Sunday is the first day that all of our youth programs start again. In Godly Play this fall, the children will be learning the stories of the Old Testament, the stories of the people of God and the development of their relationship with God and the development of the covenant. In the spring, they will learn the stories of Jesus and the early church. In Godly Play, when children are introduced to a parable, these are the words that are used: “There was once someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. As they followed him they heard him speaking of many things.”
Today we have a parable from the Gospel of Matthew. Every time I read the story of the laborers in the vineyard, the first thing that comes to mind is that it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that the people who have worked all day in the heat are paid the same wage as the people who are called to work the last part of the day. It’s just not fair.
We live in a culture that is steeped in a merit based system of fairness. Children are rewarded for good grades by being on the honor roll. As adults, we are given raises or special acknowledgment when we do well at work. We participate in a system that rewards the hard work and ingenuity of some, and ignores or punishes those who don’t achieve as much or do as well.
Fairness is important to us. I remember in high school when we were studying the poetry of Shakespeare, we were given the assignment to go home and write a poem in the style of Shakespeare--I think we were supposed to write a poem in iambic pentameter. One of the kids in my class found a website that helped him write his poem...he got an “A”. Those of us who tried to write it on our own didn’t do as well...I got a “B”. It wasn’t fair. In my mind, he had “cheated”. When I complained to my teacher, her response was “life isn’t fair”.
No, life’s not fair, but we want it to be. That’s part of why this parable is hard for so many of us...it’s not fair.
“There was once someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. As they followed him, they heard him speaking about a kingdom, but it was not like the kingdom they lived in. It was not like any kingdom they had ever visited. It was not even like any kingdom anyone had ever heard of. They couldn’t help it. They had to ask him. What is the kingdom of heaven like? One time when they asked him, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard’.”
While this parable presents what seems to us an unfair situation, it is good news. The good news of this parable is that it reminds us that grace isn’t fair...God’s grace isn’t merit based.
Close your eyes for a moment and remember a time when you behaved badly towards someone, or you disappointed someone, or you felt like you failed. This memory may have anger, sadness or fear associated with it. In our world, the response to this experience might be shame, judgment, or punishment. But in the kingdom of God, the love of God is always filled with grace. In that moment of bad behavior, of disappointment or failure, God still loved you. It’s not fair, but grace isn’t fair.
It is so easy for us to be like the laborers who grumbled to the owner of the vineyard. The workers assumed they would be paid more for their labor than the late comers. They are assuming that there will be fairness. We assume that there will be fairness in life as well. But wouldn’t it be better if our assumptions were based on the belief that God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imaginations! How different would we look at the world and how different would we understand our daily experiences? As theologian Charlotte Cleghorn wrote, “God’s generosity often violates our sense of right and wrong, our sense of how things would be if WE ran the world…[this parable calls us to look at ourselves as God sees us]. It invites us to turn from holding grudges because things did not go our way, to let go of the stuff of our lives that keep us from being joy-filled and grateful people.”
On Wednesday I was having a conversation with some of my clergy friends, and we were talking about people coming to the faith later in life. One was telling me that they had 9 new people at church since January. Another told me that they had no one new at church, but that the members were still being faithful and serving as always. Both of these churches were blessed by God in their own ways, and it is a great example of God’s mercy...regardless if the person is a newcomer, or an old faithful, both are equal recipients of God’s love.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus reminds us that we don’t get to determine who is worthy of God’s love, grace and mercy. Another’s worthiness is not our’s to judge. Kathryn Blanchard said, “Despite earthly appearances of inequality with regard to who has earned a greater or lesser reward, this parable makes clear that there is radical equality before God. Reward comes not from each worker’s individual merit, not from the quantity or even quality of their labor, but rather from the gracious covenant offered by the one doing the hiring. God promises and delivers but one reward for all.”
As I was preparing for Sunday, I came across this quote that I want to share with you to reflect on this upcoming week:
What happens when love and fairness clash:
Fairness counts, love loses track.
Fairness calculates, love lets go.
Fairness holds all things in balance, love gives away.
God chooses love.
When it comes to our relationship with God, when it comes to the kingdom of God, we don’t get what we deserve. We get far more than we could ever hope or pray for. This is the good news of the parable.
