much as I still do.