Saturday, March 25, 2023

“Sheep and Goats” - March 26, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Have all of you all done your taxes?  Have you even started on your taxes?  I’m offering this as a public service announcement: if you haven’t already, you might want to think about your tax return.

In other news, students may way want to keep in mind that we are now 2/3 of the way through the semester.  Can you believe that?  Papers and reports and projects are going to be due, and final exams will follow.  If you haven’t started on those projects or if you haven’t yet opened the textbook this semester, you might want to think about getting started.

Following an NCAA tournament game, a player was interviewed and I heard him talking about all of the running and drills and conditioning work they did before the season started.  Everybody hated it, but when they were really put to the test in this physically and emotionally draining tournament game, all of that hard work had paid off.

One way or another, we are going to be audited.  We are going to be tested.  And not just on the court or in the classroom or by the Internal Revenue Service.  Our scripture this morning, another parable that Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, speaks of a spiritual audit of sorts.

This is almost the last teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples before he is arrested and before his death.  He could have shared with them on any number of subjects, but this is what he chose to say to them.  So we can assume it is important.

Later in Matthew, we have what is known as the Great Commission, in Matthew 28.  “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations...”  That is the Great Commission.  And then we have this morning’s passage, which is known as the Great Judgment.

It is a vision of the end of the age.  The Son of Man comes in glory with his angels, and he separates people like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats.

Now, you might not be familiar with a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats - I’m certainly not - but this was not uncommon in that day.  Goats and sheep were often herded together.  They would go out and graze together during the day, but when they got back home in the evening, they would be separated.  Sheep were wooly and they didn’t get cold.  They were also more valuable than goats.  On a cold night, goats might congregate near a fire or huddle a bit more for warmth.  The needs and care of sheep and goats were a bit different, and so they would be separated.  There was nothing especially profound about this, but it was a common and familiar practice.    

If you have been with us these past Sundays, we have had some really tough parables of Jesus.  And many have to do with things mixed together.  There are the wheat and the weeds, growing together.  Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell which is which.  There are the wedding guests with their fancy robes, but one among them is not dressed appropriately.

Then there are the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  Ten of them, five who planned ahead and brought extra oil and five who did not.  They are all together, waiting for the bridegroom.  And now we have the sheep and the goats, all together in one herd or flock or group or gaggle or whatever you call it - until they are separated.

In each of these parables, there is a mix of similar plants or people or animals, and there is a separation.  There is an audit, if you will, or a test or a differentiation, and one group does well and the other – not so well.

We read this story about the sheep and the goats and we might ask, “What is the deal with the anti-goat sentiment?”  What’s so bad about goats?  Why are they the bad guys?

I have no idea.  This just an illustration, nothing against goats.  But I have heard of cultures in which goats are so important that this passage is translated differently, to where the goats are the chosen group and some other livestock are the ones on the outs.  

What we might take note of is that with some of the species of goats and sheep raised at that time in the Middle East, the casual observer could not necessarily tell just to look at them, without a little closer inspection, which were sheep and which were goats.  
That is the situation at this Final Judgment.  You cannot tell who is who.  Even the so-called sheep and goats don’t know.  When they are separated, it is a surprise to them.

Appearance and reality cannot always be clearly distinguished.  The story is told that Charlie Chaplin once came in fourth place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest.  I love that.  Here, nobody really knows who are the sheep and who are the goats – not even members of the flock.  Or herd.

These two groups, these two indistinguishable groups who are mixed together, are separated based on one criteria.  One distinguishing characteristic.

In a faith filled with so much teaching, so many emphases, with so many examples in scripture, what is this criteria?

Now, I have to say, there are a lot of issues out there that church people use and have used to separate and divide.  One of the questions that led to the Nicene Creed is whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.  Sounds like an arcane, extremely technical theological point, but it split the church east and west in the year 1054.  It’s been almost a thousand years and the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches have been split ever since.

How is the true flock determined?  Does it have to do with the way we worship?  With the amount of water used in baptism?  Or is it about a theological checklist?  Maybe the nature of salvation?

The question might have been about our understanding of atonement and Jesus’ sacrificial death.  But it wasn’t.

These are all worthwhile questions and these have certainly split churches, divided Christians like sheep and goats - or dogs and cats, or rabbits and squirrels, or whatever wildlife metaphor you might want to use.   

