Sermon for September 20, 2020

“The Generosity of God’s Promise!”

Matthew 20:1-16

            There is a short article written by a minister out of Tampa Florida, Pastor James Harnish. He tells of how a woman came into his office one day. He writes, together we reflected on what has been happening in the past two years since the day when, in her words, she dragged herself into church … She had rebelled against organized religion, and said she knew she did not fit in … perhaps, she said, because of the sweat suit and tennis shoes she wore every Sunday.  She suffered from a debilitating neuromuscular disease.

            She kept coming back and having conversations.  She got into a (Disciple) Bible Study.  She got involved in the life of the church.  The pastor writes, She had to remind me of her physical condition.  I had almost forgotten it because within six or eight weeks, it was gone.  She was healed.

            No circus-tent miracles; no falling on the floor or jumping up and down.  Just real, genuine, wholeness and healing in her body.  She said, “I think I’ve figured out what happened.  In this church, I received a transfusion of love.”  She compared it to a blood transfusion which goes into your body and affects every part of your body; she said she felt that the love which surrounded her affected her whole being.

            Pastor Harnish says, “I remember how she had looked back then.  As I looked into her face last week, I was overwhelmed with the beauty in her face, the joy which beamed from her eyes.”

            I asked if I could share this with you, and she said, “Yes. In fact, I’ve been reading Isaiah, and I know what’s happened.  This church got me onto the highway of God.”

            In that Story is a good image of what a church should be.  A community of faith where the love and grace of God is experienced, and healing can be found.  That we might experience a Transfusion of Love and  be able to help one another along the Highway of God.  

            In today’s text we read the parable about the generous landlord.  Now typically the parable is called the parable of the workers in the vineyard, but really what is striking about the story is how the landowner treats those whom he has hired to work for him. 

            At first there seems to be an outrageous bit of unfairness that occurs in this parable, but if we listen carefully we discover a great hope that God has given us.

            So, here’s the story-line:  A landowner needs workers for his vineyard.  He goes to the town square, which is something like an employment center, and hires all the hands he can find.  This was early in the morning.  He agrees to pay them all a denarius a day, the going rate for a day’s work.  If you got up at sunrise and worked until the sun went down, a denarius is what you typically would get.  Three hours later, still needing workers, he goes back and finds some more, the late risers, and hires them at what he calls a “right” wage.  At twelve noon and three in the afternoon there were additional hirings, on the strength of similar assurances.  You will be paid what is fair.  Finally, five o’clock finds him again in the marketplace.  The shadows are lengthening.  A few men wait disconsolately for work.  Appraising them at a quick glance (were they loafers or unemployed?)  He flings the question, “Why are you idle?”  They might have made excuse, but instead they give the simple reply, “Because nobody has hired us.” 

            With that the master of the vineyard tells them, “You go too into my vineyard.”

            Now we come to the dynamics of the story.  When the day’s work is finished, this employer lines up the employees, beginning with those who came last (making those who worked the hardest wait the longest), and then pays every single individual the exact same wage.  Even those who worked in the cool of the evening but for a couple of hours got one denarius!  They got the same pay as those who toiled all day long in the hot sun. Can you imagine that?   

            The scriptures tell us that when the ones who were first hired realized that they were being paid only a denarius too, they began to grumble, it didn’t hardly seem fair?   If you or I had worked all day compared to someone who worked just one hour, would we not expect to be paid far more than they?  Of course, we would. 

            But what is important to hear is the master’s reply.  As they grumbled the master of vineyard said to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you, and go; I chose to give to the last as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?

            Did the owner of the vineyard cheat the early workers out of pay that was rightfully theirs?  No.  He gave them exactly the amount that they had previously agreed on –a denarius.  In Jesus day a denarius for a day’s work would provide a person with basically enough money to buy the necessities of life for that day, such as, food for the worker and his family.  It was not an overly generous sum, but it got the bills paid.  That was what the first workers agree to work for and what they received.

            Also, the owner of the vineyard deemed it fair that all who should come and work in his vineyard should be paid a sufficient amount to meet their daily needs.  That to the owner was fair pay, and so all the first workers truly had to complain about was indeed the generosity of the owner towards those who came to work last.  That the owner of the vineyard would equally see to the needs of all –including the last to come. He did not cheat the first, but he was kind and most generous to the last.  His pay system was an act of benevolence to the last.

