My weekend involved three weddings, the Rehoboth Harvest Block Party and a worship service that involved children running circles (literally) around the sanctuary. Phew! Fall is certainly here and it’s beautiful – in so many ways!
Here is Sunday’s sermon …
Rehoboth Congregational Church
September 21, 2014
Grace Found In Unequal Portions
When I was growing up, my mom always tried desperately to make things equal for my sister and me. If one of us had a party, the other one was allowed to have a party. If one of us got some sort of treat or present, the other one had the option of a similar treat or present. My parents bought both of us cars of similar values when we turned 16 and then helped us replace them a few years later. My sister and I both were allowed to pick the destination for our family vacation the summers after we graduated from high school. My parents paid for college, helped us with our graduate school tuition and then bought us matching KitchenAid stand mixers when we finished our masters.
My mom practically had this down to a science. And the amazing thing was that she always had a “plan b” that she could easily turn to if things did not quite work out evenly. In fact, she even got to the point some years where she would save her Christmas present receipts, calculate the total values of each set of gifts and then cut one of us a check for the difference.
Of course, like everything in life, eventually the system started to break down. How, for example, were my parents supposed to consider paying for college for both equal when my college was more expensive than my sister’s college? What happened when we both started our masters programs and her tuition was higher than mine? Was there a way that they could reimburse her for the money they spent on my wedding? But what about the living expenses that they paid for her when she was living at their house and Bruce and I were living in our apartment in Atlanta?
The details are enough to give me a headache.
This morning’s gospel reading gives us a puzzling look at what it means to be fair and equal in the world. Jesus tells us a parable about field laborers. A landowner goes out early in the morning and hires laborers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage and the laborers head out for the day. Later in the day, the landowner hired a few more laborers and sent them out into the vineyard to join the laborers he had hired that morning. Three hours later, he did the same thing, three hours after that, he did the same thing and then two hours later, he hired one more round of laborers to go out into the field.
When the day was over, the landowner – in good faith – paid all of the laborers that he had hired for the day. But instead of paying them each for the amount of time that they had worked. He paid each of his laborers the same wage for the day, the wage that he had originally agreed upon with the laborers who had been out working all day.
As I am sure you can imagine, this did not go over well with the laborers who had to been working all day. “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,” they complained to the landowner.
The landowner did not offer much sympathy. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong,” he tried to reason with them. “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.”
So if you were the laborers who had worked all day, how would you feel? Would you accept that wage that you and the landowner had agreed upon, or would you – given that he paid all his laborers the same wage – expect more because you had worked a longer day?
I have to be honest, I struggled with this passage, because I was not quite sure what Jesus was getting at. At first I thought that perhaps the message was simply, “Buck up, life isn’t fair, so get over it,” but I did not think that would preach very well.
Throughout the years, theologians have looked at this passage as an allegory, a metaphor for the many ways that different generations of people have access to God. The author of this gospel was writing to a community of people that included both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians – Christians who were raised according to Jewish laws and structures and Christians who had only recently discovered their faith. The people in this community often quarreled over whose way of being Christian and practicing their faith was better or right. Jewish Christians believed that you had to follow Jewish law in order to be a follower of Christ and Gentile Christians believed that they could follow Christ without law.
But the meaning of this parable was simple, yet clear: It did not matter how or when a person came into the Christian faith, all Christians had the same and equal access to God’s grace.
Even though this parable was addressing a conflict between Jews and Gentiles, I think we still have a lot to learn from it today.
In a world where time moves faster every day; in a world where hatred, war and violence often shakes our faith; in a world where science tends to give us more answers than religion; in a world where tragedy and illness strike in horrific and unexpected ways; and in world where community can easily be found online rather than in religious institutions; very rarely do all of our paths to God and journeys of faith look the same.
Some of us may spend our whole lives believing, some of us may find a community of faith and serve diligently and persistently and some of us may devote our lives to sharing the story of how God is working within us.
And in the same way, some of us may stumble, some of us may question and some of us may walk away.
In our church community, you will find people who have been members their entire lives sitting alongside people who have only recently walked through our front doors.
But this parable shows us the true nature of the generosity of God’s grace – that each one of us is given exactly what we need, even if what we need is different from what someone else needs.
“So the first will be last and the last will be first.” This is not a bad thing! This does not mean that “the nice guy always finishes last” or that “some people just always seem to wind up on top.” No – this parable is trying to teach us of the whole and undeniable accessibility of God. God’s grace is available to every single person in this world, no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life. God’s love surrounds each and every one us, no matter how we embrace that love or long it may take for us to accept that love.
As we grow as a community of faith – and, actually, as we evolve as a human race and try to find meaning in this crazy world – I think that it is important to both remember this truth in our own lives and encourage others in their lives. God loves us – all of us.
The funny thing about my mom’s tendency to always obsessively equalize what she and my dad gave to my sister and me is that we both know that what my parents give us is in no way indicative of how much they love us. It is indicative of what we need at any given time and how they are able to help. A parent’s love is not measured in equal gifts or inheritance.
And God’s grace is not measured in equal human portions.
That is why it is called grace.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The landowner found laborers on many walks of life, at various points throughout the day.
Where will God find you in your life to give you grace?
Thanks be to God!