The criteria for determining the true flock is not your church’s musical style or its vision statement.  It is not about how closely you have followed rules of ritual practice.

The big question is: How have you treated people in need?  That’s it.  How do you respond to human need?

This comes as a big surprise.  It is not a theology test and it isn’t really about believing the right thing.  But at the same time, it has a great deal to do with Jesus.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

In Matthew, this is Jesus’ last extended teaching to his disciples before his betrayal and arrest and trial and execution.  And what happened after this?  In the garden, he said, “I am sick with grief.”  He was arrested - a prisoner.  He was stripped – he was naked.  He was in the company of strangers.  On the cross he said, “I am thirsty.”  

This was not just an abstract, theoretical exercise.  Jesus really did suffer these things.  And when we respond to suffering around us, we are serving Christ.

“I was alone.  I had nobody in the world.  My husband had died.  My kids lived on the east coast.  Did you reach out?”

“I was in prison, cut off from society for my misdeeds.  I was a criminal, but still a human being.  Did you visit?”

“I was hungry, living in a society where an enormous amount of food is just thrown away.  Did you offer me anything to eat?”

“I lacked clothing, waiting for styles to change and hoping for an old coat.  Did you give me anything to wear?”

“I was a stranger, new in town, new at school, new in the neighborhood, new at church.  Did you introduce yourself and welcome me?”

The amazing thing about this parable is that the sheep don’t even know they are sheep.  They almost dispute Jesus’ characterization.  When did we ever do these things?

They are not calculating about it.  They have not acted in this way so that they would get on Jesus’ good side.  I mean, they didn’t even know what they had done.  

This is just who they are.  They have treated their neighbors as – neighbors.  As human beings.

They did not ask themselves, “What should I do if I want to live in eternity in a good place?”  They were just living their lives in relationship with their neighbors.  

It may have come to your attention that society really doesn’t work as it should.  Has anybody noticed that?  The basic issue, I think, is that we do not recognize each other as neighbors or just treat each other as human beings.

Now it helps to give money so that organizations will care for people in need.  That is absolutely necessary.  And this has been important to our church.  We are one of the leading churches in our region in giving to mission causes.  Last year, 14% of our expenditures were to help care for people beyond our church.  I am really proud of our church for that.

That is important, and that is maybe a sign of our collective hearts, but Jesus is saying that what matters is basic person-to-person neighborliness.  In a sense, he is reiterating what he had said when asked what was the most important commandment.  He is saying that we are called to love our neighbors.  That is what this is.  All of our neighbors.

Hundreds of years ago, the Church made a list of the Seven Deadly Sins – sins that gave rise to other sins and could just destroy a person.  Among these were sloth, or acedia.  It basically means, “I don’t care.”

When you see your neighbors in need – do you care?  Do you respond in love?  What is your spiritual audit looking like?

Now that we know what matters most, we can act accordingly.  Amen.


Saturday, March 18, 2023

“The Oil We Carry With Us” - March 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

With the possible exception of the NCAA Tournament, there is nothing like a wedding.  Weddings can be wonderful, joyful occasions.  And because there is often a large gathering of friends and family and there is a lot of emotion involved, weddings can provide for drama – all sorts of drama.  It is interesting how many Biblical stories have to do with weddings – Jesus attending a wedding, even turning water into wine, or Jesus telling a story about a wedding.  We had one such story last week, about guests who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet, and now again this morning, we have another parable about a wedding.

I remember officiating for a wedding a number of years ago.  The bride and groom were from Nigeria, just a delightful couple.  It was the day of the wedding, and past time to start the ceremony, and the bride had not arrived.  The pianist was an acquaintance of the couple with a limited repertoire.  She had run out of music for the prelude and I told her to just put it on a loop – go back and play what she had over again, and again after that if need be.

About 30 minutes after the announced time of the ceremony, the bride arrived.  This turned out to be a tradition in her culture that the Nigerian guests knew about but some of us did not.  It is not a good look for a bride to arrive early for the ceremony – it looks like she is too eager to get married.  So the bride arrives late.  Kind of a cool tradition that I wish I had known about.

In the story Jesus tells, it is the groom who is late in arriving.   We are not told the reason why, but it is apparently unexpected.

