A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on September 18, 2011
Year A, Proper 20
September 18, 2011
Late, have I loved you
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
In a world which is often unfair and unjust and far from being equal, we often come to church seeking respite from the inequality. As we sit and reflect, we often hope for a motivating tale of bootstraps morality, for the promise of abundance in return for our efforts, spiritual and otherwise. For those of you seeking that message today, you will be disappointed.
Today’s gospel of the laborers in the vineyard is a parable which should make us as uncomfortable as many of us are with the parable of the Prodigal Son—that tale of the reckless brother coming home to a celebration of majestic proportions by his father, as his stay-at-home obedient brother looks on, celebration-less. Today’s gospel is one of those stories which offends our grassroots understanding of justice and fairness. Those who labor longest, who get there early in the morning and work all day, should get more. Those who come last, should get proportionally less. If we do it otherwise, those who have been in the vineyard, working in the hot sun for a day’s wage would rightfully protest, perhaps even revolt! OR, as our parish business manager pointed out in the staff Bible Study this past Tuesday, everyone would simply show up at five o’clock, hoping to work minimally, but glean the riches of the whole day. In either case, reading these parables offends our sense of justice. It’s not fair, we say. It’s not right.
Jonah thought it wasn’t fair either. Jonah was an 8th century BCE unlikely prophet. God sent Jonah to proclaim God’s will for repentance to the city of Ninevah—a city known for its licentiousness and evil. Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t think the Ninevites would listen to him, or heed God’s warnings, and went so far to run in the opposite direction of Ninevah to avoid carrying out God’s request. Those of you who have vague memories of the Sunday school story of Jonah and the Whale know what comes next. Jonah runs away, is thrown overboard a ship, and gets swallowed by a whale, where he then, perhaps not surprisingly, changes his mind about the whole mission to Ninevah. He then goes to Ninevah, expecting a challenge by these evil people, and to have to work to convert them. But they listen and repent almost immediately. Instead of celebrating God’s victory though, Jonah slinks away and pouts that God pulled one over on him. He doesn’t like the fact that these evil people, these 5pm loiterers outside the vineyard gates, are now the same as he is—which means, that they are God’s own as well.
The parable that we hear today about the laborers in the vineyard and the story of Jonah—these stories offend our sense of justice. They don’t make sense, and the wrong people seem to come out on top. What we forget, though, is that these are not stories about our understanding of justice—our human, fallible, partisan, interest-bound sense of right and wrong. They are about God’s sense of justice; God’s word of generosity. As the prophet Isaiah writes of God, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
God’s sense of justice is singularly different from ours, and for that, I at least am grateful. We humans enjoy a sense of order. We like offering judgment ourselves, whether it be regarding what another person is wearing to whether or not another person is saved. We like putting ourselves at the right hand of God, announcing what is good and knowing that those who are bad shall get coal in their stockings come Christmas time. We all become pundits in our own way, hosting our private individual cable tv shows in our minds, dictating who are the good guys—and who are simply the ones who may have missed the boat entirely. We assume that we have been the early workers in the vineyard—we assume that we are the good and obedient brother who stays at home, and that all those who annoy us are those who come late and irresponsibly receive far more than they are due. They get just as much as we do, and it isn’t fair we say, because we have been here longer, worked harder, put in more hours, given more at the office, eaten more vegetables. But as Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out, we cannot say for sure that we are the early workers. We cannot say for sure that we are not the prodigal son.
If you immediately felt your hackles going up when you heard the parable in the gospel this morning, you are in good company. The disciples too argued over who would be first among them, sitting next to Jesus at his right hand. But Jesus kept reminding u that God’s will was not ordered and just according to our vision of the world, but according to the great love which God showed to us in the person of Jesus, in the creation of the world, in the continual love and mercy given to us through the Holy Spirit. God’s word of salvation is not saved for those who got there early, and does not exclude those who arrived late. God’s word of salvation is for all those who accept the invitation to come and work in the vineyard, regardless of when they arrive. There is enough for all, more than enough, so that we don’t have to fight each other for the scraps, like fights about carry-on luggage space in the overhead bins. God’s generosity—these are essentially stories today about God’s generosity and those who are challenged by it—is neverending. It does not take stock of the first in, or the latecomer. God’s generosity does not save spaces or asks that we punch time cards. It does not count years attended or pledges given, but looks instead to see itself mirrored in our response to it.
I am glad that God’s sense of justice and equality are different than my own. I know that we all are prone to bias, to the addictive feeling of being special and a winner over others. We secretly love being ‘in-crowders’, secure in our sense of belonging, of ownership. We would like there to be a distinction according to years and time, and God’s sense of generosity erases all of that. God’s love is extended to all who come ages ago or just this past moment. This is a justice which we struggle to enact in our own lives, but I trust a God for whom this is essential; I have faith in a God who believes that we are more than a resume, more than a number in line, more than a number of years served. When we say ‘yes’ to that invitation to work in the vineyard, regardless of when we do, we are God’s own.
As I prayed over these texts this week, I realized that the one place we find that kind of generosity of God’s happens right here in this room. It happens at the altar. To receive the bread and the wine, the reminders of Christ’s love for us, we only need hold out our hands to receive. We do not card you to see if you are an attending Episcopalian; we do not treat the Eucharist as a prize, given only when you have been good all week long. The Eucharist, our sacrament of thanksgiving and communion with God in Christ is perhaps one of the only times in our culture when we are welcomed freely and without requirement. It matters not if you are new, visiting, or a cradle Episcopalian. It does not matter if you have been good or bad, or simply hovering in between. There is a beautiful invitation to the Eucharist from the Iona community:
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.
We are not called to be a community all of winners or early workers or of experts. God calls us to be a community of radical generosity of Spirit, holding on to what is eternal, rather than what is convenient. Calling us to see each other as fellow journey-ers, regardless of when we fall into step with each other. This goes against our very grain, our very New England ethos of work and success, but God’s word often does.
St Augustine writes about his long-simmering conversion to Christianity, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you… You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness… You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” We cannot but assume that we are all late in loving God, late to the party, always trying to live out the faith which we profess. We get distracted by the ephemeral, the number we are in line, the material things which we believe make us ‘real’ and ‘strong’, which offer us detours and make us late to stand by the vineyard. Late have we loved you, Lord.
Lucky for us, God is not like us. God has not been distracted or late in coming. God has been waiting for us—those who show up early in the morning, at noon, at three and yes, even at five in the afternoon—each one of us—with God’s invitation to abundant love this entire time.