One of my favorite comedy actors of all time is Steve Martin.
Back in the mid 90’s he was in a movie
that was an update of a 50’s television show called Sgt. Bilko. Steve played a fast talking con-man of a Master Sergeant named
Ernie Bilko. At one point, during a dressing down
from another officer, Steve delivers a line
that I always think about when I read this
passage of scripture.
He says, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay
for an honest day’s work.”
This is one of those parables that makes a lot of us uncomfortable,
because the story that Jesus tells in this passage
slaps our western, capitalistic natures right in the face.
Those who work hard should get paid more than those who do not. Those who only worked an hour shouldn’t get paid the same
as those who worked hard, all day, through the blazing sun.
While the parable specifically speaks in terms of money,
I think it is obvious enough that what we are really talking about
is inclusion in the Kingdom of God;
it’s a story about those who have labored long for God
and those who are only just beginning to discover a life of faith.
History is full of people waiting until the last possible moment
to make peace with God
And history is also full of Christians who have struggled
to accept that God’s grace is available even for “those” people,
the ones who tarried, the ones who waited until
it was almost too late.
Jesus, if you remember, was hung on a cross between two thieves,
one who mocked him and one who recognized
Jesus for who he was and asked for mercy.
He received it, mere hours before he passed into the next life.
Back when kings were more than figureheads,
they led men into battle and had to deal brutally
with other kings and their forces…
and, to be honest, being a king had its perks, too.
So it was not uncommon to see a king wait until
he was on his deathbed to be baptized.
They did this to “assure” that they would enter heaven
in a state of “innocence”, having just been cleansed through baptism.
Even today we hear of death row inmates,
living on borrowed time, making professions of faith
with full confidence that their faith has made them whole
and fit for the kingdom of God.
It just seems wrong, doesn’t it?
The idea that people who know and believe
that there is a judgment to come and yet choose
to live lives of debauchery anyway and then accept
salvation when their time is running out.
A Christian philosopher and author named Peter Rollins
wrote a collection of parables that are rather brilliant.
One of those parables does a good job of helping us
to see the reality of these late hour faith professions.
Rollins tells the story of two brothers who embraced faith together at an early age. One of the brothers took his commitment very seriously and wrestled diligently with the Scriptures. When he became a man, he gave up all of his worldly possessions and went to live in the poorest and most dangerous area of the city.
Many friends deserted him, and, because of his uncompromising dedication to the oppressed, he lost the one woman he truly loved, forsaking the possibility of marriage for the sake of his work.
The pain of this separation haunted him all his days. And because of the conditions in which he lived, he was frequently ill. When he died, no one was present, and only a handful of people showed up for his funeral.
In contrast, the other brother never took his faith seriously at all. As a man he became very settled, satisfied, and influential. He married the woman he loved, had many children, and lived in a beautiful home.
As his satisfaction grew, his thoughts of God dissolved to nothing. He gave little to charity, unless it was prudent to do so for the sake of his reputation, and paid little heed to those who suffered around him. After a long, happy, and successful life, he died in the arms of his loving wife with his children and grandchildren surrounding him.
In heaven God called the two brothers before him, embraced them both warmly, and to each gave an equal share of the kingdom.
As one might expect, the brother who had been faithful all his years was surprised he had given up everything to live what turned out to be a torturous life of hardship.
However, instead of being bitter, his surprise was a joyous one. He turned to his brother, smiled deeply, and said, “Today my joy is finally complete, for we are together again. Come, let us break bread together.” In response, his brother said nothing, but began to weep over the wasted life that he had led.
In the end, both brothers ended up in the same place. Both are standing at the feet of Christ. The one is overjoyed while the other is weeping weeping because of the realization that his life could have been so much more than it was.
It’s not the brother who lived a hard life for his faith who has regrets in the end, but the brother who realizes how much more he could have done. His life could have made a greater impact on people, and a greater impact for the kingdom of God.
The point of this scripture, friends, is not that some people get what they don’t deserve. We might say that, in fact, the point is that none of us gets what we deserve – and that’s a good thing. That’s what we call grace.
The point of this scripture is that God’s grace is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter whether we come to it early or late whether we toil for God all our days or we repent on our deathbed, because none of us, ever, deserves God’s forgiveness, and none of us can earn God’s love.
The miracle is that God doesn’t leave us all to perish in the dust. The miracle is that we receive grace at all.
It still seems wrong in some way, doesn’t it? There are good, faithful Christians who work hard day in and day out, striving to be better people, to follow Christ every day.
The life of a Christian is not an easy life. There are personal struggles and persecutions. There are things that we are called to do that we would rather not do but we do them because we are followers of Christ.
It is not fair that others can live a life of comfort while we struggle and
get to make peace with God in the end.
But lets take a closer look at the alternative the life of constant searching, longing to have that purpose and that peace. St. Augustine famously said,
“You have made us for yourself O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Others talk about a God-shaped hole in our lives
a hole that keeps us striving and searching,
because it is a space that only God can fill.
