Renewing Our Covenant: We Resolve to Love (2nd Sermon in a Series)

 

I.

This sermon is not going to turn out the way that I had hoped.

 

We have a motto here at Plymouth Church: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve. And I am preaching a sermon series on the motto. Today is the second installment in that series. Today I will focus on the middle of the motto: We resolve to love.

 

And this sermon is not going to turn out the way that I had hoped.

 

You see, I thought this would be the easy sermon in the series. Agree to Differ? Too much conflict. Unite to Serve? Too much work. But Resolve to Love? That’s the good stuff. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you go to get the warm and fuzzy sermon.

 

I was all set to preach that sermon. I was looking forward to preaching that sermon.

 

And then I looked up our text for today.

 

Warm? Fuzzy? Not so much. This is the kind of Scripture text that ruins good sermons.

 

At Plymouth Church we resolve to love. And today’s text tells us just how hard that can be.

II.

It is getting late in the Gospel according to Mathew, and Jesus would like a word with us.

 

The mood in Matthew has started to change. Jesus is drawing near to Jerusalem, and soon his life will come to its terrible climax –to betrayal, to abonnement, to the cross. And as the time grows short, Jesus has some things to say to his friends, Things that sound strange. Things that can be hard to hear.

 

Like the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

 

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It is a like a man who has a vineyard. And his operation relies on day laborers. So early one morning, he gets up and goes out to the Wal-Mart parking lot, finds some guys and puts them to work in his vineyard.

 

This is hard work –back breaking work, blistering work, a long day under a hot sun.

 

And, apparently, there is plenty of work to go around. The owner of the vineyard goes back to the Wal-Mart parking lot at mid-morning to hire some more workers. And then he goes back to hire even more workers, at noon, at three. Finally, at five o’clock, when the day is nearly done—he goes back, gathers even more workers and sends them out to tend his vineyard along with the others.

 

Finally, as the sun settles in the west, the workday concludes. The laborers line up to be paid –in order, with those who worked the least going first in the pay line. And these guys who only worked an hour…get a full day’s wage! So the people farther back the line—the people who worked more or even all of the day—start getting excited. They’re doing multiplication in their heads; they’re thinking about steak dinners; they’re dreaming about new shoes or maybe have a little something to set aside for a rainy day.

 

But when they get to the front of the line, the ones who worked hard all through the heat of the day get…one day’s wage. Same as the workers who put in one hour.

 

And they grumble about this. It’s not fair! We have borne the burden of the day, the scorching heat. And you made them equal to us.

 

Is that fair?

 

No. That’s love.

 

III.

 

We resolve to love.

 

It is not exactly toiling in a vineyard…but it is hard work all the same. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings; the middle part of our motto is a pretty big lift. Loving as God loves will require all the resolve that we have got.

 

Why is it so hard? I think I struggle so much with the love of God because God’s love feels like a foreign country to me.  That is how Jesus starts this story: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” When Jesus describes the love of God, he is talking about a foreign country. The food is different. The language is different. The customs, the culture, the mores are all so very different from what I would expect.

 

I was born and nurtured and educated into a very specific set of values. I am an American and that means I am deeply invested in the notion of fairness. Our political order is (in theory) a set of procedures that ensures equal treatment of everyone under the law. Our judicial system is (in theory) a set of institutions committed to equal treatment under the law. Our economic order is (in theory) a set of practices offering everyone equal access to opportunity.

 

If Americans have a creed, it is fairness. If our country has one guiding principle, it is fairness. The logic of fairness impacts our expectations, informs our decision, shapes our lives.

 

But what is the first thing that happens in the kingdom of heaven? Fairness goes out the window. After hearing this story, we know exactly one thing about the love of God: The love of God is not fair.

 

We resolve to love.

IV.

Can I learn to love like that? To let go of fairness and lean into…something else. Can we learn to love like that?

 

And can this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—can this story help?

 

I think it can –if we use it the right way. The story makes me uncomfortable. And I think I need to explore that a little.

 

Why does this story make me uncomfortable? It has a lot to do with where I see myself in it. When I hear this story, my very first, gut-level reaction is to identify with the guys who worked all day. That is who I am in this story. I’m a hard worker, just like them. I worked all day. I deserve what I get.

 

But is that who I am in this story? Am I the worker who puts in a whole day?

 

I am not so sure.[1]

 

Look with me at verses 13-15. Those who have labored all day—the hard workers, the heroes, the people like me—those who labored all day grumble about their unfair treatment. And the owner of the vineyard responds:

 

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

 

Now: No translation of the Bible is perfect. But in this case, I think the New Revised Standard Version really misses the point. Are you envious because I am generous? OK, but the original Greek is so much more poetic: Is your eye evil because I am good?

 

Does this story seem wrong to me? Does it offend my notions of fair play? Maybe there is something wrong with the story…or maybe there is something wrong with the way I see things. If God is good, maybe my evil eye is the problem.

 

And maybe I need to take another look at my own life.

 

I joined the United Church of Christ in April of 2002. And I was ordained by the United Church of Christ in May of 2003. Member to minister in 13 months. If that sounds fast to you…it is. I did not really notice at the time. I never stopped to wonder why it went so quickly and so smoothly for me. I just figured that was the way it should be. Because I work so hard. Because I deserve it.

 

I really used to think that.

 

In the last two decades, I have watched a lot of people go through the ordination process. And, in almost every case, it takes longer for other than it did for me. In almost every case, it seems harder for other people than it was for me. It takes longer for the women candidates. It takes longer for the GLBTQ candidates. It takes longer for the candidates of color. When I look back over my shoulder, I see them. And I realize: they have done the hard work. They have borne the burden of the day. They know all about the scorching heat.

 

Who am I in this story? I am, obviously, the guy getting a whole day’s pay for one hour of work.[2]

 

In my entire life, I have never been treated fairly. When I talk about being treated fairly, it is mostly a myth –a self-serving story to make me feel entitled to what I have. And when I talk about treating others fairly, it is mostly an excuse to treat them badly; to hold them up to some standard I have never had to meet.

 

Forget about fair. God does not believe in fairness. And at Plymouth Church, neither do we. No, we resolve to love. Everybody is loved here. Everybody. It does not matter if you have been a member for all of your long life or if you just walked in the door. You are loved. It does not matter if you are one of our top pledgers or if you have never given us a dime. You are loved. It does matter if you served on every board and show up for every committee or if you have treated the governance of this church as more of a spectator sport. You are loved. It does matter if you have a voice like Ed Griffith or if you couldn’t find the pitch with two hands and a flashlight. You are loved. It does not matter of you come to church for the sermons or if you come to church in spite of the sermons. You are loved. It does not matter if you are doing Bible in 90 Days for the second time around or if you think Ruth and Naomi are contestants on the latest season of the Bachelor. You are loved.

 

All of us are loved. All of us belong. And we are trying to learn how to treat each other as if we really believe that.

 

At Plymouth Church we resolve to love. If you want be treated fairly…go to the Social Security office.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] Two considerations guide my interpretation here. First, A Charles Cousar points out, this is a story addressed to insiders. Jesus is teaching his own disciples; those who got in on the ground floor. Of course they will identify with the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard. See Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV –Year A. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995, pp.493-495). Second, Matthew is a Jewish-Christian writer who is probably responding to the concerns of other Jewish Christians that the Gentile Christians are latecomers –those in the story who work only an hour.

[2] This is my attempt to practice Mark Allan Powell’s strategy of becoming more conscious of my own empathy choices (with whom do I identify in this story) and more aware of how my empathy choices might impact my reading of the text. What Do They Hear: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007).

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