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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, September 18, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the new members who rededicate themselves in their baptismal vows and always to the glory of God!
The Labor Pain of Grace
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus tells the parable of the Generous Employer from the stuff of common life. The grapes are ready for picking. When grapes are at their prime, a vineyard owner he needs extra workers to harvest them quickly. So the owner goes to the village marketplace and hires day-workers for the harvest. They agree to work for a fair day's wages (or a denarius) from sunrise to sunset.

Concerned that the harvest might not be completed, the owner gets more workers at the morning coffee break, lunchtime, the afternoon coffee break and even one hour before quitting time. The owner offers to pay what is fair, presumably an appropriate portion of one denarius. There is no hint in this story that any of the later workers deliberately delay their availability so to presume upon the owner's goodness. In fact, Matthew 20:7 tells us that the workers who began at 5pm said they were unemployed because no one had offered them a job.

So far, all is normal. Nothing is unfair about the conditions or the offer of pay for labor done. Everyone seems content until the payroll at quitting time, when the exhausted stalwarts who had labored 12 hours under the broiling sun learn that the sweat-less one hour workers will receive the same pay. They scream, "This is not fair!" The grumbling on the part of the full-day workers seems justifiable. It seems like atrocious economics. But, the owner's reply is clear. He says, "Are you envious because I am generous?" The literal translation is: "Is your eye evil because I am good?" No one has been denied, no one cheated, no one has given less than what was agreed upon.

The lack of economic sense in Jesus' story is his intent. Jesus wants to show that the only offense lies in the Employer's generosity. He commits an offense of grace. The offense of grace is never in the treatment we receive from those who offer us unconditional generosity. Grace becomes offensive when we observe that others are getting more than they deserve.

It's the way of God's Grace. God's Amazing Grace undoes good people. It shakes the foundations of those who live orderly lives. God's grace offends those who follow the rules, measure life carefully and calculate outcomes perfectly.

In Nineveh, Jonah is offended that God accepts the repentance of the people of Nineveh - even though that is exactly what he was sent to demand of them! Matthew 5:45 tells us that God sends the rain and sun on the just and the unjust, on the good and the bad. That offends some of us. Luke 6:35 tells us that God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. That galls a good deal of us! The kindness and generosity of God often cut through our calculations of who deserves what.

One 17th Century man who struggled to comprehend the mind of God and God's offense of grace was Antonio Salieri. Salieri was a musician and a devout man of God who sought to understand God's ways and serve God all his days. He had the desire, but not the aptitude, to create immortal music of praise. Salieri grew increasingly angry at God for lavishing the greatest gifts of musical genius on an impish pre-adolescent named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the film Amadeus (which is Latin for "beloved of God"), Salieri ponders why God would reward an undeserving brat like Mozart. Salieri's pain meets its match in the scandal of grace. One line from the play expresses the intersection of the pain and the scandal: "What use, after all, is man if not to teach God his lessons?"(Phillip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997, pp. 60-61). Salieri is one man who doesn't "get" God's grace.

Do you "get" God's grace? We get it through receiving it! But, I am asking do you ever desire to teach God his lessons? For all our talk of grace, how many times has "un-grace" marked our words and actions. I hear and see it all the time. I am embarrassed to confess that I sometimes join the refrain. We sound like the 12 hour workers. We say things like: "They" don't come often enough. "They" don't work hard enough. "They" don't give enough in proportion to their ability to give. "They" don't offer their time and talent - and they have a lot of both! We sound like Salieri! Often, newness, bad behavior, long time absence, or a whole host of offenses are rolled out in our words and deeds of un-grace as rationale for cutting off folks in church, at work, in schools, and in our neighborhoods. But, you and I and guided by the new math of Gods' grace. Scripture tells us in the parable of the Generous Employer that people are drawn in by kindness and grace. It's true! Every person I know responds to Love not Judgment. They respond kindness not unkindness. They respond to Grace, not Un-grace.

God doesn't differentiate between the 12 hour worker and the one hour worker. God is generous and wishes only to share God's abundance, wealth, joy, and happiness. God's goodness and generosity should inspire us to be good; to be generous, to be faithful givers to others. We need to open our eyes to the power and promise of God's grace!

Frederick Buechner puts it this way in Telling the Truth:

People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in that field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour's work as for a day's. They are prepared for a mustard seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at First (Congregational) but not for the marriage feast in the kingdom of heaven! ...(F. Buechner, Telling the Truth, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977, p. 70).

Too often we would rather cry out, "It's not fair" then shout out, "What an amazing God we praise and worship!"

When we live in the Amazing Grace of God's atrocious economics, we end up better for having done so. God delivers on God's promise of grace! Truthfully, you are a blessed part of the body of Christ! Are you aware of that? You have a multitude of gifts and graces you possess and share with others. As people have cried out in need, you have answered their cry. In the last few weeks, you have already sent $10,000 to aid Katrina victims. Knowing you, I believe we will reach as high as $15,000! You have delivered items for our battered brothers and sisters on the Gulf Coast! You have shared great ideas for job creation Katrina victims and for our city's unemployed! You have opened your hearts through Adopt-A-Home and brought enough items to care for several families' relocation. Your generous hearts and your justice vision speak of the love and grace flowing from You! You have risen to share with those in ruins. Thanks be to God for You!

We need to remember that Grace is often born with tremendous labor pain. And, Divine grace never rests on a merit system. As a result, those of us who are insiders, who show up before dawn and end the day after sunset, are prone to grumble. We may second-guess God who practices atrocious economics. God's way is not like our way. Our way is to share a little bit of our hard-earned cash. God gives it all! Our way is to share a little bit of our hearts and minds with those who need love and intellectual stimulation. God gives it all!

My sisters and brothers in Christ, I once knew a woman whose long life had been marked by a tremendous battle with mental illness. Near the end of her days, through the miracle of the right medicine, the patient embrace of a loving family, and the amazing grace of God, the gray clouds, which surrounded most of her adult life, parted. The sunshine of God poured down upon her shining into and through her - and this transformed woman of faith beamed out love and grace to anyone who was paying attention.

She was like the workers who started at 5:00 pm in this parable of grace. She hadn't chosen her lot in life. She wasn't lazy. She wasn't avoiding work. She was sidelined by a crippling illness. In the end, no one was brighter in the band of believers. No one lived life with more delight and joy than this woman. She embodied the spirit of John Newton's words: "Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a soul like me, I once was lost, and now and found, was blind and now I see."

In the atrocious economics of God, in the new math of God's Kingdom, thanks be to God who is our Generous Employer of Grace. Even when and if we don't "get" it, it doesn't mean he doesn't "give" it.

As we go forth today, may we act like Jesus (not Salieri). And may Jesus' words in this passage be that last we hear and the first we employ through the labor pain of Grace: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." (Amen).

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church