Proper 20A Sermon (1999)

Proper 20 (Sept. 18-24)
Texts: Matthew 20:1-16;
Jonah 4; Phil. 1:21-30

THE GRACE OF FRUITFUL LABOR

This parable of the laborers in the vineyard is a little like cod liver oil: you know Jesus is right; you know it must be good for you; but that doesn’t make if any easier to swallow. It seems to reward those who have done the least just as much as those who have worked the hardest. That goes against everything by which we normally live our lives; against everything we ordinarily try to teach our children. I almost felt like warning you to cover your children’s ears before reading it.

Think about our confirmation program, for example. We have certain standards that we lay out for students: regular attendance in class, 20 sermon reports over two years, and 15 service points each year. To their credit, there are always several students who, with lots of support from their parents, have diligently completed all the work when Confirmation Day finally arrives. But there are also the students who have lagged behind, scrambling to play catch up in the last couple months, and perhaps even fallen short of completion. One of the most common, persistent complaints I’ve heard in my fourteen years as a pastor is from the parents of those diligent students: ‘It isn’t fair,’ they tell me, ‘my daughter did all the work, and this other kid didn’t but is still getting confirmed. That’s not fair! What am I supposed to tell my child?’

Sometimes, I’m tempted to respond, ‘No, it’s not fair, it’s grace,’ and then read them this parable of the laborers in the vineyard. But that neither takes their concern seriously enough, nor this parable. For to take this parable seriously, we can’t breeze over it too quickly without really seeing how difficult it is for us, how much it goes against the grain of most everything in our lives. Our whole lives are based on the reward system, that we get the just reward for how hard we work in life. Our deepest belief is that we get what we deserve. This parable challenges those deepest beliefs. Those who worked the least get the same reward as those who worked the hardest. It isn’t fair, it’s grace. We have to take seriously that God’s grace doesn’t meet our usual standards of fairness.

And the concern for our children is just as valid. How do we help them to live in this world? We really struggle with a question like that. I know I do. If Ellen and I don’t guide our boys into good work habits, we fear that they will not be able to survive in this world of ours based on just rewards. This is a real concern. Failing to work generally has bad consequences. So how do we teach our children good work habits? One of the ways is to do it according to this world’s standards: you work for your just rewards.

This parable is holding out for us, I think, another way for us to teach our children the value of work, God’s way, an ultimately more satisfying and fulfilling way. But to see that we first need to notice a very prominent aspect to this parable: to see that inviting people to work is not the problem. In fact, you’ll notice it’s one of the constants. Throughout the entire day the owner of the vineyard is constantly going out to invite workers to work! It says nothing about whether he needs more workers. No, the parable implies the opposite: the owner is responding to the workers need to work more than to his need for workers. The owner of the vineyard notices their idleness and responds by inviting them to work.

If we think this parable is about cheap grace, we should also notice that the owner doesn’t pay anyone who hasn’t worked. No, the point of the story is not about grace so big that we aren’t even called to work. It’s that we are invited into another motivation for work. Instead of being rewarded by some just reward yet to come, we are to be motivated as a response to grace already given. We are called to work in God’s vineyard. We are called to be stewards of God’s creation.

So I repeat the question: How do we teach our children good work habits? One of the ways is to do it according to this world’s standards of just rewards. But this parable is saying that we can also teach our children good work habits — the best, in fact, if we invite them into a whole other world, one in which the motivation is grace instead of just rewards. It invites us into God’s world, the true God’s world, the God who graciously created us, not the god who supports our just rewards doctrines, the false god who tells us something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” (That’s not in the Bible, by the way!)

I’d like to be really bold here and even go so far as to suggest that this difference in the motivation of our work is the difference in beginning to experience God’s Paradise now. Notice in our first lesson this morning that Jonah has been resisting God’s call to work. We know the beginning of the story: Jonah had resisted God’s call so much that he tried to run away. That didn’t worked: he was swept off his boat in a storm, swallowed by a big fish and then coughed up on the same beach he had left in trying to run away. Here at the end of the book of Jonah, he has reluctantly answered God’s call, only to have happen what he feared: his enemies, the Ninevites, repented and received God’s grace. So the bottom line of resisting God’s call to labor in grace is that Jonah would rather die. God’s answer is to provide a little parable with the bush that grows up and then dies. Jonah feels more sorry for that bush than for the 120,000 people of Ninevah. So God has to give him a lesson about whose labor this really all is, in the first place. God reminds Jonah that it is the Creator’s gracious work that makes for any labor at all. God is the main laborer; in grace, we are invited to join God in that labor. And if God is gracious enough to keep inviting folks like the Ninevites to join in even late in the day, that isn’t ours to grumble about. It’s ours to simply join in the wonderful grace of that invitation.

St. Paul, like Jonah, would rather die than live, but for totally different reasons. He has answered God’s call to labor in the Lord, not resisted it. And notice that it’s the fruitfulness of that labor that keeps him going, in spite of the pain of a world that continues to resist God’s call. St. Paul will gladly continue to fruitfully labor in his time on this earth until that day when he finally reaches that Paradise, that world that will someday come, when there will be no more resistance to God’s invitation, no more grumbling about God’s grace. Yes, for Paul, that Paradise begins even now, as he finds his labor in grace to be fruitful.

Paradise now? That’s the second time I’ve said that. Here’s what I mean. That familiar story of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, in Paradise, shows us how it is that we lost Paradise. They were in a situation of graciously joining with God in the labor of keeping of a beautiful garden. God, in the divine generosity had laid down only one boundary: don’t eat of the tree in the middle of the garden. As long as the man and woman abided by those generous boundaries of shared labor, they were fine. They lived in Paradise. But then the serpent came along, the trickiest creature in the garden, and he convinced them that God was other than generous. In fact, he told them, God had forbidden that fruit on the tree in the middle of the garden precisely because God was holding out on them. God was hoarding the divine knowledge, said the snake. Well, as soon as the man and woman began grumbling about God’s generosity, what happened? Their labor became painful. They found themselves no longer in Paradise. It hurt to bear children. It was a struggle to till the soil and to make ends meet. Labor was a grudge, not a blessing.

The kingdom of heaven, Paradise, Jesus tells us, is like the owner of a vineyard who is continually coming out to invite more and more people to join him in the labor of his vineyard. What for? Not for a just reward. No, everyone will get the same thing: daily bread, daily sustenance. (Do we really need anything more?) No, I think the blessing and grace is in the work itself: we are called by our Creator to join in the work of creation. It is then that our labor is a blessing and not a grudge. And it is then that we truly find and meet a gracious, generous God, not one who is somehow holding back on us. That makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference of beginning to live in Paradise today, the grace of fruitful labor.

How can we teach our children this? Working to send them on the mission trips next summer might be the best medicine. But a whole change in our own lifestyles would also help. We need to learn together and support one another in what it means to labor fruitfully in God’s grace. It is an issue of stewardship, not just as a pledge drive we undertake at this time of year, but as a way of life, a way of generously sharing of our time, talent, and resources in all we do and say. It’s a lifestyle that responds to God’s generosity with our own generosity instead of grumbling about it.

We are invited to serve in God’s vineyard. Our Lord himself came as the perfect laborer in that vineyard, so that we might begin to see Paradise again and begin to live it. He himself comes to invite us again to that fruit of the vineyard, his holy labor of a body broken for us and a blood poured out for us, so that this world might stop resisting and grumbling about God’s generosity and instead begin living in it and serving in it. So let us be fed, and then let us go in his peace to serve the Lord. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 18-19, 1999

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