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Monday, September 22 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

It’s not fair!  If ever there were three words that cause me to tune someone out when someone says them, it is these three little words that make up that one little phrase, “It’s not fair.”

Well, yeah, folks.  It’s not fair.  Get used to it.  Get over it.  I don’t care what it is you’re talking about – by and large someone is going to able to look at it – evaluate it –– no matter what it is – and say, “It’s not fair.”

And I’ll bet that while I was reading this parable that Jesus tells here in the 20th chapter of Matthew, that those three little words were exactly what many of you were thinking – am I right?

And I’ll tell you something – you would be right in thinking, “It’s not fair,” much as I hate that phrase.  It’s a good thing that there weren’t labor unions around in Jesus’ day, because they never would have let this vineyard owner get away with it.  Really, how many of you think that it IS fair that the workers who worked for one hour receive the same wage that those who worked all day also earned?

We don’t like this parable, do we?  And that’s the whole point.  We are conditioned to think that a person should get a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work, right?  That’s only fair, right?  It’s a good thing that Jesus does not offer this parable to describe how employers should treat their employees.  This is lousy economics. This is lousy labor relations.  The workers who worked all day have a right to complain.  They have a right to grumble.  Because it’s not fair.

So if this parable is not a lesson in how to treat your employees, then what in the world is it all about?  Why is Jesus telling us this story?

Before I answer that, let me ask all of you a question.  How many of you believe that God is fair?  Huh?  Let’s see your hands again.  Yeah.  Interesting isn’t it?  Even though we know that life is not fair, still we hold up fairness as a virtue – something that – if everyone practiced fairness – would make life better for everybody.  That’s what we want to believe, anyway.  And because we lift up fairness as a virtue, we expect that God also will be fair.  That’s what we expect of God.

So why does Jesus tell this parable – this story?  Glad you asked.  This story tells us something about who God is.  This story tells us what the generosity of God looks like.  And let me tell you – listen carefully now – this story tells us that God does not play by the rules.  So I hope you will be patient with me today, because today’s sermon is a return to one of the basic understandings of who we know God to be – one of the basics of Christianity.  Let’s call it Christianity 101.

Those of you who have been around for awhile, you’ve heard me say this many times before.  God is not fair.  And I want you to think about this.  If God were fair, we would all get what we deserve, right?  After all, isn’t that what fairness is all about?  That each one gets what each one deserves?  Thank God, God is not fair.  Because, if God were fair we would all get what we deserve.  And what is it that we deserve?  The just and certain punishment for our sins – in other words – eternal separation from God in a place the Bible calls hell.

Thank God God is not fair. Thank God God does not give us what we deserve.  But what does God give us instead?  Mercy.  God gives us mercy.  God gives us forgiveness.  God gives us grace – and grace of course is what?  That’s right.  God’s undeserved love and favor.  That’s what grace is, and that’s what God gives us – as a gift.  Free of charge.

Now that doesn’t sound right to our 21st century American minds, does it!  Uh uh.  We say, “You only get what you earn.  If something is worth having, it’s worth working for.”  Therefore – it’s a natural progression to say, “If I’m going to go to heaven someday, I’ve got to do my part.  I’ve got to do everything I can – I’ve got to be all that I can be – got to be as good as I can be – just to be sure.”  Listen carefully.  With God, it doesn’t work that way.

God doesn’t hand out brownie points.  And this is precisely what today’s Good News is all about.  You can’t earn brownie points with God.  No.  We are told that we are saved – in other words – we have a reserved place in heaven – because of God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor.  It’s given as a gift.  It’s received as a gift through faith.

 Whether you’ve been serving God faithfully for 60, 70, 80 years or more – or you just came to faith in Jesus Christ two minutes ago – God’s grace is the same.  It’s all the same.  And it’s all gift.

