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September 23, 2018

“God’s Table of Grace- The Table of Plenty”

Matthew 20:1-16; John 1:14-16

 

“Why do I have one waffle and he has two?” “ Why does she have cereal, and I don’t?” “How come when my were busy at our home. It was so important back in the day that both Sam and Abby got the EXACT same amount of everything, and when they didn’t, the fair police would come out, sirens blazing. “fair police When our children Sam and Abby were little, the sport drink is purple and his is green?” The children’s vitamins we bought were another territory for the fair police. The vitamins in question used to have three colors. It was VERY important that both kids got the color they wanted. And when it got down to the last of one of the colors, life was not fair, as then one of the children does not get that color as well. “How come he got the last orange one?” And, no we didn’t split them in half, much to the chagrin of the fair police. We really want life to be fair, don’t we? But let’s face it, life is often unfair, especially through the eyes of young children.

 

Travel back almost 2000 years ago, and life wasn’t fair then either. Jesus had just talked to a rich man, and told him to give away everything he had, and that he would find treasure in heaven. Then Jesus told the disciples how hard it was to enter the kingdom of heaven. Suddenly Peter’s “fair police” went on full alert. Peter said “Wait a minute!-We have left everything to follow you-We walked away from our careers, our income, our families. We have followed you all this time, and for what? We’ve done all this and you tell us that it is hard to get into the kingdom? Still? That just doesn’t seem fair Jesus.”

 

First Jesus answered Peter, “You will receive reward 100 fold for following me.” But then he said to them, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all.” Even though their reward would be great, they would have to live a life serving others. Then Jesus said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” I’ll bet Peter said under his breath, “I knew there was a catch to this!”

 

The last shall be first and the first shall be last? That statement certainly doesn’t seem fair. What if the two best teams in baseball played all the way to the world series, and then suddenly the commissioner of baseball got on the news and said, “Well, we’ve decided the two teams with the worst records(which would be the Baltimore Orioles, who have lost 108 games this season, playing the Kansas City Royals, who have lost 104 games this season will play for the title this year!”

 

Jesus further illustrated his point with this story about the landowner and the vineyard workers. Farmers always seem to panic at the thought of losing even a small part of their harvest. Jesus describes a common practice in his day at the harvest time which still happens today. The landowner kept on going back and hiring more workers. Landowners will hire workers right up to the 11th hour in order to make sure the harvest is completed. Nevertheless, that hardly explains the actions of the landowner when it came time to pay his workers. What he did strikes us as exceedingly unfair. Apparently, there was no Cezar Chavez in those days to call for equal pay and for farm worker rights.

 

What is interesting is not just how he paid each worker the same wage for varying amounts of work; It is also interesting that the landowner made the first hired hands of the day wait for those who had been hired last to receive their denarius. Those hired first would have left the vineyard, happy with their day’s wage, had they not seen the last workers receive the same pay.

 

This story answers Peter’s question about fairness, but not fairness from a human understanding. What isn’t fair in our eyes may be fair to God. Jesus reaffirms those who had been called from the beginning. The disciples would receive their pay, their heavenly reward for following him and dropping everything. Those who have borne the burden of the day’s heat in the vineyard of God’s people would be rewarded for their faith.

 

Yet Jesus also defends God’s sovereign liberty to call and reward others who come to faith and serve much later in life. The last ones hired get the same wage. Our Creator does not have to give an account to anyone for grace given to others or to make things seem fair to us. The same grace Jesus showed Peter when he first met him- “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man;” the same grace Jesus showed to the woman caught in adultery as she was surrounded by her accusers; the same grace the father showed to the prodigal son when he returned home, is the same grace God offers to all people at every stage of their lives. That is what is fair to God, and no matter how frustrated we may be about it, that is how our God works in this world.