For those who don’t know God,
who haven’t found peace in God’s love,
life is an endless searching for that missing piece,
that missing presence that can make us hole.
Imagine living that way:
As life goes on you spend time seeking the peace
you know your heart desires.
You try filling that space with career, family, possessions.
Around every corner, just when you think you might
have found that peace, it disappears…
until one day, through wisdom, through persistent searching,
through grace, long overdue, you find Jesus.
You find faith. You find mercy and grace.
You find the good news that you don’t have to earn God’s peace,
that you don’t have to search for God’s love
because God has loved you all along.
Finally, you find the peace you’ve been searching for.
If we are being honest, most of us, if given the choice would much
rather have the struggle of faith than the struggle to find faith.
The life of faith isn’t easy
but the life of the unsettled soul is so much harder to face.
When we read this parable,
many of us feel a sense of righteous indignation
because we see ourselves on the side
of those who have worked long and hard all the day,
only to find that all those Johnny-come-latelies
receive the same wages as ourselves.
But we fail to imagine this story from the other side:
to consider those who waited all day, hope fading away,
waiting to be hired, losing hope that it will happen today…
looking at the possibility of going home empty handed,
unable to provide for ourselves or our families that night.
This wasn’t a day of laughter and leisure;
this was a day of hard waiting and despair…
that is, until the landowner showed up at the eleventh hour and gave us a chance to have something, anything, to show for that day.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have been hired on early in
the morning, to know my day would mean something, and to know
that I’d be able to provide for my family at the end.
None of us wants to feel like our life was wasted.
We all want to have some peace of mind and to feel
like what we do makes a difference in the world.
The idea of forgetting our responsibilities and sowing our oats
and doing whatever we want may seem like a fun idea
every now and then…
we may be tempted sometimes to go and live the easy life,
and plan simply to come back begging forgiveness
when the clock starts to run out
but the truth of the matter is we never know
when the end is going to come,
and what should scare us most is,
having been given this great gift of life,
coming to the end and finding that
we didn’t infuse it with the level of meaning that we could have.
My wife and I are very different people.
She was raised in the church by good Christian parents
who gave her the room to grow into her own faith.
I was raised Catholic… and not by choice. Don’t get me wrong here;
I have nothing against the Roman Catholic church as a whole
we may disagree on some theological points,
but the Catholic church has been life-giving and grace-filled
for a great many people. I just wasn’t one of them.
My parents made sure that I went to services
but didn’t always attend themselves.
I spent more energy in my youth trying to get out
of going to church than I did trying to understand
the message that was being preached.
I remember when I was allowed to walk to the church on my own.
It was the greatest thing ever because I discovered something.
I discovered, that when I got home,
the only proof I needed to convince my parents of my attendance
was the bulletin!
So on those Sundays that I went to church on my own,
I would sneak in the back a little late, grab a bulletin off the table,
and then go commune with my friends
who were also skipping church via the bulletin loop hole.
I did not come to understand or appreciate faith
and the message of Jesus until I was 17 years old.
Many of those teen years were spent in
well, let’s just say, less-than-holy pursuits.
But when I came to faith,
when I experienced the grace that God had been offering me,
it was like I had been living in the dark
and someone had turned on the lights.
It was like realizing I had been blind up until that point,
but now I could see.
Bri was born into her faith and nurtured in it. I struggled against it and, for a while, wanted nothing to do with it.
But, by God’s grace, Bri and I are now both in the same place. We are both serving God and our congregations to the best of our ability. Sometimes she thinks she would be a more understanding pastor if she had a little bit of my experience. Sometimes I think I would be a better pastor with a little more of hers.
Regardless of how or when we come to faith, the important part is that we do. And when we do, we understand that the grace we are given, the grace we experience from God, is not just for ourselves but for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are a pauper or a king, a saint or a serial killer. The grace of God is given freely, and when we receive it, it will change our souls forever.
It is not for us to judge who is worthy of the grace that God gives. We do not get to call God’s generosity unfair. The only thing that is unfair is that we get grace at all.
We are allowed the opportunity to live a life of grace and love today.
Remember the story I shared a little earlier, about the two brothers? The brother who worked in poverty and illness and strife did those things, not to earn passage to heaven and not to secure a greater reward in the hereafter. He worked and toiled because early on he discovered what it meant to love God. He discovered that “the only remedy for love is to love more.”
For those of us who are blessed to walk with Christ, we must understand that that is the blessing. That is the reward: peace with God in our lives, now. We don’t have to spend our lives wondering and wandering and waiting to discover the truth. We have it now. We don’t have to spend our lives searching or empty or afraid. Our toil is not for reward. Our toil is the reward. We are rewarded with the privilege to walk with and work with God in this life. We are blessed indeed… and we are blessed to be a blessing.
The challenge for us is to let go of the idea of what is fair or unfair.
The challenge for us is to accept people wherever they are at in their journey of faith… or on their journey to faith.
The challenge for us is to make the grace and love of Christ visible in this world so that those who are still searching can find their way home. Amen? Amen.