Pentecost 16-A/Sept. 24, 2017/Community Lutheran/Pr. Joe Vought
A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates, and says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to get in. You tell me the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points and when you reach 100 points, you get in.” “Okay,” the man says, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.” “That’s wonderful,” says St. Peter, “Three points!” “Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.” “Terrific!” says St. Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.” “One point? Well I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.” “Fantastic, two more points,” he says. “TWO POINTS!!” the man cries, “At this rate the only way I’ll get in is by the grace of God!” St. Peter says, “Now you’re getting the idea- Come on in!”
Mark Twain observed, “In the beginning God created man in his own image and ever since, we’ve been returning the compliment: we’ve been busy creating God in our image.” We think God ought to run things as we would, imagining entrance into heaven is like earning enough points.
We encounter this attitude in Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A landowner hires a group of workers early in the day, agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, and they go off to work. In vineyard work, then as now, grapes need to be picked at just the right time. The landowner wants to get the job done, so he goes out again at 9 o clock, at noon and finally about 5 o’clock to hire more workers. And there would be no trouble if the owner paid the workers in the order in which they arrived. The early workers would have gone their way, never knowing what others were paid. But this landowner knows exactly what he is doing, telling his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and going to the first.’” Now there is a problem. The ones who came first and worked all day are made to wait and realize those who came later are given the same wage. It is as if the landowner sets it up this way to make a point.
When it was finally time for those who were hired first to receive their pay, “they thought they would receive more. And when they received it they grumbled against the landowner saying, “You have made these others equal to us.” It is the deadly sin of comparing ourselves to others that makes us grumble about grace. Studs Terkel said, “The typical American attitude is, ‘I’ve got it made because I deserve it. And if you don’t have it made, you don’t deserve it.’ And when things don’t work out that way, and people receive help from the government or churches, even though they are the working poor, a kind of mean-spiritedness sets in.” “You get what you deserve!– Because we earn our bread and come to worship this value system, we can often lose touch with a sense of grace and graciousness. We worry too much about what others get and what is fair. Why is it when you receive grace, I grumble. But when I receive it, I assume I have earned it?
It is easy for us to forget about the God who has extended generosity and forgiveness to us when we didn’t deserve it. How often have we forgotten about all the people who love us more than we deserve? We are shocked and amazed to learn that in God’s economy things are radically different than what we imagine. God’s gracious generosity, when it cuts through our little moral equations, our work ethic and our score-keeping does not result in gratitude but grumbling. God’s grace is always amazing because it’s a shocker. “You get what you deserve?” Really? Thank the Lord it doesn’t work that way in the Kingdom of God. The prophet Isaiah saw it clearly in his own day and time, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The landowner leaves us all with two probing questions, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
What would our lives, this world and our church be like if we were to live with a spirit of contentment rather than competition? A spirit of gratitude and generosity rather than grumbling or judgment?
At the end of the day and at the end of our lives, it is amazing grace that God gives to all of his children. We call it grace because it is a gift from God, undeserved and freely given. God gives us what we need, not what we deserve. It is this grace that welcomes the prodigals and the responsible older siblings to the same party. And it is grace that lavishes love on the latecomers with the same charity as those who first arrived. Thanks be to God. Amen.