 

You see it doesn’t matter how many times we have served on session, or how many times we have been a deacon, how long we have sung in the choir, how many years we served in the winter shelter or taught Sunday School back in the day. Places of leadership in the church, long track records of service, 50 years of faithful worship attendance do not mean higher places in heaven and greater rewards. In fact, that long faithful service suggests we are at the BACK of the line in heaven.

 

We receive that grace not because of how much we have done for God. We receive it because God is gracious and merciful to us.

 

In the old comic strip Dennis the Menace, Dennis always seemed to get the best of his neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Mrs. Wilson, however, had a whole different attitude toward Dennis. She had the patience of Job when it came to putting up with Dennis’ tricks. She showed unconditional grace to Dennis. In one particular cartoon, Dennis and his pal, Joey, were walking away from Mrs. Wilson’s back door, eating cookies. As Mrs. Wilson waved goodbye to them, Dennis explained to Joey, "Mrs. Wilson gives you a cookie because she’s nice, not because you’re nice." On a very human level, Mrs. Wilson demonstrated God’s grace towards us- As the passage from John reminds us, we have received grace upon grace. (John 1:16) We get grace from God because God is nice, not because we are nice.

 

I received a phone call from a woman a few years ago, who explained to me that her husband was dying. She asked if I would come out to their place and talk with him, for he wanted to accept Christ into his heart before he died. It was a privilege to be part of this moment, and I could tell he was close to death. I asked him if he was ready to let Jesus into his life, and he nodded as vigorously as he could in his weakened condition. We said a prayer together and then I spoke with the family for a while, then left. The next day, I learned he had died. What this passage tells us is that he received the same amount of God’s grace as I have, even though he was one of the last ones coming into God’s vineyard, and that he was put to the front of the line. God did not love this man any less than me, and the reward of faith was the same for us both.

 

You see this passage shows us a glimpse of heaven. The truth about God’s amazing grace is this: God deals with people, not according to what they deserve, but according to God’s grace and mercy. Theologian Rod Doyle says, “Heaven is a place where comfortable expectations are withdrawn and the unexpected prevails.” It is a place full of grace and generosity.

 

What is unexpected in this world where the fair police are everywhere is grace. But that is what we are given, and therefore what we are called to give that same grace to others, and to serve others. That drives the fair police nuts. When the homeless are fed and given shelter, even though they may have messed their lives up through substance abuse; when an enemy is merciless to us and we don’t respond with a call for vengeance and warfare; when we let someone have the last orange vitamin and don’t cause a fuss about it- The unexpected is seen and the world turns upside down. Oswald Chambers said, “We are going to meet unmerciful good people and unmerciful bad people, unmerciful institutions, unmerciful organizations, and we shall go through the discipline of being gracious and merciful to the merciless.”

 

The last are first, and the first are last- We place others ahead of ourselves. When we see the last- When we invite the sick, the poor, the latecomers, the unimportant- instead of comparing their lives to ours or complaining about them- then we are showing God’s grace, and showing glimpses of heaven here on earth.

 

There was a story I heard another pastor share about a man who was getting breakfast at a restaurant in the South. He was a Yankee from up north and had just arrived. When the waitress took his order for scrambled eggs and bacon, she walked away back to the kitchen. About 5 minutes later, she returned with a bowl of grits. The customer looked at the bowl of grits and said, “Um, excuse me? I didn’t order this.” The waitress responded, “Honey, in Georgia, grits just COMES with breakfast.” Grace is like grits with God. It just comes to us, whether we order it or not. God’s grace is always on the menu.

 

May this parable today challenge us. Life isn’t fair, at least not from our perspective. But it can be full of God’s grace if we are willing to keep the fair police in check. When we help the poor and the houseless without condemnation, when we live this life with compassion towards those who have offended us, when we show mercy to our enemies, when we are kind and forgiving, when we put others in front of us, we show glimpses of God’s grace, a grace that none of us has earned through dedication to church, or hard work- it is a grace that just comes. Alleluia! Amen.

 

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