Proper 20A Sermon (2005)

Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Philippians 1:21-30;
Matt. 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11


Boyd Dillard joined the chancel choir on his 75th birthday, a week after he became a member of Cargill United Methodist Church in Janesville. He had been an active barbershopper for years and he belonged to the local chorus guild, but this was his first experience in a church choir. His rich baritone voice was a welcome addition, and he readily joined in the merriment and camaraderie enjoyed by the men in the back row bass section.

Ann Hershner joined the choir in late October, shortly before the start of Christmas cantata rehearsals. She had just moved to town from out of state to take a position in the music department at the local college. Several choir members commented on her beautiful alto voice at the end of her first practice, and they told her how glad they were to have her in their group.

The very next week, the choir director handed out the music for the Christmas cantata. It was an old, familiar work, much loved by everyone. The director then announced who would be singing the solos and their special parts. Boyd and Ann were to sing a duet which everyone recognized to be the key musical climax in the cantata. Both Ann and Boyd seemed pleased to be chosen for these important parts, but no one else was smiling. “It’s not fair!” someone was heard to mutter down at the end of the alto section. “She just joined the choir. Why should she get to sing the best part?”

There was also some grumbling among the men in the parking lot later, after Boyd had gone home. “It’s not right,” one of the tenors said. “Some of us have been singing in the church choir for years and years. I think we should be shown some consideration.”

The following week, as the choir director was about to begin rehearsal, Harold Redburg asked if he might be permitted to lead the choir in a brief devotion before they started to sing. Harold was the choir’s senior member. Only a few months earlier they had celebrated his 50th anniversary with the chancel choir. The director nodded his assent, and everyone waited expectantly to hear what it was that Harold had to share.

Harold opened his Bible to the 20th chapter of Matthew and began to read verses 1-16: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard….”1

This parable of Jesus’ just may be the most radical all his parables. In such a simple story from first century life, Jesus messes up our whole way of life, our whole sense of what is just and unjust.

Let me sum up our way of life with a metaphor from our twenty-first century life. [Personal story about calculus.]

But it’s simply the names of the branches of calculus that I’d like to borrow today in order to get across the radical nature of Jesus’ parable. Calculus is divided into to main branches that are somewhat opposite to each other: “differential calculus” and “integral calculus.” What we human beings are good at, I propose, is a sort of constant differential calculus. We are forever calculating the differences between one another. From morning to evening we are constantly experiencing our lives in juxtaposition to the lives of those around. How are we different from the person next to us? We watch and notice everything, mostly subconsciously. We are always calculating where we stand with one another.

But Jesus tells us a story this morning that gives us the opposite. If we are to stand firm in the one spirit, our theme for today from our Second Lesson, then we need to stop calculating where we stand with one another. We need to grow out of our differential calculuses and into the opposite, integral calculus. We need to calculate what it is that most truly binds us together as human beings. Do you see how radical a call this is from Jesus? If we are to “stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel”?

We play our versions of differential calculus as individuals but we play them just as much in groups — in families, in communities, and, yes, even in church. I began with a typical story from church life, one of the bulwark groups in many churches, the choir. Do you see how the calculus of differences can work to divide in opposition to God’s calculus of what unites us, of what helps us to stand firm in one spirit and one mind? God’s loving grace in Jesus Christ showers each one of us equally. There are no differences within the grace of God’s unconditional love.

Does this erase all differences, then? No, not really. But those differences are experienced differently within the equal grace showered upon us. In God’s love each of us is able to love ourselves in a way that we can see the special ways in which God made us that contribute, then, not to the calculation of our differences, but, rather, how it is that our individual talents can best be integrated, best come together, to benefit the whole. Our true differences contribute to the richness of the Holy Communion we become in Jesus Christ, standing firm in his spirit. Think again about that example of the choir…. [extemporize around the calculation of differences vs. the calculation to brings us together for the sake of the whole.]

Another example: I’ve already experienced the richness of history at St. Paul’s. Being aware of and celebrating one’s history can be . . . .

One final point to bring in here. What is the ingredient that makes for an integrating, unifying calculus rather than differentiating, dividing calculus? Love. During this Loyalty Season 2005, one of the biblical passages helping us to strike up our theme of “Our purpose is the same” is the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39). I’d like to end this morning by noticing how it is that God loves us in Jesus Christ. This is the love that can bind us together to stand firm in one spirit, namely, the spirit of God’s love. . . .

Paul J. Nuechterlein
St. Paul’s Lutheran, Milwaukee, WI
September 18, 2005

1. The preceding story is from “,” by John Sumwalt, published by CSS Publishing. Author’s Note: This story is shared in honor of the late Harold Rehberg, who sang in the tenor section of the Cargill United Methodist chancel choir in Janesville, Wisconsin, for more than 50 years.

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