There are ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom’s arrival.  These are not necessarily the equivalent of today’s bridesmaids.  The Greek word means virgin or young woman.  These young women seem to play an unofficial if not official function at the wedding.  Their job is to greet and welcome the bridegroom.  He is kind of like “king for a day” and part of the celebration is for him to be welcomed with fanfare.

It is apparently in the evening, as they have lamps.  And it takes a while for the bridegroom to arrive, longer than they expect.  The pianist has played that same set of songs like 20 times by now and she is still playing.  This is not a planned late entrance, or the bridesmaids would have been expecting it.  He is just plain late.   

It takes so long, in fact, that after a while the bridesmaids fall asleep, all ten of them.  Finally, around midnight, they awake to shouting and commotion.  The bridegroom was arriving.  So they trimmed their lamps and prepared to go meet the bridegroom.  But he is so late that the oil in the lamps is running out.  Five of the ten bridesmaids have brought extra oil, just in case.  Those without extra oil asked the others if they could have some oil.  But the bridesmaids who had prepared said, “No, there’s not enough to go around.  You need to go to the oil dealers and buy some more oil.”

And so the foolish bridesmaids go looking for oil at midnight while the five wise bridesmaids meet the bridegroom and go with him into the wedding banquet.  

The five foolish bridesmaids somehow find an oil dealer willing to sell them oil at midnight, or maybe they had a 24 hour Wal-Mart.  Those bridesmaids eventually returned with oil in their lamps.  Good for them.

Except that by then, the door to the banquet is shut and they will not be let in.  They cry, “Lord, Lord, let us in,” but the reply is “Truly, I do not know you.”

This just seems so petty.  “I do not know you?”  And it seems so out of character, so unlike Jesus.  What if Jesus followed this kind of thinking throughout his ministry?

So much for the feeding of the 5000.  Instead, it would be the story of the boy who ate lunch while 4,999 unprepared slackers watched.  So much for “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We would have to revise Matthew 7:7-8 to read “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers the door, in which case you are out of luck.”  
This parable seems to fly in the face of some of the key teachings of Jesus, and ignoring others in need is really not what we want to teach our children about God.  

What is up with this?  Why wouldn’t the so-called wise bridesmaids share?  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  It doesn’t make heaven a very hospitable place, does it?

Why didn’t the wise ones just say, “Here, you can share my lamp with me”?  Five lamps would provide more than enough light.  That seems like a reasonable solution.  And what about being locked out when they come back late with their oil?  It seems way too harsh.  

Just a few weeks ago, we read the story in Matthew 20 of the workers hired at the end of the work day who get paid the same as the early morning hires.  Locking out the latecomers seems to be exactly the opposite of what we read just a few chapters ago.

The Moral of the Prepared Yet Selfish Bridesmaids is not what we want to teach about Christian living.  Following Jesus is not about holding on tightly to what I have because sorry, there just isn’t enough to go around.

Although - I do have to admit that this story has some appeal to me because I do like to be prepared.  I remember a mission trip years ago, when we were in Illinois.  Four churches in our small town joined together for a youth mission trip to the Bethel Neighborhood Center in Kansas City (where some of you have been).  

The adult leaders were me, another pastor, a college student who was a summer youth director, and Frances Atteberry, a member of our church.  Frances was around 80 and she was like everybody’s grandma on this trip.  And she had everything with her.  If you needed a band-aid or Tylenol or Benadryl or Pepto-Bismol or if you needed a needle and thread or a deck of playing cards or you forgot your toothbrush, Frances had you covered.

Frances was as prepared as a person could be.  I mean, there is a lot to be said for being prepared.  The difference between Frances and these bridesmaids is that Frances brought all of this stuff to take care of others, while these Wise Bridesmaids were prepared to take care of themselves.

Is that the deep meaning of this story?  Be prepared?  Is this passage nothing that the Boy Scouts or our insurance agent couldn’t have told us?  Be prepared, along with Look Out For #1?  Hang on to your oil, only a fool gives it away?  

That would make the kingdom of heaven no different than the kingdoms of earth.  I can’t believe this is it.  There has to be more to it.

You know, we’ve all had our oil run out.  You know as well as I do what that looks like.  We’ve all felt spiritually drained at times.  

You are already feeling frazzled, down to your last nerve, and your kids ask what’s for dinner, and you say tuna casserole, and they roll their eyes, and you lose it.  You’re out of oil.  

