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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Getting Every Penny That's Coming to You (Matthew 20:1-16)


“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’

13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14  Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16  So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”

 

I like to work, to feel productive, to feel that my time is accomplishing something significant.  I’m a type-A personality, there’s a great deal of personal satisfaction I get from seeing a to-do list crossed off and a project completed.

 

Anyone else appreciate the value of honest, hard, work, and the satisfaction of a job well done?  The American experiment sees work at the path to wealth; Benjamin Franklin said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  We are the land where anyone can be whatever they want to be, so long as you work hard and apply yourself.

 

And yet, for every story of someone who worked hard and pulled themselves out of poverty, there are 1000 who worked hard and remained just as poor.  We all know people who scramble working multiple jobs and wear themselves out and still can’t make ends meet, as we also know sports car driving trust fund kids who have never worked a day in their lives for anything they have.  The reality in this land of opportunity is that not all opportunities are created equal.

 

The idea that the more you work, the more you should have is not isolated to our time and place.  It is a concept that goes back at least as far as Jesus, as indicated in the parable we read today.  The 20h Chapter of Matthew is often referred to as “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” but I’d like you to think of it as “The Parable of the Generous Master,” because the story isn’t about us, it’s about God.

 

As Jesus tells the story, a landowner, at the peak of the harvest season, hired temporary workers five times during the day at about three hour intervals. He negotiates with the first workers to pay them the normal wage for a day. With the other workers he only agrees to pay them what is right.

At the end of the day the landowner instructs his manager to pay each of the workers the normal daily wage. The workers who were hired first and worked for 12 hours expected to be paid more, especially more than those who only worked one hour. When they got the same amount as the others, they complained about its unfairness.

 

The landowner asks, “Are you resentful because I am generous?” (verse 15); it is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye.   Jesus has already warned of the dangers of having an evil eye, earlier, in Matthew 6: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (that is, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).

 

The eyes are indeed a window into the soul.  It’s difficult to pretend with our eyes. There’s a lot we can feign with our voice, our body and gestures, our expressions. But the eyes? That’s harder. Maybe impossible. Because to see into someone’s eyes is indeed to see into the soul. Something true. Something hidden. Something deep.

 

And, if you get a chance to look into the eyes of God?  What will you see looking into God’s very soul? Well, according to this parable, you will see generosity. Sheer generosity.

 

Imagine getting your paycheck and there’s way more in it than you expected.  You point out the mistake to your boss, who says, “I know.  I meant for you to have every bit of that.”  God is like that.

 

How our world could use more generosity like God’s.  A flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to London was boarding.  A woman made her way past the business travelers, down the aisle, and found her assigned seat, where her neighbor was already seated.  She looked at the man seated in the seat next to hers, looked at her ticket again, and frantically called the flight attendant.  “Excuse me, there seems to be some mistake.  I am seated next to a person whose skin color is different from my own, and this just will not do.”  The flight attendant said, “Ma’am, it is not our policy to move passengers unnecessarily, and besides, this is a full flight.”

 

She lowered her voice and said to the flight attendant, “Look here.  I will not sit next to this man.  I have enough cash in my purse to arrange for an alternative.  Go up to First Class and see if there’s something available up there.”

 

She sat there for a few moments while the flight attendant disappeared into the First Class cabin.  He came back a few moments later, reached across the woman, tapped the male passenger on the arm and said, “I hate to bother you, sir, but we need to make a change in your seating assignment.  Gather your things and come with me; it seems something has just opened up in First Class.”

 

In the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and grace, everyone gets First Class treatment – and how beautifully scandalous that is!  Whether we come to God’s vineyard early or late in the day, whatever we receive from the generous hand of God is already beyond what we deserve.

 

God’s business is to be recklessly generous with all of us – though we value and devalue one another in our own eyes, in God’s eyes, all people have value and sacred worth, all people are worthy of a place at the table, all people are worth the reward of redemption.

 

If you’re the early worker, what harm is done to you if you receive what you were promised?  So what if someone else receives more than they expected, no injury has been done to you.  And if you’re the person who was invited to work late, how awesome is it to receive something greater than what you expected?

