By Rev. Robin Bartlett
First Church in Sterling, MA
September 21, 2014
READING FROM THE GOSPELS
(Matthew 20: 1-16)
20“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to
hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;
4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is
right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers
and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying,'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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We’re going to talk about grace today. Grace is simply defined as the free and unmerited favor of God—God’s benevolence to humans, generous, free and totally unexpected gifts. In other words, getting stuff that isn’t owed to you, or that you didn’t technically “deserve.” Like that time you were given children, or your life back, or America—that you happen to be born into or live in the wealthiest country in the world. All unmerited riches.
But before we talk about grace, I want to go back to what Jesus says about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is possibly the biggest gift of grace because so often forgiveness is unearned by those we forgive, right? And like I said last week, forgiveness is hard and holy work precisely because it is often unearned. That’s why we so often need it, and need to extend it to others. Resentment, after all, is a poison. Resentment, someone said once, is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. And we need to offer forgiveness because we know we will need that grace someday, too.
Since preaching is a conversation between the congregation and the preacher, I wanted to share something important about our conversation last week. One of you left me a note in the offertory plate. A note that asked me, basically, how someone can possibly be forgiven if they have done something considered unforgivable and lost it all as a result. The example given was adultery, but I’m sure you can think of a million other things that you have done or someone else has done to you that you don’t think deserves forgiveness.And you may feel poised on the brink to lose it all. A lot of us are poised on that brink at any given moment. More of us than we know, since we do a lot of work to hide what’s really going on in our hearts and in our homes. We cover up the bad stuff like it’s our job. So you’re not alone if you feel like you are about to lose it all.
Well, I want you to know that we don’t lose God. We don’t lose God’s love, we don’t lose God’s grace. And for those of us who are working on forgiving someone else for the unforgiveable and just can’t, I want
you to know that you don’t have to. Sometimes we have to leave the forgiving up to God. Sometimes people harm us in ways that we simply can’t forgive yet, and giving them the grace of forgiveness is truly beyond our capacity. There are probably people in your life who are entirely unrepentant and have harmed you irreparably and you are furious that they go on living their lives with gifts that they don’t deserve—the gift of beautiful children or a marriage or their freedom. And you can’t forgive them because they have hurt you. Sometimes we need to trust God to do the forgiving for us because it’s too soon, or too dangerous, or too hard for us to do. And that’s OK. God gives us the grace of forgiveness regardless of earning it.
Our scripture today is about wage earners who, despite starting to work late in the day, get paid first, and the same wage as the workers who toiled in the fields all day. In this story, there are day laborers who have been working all day for the landowners—from sun up to sun down. And they get paid the exact same amount as the guys who show up at the tail end of the day. And not only do the last people to show up to work get just as much cash, they get it FIRST. Infuriatingly (and parables are meant to be infuriating), in what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the “upside down kingdom of God” or the “topsy turvy kingdom of
God”, Jesus says “the last shall be first” in the kingdom. No matter how late you joined the party, you get to God first—you are paid grace upon grace no matter how little you work to earn it. And that can be frustrating for those of us who have been toiling away in the fields for our whole lives here with God—showing up to church every week, serving the people in our communities, praying fervently, giving our gifts away. The last shall be first, Jesus says.
This parable always reminds me of the current debate about our welfare
You know that debate, right? It gets old and it gets vicious, doesn’t it? Depending on where we stand on the political spectrum, we’re angry. We’re angry at our fellow Americans for our differing perceptions of fairness or unfairness. The Tea Party types are vehemently complaining about the poorest, non-working Americans receiving unearned salary paid for by our tax dollars. And my lefty friends are just as wont to complain about the wealthiest 1% of Americans receiving a far more disproportionate amount of wealth for very little
I see this propensity to shame and blame others in the newspaper and on TV and in the comments section of internet articles all the time. “That spoiled kid was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and gets everything he wants, and of course his parents pay for lawyers to get him out of jail every time”, or “that woman is clearly having more children so she can keep making a living, and buying beer and chips with my tax dollars.”
