- Parish House
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 20:1-16
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
September 24, 2017
I heard about a guy who wants to start a newspaper that’s filled with only good news. He’s worried about how we consume the constant news cycle about all the awful stuff that happens. He thinks we need to be reminded that there is still good in the world. I couldn’t agree more. My first thought about this “good newspaper” was that it would be good for my soul.
And my second thought was how great it would be to have a religious version. Because honestly, when Christianity makes the headlines, it’s not always flattering or inspiring. A recent survey of headlines shows this pretty clearly. For example, the news covered the tweets by the pastor of a mega church in Houston as flood waters were rising, which included sayings like, “God’s got this.” Maybe people found that helpful, but in the midst of tragedy I hope for a little more to go on. There have also been stories of religious advisors to politicians suggesting which earthly policies God directly endorses or rejects. And while I like to think that God agrees with my politics, too, it it is technically a form of idolatry. And then there was a statement from a group of Christian leaders in Nashville about who’s in and who’s out of God’s good graces based on who they love. Such headlines about Christianity remind me of the wise words from Ann Lamott – “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” But I’m not casting stones, because I can fall into that way of thinking, too. But sometimes I just wish the church would get better press.
The good religious news isn’t as flashy, I suppose. Imagine a headline like this: “A diverse, eclectic group of Christians gathers downtown weekly to worship God and to be transformed.” Or this: “An historic church preserves the beauty of its tradition through stained glass, music, and the spoken word, and reaches out to help meet the changing needs of the downtown community.” Clearly, I would not be hired as a headline writer. But if I had the job of collating good religious news, the first thing I would run is a recent story about the doctrine of hell.
The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton was interviewed earlier this year as part of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. When asked if there is a hell, she said, “There may be, but I think it’s empty. Jesus was clear,” that after he was “raised up he would draw all people to himself.” Not surprisingly, in the instant news cycle she was immediately blasted for that comment. But what a provocative statement worthy of consideration. Whether we agree or disagree with her, the comment was deeply grounded in the scriptures, which actually say very little about heaven and hell. And yes, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Not some of the people, but all in the mysterious unfolding of a grand divine story.
Yet when it comes to eternity, Christianity has long been obsessed with the two possible final destinations. The question of who gets into heaven and who gets left out has terrified people for centuries. It’s very easy to slip into believing that God will let us into heaven only on the basis of our achievements or more and more good works. Or not, due to the lack thereof. And we can also wander into a kind of confidence of opinion about who will populate the other destination. Sometimes we think it’ll be us based on whatever character flaw we worry about or some aspect of our identity that we’ve been told is unacceptable. And, we can pretty easily think of a list of the world’s greatest villains or maybe our meanest relatives who clearly don’t deserve a pass into heaven. So if it’s true that Jesus will draw all people to himself, how can we possibly make sense of that kind of grace when we’re so accustomed to thinking about, worrying about, and even pronouncing judgment amongst ourselves?
Enter today’s parable to help us sort that out, the story of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner, who for the record is crazy generous but not stupid, hires day laborers at various times throughout the day to work the vineyard, and then pays them all a full day’s wage. Those hired first thing in the morning grumble about earning the same as those hired last. The landowner replies, “‘Are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It’s a great story. And t’s fairly easy to read God into the landowner who loves us all the same and dispenses grace in equal amounts to all. Which sounds like we’re all getting into heaven.
Now, if you’ve been around Christ Church long enough, you’re accustomed to hearing the message of grace from this pulpit. That is the primary lens through which preachers around here tend to interpret the gospel. But today’s parable adds a more complicated layer. The story is a parable of grace, clearly, but it is also a parable of judgment.
When the early workers grumble, hear the landowner’s response. “Friend,” he begins, which translates as something closer to buster or pal with an edge, like when Jesus called Judas friend before his betrayal. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong… Take what belongs to you and go… are you envious because I am generous?” The story is about grace offered equally to all, regardless of how worthy anyone is. But it’s also a story of judgment that falls hard only upon those who object to the indiscriminate universality of that arrangement (Capon). When the lord of the vineyard responds to the complainers, he tells them that judgment falls not on the unacceptable late comers but only on those who will not accept the acceptance. Remember that it is not our own virtue or good works or winning personalities that save us – we cannot save ourselves. We are saved through the grace of Christ, crucified and risen, with much more grace than any of us deserves. If we cannot accept that gratuitous deal, we can walk away grumbling, right into a hell of our own making.
In the colorful words of Robert Capon, it works like this (paraphrased). No matter how hard we try, we fall short, we sometimes screw up. If we were keeping score on our good works, we’d get dinged for our frequent mistakes and never make it into heaven. And because of that reality, the only way to solve the problem of sin and evil is for God to do what in fact God did: to take it out of the world by taking it into God’s self – down into the forgetfulness of Jesus’s dead human mind on the cross – and to close the books on keeping score forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the foolish who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads, the grumblers in the vineyard.
And if you prefer a more polished approach to this truth, we need only to turn to what is arguably the greatest sermon ever written since Jesus, the Easter homily of St. John Chrysostom from the fifth century.
The Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Forgiveness has risen from the grave. Now that would make a great headline.