 

The rewards of God’s kingdom have nothing to do with how much or how little anyone did, but about how generous God chooses to be.  Again, it’s not about us.  It’s about God.

 

God really isn’t so concerned that we make it into the kingdom early or late so long as we make it.  Maybe that seems foolish and excessive if we were the one who came first.  But to the one who came last, that extravagance is likely the very difference between life and death.

 

Further, being at work for the Master is a reward in and of itself.  The work – participating in the life of the Church – is life-giving.  It changes us!  It makes us care about the things God cares about, helps shape us and form us in God’s image, makes God’s priorities our priorities.  The longer we work in God’s vineyard, the more we see things God’s way.  God works in our hearts and lives to transform us more and more into God’s image – that’s a reward we receive long before payday!

 

Having gone through that transformation, we are able to rejoice with a fellow laborer who arrives later than we did, but receives the same payment, recognizing that God has been good to them even as God has long been good to us.  Whatever we have from God is a gift, one received in thankfulness and rejoicing, and whatever God gives to someone else is never reason to be resentful, but cause to rejoice all the more.

 

 

 It’s a matter of whether we approach life as an individual sport or a team sport.  If we’re in it alone and out for ourselves, we will always be suspicious, stingy, jealous, and greedy.  But if we’re in it for each other as members of the same team, realizing it’s not about what God does for me but what God does in and for and through us – not asking “What’s in it for me?” but “What’s best for the entire community?” then friends, that’s a God-pleasing game changer right there.

 

Take the Fall Bazaar we had yesterday.  I am so proud of the way you pulled together.  It isn’t about any one of us, it’s about all of us, together as a church family, a community of grace, growing together in God’s love and doing something to share that love beyond ourselves, and you did just that yesterday, and I am so proud of you!

 

Those whose lives have been transformed by grace don’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” or start counting up what has been given to others to see if they’ve been cheated or received more.  Come early, come late, the reward is the same, which doesn’t seem fair, and it’s not.  Grace isn’t fair.  It’s a gift of what we need, before we ever ask for it.  Where more grace is needed, God pours it out all the more.

 

Here’s what grace looks like when it’s lived out in community.  Two weeks ago, Thomas Hargis preached for our Homecoming Sunday, and many of you got to meet his fiancé, Katie.  I got a really nice note from Thomas and Katie this week, and she talked about you, and I wanted to share a little bit about what she said.  She was glowing about Morehead Church, about how warm-hearted and joyful you were.  That joy permeated everything she experienced that day.  She felt the joy in worship, and even as a newcomer, she fully participated in that joy.  She said it felt like a Resurrection Sunday – a time to experience the joy of new life in Christ.

 

Being a community of grace looks like exactly what you have done all week in surrounding and showering the Davis and Aydelette family with one of the most extravagant expressions of love I have ever witnessed.  Love was pouring out of this place, you could feel it every time someone opened the door – talk about being a community of grace!  In a very difficult hour, this church has been at its best – the embodiment of lavish and extravagant love if I’ve ever seen it, Morehead doing what Morehead does best because that’s who Morehead is – and I have never, never, been prouder of this church.

 

Friends, when our faith is not something we do but who we are, when we, as people created in the gracious and generous image of God are living in and reflecting that image, then being a community of grace happens naturally, effortlessly.  May it always be so.

 

Whether you’ve come to faith long ago or more recently, whether you’ve come to this church long ago or more recently, there is no first-class section, no waiting period before you are welcomed as a full part of the community.  That’s how grace works, and as community of grace, growing in grace, we work the same way.  We celebrate every person because God celebrates every person – whether you’ve been here all day or just got here, we’re just glad you’re here!

 

The story isn’t about us, it’s about God, the God whose prerogative is to be far more generous than we would be.  The challenge for those of us made in the image of God who follow God is not to resent God’s generosity from the evil eye of stinginess, jealously, and greed, but to see things with God’s eye of generosity, to be a community where grace is celebrated and shared just as freely and recklessly as God would have it, where a win for one of us is a win for all of us, and a win for all of us is a win for each of us.

 

Come early, come lately – doesn’t matter, so long as you hear the Master’s invitation and come.  There’s a place in the kingdom for all.  There’s work to be done, but the rewards are far greater than any of us deserve, thanks be to God.

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