September 21, 2014; 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2–15; Philippians 1:21–30; Matthew 20:1–16
At the last Annual Conference our interim Bishop, Bishop Irons, began his sermon with a delightful story that I want to share with you.
When he retired from being an active bishop he didn’t go back to being an assigned pastor of a church. After all he and his wife were getting up in years, they were close to the age of mandatory retirement and there were other things that he wanted to do. So they settled down in a town near their children and grand-children, and found a Methodist church that they felt comfortable going to.
They talked to the pastor and expressed their intentions of joining the church, and about a week after that conversation Bishop Irons came home to a phone message. It was from the pastor of the church and said: Bishop, we are so happy that you and your lovely wife are planning on joining our church. And we want you to know that the discipleship class for new members will be meeting this Wednesday night at 7:00. We are looking forward to seeing you there.
And the Bishop said: What? Doesn’t this young whippersnapper know who I am? He disregarded the message. The next week he went to speak at his alma-mater and came home to a similar message: Bishop, we were happy to see you in church last Sunday, but I just want to remind you that our class meets on Wednesday evening for new members.
And Bishop Irons said, in a conversation with God: What is it with this guy? I have taught more discipleship classes than he’s thought of. What does he think I am going to do with this? And then a reply came to him.
God said: Do you honestly think that I am done with you? Do you really think that I have finished with your formation in this world? Do you truly believe that you have achieved perfection? I am not done with you yet.
And the Bishop went to discipleship class and he said he learned a couple of things.
Sometimes we think we know the rules; we know enough to make the judgment calls of our own faith, and the faith of our church. And that we are at the steering wheel, piloting or deciding which way we, or our church, will move or be.
Guess what? God is not done with us yet.
God is not done forming us, and God is not done forming our collective community, which is his church.
Now our story today from Matthew indicates just how radical that formation may be in our eyes but not with God.
The owner of the vineyard goes out in the morning and collects laborers who are willing to work. These are they guys who are the go-getters. They are the ones who get up in the morning because they want that job and they are going to be first in line to get it. And they do get the job. They go out and work in the fields but the owner realizes that he needs more people to do the job so he goes back to the market place.
Now the ones there have gotten up a little later. They aren’t the super go-getters that the up-at dawn crowd are, but they are there to work, so they get hired. And the owner does this again at noon. They’re probably the guys who picked up a part-time job earlier, and then went back to the market place to see what they could find. The three o’clock guys, well maybe they finished their jobs or they and the 5 o’clock group could be the ones who were drinking all night and didn’t intend to get up go to the marketplace and really work, but when the offer came to work they weren’t going to turn it down.
The odd thing about the landowner is he pays everyone the same wage. Now notice that he doesn’t jip the people who were working all day – he pays them the wage that is due. But contrary to normal practices he pays everyone the same.
God is never done with us. God is never going to shut us out even if we come late to the party. We are all going to receive the same measure of love, and assurance, and grace, if we come to the vineyard and work on the planting and harvest of the kingdom. But we have to be willing to work, that is the key.
We all get hung up on how it should be – but with God it is how it is and God meets us where we are with his love and generosity.
We tend to think that if we do A, B, C, and D, that we will get a return of so much. And for many things in our lives that is true. But not with the Holy Spirit, and not with the checkbook of God.
Jesus is trying to tell people that God is an equal opportunity employer. That he is going to give full wages to anyone who enters his kingdom and is willing to work, no matter what time in your life you show-up and dedicate yourself to God and his work of kingdom building. We might not think it’s fair. I might say, well I was baptized at 5 and then I went to Sunday school all those years, and I belonged to the church all my life, so my robe in the heavenly kingdom is going be brighter, my wings are going to be bigger and my harp is going to be gold. That person over there – the one who just joined the church in their later years – his harp is going to be small and silver. Yes, I am deliberately being ridiculous. But we do limit ourselves with this kind of thinking.
The other way we limit ourselves is believing that we carry our work as Christians alone. That we are somehow not all in this together. More importantly we forget that we are operating with the Holy Spirit’s power to get things done. Now I am not manipulating the Holy Spirit’s power but the Holy Spirit is operating with me to build the kingdom.
Now since this is homecoming I am going to ask you a pointed question. Do you believe, and I include myself in this question, that your responsibilities in this church – to keep it running and growing – are just that: Your Responsibilities. Or do you believe that God is operating through you and through your responsibilities and that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are walking with you and carrying you on this journey?
That is sometimes tough to remember that we are operating from. Because first of all most of us are responsible people who want to do them well, but we forget while we are doing it, that God is also operating with us. And unfortunately it is a nebulous thing to recognize. Where is God in the middle of all of our responsibilities? How do we see it?
One way we see it is to say that this church is like that vineyard. God didn’t care who came to do the work. He accepted the early birds and he accepted the ones who maybe weren’t their best the night before. But he gave them the responsibility of work and he paid them with the dignity of equality, and as a result I be that vineyard looked really good at the end of the day.
But the thing is it was God’s vineyard. This is God’s church. Yes, this is our church and our responsibility, but ultimately this is God’s church and here we are laboring in His vineyard.
So first of all, if someone comes up to me and says: I’m ready to retire from my job. I worked thirty years at the school, and it’s time I’m done. I would say: Well you might be done with that job, but God isn’t done with you. He’s still got stuff for you to do and learn and be, so with that keep going good and faithful servant.
And second, if someone comes to me and says: I can’t do that, I’ve only been in the church for a little while. I’m not a full-fledged Christian like those people who were baptized when they were babies. I would say: So? God still has a job for you that is just as important as any other job that anyone else does in this vineyard, in this church, or in this community.
Christ wants our churches to be places of opportunity for all, responsibility for all, but the opportunity comes with us knowing and consciously working with the Holy Spirit to make ourselves and our communities get a little bit closer to God’s Kingdom.
So let’s be a place that works with Christ, God, and the Spirit to build a kingdom for all.