Pastor Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Can you think of a time when you experienced true generosity, a time when you received a gift that you knew there was no way you could ever pay it back? Perhaps we think of all that we have received from our parents and grandparents. Or we think of really good friends who went way above and beyond to do something for us. When I was in college, I worked as a youth director part-time, which meant that I needed to stay and work in Sioux Falls in the summertime as well. I was trying to figure out how to live in Sioux Falls and not go broke on that part-time salary when our Augustana College campus pastor, Paul Rohde, offered me a place to stay during the summer at his family’s house. In exchange for mowing their lawn, watering their plants and weeding their garden while they went on summer vacation, I got to stay in their VERY comfortable home, rent-free.
The Rohdes became my family away from home. When it was my birthday, I got the “You are special” red plate like other members of their family did. When I had to go to the emergency room one summer, Pastor Paul stayed with me until my parents could make the three-hour drive up to Sioux Falls. That was an experience of true generosity for me. You can’t pay a gift like that back – you can only look forward to the ways you can share a similar generosity with others. Those are the kind of people that make me want to be a more generous person, too.
I have to say, though, even with those experiences of generosity, every time I read this particular parable, my first reaction is, “But that’s not FAIR, Jesus!” The workers who show up first should get paid more. That’s how our society usually works – someone invites you over for dinner, you invite them back. You get someone a birthday card, they send you one. You work eight hours, you get paid for those eight hours. You work four, you get paid for four. Tit for tat. That is what is fair. But Jesus is saying that God’s generosity doesn’t work like we think it should. God isn’t “fair.” In fact, throughout the scriptures, as we saw also in Jonah this morning, God doesn’t act in the way we would expect or even in the ways we would WANT God to act. God the landowner gives all his workers more than they deserve, but some of those workers have a hard time seeing that as generosity. God’s generosity is not about keeping track of who has done what and rewarding people based on what they do. God’s generosity is freely giving, no strings attached, whether we show up first or last.
God wants us all to be a part of the kingdom work, whether we show up early and faithfully from the time we’re young, or if we come around later in life. So let’s think about specifically how we experience and share God’s generosity in the church. I am a lifelong Lutheran. I know many of us here have been members of Bethel or at least Lutherans for a long, long time. You could say that we here today are probably for the most part those early laborers who “get the shaft,” at least in our minds. Unfortunately, sometimes the attitudes of us longtime Lutherans in the church look and sound a lot like those grumbling first laborers. “I’ve put in my time,” or, “We do it this way because this is the way we’ve ALWAYS done it,” or even, “haven’t seen YOU at church for awhile…” implying that the church is another place where it is first-come, first-served. The early laborers get the greatest reward – they get to control what we do as a church and where the church is going. The trouble is, God has something different in mind for the church.
Notice what the landowner of the vineyard does in the parable. He doesn’t stay at home supervising the workers, he goes out into the marketplace and finds more workers. And when the landowner asks these people why they’re standing around in the marketplace, he finds out that it’s not because they’re lazy. No, instead they say, “Because no one has hired us.” Could it be that rather than working busily inside these church walls, God the landowner is calling us out to find more workers for the kingdom? Could it be that God’s generosity calls us to let go of some of our ideas of what’s fair or what’s “ours” to see what the church could be with these new kingdom workers as partners? Right here in Omaha, right here in this Morton Meadows neighborhood, there are new workers for God’s kingdom waiting to be a part of what God is doing in the world with us. Whatever reasons we might come up with for why these unchurched people are not here, I would like to suggest that one very good reason is because no one has ever invited them. No one has ever talked to them about what it might look like to hired as a worker in God’s kingdom.
What would the church look like if we stopped holding onto what is fair and started sharing the good news about God’s radical generosity instead? This past week, I was talking with a colleague who is pastor of a new Lutheran worshipping community out in Holdrege, Nebraska. In three years, the congregation has grown from 40-50 worshippers to having two worship services on Sunday, with an average of 80-100 at each. Everything they do at this new church, called Spirit of Grace, everything they do is done for those who are not there yet. Their worship services, their children’s programming, their service projects, all are geared toward people who have absolutely NO previous church background. There is no power or weight given to those who have been Lutheran the longest – everything is done for those who haven’t been called to work in God’s vineyard yet. The members of Spirit of Grace EXPECT new laborers to show up and want to be a part of God’s kingdom work.
SO, Bethel Lutheran Church, what would our church look like if we dropped our notions of what is fair and embraced God’s generosity, evaluating what we do based on who isn’t here yet? What might we need to do differently? What new things might we try? After all, all of us, no matter how “experienced” a worker in God’s kingdom we might be, know what it’s like to rely on the unending, lavishly unfair generosity of God’s goodness and grace. At one point or another, all of us know what it was like to first step inside these doors and feel welcomed, feel a part of something larger than ourselves. In our work, may others see that generosity and join us in God’s kingdom work. Amen.