September 20, 2020

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “(The landowner said), ‘I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Do you remember the theme song to the television comedy, “All in the Family”? Each episode opened with Archie and Edith Bunker singing “Those were the days” – a song by Lee Adams and Charles Strause that laments life’s and society’s changes and waxes nostalgic for the fairer and simpler days of yesteryear, the “good old days” that are now forever gone.

     I thought of that song while meditating on today’s scripture lessons because our texts offer a realistic statement about human nature. That when things go wrong or turn out differently than we had planned or hoped, how easy it is to perceive such as unfair, and long for the “good old days” even if, in reality, those days weren’t all that good or even fair.

     Throughout the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel saw firsthand time and again, God’s mighty acts of deliverance. And yet, as soon as things became difficult or even routine, they whined and complained to Moses, “Oh you should have left us in Egypt. It was so nice there. So many varieties of food to eat – none of it Kosher mind you, but gosh there was an abundance of choices. Those were the days, huh? Why did you bring us here Moses?” In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses has tired of the people’s complaints and tells them be careful because they are not complaining against him or Aaron, but rather, against God. Yet, in spite of their complaining, their forgetting of how difficult life really was in Egypt, our reading concludes with an amazing lesson about God’s grace: God provides what is needed in spite of all the whining and complaining. In fact, God’s graceful provision of food is a lesson in what it means to live as people of God: God’s people grasp that God always provides, perhaps not as we expected, but God provides just the same. And all God asks in return is that we trust in God and share what we have received. Exodus reminds us God’s grace is never earned: Grace is a gift of God freely given – that’s what makes it grace.

     Yet, as people of God, as Christians, we often make the mistake of thinking that because of our faith and our commitment to seek and serve Christ in all persons, we have somehow earned God’s favor and, in so doing, deservebetter treatment, more success, or to quote the Prosperity Gospel heresy, deserve more money, more luxuries, than anyone else.  After all, isn’t that what fairness, what justice, is about: I have earned God’s favor and, therefore, deserve a higher place in God’s kingdom and our communities; an easier life’s journey, than anyone else. God owesme.

     And that kind of thinking has probably created more division in the body of Christ than we realize, let alone division in society. How often our culture still today encourages us to look upon the homeless or poor or hungry and rather than being stirred our hearts to help them out, step over them saying, “get a job” or “it’s your own fault you know”, or in a church setting, think that person is in their predicament because of unconfessed sin or bad choices, and, therefore, unworthy of our help. Scripture tells us that is not the attitude of people of God.     

     Jesus’ story of a maligned landowner in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew gets to what it means to be true people of God, gets to the heart of the issue of what is fair, what is earned, and what is deserved. After clarifying that no one had been cheated and everyone had received what they agreed to be paid, the Landowner asked, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous?” That really is the crux of the matter. It’s not that the workers weren’t paid, but rather, they felt they deserved more than those who arrived later and therefore, were envious of those who received the same reward, and envious of the Landowner’s generosity.

     Now, I have to admit this parable does suggest some unfairness on the part of the landowner. After all, shouldn’t those who work harder or longer receive more, or perhaps a bonus? My colleague, the Rev. Rick Morley, reflecting on this passage writes, “This parable sounds ‘unfair’ to our ears … if we’re looking out for ourselves first … (but) what if our main concern was for someone else to get ahead? … Then, this parable would be amazing. This parable would be exactly what we are looking for”, and I would add, what we all hope for.

See, there’s more to this story than pay and the perception of what is earned and deserved. The workers who put in a full day’s labor complained, “You have made these late comers equal to us.” That’s the harder message here. There is a sense of entitlement that those who work harder or longer should be more highly favored. But, that’s not God’s way. In fact, the truth is this parable is not about work at all. It is about the Kingdom of God and, more specifically, God’s grace. And it offers an incredibly difficult and challenging lesson for the Church.

    Jesus is telling his followers that in God’s kingdom, regardless of when we enter through the gates: regardless of when we embraced our faith in Christ; each of us receives the same measure of grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness as everyone else. Such is the way of God and, as the landowner really asks, “Is not God allowed to do what God choosesto do with what belongs to God?” God welcomes everyone home regardless of when they arrived, regardless of who they are, regardless of how much work they have done or haven’t done. Frankly, as one who came late to faith in Christ, I rejoice that I received and continue to receive not only the same grace as everyone else, but the same mercy, love and forgiveness as those who came before me and who will come after me: that like you, I am a member of God’s family, blessed beyond measure with an equal share of God’s goodness just like everyone else. Just as we are equal in our need for grace, mercy, forgiveness and love, in Christ we are equal as children of God.

     But complaining and exalting one’s self is a typically human characteristic. We all want to do better: to have more things to give; more influence; more skills and abilities, and those are admirable desires, but not when they come at the expense of someone else like those who arrived later in our gospel lesson. People of God consider all things as a gift of God and as for everyone else? We are to embrace them as our equal in God’s sight and share with them the same mercy, love, forgiveness and grace that we have received.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, says, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospelof Christ.” That gospel makes no distinction about who is welcome and yet, time and again, Christians have judged who is welcome in the Church, who fits the rules, how the gospel should be lived, or who is worthy of God’s grace. In so doing, they, we, become the very Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious - Jesus criticized for perverting God’s justice and mercy. Paul says those who live the gospel stand firm in one spirit – that spirit of what? Reconciliation and grace - that not only welcomes, but embraces one another, and more importantly, embraces the stranger, the late-comer, the person who is different from us. Those who live the gospel, Paul says, work together side by side, not grumbling or complaining that things are unfair like we heard in our lessons from Exodus or Matthew. Paul says that those who live the Gospel are of one mind – not so we can feel good, but rather, so that, at all times, we demonstrateGod’s grace-filled generosity.

    Thinking about our lesson from Matthew, I wonder what it would take for us to honestly rejoice that those who arrived after most of our work was finished received a paycheck just as big as our own. It would take, it would require, that we have the mindset of God. The mindset that looks not from our perspective, but from the perspective of those who arrived later. And that is Jesus’ point. That is Paul’s point. That is Moses’ point. When it comes to God and God’s kingdom, there is no pecking order, no privilege other than dwelling equally forever in the presence of the God of grace who says, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you” regardless of who you are or when you came home.

     The Psalmist says God’s people declare from generation to generation not just the good old days, but the generosity of God’s goodness and kindness that still abounds right now. That says, “God’s grace is offered equally to anyone -Just come on in.” And when they do come in, - heck, when we all come in after this pandemic is over - let us embrace one another for who we all are in Christ: equal and beloved children of God. The Landowner said, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.’” Beloved, that is the grace of God. No wonder it is called amazing grace. And for that reality let us say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.