I think it’s really quite liberating.  Would you agree with me?  Grace is liberating.  I mean, think about it.  What if – what if – you HAD to earn God’s favor?  How hard would you have to work at it?  How long?  How would you know when you did enough?  For that matter, how good is good enough?  

I’ve gotta tell ya, I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, “Wow!  I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had to earn my way into heaven!”  It’s a wonderful thing to know that I don’t have to work my way into heaven.  That I don’t have to earn God’s favor.  That I don’t need brownie points.  What a relief it is to know that God already loves me as much as God is ever going to love me – and that nothing I do can make God love me any more than he already does – and that nothing I do can make God love me any less than he already does.

Let me tell you, it’s a relief!  I don’t need to worry – I don’t need to live in fear – wondering if I’ll ever be good to earn God’s favor.  That’s already been taken care of for me by God himself.  When God sent Jesus to die on that cross.  That’s all it took.  That’s all it takes.  To try to add to what God has already done is to say that the cross of Jesus Christ is insufficient to save a wretch like me.

Now, having said all that, what do I do now that I know – now that I believe – now that I have accepted God’s grace through faith – what happens now?  What happens now is just what you see happening all around you in this place.  Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means showing that same grace – that same love to the folks sitting next to you – to the people you live with – the people you work with – the people you go to school with – and people you don’t even know.

Even though we know we cannot earn God’s favor – still, it seems to me – we want to live our lives in such a way that –we want to live our lives in a way that really matters – and like a mirror – reflects that love – and that grace – that God so generously gives to us.  

One of my favorite movies is Saving Private Ryan.  The movie opens as an elderly man walks through the military cemetery at Normandy in France.  He comes to one particular grave, and kneels down in front of it, weeping.

The next scene shows the D-Day invasion at the beach in Normandy.  I have a really hard time watching the next 20 minutes of that movie.  It shows in graphic detail what that D-Day invasion on that beach in Normandy looked like.  One of the things on my bucket list is to walk the beaches of Normandy.    

Anyway – the rest of the movie is about eight soldiers – soldiers who survived the D-Day invasion – and who are sent to find and bring back home – a soldier by the name of Ryan who as a paratrooper had parachuted behind enemy lines.

And they do find Private Ryan, but not all of those eight soldiers make it back alive.  And the last one to die is the captain played by Tom Hanks.  And if you remember this poignant scene – as he dies, he says to Private Ryan, “Earn this.”

At that point in the movie, the scene switches back to the gray haired man in the cemetery – and we realize the old man is Private Ryan.  It is the captain’s grave that he is kneeling at.  Private Ryan’s family is with him, and he turns to his wife, and says, “Tell me I’ve been a good person.”  His wife is puzzled by the question, but we who have watched the movie know what he is asking.  “Tell me that my life has been worth the sacrifice someone else made for me.  Tell me that my life has made a difference.”

I suspect that that’s how most of us feel about our own lives.  We know – we know – Pastor Randy you’ve told us over and over again – that we have been rescued – we have been saved – we have been accepted by God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – through the life, death, and resurrection – through the rescue efforts – of God’s Son Jesus Christ.  WHEN WE DID NOT DESERVE IT!  

So even though we know we cannot earn God’s favor – we still want to know that our lives mattered.  That our lives counted for something.  That as disciples of Jesus Christ – we made a difference for Jesus Christ – IN RESPONSE – in response – to the love and the grace and the mercy that was first shown to us and given to us through faith in Jesus Christ.  

  So no.  No, God’s not fair.  But that’s what the generosity of God looks like.  And thank God, God’s not fair.  Thank God we don’t get what we deserve, but we get the very thing we don’t deserve.  Grace.  God’s love – God’s grace – is the same no matter whether you’ve been serving him for most of your life – or you’ve only just begun.  

So God is generous.  As we sing in Lent that verse that we heard in our reading from the book of Jonah – which says – “Return to the Lord your God, for He  is gracious and merciful.  Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  And abounding in steadfast love.”
And it’s all free.  That’s Christianity 101.    


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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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