Lesson: Matthew 20:1- 16
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
Greetings again following yesterday’s wonderful memorial service for Pastor Karen. It was a pleasure to see many of you in person, though “through a veil” as the Bible says, and to know so many others were joining us through the internet. God willing we will be able to worship together again one day, though gathering in a large group indoors is a ways off. For now, we can rejoice in God’s presence among us, both on Main Street and remotely, and in God’s gift of bringing us together in His name. Many thanks to those who organized the service and saw to all the details. In case we ever had any doubts, this is a great church!
True confession, the more I get back into the ministerial swing of things, the more I get to know you and what it is you and we all are facing, the more I am aware of our present situations. Shutdowns, social distancing, school disruptions, job worries, health worries, the political situation roiling around us, the ways we have not been just and fair to all our citizens, mourning losses of all kinds, and the way nature is having its way with this Earth. There are a lot of things to be concerned about, yes, and there are also a lot of things to be confident about. Amidst great uncertainty, it is not all grief and sadness out there, and God continues to provide for us from God’s generous abundance. We hear that in our lessons today.
We first meet the Israelites in the wilderness, complaining as they go, that there is nothing to eat. Can’t you hear them – “All the restaurants are closed, there is no cell service out here, and it’s so boring. All we do is walk.” They press Moses, “Why did we leave Egypt in the first place? Back there we were slaves but at least there was something to do and food on the table.” So God provided manna from heaven for them, – free food, every day, all they wanted – and they ate, and at least for a while, they were satisfied. God provided for them.
And God provides for us, in this season of abundance, in the beauty of the sky and the changing season, in the opportunities we have to consider God’s place in our lives and to let others know how much they mean to us, in the food we eat and the work we do, no matter how trivial it seems sometimes. God gives us good friends, and family that is helpful and caring, and when those seem far off as they sometimes do, God gives us the church as a place of connection and meaning. God is providing for us.
And then God’s generous abundance was on display as Jesus tells the story of the landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. Being in Wilbraham, I would guess you know something about bringing in the harvest, if not of grapes then of apples and peaches, hay and pumpkins. Those perishables won’t wait, and so the farmers have to find some help. Jesus tells this story of one such farmer, and in his story the first workers are not quite ready for the twist they hear at the end.
After all, it seems rather unfair. Somebody works for an hour and gets the same pay as someone who works all day? What’s with that? I have often wondered if this story was directed at the members of the early church, Matthew’s readers, some of whom had been there from the beginning and had endured hardships and persecution. They looked around and saw others coming into the faith and these new ones had it so easy and it wasn’t fair, was it, that they got the rewards, too? Like us, those early Christians, those people of Jesus’ time, were concerned with justice and fairness for themselves and the people they cared about. But the further we look, we see that this is not really a story about fairness and score-keeping. Rather, it’s another opportunity for Jesus to lay out for us, his hearers, what God and the Kingdom of God are really like.
What we find in this parable is a word about the comfort of God. No matter when people enter the Kingdom, early or late, at their baptism as a baby, as an awakening teenager or young adult, in their prime in midlife, or in the autumn of their days, all of us are dear to God and he has his eye on us. We know from our own personal and recent experiences that some people die, as one person has said, “full of years and honor, with their day’s work ended and their task completed.” And sometimes younger people die before they have been given the chance to complete their work and achieve what they wanted to accomplish. For our generous Lord, both will receive the same welcome, for Jesus is waiting to receive us all, whenever we make our way to his heavenly Kingdom. That is a very basic hope of our faith in God’s abundant love.
Yes, in this parable we find a word of comfort, and also a word about the graciousness of God. Have you ever received a gift from someone that you could immediately tell cost a lot? It was wrapped in one of those Tiffany blue boxes, with the ribbon bow, and you hesitated to open it because you knew it was going to be something really special and really impressive? Or it was in a giant carton in the middle of the garage, with a red ribbon tied around it and it also looked really special and impressive? And have you ever received a gift from a child, wrapped as best it could be in paper from K-Mart, with one of those stick-on pre-tied bows? You don’t really know what you’re about to get – a hand-print set in plaster, a necklace made out of pasta strung together- but you do know it comes from somebody who is proud to offer it, and can’t wait for your surprised and grateful response. That gift, of little value monetarily, touches our heart far more than the one from Tiffany’s or Amazon ever could. God’s generosity and graciousness are like that. He doesn’t look on the amount of our service, or at how long we have been at this. As long as it comes from our heart and is done in love, the Lord knows that all our service ranks the same with him.
For after all, what we have received – an opportunity to work in the vineyard, as it were; the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food on our tables, the love that surrounds us, the faith that we cherish, these are gifts of God’s grace. We did not earn what God gives us, and we don’t particularly deserve these gifts. God gives out of the generosity of God’s abundance, and that grace in Jesus Christ is not our pay for the good job we’ve done, it is not a reward for working hard, but a free gift from an amazing God.
In a very real way, if we think about it, just by being here, in many ways we have already received the prize, time in the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ is ushering in. Just being here now, knowing God, having Christ in our life, is a gift. May we continue to strive, even though the prize has already been won, to know Jesus more and more, and to live more and more thankfully and expectantly into this Kingdom that is both coming and already here. May we be confident that whether we just came on board today, or have been part of this enterprise for years, we are all heading in the same direction, with a God whose love is great enough to receive us all, every one.
So I wonder in our comment time here, if you have any examples of the ways God has been surprisingly gracious and generous to you or someone you love? Would you care to share those examples?