Just when things can’t get any worse, they somehow do.  You feel like throwing in the towel – you are out of oil.

When the gauge in the car is on E, you know that you will soon run out of gas.  When a 2-year old doesn’t get her nap, she is going to be cranky – you can count on it.  If you have been working 60 or 70 hour weeks for weeks on end, relationships are going to suffer.  It’s just the way it is.  If you don’t keep in contact with a friend, the friendship will weaken.  These are all things we can count on.  And if you don’t keep oil in the lamp, the flame will go out.

We are called to be the light of the world, but we can’t light anything without oil in our lamp.

The oil is what keeps our spirits alive.  Our oil is our spiritual vitality.

And the thing is, this is oil that you cannot borrow from anyone else.  Some things cannot be given away.  Students might borrow somebody else’s homework, but you can’t borrow the hours they spent studying for the test.  You can’t borrow peace of mind or happiness or contentment.  You can’t see another’s joy and say, “Hey, can I have some of that?”  You can’t borrow another’s passion for God.  And you can’t just get by on the glow of another person’s spirit.

There comes a time when all you have is the oil you carry with you.  Just like the parable, time will run out.   Matthew wrote to Christians who expected Jesus’ imminent return, and it speaks to that need to be ready, but it says much more than that.  There are all sorts of events we face when life is suddenly turned upside-down and there is no time to prepare, and all we are left with is the oil we are carrying with us.

A tornado or earthquake or fire or flood comes with little warning, and life is suddenly turned upside-down.

A routine visit to the doctor’s office brings a diagnosis of a serious illness and things change in an instant.  

You go to work on an ordinary-enough day and learn that the company is filing chapter 11 and everyone is out of a job effective immediately.

You learn that someone close to you has been arrested for drugs and will probably spend the next 10 years in jail.  You didn’t have a clue.  

You suddenly learn the truth about a person you love, and find they are not the person you had thought.  The pain is sudden and deep.

These and a thousand other sudden changes in life are things we cannot see coming.  When they happen, you have to have oil in your lamp.

We prepare for sudden upheavals in life and we prepare to meet God face to face the same way God calls us to live each day.  By cultivating our relationship with God, we prepare ourselves for those things we cannot prepare for.  If we have never prayed, it is hard to learn in the midst of a crisis.  It is hard to find support and encouragement from a caring community of faith if that kind of community is not a part of our life.  We can’t call on our reserve of grace and peace and faith and hope if we don’t have such a reserve.  These are not things we can borrow from anybody else.    

It is the smaller, daily choices we make that really shape our lives.  Those daily choices are the ones that decide whether or not we will have oil in our lamps when the time comes.  

This text has been used and misused over the years.  Some church folks have used it as a way to scare folks straight – you better be ready or you’ll get locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I think that misses the point.  This is not about fear.  And you don’t stockpile oil so that you can look down on the poor saps who don’t have any.  We fill our lamps with anticipation and joy.

And when does the bridegroom arrive for us?  Where do we meet Jesus?  It’s right there for us in this same chapter of Matthew, just a few verses later.  In fact, we will look at this more next week:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  

Ironically, we fill our spiritual tank by doing what those bridesmaids would not do: by sharing what we have and caring for those in need.  This is where we meet Jesus.  This is is where we fill our flasks of oil.  And this is where we gather the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Things we cannot borrow from our neighbor.  

Through faithful living, day by day, we fill our flasks of oil.

Give us oil in our lamps, keep it burning, burning, burning
Give us oil in our lamps we pray.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

“Wedding Apparel” - March 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

There are those churches where people really dress up.  Men wear suits and ties, women wear dresses and heels.  At one time, a lot of churches were that way.  But it has been at least a few decades since First Baptist was like that.  Some of us may dress up, there’s a lot of what you might call some may wear jeans, some wear shorts when it is warm and few wear shorts even when it’s not warm, and it really doesn’t matter.  

A number of years ago I started a “No Tie July” campaign, and after going through more than a year of online only worship, I am now personally observing more of a No Tie or at least occasional tie from May-August rule.

We may not be too concerned about what people wear, but our scripture is all about somebody who shows up for a wedding with inappropriate clothing.  And it is a problem.  It is a serious problem.

