One and the Same
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church October 2, 2011, the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday.
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
“First come, first served.”… “Last one in’s a rotten egg.”… We learn a lot very early in life about the value of firsts and lasts. We know what it means when we’re the first one picked for the team or, on the other hand, what it means when we’re still standing there alone at the end of the process. “My momma told me to pick the very best one and you are not it.” There is nothing wrong with wanting to be picked. It is profoundly human to yearn for connection, for acceptance, for love. And that is what we are yearning for at our most foundational level (regardless of whether we’re 5 or 500), as we stand there in whatever group we may be in, waiting to hear someone speak our name.
But, there is a way in which this good, human desire can be perverted into something that isn’t much good at all. Messages we receive from the media, from our families, from our own, learned, inner voices, play on our perfectly good desire for connection and relationship by convincing us that in order to be loved or accepted, we need to focus on things, accomplishments, desirability factors, lists of good deeds, net incomes, personal appearance… In other words, according to the worldly economy, I have to have something or do something or pay something in order to get attention or love. Further, we can end up feeling indignant if we have done everything we can do and still feel that we’re not getting the love and respect that we think we deserve or that we have “earned.” This is such a typical way of thinking—this quid pro quo economy—that we may find ourselves muttering to ourselves: “God knows how hard I’ve worked to be a good person and to do the right things. God is a God of justice and I will get what’s coming to me, I’ll get what I’ve earned, because after all, God helps those who help themselves (we tend to think that phrase comes from the Bible…?!)”
And although we don’t want to hear it, I want us to think for a minute about the God of all creation speaking the words of the landowner in today’s parable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Who are we to decide what God owes us? You see we have allowed ourselves to be deceived. But this parable offers an opportunity for us to recognize where our perception of divine justice has become distorted.
It does so by its scandal. It isn’t fair. Unequal work for equal pay is just not the way it’s supposed to be. Because we know, of course, that life works on the merit system. And surely those people who were hired last in today’s story are just lazy right? When we look at the parable we see that, when asked, the reason that they have been standing idle all day is that “no one has hired us.” They hadn’t been picked. But then they are hired and they go. They work only one hour. They get paid first and a full day’s wage! And this is where the story really gets good: those who’d come to work earliest in the day are at the back of the line and they see what the landowner gives to these latecomers. Just imagine! They must have smelled generosity in the air and anticipated their paycheck with some bit of intensity! And yet what they receive is what they’d agreed to at the beginning. They complain to the landowner. And we’d expect that their complaint would include a demand for more money. But this is not what they say. Instead, their complaint is that the landowner has made them EQUAL with the latecomers.
I would venture to guess that most of us would readily and easily agree that all persons are created equal. We might even say that God loves all people equally. This story challenges us to get real about how we really feel and how we really act. Do we really want to be considered equal with those we think are lazy or immoral or distasteful in some way? When we hear this parable and understand the implication that God’s grace and mercy and love are freely and equally given to all, we may feel threatened, perhaps even afraid. Why? Are we envious because God is generous? Are we angry that God doesn’t seem to work on a straight commission system? Because that would make sense to us. But, as the poet writes, “the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.” We cannot fully make sensible such a love and mercy and justice. We have a difficult time understanding that when God truly reigns, the last are first and the first are last. No part of our worldly economy prepares us for the fact that the last become first purely by grace. And nothing in our ego wants to accept that the first become last by pride.
I wonder whether we, who tend to live in a context of scarcity (either real or illusory—“never enough” time, money, energy, etc.), also become fearful at the generosity of God because we’re afraid of limited supply. If there is a limited amount of love or mercy or eternal life to go around, then we who have spent our lives seeking to be faithful are entitled to get our fair share. While we, for the sake of caring for ourselves and our families, may need to be painfully aware of budgets and savings accounts, God does not have limited resources. God doesn’t have to hoard or save. So you see, if God is generous with the last to get picked, it doesn’t take anything away from the first. If God has mercy on some poor soul I t doesn’t mean that YOU will get any less mercy.
My grandmother is the consummate hostess. When she was still living at home and our family would go for a visit, she would spend weeks preparing for us. Hours upon hours went into making ready the home, the food, everything. At mealtime, she’d prepare a table for us, laying it out buffet-style, using her best china and serving pieces. All I had to do was accept the invitation and show up and I’d get to feast at this table prepared for me. I haven’t done anything to deserve the fine china and polished silver. As a matter of fact, I usually missed her birthday and owed her about 7 thank-you cards. But I get the good stuff anyway, just because… just because I’m me. Because she loves me.
This is what happens every time we gather at the table that is prepared for us by God, this holy table that is Communion. And on World Communion Sunday we are reminded that every person who comes to this table today—whether in this place or anywhere around the world—every person who comes to this table today receives the same food. It doesn’t matter whether the person has been a life-long Christian or has just shown up. It doesn’t matter whether the person has served on every committee in the church or none. It doesn’t matter whether the person has their life together or is barely hanging on. It doesn’t matter at this table of grace…because we are all ONE BODY in Christ, and offered the SAME food…
We all know in some part of ourselves that the most true, the most alive moments of life have nothing to do with the merit system that we spend so much time toiling over. We also know that there will come a time, if it hasn’t come already, when we will not be able to earn a wage or win a prize or get picked first because of our strength or talent, a time when we will not be able to help ourselves, a time when we will be idle because of circumstance. And today we are assured that even in those moments we will be invited to come to the table and all we’ll have to do is to dig in to the feast that is given freely, lavishly. And maybe for this moment, we will know in our heart of hearts that, while all people are not the same, we are all in need of the same God, the same life, the same love. Maybe we will be able to release our fear just long enough to admit that we, every one, deserve love and mercy—not because we’ve earned it, but because we are human. Maybe when we acknowledge that we have received unmerited grace, we will be able to finally give thanks that God does not, in fact, live and love according to our merit system. And maybe, by the mercy and grace that we receive, we will be able to love and to show mercy “just because.”