“A Day’s Pay for an Hour’s Work” Matthew 20:1-16 (September 21, 2014)

Quotation-Sgt-Bilko-work-Meetville-Quotes-204628

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.

“I.O.U.” Romans 13:8-14 (September 7, 2014)

i-o-u-love

Henry, who was very elderly, was unhappy
because he had lost his favorite hat. Instead of buying a new one,
he decided he would go to the local church and
steal one out of the coat rack when the worshippers
were busy praying.

When Henry arrived at the church however
an usher intercepted him at the door and showed him to a pew
where he had to sit and listen to the entire sermon
on ‘The Ten Commandments.’

After the service, Henry met the Pastor in the doorway,
shook his hand vigorously, and told him,
‘I want to thank you Pastor for saving my soul today.
I came to church to steal a hat and after hearing
your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.’

The Pastor answered,
‘You mean the commandment ‘ Thou shall not steal’
changed your mind?’
‘No, ‘retorted Henry,
‘the one about adultery did.
As soon as you said that, I remembered where I left my old hat.’

All kidding aside The Ten Commandments are a pretty big deal.
Thousands of years after they were written,
we are still using them as a moral compass and
we even fight with passion to have them displayed in our
courthouses across the country.

Usually, when we are thinking about the Law of Moses,
what comes to mind are the Ten Commandments.
We either don’t know about or don’t care about
the other 603 commandments that Moses
brought down from Mt. Sinai.

When we do start to study and get into the particulars of the
613 commandments, we tend to think that
God is being a bit too demanding
a bit too interested in the nitty gritty workings
of our day to day lives.
Beyond the top ten, we also get laws about what to wear
and what not to eat and how to wash
and other commandments that come across as a bit of overkill.

The rules are overwhelming, confusing,
and to our modern ears especially
out of touch, barbaric, and unnecessary.

Often we look at the Law and the Prophets,
the Old Testament as we call it,
and we see a completely different picture of God
than the one Jesus shows us in the New Testament.

It’s like something happened in the intervening years
between the Old and New Testaments that caused God
to go from being obsessively meddlesome,
wrath-filled and blood-thirsty to being forgiving,
full of true love and true light.

It is disconcerting, and it is because of this apparent discrepancy
that many preachers tend to stay away
from the Old Testament in their preaching.
The God of the Old Testament
is grouchy and demanding and embarrassing;
the God of the Old Testament is just not like the God of the New,
and we like the God of the New because that God sent Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard that reasoning before.
But what we often forget, what we fail to consider is
how the world worked prior to Moses laying down the law.

For instance, Moses tells the Israelites,
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
In our world that seems barbaric and mean,
but understood within the context of the previous system,
this eye-for-an-eye law is bold, progressive, and merciful.

Before the Law of Moses, vengeance was the name of the game.
If one person killed another,
the family of the deceased would seek to kill the murderer
and his or her family, and his or her servants,
and seize their livestock and land.

The idea was, Don’t just get mad
but get even and then some.

It’s a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another.
If I take a moment to really think about what would happen
if someone punched me in the face,
I can guarantee you that my first impulse would be to return fire
only harder and with added blows.

As a Christian I hope, of course, that I would be able to deny that
impulse and turn the other cheek,
but the point is, as human beings,
our gut reactions tend towards not merely vengeance or justice
but escalation.

So when we read laws like “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,”
we find that, in many respects, the law of Moses was not intended
to condone violence but was rather an act of mercy,
to restrain them from seeking
too much vengeance from escalating in their retaliation.

All of the laws in the Old Testament have a purpose.
Sometimes that purpose will seem ridiculous or barbaric
or sexist to us. And, compared to where we are now,
many of them are.
But in the context in which they were written,
they were a piece of mercy.

The laws of God given through Moses
were not given because blind obedience to them
would somehow make us holy.
This was not the plan or the goal in these commandments.

In the commandments was the desire of God
for humanity to begin to climb out of the muck and mire of violence
and vengeance and idolatry.
In them was the hope of God for us to grow as a people
to the point where we would understand
the truth that binds the universe together,
the truth that was demonstrated in the life, death,
and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That truth of the law of love.

As we read through the gospel of Matthew,
we find Jesus tweaking his listeners’
interpretations of the law of Moses.
During the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus repeats time and again,
“You have heard that it was said,” followed by, “But I tell you.”

In these teachings Jesus doesn’t get rid of the laws per se,
but he tries to help his listeners see beyond the laws
to the intention behind them:
it’s not about meticulously following rules,
but it’s about mercy and love.