The story that Jesus tells is kind of out there, to be honest, and it is troubling.  Now Luke tells this parable a little differently.  In Luke’s version, a man has a big banquet, but the invited guests don’t show up.  So the host says go out into the streets and just invites everybody.  All manner of humanity shows up for the big feast.  It is much more of a feel-good story.  We sang a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette just a moment ago, and it appears to me to be based more on Luke’s telling of this parable.

But Matthew takes it to another level.  It is way over the top.  A king invites the movers and shakers, the important people, leaders of society, to his son’s wedding banquet.  But they have no interest in going.  When they don’t show up, the king sends messengers to tell the invitees that the dinner is ready, come to the wedding banquet.  Some leave to do other things while the rest wind up killing the messengers.  Really?  Who kills letter carriers because you don’t like the mail?

The king retaliates by raising an army, killing those who had murdered the messengers, and burning their city to the ground.  

At this point, the king says, just go out and invite everybody to my son’s wedding.  And all kinds of guests arrive – the good and the bad, we are told.  The invitation to the wedding feast is not based on merit or personal character – everybody is welcome.  And they seem to be having a great time.

But one guy is not wearing appropriate clothing.  The king approaches him and says, “Friend, how did you get in without wearing a wedding robe?”  He calls him “friend” in a way that you just know he is going to lower the boom.  The way a police officer approaches someone that is going to be arrested.  The king has this guest thrown into the outer darkness – for a clothing faux pas.

This is clearly not a “go and do likewise” kind of story.  And it’s not a “think of the mustard seed” kind of story, either.  

This is not a story based on everyday life.  In the first place, nobody would refuse a royal invitation.  When there are royal weddings, everybody wants to be there.  The rich and the famous hope for an invite, and millions watch on TV.  Thousands and thousands of people line the streets just hoping for a glimpse of the couple and cheer as their car passes by.  Who would refuse an invitation from the king?

After all of that ugly business about murdering messengers and burning a city to the ground, finally, everyone is invited to the feast.  Of course, since the dinner was ready before the king even raised the army to deal with those who refused the invitation, it seems like the food might be a little cold.

We talked about parables being stories that you have to consider and chew on, and to be honest, I’m still chewing on this one a bit.

This parable can be seen as a picture of salvation history: the prophets proclaimed God’s invitation and were ignored and killed, and finally everyone is invited to the party, Gentiles included.  The immediate context is that in Matthew chapter 21, the chief priests and elders were opposing Jesus.  In fact, they were even then plotting his death.  They can be seen as those who are rejecting the invitation.  It is still a tough parable, but that helps a little, maybe.

Now keep in mind that this was a time in which many people did not have enough to eat.  Just getting by was a struggle for most of the population.  Nobody would turn down an invitation to a feast, at least no common person would.  A feast was a very appealing image.

Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”  Scripture is full of festive meals, and by the time of Jesus, the image of the Messianic Banquet had become a symbol of salvation.  

The Essenes were a group of devout people looking for the Messiah.  They believed that the banquet would be connected with the Messiah’s coming, but they believed that invitations would be offered only to those who were wise, intelligent and perfect.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quite different from the Essenes, but they agreed that only a limited pool of people were acceptable before God.  There was a sharp line drawn between those who were in and those who were out.  If you had money and came from the right family and kept the law, you were in.  If you had a disease or were in the wrong line of work, or were of the wrong ethnic heritage, you were out.  

Jesus’ parable challenges those rules.  It actually throws out those rules.  The invitation is not simply for the few, it is for everybody.  It is almost scandalous: all were invited, the good as well as the bad.  Everybody.  After the A-list refuses, everyone else accepts.  Everybody comes, and the place is just packed for the great wedding feast.

This is a parable of the wonderful, expansive, inclusive grace of God.  Everyone is invited.  Everyone is welcome.  You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t even have to be “good.”  You are invited.  The kingdom is like a big party.

But then, we have the problem of this guy who is not dressed appropriately.  What is up with that?

Just reading the story, the thing that seems out of place is not this person who is not wearing a wedding robe.  What is out of place is that everybody else was wearing a wedding robe.  These people had just been pulled off the street and taken to the banquet.  Where did they get their robes?  Even if they had time to go home, a lot of them no doubt did not own that kind of clothing in the first place.

Some scholars have suggested that hosts of such a wedding provided dressy robes to those who did not have any.  Kind of like if you go to a fancy restaurant where a coat and tie is required and if you are not wearing them, they will have some jackets and ties on hand that you can wear.  (I don’t think we have that kind of restaurant in Ames, but I understand they exist.)

