Based on Ex 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-30, Mt 20:1-16
Jack was a truly great guy – one of those “salt of the earth” types. He was quite smart about a lot of things, especially the local history of Arlington, Virginia. Jack was also deeply spiritual and he attended church every week unless he physically just couldn’t get there. I got to know Jack through an adult Sunday school that I was blessed to teach of which he was a member. That class was mostly made up of the oldest members at Mount Olivet, and it had been together for 50+ years when I came to be the teacher (it had started as the young married couple’s class in 1947). Jack was about 93 when I first met him and he would always sit in the back corner and would be very engaged in the class discussion. The only thing that he told me he struggled with – was the concept of grace. He would bring it up every so often, and though I would do my best to explain it – he just never could seem to get comfortable with it. He’s not alone in my experience. I have witnessed that the understanding and acceptance of grace is both straight-forward and at the same time so counter-cultural that it is difficult for human minds to grasp. It is at this point that we should pray for God to help us out…
The standard United Methodist definition of grace is that it is “…the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit….” (BoD par 102, pg 51) Grace is a freely given gift which God uses to restore God’s divine image in us, which has been distorted by evil and our sins. John Wesley believed and taught that God’s grace was recognizable in three distinct but unified actions. The first is prevenient, the second is justifying and the third is sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace is the love that is present in the world which leads us towards God and God’s will for our lives. It kindles in us the desire to please God and to repent of our sins. Justifying grace is that accepting and pardoning love which covers us when we truly repent of our sins and seek to be in right relationship with God, our fellow humans, and the created world. Sanctifying grace then continues our growth, via the power and action of the Holy Spirit, in love of God above all other things and for our neighbors as we love ourselves. None of this can be earned by our own effort – it is a freely given gift from our God who wants nothing more than to be in right relationship with each and every one of us.
Our scriptures today give us some views of how God’s grace has been at work since the very earliest times. In Exodus, the Israelites are now wandering around in the wilderness lead by Moses and Aaron. Once again they are complaining against Moses’ leadership because they are hungry. The LORD hears their complaints and answers them – that is, God is gracious unto them. God sends them not only quail to eat at night, but manna (like a fine wafer made with honey) to eat in the morning. God even provided enough so that they can store two days of manna before the Sabbath. Truly God shows unconditional love to this recalcitrant and untrusting people.
Paul writes to the churches in Philppi to exhort them in a time of trial. In the section of the letter that was read today, we pick up with Paul teaching them about how it is they are to stand firm before oppressors and opponents. In this way, Paul writes, they will earn their salvation – through the grace of God. Paul writes in verse 29, “…For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering on behalf of him as well – …” (NRSV) Thus, we see here that Paul is reminding the early believers that belief in Christ was a gift, and to suffer in his stead is also a great gift of love from God. At first these two things seem to not make any sense – if we believe in Christ through the prevenient and justifying grace bestowed by God, why must we suffer for Jesus? The answer is that we suffer for Jesus when we speak His truth to the world…when we speak love into hate and life into death; when we live counter-culturally like He did. The world will not reward us for actions like this, but God’s grace does. It is likely that Paul is pointing out to these early Christians that suffering on behalf of Christ is the way to resurrection and eternal life.
The Matthew text amplifies what Paul has written. Here we have a situation whereby a landowner needed workers to bring in his grape harvest. There was enough work for all the people who wanted to work that day, so the landowner went out four more times over the course of the workday – even going the last time an hour before the day ended. He promised everyone the exact same thing – a day’s wage to come and do work for him. When pay time came, the last were paid a day’s wage, as were all those who were engaged earlier in the day. Though the early workers grumbled (because they thought they deserved more than what they had agreed to) the landowner treated everyone equally. It is a concept of equanimity that as humans we rarely experience – certainly in the corporate world, wages and taxes are calculated to the fraction of an hour so no one is paid more than they earn (with the notable exception of some CEO’s). John or Jane Q. Public cannot expect to go in and work one hour at any job and receive eight hours pay – that business model would fold within a week.
Or would it? In God’s gracious economy, everyone is treated equitably. All are beloved children who are loved unconditionally. In God’s vineyard, every effort made to harvest the fruit of the kingdom is rewarded in equal fashion. This is where my dear friend Jack would throw up his hands and exclaim – “I just don’t get it! How can God do all this for me and all the other sinners? It’s just not common sense; I’m not worth it!” In Jack’s worldview and theology, there was still a hierarchy, a bar of expectation that must be hurdled in order to get into even the lowest of compensation from God. Jack had a “works righteousness” belief that said that the more he worked and the longer he believed, the more he would ultimately be rewarded. He just couldn’t see, because of all of the things that had happened in his life – all of his experiences to the contrary of this image of God’s vineyard – that life could be compensated so lavishly. Jack died at 102 years of age, and I pray that before he died he was granted an epiphany about exactly who God is and how God loved him.
Because the truth of the matter is that whether one comes to God in the earliest days of their life or in their very last breaths – God still sees their labor in the vineyard (our world) as valuable and sees them as worthy of equitable compensation. Prevenient grace is always stretching out to people and causing them to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there is a God. This work of the Holy Spirit can then move to the act of justifying and forgiving that person for their sins repented. God’s grace never lets go after that. Sure, we backslide and sin and do all manner of things that we shouldn’t, and for that matter, we don’t do the things that we should to make the world a better place for all. If we did, men and women would be compensated equally for equal work; all those who wished to work would be paid a living wage; healthy foods and places to live would be available for all; all God’s children no matter what would be treated with unconditional love and regard.
Friends, there is a lot of work to do in this vineyard. All are welcome and are needed to bring in the harvest. God’s grace will reward us if we will just get up and come to work – and bring a friend. God’s grace is greater than us and greater than all our sin. It forgives and forgets, it finds us and never lets us go – it is amazing in its simplicity and its capacity for change. It calls us forth into the world to share this unconditional love and acceptance from sunrise to sunset every day of our lives. It compels us to share with others this counter-cultural worldview that is simple yet hard for the worldly to understand. God’s grace is meant for everybody and for all times. Thanks be to God for loving us so much. Amen!