For instance, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth”.
Remember, when this was given it was in mercy and love
to keep retaliation from going too far.

Jesus continues, “But I say to you…
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also”.

So what we have here is a progression:
from open, unrestrained, retaliation
to a merciful form of vengeance
to sacrificial love in the face of hurt and offense.

In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul
summarizes well what Jesus was teaching.
The entire law is summed up in Love.
Love your neighbor as yourself. If you do this, you will fulfill the law.

And this is where even I start to roll my eyes and think,
“How many times is this guy going to tell me to love my neighbor?
I get it already.” Right?
Well, for the most part I live by the old adage
of a dear friend of mine: “Say it ’til it sticks.”
But loving our neighbors is not our full focus here this morning.

There is part of this passage that often gets glossed over.

Love your neighbor… AS YOURSELF!
AS YOURSELF – two words packed with problems for us.

For some people the difficulty comes in that we love ourselves A LOT.
There are some people who believe the Lexus commercials
that say, “Treat yourself. You deserve it.”
For that type of person,
to love neighbor as self is an expensive,
and probably impossible proposition.

I would wager for most of us today we have the opposite problem.
I think possibly in Paul’s day the problem may have been similar.

We don’t love ourselves enough,
or rather we just don’t love ourselves properly.
We become our own worst critics.
We develop low opinions of ourselves.
Or we believe that we are not worthy of love,
even from ourselves.
We only begin to love ourselves, even a little bit,
on the good hair days and the good mood days
and on all the days in between,
we beat ourselves up for every little thing.

When we try to love our neighbors as ourselves in that state,
it comes across as something less than love
or perhaps a form of love that is tainted
with self loathing and reeking of joyless obligation.

Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
Love is a debt that we all have,
and one that we need to be continually paying forward.
But before we can do that, before we can love our neighbor,
we have to love ourselves.

Maybe that begins with forgiving ourselves.
Can you think of something you need to forgive yourself for?
Have you been beating yourself up about a mistake at work?
or over a misspoken word to a loved one?
Whatever it may be it is okay to forgive yourself.
Let go of the guilt and the pain.
God has forgiven you. You need to forgive you.

Or has something in your past caused you to believe
that you are no good, that you are unworthy of love,
even love from yourself?
You want to love others and connect with God,
but every relationship is stunted because
you do not think you are worthy of anyone’s love,
especially God’s.

Friend, if that is where you are, hear me:
Love is not about being worthy.
Love is an act of the will decided by the one
who is doing to loving.
God’s love for us does not depend on anything we do or have done.
God’s love is God’s choice.

I like to compare it to how we love babies.
We don’t love babies because they have earned our love
or because they deserve it.
Babies are selfish little beasts.
They only care about their own needs being met
and being met exactly when they need them.
But we love them anyway.
We love them because we love them.
It is a choice we make.
God’s love for us is a choice that God has made.

Loving yourself is a choice you make.
Not in a narcissistic sort of way but in a what that says,
“I will not beat myself up over the past.
I will not push others away because
I think I am unworthy of love and relationship.”
You may have to work hard to ignore the ghosts of the past
that shout at you and make you think you are unworthy.
But give yourself the same kind of grace
you would give a close friend:
you don’t have to be perfect; you are worthy of love,
just the way you are, just the way God made you.

When we chose to love ourselves,
to care for ourselves, we are opening the door to accepting
that God loves us,
and there is nothing anyone or anything can do about it.

Whatever the reason for our love deficit towards ourselves,
we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to get it sorted out,
because the longer that we avoid loving ourselves,
the longer we are caught up in our own messes,
the longer that we are busy criticizing ourselves,
the longer it will be before our neighbors
will be able to see Christ’s love in us.

We get to see Christ’s love. Here, today. In the bread and the cup.
We get to see what love looks like:
a decision made to love humanity, to love us no matter the cost.

We get to see Jesus,
sitting at the table with his closest friends.
The very same friends who would, before long,
let him down, deny him, and betray him.
Still he breaks the bread, still he shares the cup,
offering love, and connection. That my friends is grace.

God came, in the flesh, to demonstrate the law of love.
Christ made it visible in his life, his teachings,
his care for stranger and neighbor and friend alike.
He showed us God’s love in the breaking of the bread
and the sharing of the cup.
He showed us God’s love in his death and in his resurrection.
And now, Christ seeks to show God’s love through us,
through our love of friend, and stranger, and neighbor.

But it all starts here.
In this place and at this table.
With a decision to love ourselves,
so we can love others, and by doing so, truly love our God.
Amen? Amen.