            Now I hope in all of this you understand that Jesus was not trying to give us a lesson on economics, nor was he trying to teach his disciples the correct way to run a vineyard, but remember the first words of this parable: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”

            So!  This is not a story about labor relations.  It is a story about us and our relationship with God, and it is telling us that God is a God of grace.  God gives every person what they need, but not necessarily what they deserve.  At first in the mindset of our modern world, we might feel like objecting to this arrangement –a bit like the workers who worked the whole day long.  But if you think about it, it means that we are all really lucky.  Do we really want God to give us what we deserve?  The scriptures tell us that all have fallen short, that no one is righteous before God.  Everyone is a sinner, and the penalty for sin is death.  If God merely gave us what we deserved no one would be able to ever stand in His presence.  No one would survive in any form. 

            But God is decidedly unfair on this issue.  We do not get what we deserve, but we get what we need –Mercy and grace.  Even if we think of ourselves and those who have worked in God’s vineyard of the world our whole life long, what we need is not pay according to our work, but what we need is mercy and grace. 

            We are all dependent upon God to meet some very deep and important spiritual needs in our lives and it is God’s good pleasure, as we call upon Christ, no matter who we are, to grant anyone who ask the same Spirit of life.  God gives us not what we deserve, but what we need.  We are all recipients of that kind of grace, and we are all called to be bears of that kind of grace.

            There is a story told about a little church in Bluewell, West Virginia. One Sunday morning, their minister seemed rather preoccupied. His sermon did not seem to make as much sense as usually.  And as the church congregation listened, they became concerned about him.

            At the close of the service, before the pastor pronounced the benediction, he said, “You know that my wife and I have a daughter we haven’t seen in a while: She has been living another kind of lifestyle, one that we didn’t exactly approve of.  She left home, and we hadn’t heard or seen her for a while . . .

            “Until we found her the other day. She was in an apartment with no heat, no hot water, and no electricity. We also found her with our grandson, only three months old. We asked her if she wanted to come home, and she said that, yes, she did and cried.

            “Many of you here in my congregation will not approve of someone like that living in the church parsonage. But she is our daughter, and we love her.   There are two doors to our church. I feel that some of you won’t be able to shake my hand this morning. And that is okay.  I understand.”

            And with that, he went to the back of the church, prayed the benediction, and he waited.

            As the people left that Sunday every member went out the front door to shake their minister’s hand.

            And it went further than just that handshake. The people opened their loving arms wide, and accepted the young mother and child into their congregation. Baby clothes seemed to materialize out of nowhere. A job was found so that the young lady could make her own way. Babysitters just seemed to appear from out of the congregation so she could go to work. In short, this congregation began to take Christ’s message of forgiveness seriously.

            There were those in the local community who began to talk. “Did you hear about the minister’s daughter who is going to church now? And they are letting her in! Sinners worship in that church!”

            Yes, sinners did worship in that church. In fact, there were people who were members of that church who had not been seen in years, but now began to attend services. They had not felt good enough to attend before. But now they realized that not being good enough was exactly the reason they ought to attend. And attend they did.   A church and a community were changed forever when a lost daughter and her child came home. Now that is a true story, for you see, Jane and I knew that Methodist minister and his wife who pastured the Bluewell UMC in Bluewell, WV.,  when we pastored five churches in Southern West Virginia from 1989 until 1993.

            There is good reason to live according to the grace of God given to us. If we focus not on what we hope to gain, but on what we hope God will give to us and to those we, as a Christian body, are called to serve.  The God of the vineyard promises sufficient grace for all.  God poured out his Grace upon all people so that if anyone should turn to Him, their needs might be met.

            Therefore as God calls us into His vineyard to work, let us not bargain for the wage we are to receive before going, like the first workers did, but let us lean wholly on the grace of God, trusting in His promises and love towards us.  And in so doing we shall find ourselves opening the doors of love grace and forgiveness to those around us and transforming life in Jesus name.  We shall be pointing ourselves and others down the highway to God.  We shall be the source of God’s love for others, and there shall be a healing.   The Grace of God is great.  Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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