If it is understood that robes are provided, the spotlight shifts from the king who is put out about this guy’s clothing to the wedding guest who arrives for the feast but who in a sense rejects the invitation as well.

He is there – he is at the party.  He shows up, but he refuses to celebrate.  He refuses to honor the king and the couple being married.

You may have heard that “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  I’ve always liked that quote.  There is something to be said for simply being there.  But the reality is, it can take more than just showing up.

Just “showing up” at class might make you a student, but it is not going to write your paper or complete your project.  Just showing up is not enough to earn a degree.

Just “showing up” at your wedding might get you married, but it doesn’t build a living, loving, caring, relationship.

Just “showing up” at the birth of your child might make you a parent, but it does not make you a diaper-changing, up-all-night, helping with homework, enforcing curfews Mom or Dad.

G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” It takes more than just showing up.  To be a Christian involves action – it involves the way we live.  It takes a day-to-day commitment to follow Jesus wherever that leads.

The guest at the wedding didn’t have to show up.  But if he was going to attend, he needed to truly be there.  His nonchalant attitude about the celebration showed that he was not all in.  

Going all in with God is not an easy choice.  Not today, not in our culture.  The culture really doesn’t care.  Turning to God has become a fairly counter-cultural choice.  So the question is, in a time where more and more people give God little if any thought, is God happy just to have guests at the wedding?  Are we doing God a big favor just by showing up?

Tom Ehrich wrote,

It turns out that choosing God is, as always, a matter of going all in.  Not just the easy commandments, but the hard ones.  Not just loving friends, but loving enemies.  Not just good times, but suffering.  Not just going along with the crowd, but standing for justice and mercy.  Not just praying for oneself, but for others.  Not just the pleasing rituals of Sunday communion, but confession, remorse, lost certainties, new ways of being, mission to the world.  Not just hot coffee, but the winds of change.

Most of Jesus’ parables can be put into two categories:  parables of grace and parables of judgment.  Which is this?  I’m not sure; lie I said, I’m still chewing on this.  But I think the answer is probably both.  The doors are flung open wide and everyone is invited to God’s great feast.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome.  God’s grace and welcome are offered freely, to all.  

That is fantastic news for us.  The flip side is that when grace is ignored and refused and squandered and mocked, again and again, there will be consequences.  If there weren’t, then grace really wouldn’t mean very much.

We want to skip the judgment component, but judgment is about God’s love too.  It is meant as a warning, meant to steer us the right way.

Those who refused the invitation to the wedding, and the one who showed up but then refused in his own way to join the celebration, failed to recognize the incredible gift they had been offered.

We are all invited to God’s party.  We are all offered God’s wonderful, marvelous, gracious invitation.  Every one of us.  To accept the invitation requires showing up, yes, but it requires more.  

God is not just looking for warm bodies.  God is looking for guests who will honor the son.  We can do that in t-shirts and running shoes as well as we can suits and dresses.  Because the wedding robe that God cares about is made up of the whole fabric of our lives.  It is made from the patterns God has given us – patterns of goodness and mercy and justice and compassion and forgiveness and care and service and peace. (1)

In the parable, the guests needed to change clothes.  In God’s kingdom, we are to change our lives.  We are called to not just be there but to be truly, fully present, to change our hearts and minds and spirits.  That happens when we understand the incredible invitation God has offered to us all.  Amen.

(1) Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for the fabric and patterns motif.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

“The Kingdom Pay Scale” - March 5, 2023

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

A woman in Illinois had just started a new job.  On her very first day of work, one of her co-workers asked what she was making, and she told them her salary.  Word got around.  This new hire was making more than some employees who had been there awhile.  This caused a bit of an uproar and in fact one woman got mad enough that she quit.  And the next day, the new employee was called into the boss’s office and fired for disclosing what she was making.    

It is illegal to fire an employee for sharing salary details, but it happens nevertheless.  But most of us are pretty private about such matters.  We generally don’t like to discuss money and certainly not our salary.  

Jesus tells a story about workers who learned what others were making.  It causes an uproar, and what’s more the employer seems to want everyone to know.
There is a vineyard owner who goes to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard.  He goes down to the corner where the day laborers hang out and he hires some men to work that day.  They agree on the rate of pay - one denarius for a day’s work.  And off they go to the vineyard.  

