Last Minute Grace

Red Vineyard
A sermon for September 24, 2017.  The lectionary readings for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost are Jonah 3:10-4:11Psalm 145:1-8Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16

Listen to the sermon HERE.

During my first year at the University of North Carolina, Michael Jordan was still playing college basketball. Because there was such a huge demand on student basketball tickets, there was a lottery system. Tickets were free with a student I.D., but they were given out beginning at 8 AM on Monday morning. Most of us wanting tickets would plan way in advance. We would get together in groups, and beginning sometime on Sunday, we would set up camp outside the ticket office. With snacks and radios and sleeping bags, and maybe even a book or two, we would wait for Monday morning. On Monday morning, the tickets would be given out, but in a random, lottery-type method. Most of the tickets would be gone in a couple of hours.

My college roommate would try to get tickets every week. But he would sleep in the dorm room, have breakfast, go to his first class, and between classes, would stop by the ticket office, show his I.D., and try his luck. Almost every week, he would get far better tickets than those of us who slept out all night.

As surely as there was basketball season, each year, there would be student protests at the unfairness of the lottery system for tickets. Students of alumni claimed that since their parents gave a lot of money to the athletic program, they should get first dibs on tickets. Freshman claimed that since they were the newest students, they should get the best seats. Graduate students made their case. The loudest of all were those students who customarily camped out and waited for tickets. The system was unfair, they all said. It goes against any system of justice— those who took the time to plan, to schedule, to be responsible enough to get all their affairs in order and give up time to wait— they deserved the best tickets. The University’s response, year after year, was, “You are getting free tickets. Everyone is allowed a ticket. You have nothing to complain about.” This echoes of the householder’s words in this morning’s gospel: “Do you begrudge my generosity? (RSV, verse 15).

We just heard the story proclaimed in the Gospel. A householder needs work done, so he goes to hire some people. He makes a deal that he’ll pay them the day’s wage. And then three more times during the day, he goes to get more workers. At the end of the day, the workers are paid, beginning with those who only worked an hour. Even those are paid one denarius, the typical wage for a day of work. Well, guess who complains. Those poor folks who had worked all day— why should they, too, only be paid the daily wage. If those who have worked only an hour are paid the amount, how much more should those who worked longer be paid! But the landowner replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

In the first lesson of the morning, the story of Jonah, God asks Jonah a similar question. God has asked Jonah to prophecy to the Ninevites. Jonah does this and the Ninevites repent. God forgives them. But then Jonah feels like they’ve gotten off too easy. Jonah complains, and God replies that it is for God to forgive whom he chooses. Forgiveness, blessing, bounty, is God’s for the giving. God’s goodness is not restricted, even when we try to make God’s system fit into our own systems of what we think might be fair play.

The Gospel today asks in the old Revised Standard Version, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” or in the New Revised Standard Version, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Those words can seem like an indictment to us who come to church. We can easily imagine that Jesus might be telling this story primarily for those who are a little selfsatisfied, those who might feel as though because they have been faithful Jews, or because they have followed Jesus the longest, then they should gain special favor in God’s kingdom.

But I wonder if such an interpretation is simply too self-centered. I wonder, if in talking about those who come at the last hour who get the fullness of the blessing, I wonder if Jesus doesn’t mean this story primarily as a story of welcome for the newcomer, welcome for the anyone regardless of how much they have studied, accumulated, or succeeded. It’s about God’s love for all of us—for BEING—regardless of our “doing.”

I wonder how much of our love of what we perceive to be “justice” underlies the difficulty in our country of achieving any kind of universal healthcare.  I think there’s a little voice inside a lot of people that says, “Those people don’t take care of themselves. They eat the wrong things, drink the wrong things, do drugs, and don’t exercise. They don’t deserve healthcare.  And I (who exercises, eats right, and takes great care in my living) shouldn’t have to have my taxes pay for it!  But that’s not the mentality of the kingdom of God.

This parable that Jesus tells about the householder and the workers in the field is one of Jesus’s “kingdom parables.” Over and over again, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as more than we can possibly imagine, bigger than we might ever suppose. In the kingdom of heaven, loaves and fishes are multiplied so that everyone is fed. Water is turned into wine. Mustard seeds sprout into huge trees, and even a little, tiny bit of faith can move mountains. And the kingdom of heaven is also a place where Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first last.”

The Gospel we proclaim this morning is Good News. We have all been promised the inheritance of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Is it ours as a gift of grace. It belongs just as much to unbaptized and the newly baptized, to the person who walks into the church from the street for the first time, as it does to the oldest, holiest person around. We do not earn God’s grace.  Not by the hours we’ve put in at church.
We have not earned it by the tears that have gone into our confessions. Not by the money we’ve earned, or the degrees we’ve accumulated. God’s love, God’s eternal life, is a pure, undeserved GIFT.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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