Date: November 8, 2015
Title: “Line Jumping With Grace”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
It was a day just like any other day. I had been busy with a lot of little errands when I ducked into the bank to make a quick deposit. It was a pleasant enough encounter, the teller was efficient and friendly and helpful. And I didn’t think anything about it, until later that night as I was watching the news, and I saw that helpful, efficient, friendly teller being carried out on a stretcher, bound for the funeral home.
You see, when we bid each other a “good day”, neither of us knew about the would-be bank robber with the sawed-off shotgun. Neither of us guessed that it would be her last day. But then, life is predictably unpredictable and fairly unfair.
So I wept that, thinking of all the times in life when we get something we do not deserve – both the bad things, and the good. It is against this harsh reality that the experience of faith struggles. It is within this unfair reality that we measure our understanding of God, our experience of God’s presence, and our ability to trust God’s love. Sometimes, it is all we can do to rage against God, “It’s not fair!” Sometimes, all we can manage is to pout quietly or to question inwardly. Sometimes, our need for visible assurances of our own goodness and of God’s acceptance, becomes overwhelming.
So we scratch our heads, or shake our fists and ask “Are you crazy, God? How can this be fair?”… and we wonder if perhaps Jesus had an off day when he told us this story. The parable of the workers in the vineyard offends us. It offends our sense of justice and equity, because we know the difference between fair and unfair. We recognize those in the story – and those in our own lives – who are responsible, the ones who work hard and do all the right things. We want them to be rewarded. We also recognize the ones who seem irresponsible, flaky, or lazy. And we want them to get what they deserve as well.
As the last workers are paid a whole day’s wage, the first workers begin to imagine what huge sums they might be paid, after working all day. When they get the exact same thing, they get mad, forgetting this is the wage they had agreed upon in the beginning. And who can blame them? It does seem unfair. It feels like scarcity rather than abundance. But maybe, that depends on your place in line.
It seems this is a lesson we have to learn over and over again. God’s grace is not dispensed according to our expectations. God is not fair, God is overwhelmingly generous. And in God’s economy, love trumps justice every time.
In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist talks about our sense of insecurity, and how it pervades our lives:
We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or successful enough or rich enough – ever. By the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack, and miss the surprising truth of sufficiency.
By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity… sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience – a declaration – a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.
Another word for that is grace. The vineyard owner doesn’t care about what we think we deserve. All the vineyard owner cares about is what we need to jump the line with grace. What does that mean? It’s like you are standing in line in the hot sun for a very long time. You’re not sure you’ll even get in to see the show, the line is so long. When all of a sudden, God says “You’ve waited long enough! Come on in – there’s a seat for everyone”. And you get to jump that line, all because of grace. Not because of anything you have done, or anyone you know. Just because of God’s generous love.
Now let me ask you this: if you were forced to choose, which would you favor – Love or Justice? While today’s parable is often identified with generosity, it is also a story about love, and it is a story about the occasional clash between justice and love Martin Luther King, Jr understood the power of love. In one of his sermons he said:
There is a reason that Jesus says “Love your enemies”… It is this: Love has within it a redemptive power. It is a power that eventually transforms individuals.
The early workers want justice. What they get is love. They have calculated their wages compared to the latecomers and find themselves coming up with the short end of the stick. But, as David Lose reminds us:
Where justice counts, love loses track.
Where justice calculates, love lets go.
Where justice holds all things in balance, love gives everything away and upsets the balances we have so carefully arranged.
Love passes beyond justice into relationship. I wonder… would you really like your friendships, your families, even your church to be governed by justice – counting up every deed, good and bad, keeping track of every slight, every disappointment, every hurt, as well as every affirmation or success? How exhausting that would be, if justice was all there was to relationship! What if, instead, we just made room for one another to “jump the line with grace”?
What if we started by considering who it is standing in the line, waiting to be hired? In Jesus’ story it could have been the weak or the infirm, the elderly, the poor. In our time, it might be people who have struggled with poor decisions and bad choices. Or, it could be those oppressed by circumstance of birth or economics, health or isolation, things totally outside their own control. It could also be recent college graduates, highly skilled manufacturers, undocumented immigrants.
Whoever we find standing in line – waiting for work or for food, waiting for clothing or shelter, waiting for love…Jesus is calling us to pass beyond justice into relationship. Jesus is asking us – today – to go beyond justice to relationship with the homeless families being sheltered in our gym. He wants us to enter into relationship with people of color marginalized by white privilege in our community. Jesus calls us beyond justice into relationship with immigrants from Syria, Mexico, Central and South America, East Asia and Africa. Jesus asks us to relate to disabled veterans and displaced workers, hungry children and lonely senior citizens – with all those who are standing in line, waiting for love. Jesus is waiting for us to join them as together we jump the line with God’s grace, thankfull people, one and all. Thanks be to God! Amen.