Now, a little background here.  The presence of day laborers is actually something brought about by the Roman occupation of Israel.  This class of landless laborers had been created by the Roman economy.  Some were freed slaves, some were peasants whose lands had been seized by Rome, others were victims of war and displacement.  They often were immigrants and refugees doing piece work.

This vineyard owner hires the workers for a fair wage – a denarius is what a soldier was paid for a day’s wage.  And it’s not piece work!  He wasn’t paying by the amount of grapes picked.  The day laborers had to love this gig.

A few hours later, the landowner stops by the marketplace and sees some more workers who have no work that day.   So he hires more laborers and tells them he will pay them what is right.  He doesn’t specify what that is, but if you are already into the workday, you are really not in a position to bargain.  His word was good enough for them.  Off they go.  

Three hours later, he again stops by the marketplace and sees more laborers with no work and he hires them as well.  And then finally, just an hour before quitting time, he goes and finds still more workers just standing around.  “Why have you been idle all day?” he asks.  They respond that nobody has hired them.  Well, I guess that was obvious.  But this vineyard owner goes ahead and hires them – even though the work day is nearly over.

By now, the early-morning workers are beat.  It is hard work.  Their shirts are drenched with sweat.  Just from the looks of them, you can tell who had been there all day and who was hired in the mid or late afternoon.

Finally it’s quitting time, and the owner has his steward pay the workers.  For some reason, he pays those hired last first.  And these folks who were hired at 5:00 received a denarius – the regular daily wage, for just an hour of work.  Word soon spread.  If those who only worked an hour got a denarius, then we are going to clean up, they thought.  This was too good to be true.

They were right: it was too good to be true.  Everyone received the same amount.  Those who had worked 8 hours were paid the same as those who had worked for an hour.

Predictably, this did not go over well.  And it doesn’t go over well with us, either.  Equal pay for equal work is fair.  Equal pay for grossly unequal work – that is not fair.

Jesus’ economic plan would be a disaster because there is no incentive to work.  Why go to work early in the morning when you can just show up shortly before quitting time and get paid the same?

The landowner in the story has a different take on it.  He had done exactly what he said he would do.  He had not shortchanged anyone.  He had paid the early morning workers exactly what they had agreed on.  And if he wants to be generous with his money, what is that to them?  Did they begrudge him because of his generosity?

Well of course they did.  So do we.  Give your money to United Way if you want to be generous, but don’t go and ruin the smooth operation of the vineyard.  I mean, can you imagine what it is going to be like at the vineyard the next morning?  Can you imagine what it will be like at the day labor pool?

It is interesting that in the story Jesus tells, it is not simply that those who arrive last get paid the same.  They also get paid first.  The vineyard owner could have been more subtle about it.  If those hired first had been paid first, they may have taken their money and been on their way and have never known about the generous pay to those hired late in the day.  Instead, the owner seems to go out of his way to be sure that everyone knew that those hired at 5 o’clock were getting a full day’s wage.

These day workers were all victims of the imperial economics of Rome.  I mean, that is why they had to hustle for work each day – they no longer owned land and had no other livelihood.  They had suffered from this system, and yet they had all bought into the economic model of the empire that had used and abused them.  The economics of empire is about scarcity and control and power.  

The economics of God, on the other hand, are about abundance and gratitude and generosity.  God operates by a completely different model of economics and fairness.

We have all bought into the economics of empire, I think.  Some are upset that there are folks who may potentially get 10 to 20 thousand dollars in student loans forgive.  It’s not fair because others paid off their loans or didn’t even take out a loan in the first place.  Why should they get this break?

I understand that.  It’s not fair.  But why isn’t there an uproar over the fact that educational opportunity is very much dependent on economic status?  Over the fact that some people can’t afford college?  There aren’t so many complaints that those with student loans may have to work a year to earn what the CEO makes in one day.  There is more than one way of thinking about fairness, and this vineyard owner is viewing it in a different way.

At the end of the work day, imagine this long line of workers – the last hired on one end, the first hired on the other.  Here is the big question for all of us: where do you locate yourself in that line?  I think most of us see ourselves as being the early morning workers.  We don’t necessarily read the story and think, “What a generous owner!  What a great deal!”  We read it and say, “How unfair is that!?”  It offends our sense of what is right.