Whew! This has been a challenging week in the larger world, in our local community, in our homes, and at least for me, it’s been personally challenging. We continue to hear about the unrest caused by the militant group Islamic State and the execution of journalist Steven Sotloff, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, about scientists still working towards a vaccine for Ebola, the stress, grief and anger in the streets of Furgeson following the shooting of Michael Brown, the unionization and protest of fast food workers to get fair pay, and the growing support for Marriage Equality across the United States and Mexico. School started again this week, which means parents, teachers, and students are filling up their calendars and hoping for all to go well. This week we grieved the loss of Lucille Wyers, and today we celebrate Grandparent’s Day. Whew!
I offer this review of the news because I constantly look at the news and wonder...where is God in this? How do we respond to the sorrows and the joys as the Body of Christ? What is our responsibility in all of this?
In the Gospel of Matthew for Sunday (18:15-20), Jesus is instructing his friends on how to resolve conflict. And while we could examine the steps that Jesus gives about how to make appropriate confrontations, I think that it is equally valuable to look at the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation as the Body of Christ.
When Jesus gives these instructions, he’s preparing his friends and followers for how to be a community. The followers of Jesus had already formed a community as Jewish men and women under Roman occupation, but Jesus was instructing them about a new way of being in community, and at the root of this community is agape--love. This love is one which is manifested in forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. It is from this perspective that Jesus gives these instructions about confronting conflict...it isn’t about blame or shame, but about healing and reconciliation. And that this way of encountering one another is to be the model for others.
When was the last time you and your spouse, or child, or neighbor had a conflict? How well did that work out for you? Was it grounded in love and forgiveness or was it about blaming someone else? Was Jesus present in this conflict? When you or the other person offered an apology, was there true reconciliation, or was it a pro-forma “I’m sorry”? There’s nothing inherently wrong with conflict...it often brings to light a wrong, an injury, a hurt that desperately needs healing. Healthy conflict can bring about important change.
But how do we address conflict? For Jesus, it was important for his followers to understand that each member of the community was valuable, and that whenever they’d gather, he was in the midst of them. As Paul explained in his letter to the Romans, love of God and neighbor is the foundation of community. Love is incarnate in acts of justice and right relation. So when faced with conflict, no one should be made to feel more or less important than the other. Conflict should be resolved in a way that brings about healing and reconciliation in the form of equality, an end to domination or oppression, and a genuine concern for the Body of Christ.
We have great historical examples of conflict that has begun to lead us to healing and reconciliation. While racial justice is still an issue in our country, the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for oppression to be overcome. While gender equality still has some challenges, the Women’s Movement has brought to the attention of everyone the need for equitable pay and opportunity, access to appropriate health care coverage and protection from domestic abuse and violence. The Gay Rights Movement has helped us to address issues of marriage equality and health care for partners in committee relationships, as well as an end to discriminatory hiring practices. All of these movements have begun to help us heal the rifts that separate us, and all of these movements have been for the reconciliation of the full Body of Christ.
Personally, I’m not very good at conflict. It’s just easier for me to be mad or sad, to hold the stress and the shame in my body, and move on. My mantra when reflecting on interpersonal conflict is often “there are bigger things to be upset about”. And there’s truth in that for sure. But it’s also not healthy or helpful for me (or the other person that’s involved in my conflict) to hold on to these feelings. So in many ways, I’m preaching to myself today. But then I read a reflection on Sunday’s gospel that really helped me to be more honest about the role of conflict and reconciliation in my life, and in our community. Charles Hambrick Stowe wrote “when we injure one another, we injure the Body of Christ”. Wow! Just wow! When you put it that way, I don’t want to be a participant in injuring of others, and I also don’t want to be injured. What if we take seriously this idea of injuring the Body of Christ when we exploit, violate, oppress or dominate others? If we as the church--part of the Body of Christ--can’t practice forgiveness and healing, if we can’t abide in love, then how can we possibly model for others this kind of reconciliation? All the more reason to practice true healing and reconciliation.
This Sunday as we offer the Prayers of the People, as we offer our confession, and then pass the peace with one another, I invite you to reflect on how Jesus is in the midst of us, showing us the way to true reconciliation, and modeling a love that does no wrong.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.