MY tax dollars. We are always clamoring for our piece of the pie, complaining about the crumbs.
And we have an expectation that people work hard for their pay. That people have to EARN their way—that they don’t just deserve stuff and things for just sitting there; that money for sloth and laziness is unearned—that hard work should be rewarded. And we get furious and we spew venom about folks we perceive to be not pulling their weight, and receiving reward for it anyway. And then Jesus swoops in and says that actually, these guys get paid first, and they get paid the same. The last shall be first? WHAT?
Our parable today illustrates our human propensity toward wanting fairness—looking out for ourselves to make sure what we get is “rightfully” ours. And this parable has God reminding us that life isn’t always fair, just like our mothers always did when we stomped our feet when we were little. “it’s not fair!” God is coming in like your mama and saying, “Who told you life was fair?”
An episode of one of my favorite television shows, Louie, features Louis CK talking to his 5 year old daughter, who says when her older sister gets a cookie she wants:
Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair.
And Louie says: You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s never gonna happen ever in your life, so you need to learn that now, OK? And then he says:
The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have as much as them.”
God doesn’t dole out grace in a “fair” way. God doesn’t give you gifts according to how well you are doing at this life thing. That’s what is so beautiful and infuriating about God—the fact that God doles out unearned gifts. That God’s gifts come to us regardless of whether or not we deserve them, and often times we don’t.
So why is this concept of grace a good thing? Why is it good news that there is nothing “fair” about grace? Why does it even make sense that--“the last shall be first?”
Because grace changes lives…makes us new. Finds the lost, restores sight to the blind.
We are changed by grace. So even if we sometimes resent the fact that God’s grace is given to the super hard worker and those who go in to the office for an hour of surfing facebook before taking a two martini
lunch, even if we resent sometimes that God’s grace is given to the hardened criminal as readily as it is given to the saint--the last before the first--God’s grace is what transforms us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber says that “God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us. We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love, and we only try to live in response to the gift. No one is climbing the spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different from spiritual self-improvement. We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time…..The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.”
The reason grace works so well to transform us is that it often causes us to sit up and take notice when we are the ones who are lost and last. Anne Lamott says that it really is easier to experience spiritual connection when your life is in the process of coming apart. When we are down on our knees, poised on the brink of losing it all.
Do you know the story of John Newton, the guy who wrote Amazing Grace? He was a sailor and a not particularly pious guy. He worked on slave ships after his stint in the Navy, because that was the best way for him to earn a living—as a slave trader. He was known for his bawdy language and his propensity for the
drink and for women.
One day when he was on his slave ship bound for America from the middle passage, a storm washed over the ship. The ship almost capsized. John Newton was moved to pray desperately to God, begging God to save him. His life was saved that night by what he could only conceive of as an act of God, and he had a
conversion experience. Despite the fact that he sold people and their freedom away, despite the fact that he acted in ways that deeply hurt and harmed humanity, his life was spared. He left his job on the slave ship, studied the bible, and became an ordained minister and penned the hymn “Amazing Grace” in response to his experience.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
He spent the rest of his life working to abolish slavery. His very life was transformed in response to amazing grace.
Nadia Bolz-Weber says that:
“God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own (mess). Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, "Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you." It's God saying, "I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”
God has the final word: there are no wage-earners and wage-moochers in the kin-dom of God, only beloved children—our brothers and sisters. God has the final word: There is no male nor female, slave nor free, Tea Partier or Communist. There is no welfare queen, nor corporate villain. God has the final word: There is no “us” and “them”, only “us”. God has the final word: The only time we should look in our neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. God has the final word: God loves us—each of us--the least, the last and
the lost—and that love is extravagant, and wasteful. It is our job to respond to that by loving others extravagantly and wastefully, not stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.
God has the final word: Let us be made new, again and again.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.