We might think of those 5 o’clock employees as slackers.  And maybe they are.  But try to imagine what the day labor reality might be.  Someone comes early in the morning to hire, say, 5 workers.  I’ll take you - and you - and you - and you - and you.  Who was chosen?  The youngest and strongest workers and those whom the owner had hired before, whom he knew to be good workers.  When he comes back, he hires the best workers still available.  And on it goes.

So who is left at the end of the day?  The weakest and least skilled.  The ones who are least desirable employees.  The same ones who probably didn’t get hired the day before.  And yet, they too have families to provide for.  They too need shelter and food and clothing.  They too have to buy school supplies and pay the heating bill.

The owner apparently pays based not on worth but on need.  He is not as concerned with being equal as he is with being equitable.  It is a different way of seeing.

There was an NPR story this week about a woman in Perry, Iowa who required care for dementia.  She had Lewy Body Syndrome, a terrible disease.  A state case worker told the family about a program that would pay the costs of in-home care that Medicare and Tri-Care did not cover.  The family was not told that this was an offshoot of Medicaid, and they were not told that Medicaid had a rule regarding repayment after the person was deceased if the individual had assets – the so-called Medicaid clawback rule.  Or that Iowa claws back more than almost any other state.

A few weeks after she died, her husband received a letter saying that her estate owed the state of Iowa $226,000 for her care.  The family thought it was a scam at first but it was real.  The husband can continue to live in the family home, but after he dies the state of Iowa will take half of the value of their home – the wife’s portion.  The couple had wanted to leave the home to their daughter, but it will have to be sold.  It is assessed at $88,000.

You could call this fair in that Medicaid is for those with very little means, and this rule insures that people are not scamming Medicaid.  But there are other ways of thinking about what is fair, and I’m not sure that the vineyard owner would be a fan.

Jesus’ story speaks to inequities in life and the value of every person, not just the biggest and strongest and wealthiest and most well-connected.  But we do need to keep in mind what this story is about.  It’s not actually about salary and compensation per se, although it certainly has something to say about economics.  And it’s challenging for sure.

But Jesus tells this parable to show what the kingdom of heaven is like.  What is he saying?  At the bottom line, this is about the amazing grace of God who loves us and accepts us and values us, wherever we may be in that line.  Those who have just come to the faith are as precious to God as life-long saints.  Children are valued as much as seasoned church members.  Ordinary folks matter just as much to God as those superstar Christians.  None of us have a claim or entitlement or get an extra portion when it comes to God’s love and grace.  And it is not about all the work we do.

It is worth noting that this parable of Jesus comes right after Peter says, “Lord, I have given up everything for you – what will be my reward?’  And it is right before the mother of James and John asks that they be given seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus tells this story while his disciples are trying to push their way to the front of the line – as they argue about their worth and greatness.

Is the front of the line where we stand?  Maybe not.  We haven’t suffered because of our faith.  We haven’t taken a lot of unpopular stands to follow the gospel.  There are folks who pray more and give more and sacrifice more than us.  There are those who have a deeper and stronger and surer faith.  

Maybe we’re not those early morning workers.  But then again, we are the ones who come to church on Sunday mornings, and we try to do the right thing.  So maybe we are the 9 a.m. people - or at least the noon time hires.

But then again, once we give up the idea that we are the best and brightest and God’s very favorites, it is a slippery slope.  Maybe we are the ones in back of the line.  We might be there for all kinds of reasons – maybe we didn’t even know there was a line.  But there we are – we show up late and get in line and crane our necks to look toward the front, to see the people who have been working all day, when the manager suddenly shows up and says, “We’re starting at this end of the line today,” and starts handing out big checks while everybody starts cheering and high-fiving.  

This is often called the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  But I’m not sure that is really what it is about.  I’m thinking that maybe it is the story of the Generous Vineyard Owner.  And the kingdom is not all about one-upping each other and figuring out who is of greater worth.  It is more about caring for and valuing each and every person, even those – maybe especially those – who are struggling.

The vineyard owner is not fair.  Not really.  God is not fair, not by our standards.  Instead, God is generous.  When we begrudge others that generosity, it is only because we have forgotten how generous God has been toward us.  

No, we do not get what we deserve.  Thank God, we all get far better than that.  Amen.