This morning Jesus tells a story that I believe ranks right up there with a “Dilbert” cartoon- the comic strip that pokes fun at incompetency that is often found in the workplace.
I remember this one where the CEO is introducing Dilbert to his new boss, some mid-level manager named Mr. Snow, who reaches out to shake Dilbert’s hand. Insisting a more casual relationship the new boss says, “Neal, please.” In the final frame, Dilbert on his knees bowing before his new boss who says, “Um…no, that’s my name…Neal.”
On a more serious note, if we took Jesus’ parable literally it would most likely raise the hackles of any business-minded person. As the Donald might say, “We need to renegotiate this deal.” And in his book What's So Amazing About Grace,Phillip Yancey writes, “The bosses action contradicts everything we know about employee motivation and fair compensation… After all, who in their right mind would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and to those who have not?”
A few days ago I asked Sean to help me with the yard work. Of course, he refused my invitation. I told him, “I bet you we could get it done quickly if we did it together.” To which he replied, “I bet you a trip to Target we couldn’t.” Knowing a bad deal when I see one, I said, “Not fair. You’ll just work slow so you’ll win the bet.” And with all seriousness he rolled his eyes at me and said, “Dad, you know life isn’t fair.”
At first glance, this parable seems to uphold this notion. Life is not fair. Here we have a landowner who hires some workers. Some clock in at sunrise, some at the morning coffee break, and then at lunchtime; others come in the afternoon, and still some close to quitting time. Everyone seems content with the work they are offered, that is until payroll. When those who put in a full day’s work in the hot blazing sun learn that they will receive the same pay as those who barely had time to break a sweat. The first hired naturally grumble.
It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? More than just basic mathematics, or incompetent bookkeeping, something in our gut says this is wrong. We know in our heart that things ought to be fair. But when it comes to money, or something we believe we’ve earned, things get a little more personal.
Cuban born theologian Justo Gonzalez says the parable is clearly about two kinds of people: the very rich landowner and those barely scratching by. Most people who read or hear the parable, however, are neither rich nor poor. We are somewhere in the middle. We know what it’s like to eke out a living. And we truly believe that if we work harder, then we’ll get ahead and receive more for our efforts. The spoils go to those who earn it. But like I’ve been saying, Jesus turns our way of thinking upside down; teaching us to see the world through God’s eyes and not our own.
Gonzalez invites us to look at this story through the lens of an immigrant worker. They may not understand what it’s like to be a rich landowner, but they truly understand the plight of those who must go early in the morning to stand at a place where someone might come and hire them for the day. They might be lucky to get a full day’s work. And they have learned not to lose hope if they only get a couple of hours. Just as we might sympathize with the landowner who accuses them of “standing around and being idle all day,” the laborer knows exactly what it feels like to answer, “Because no one has hired us.”
Let’s stand in their shoes. It’s five o’clock, and a truck finally pulls up and offers you work. Because it’s late in the day, you don’t know if you’ll earn enough to afford a ride back. And there’s always the chance you won’t get paid at all. Your only choice is to get in the truck trusting all will work out in the end. Or you refuse the job.
By looking through a different lens, Jesus shows us a world that is not fair. But he also assures us that we need not worry, because God is faithful and generous. The landowner is not breaking his agreement with his employees, but upholding it honestly and fairly. By paying everyone a full day’s wage we realize that God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God gives us what we need.
When we make this story about fairness or money, then we are blind to the point Jesus is making: “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”
Whether you’ve been faithful to God your whole life, or you’re new to the party, God loves you and welcomes you just the same. The last worker is first in this story because not only is he in immediate need of this gift, but he is also able to receive it with joy and gratitude… instead of with envy or pettiness like the first who have forgotten God is a generous employer.
As Jesus points out, our divine boss has every right to do whatever he wants to do with his grace and love, “even if it means paying some people twelve times more than what they deserved.” Grace can never be calculated like a timesheet. God’s love is not a bonus reward based on merit, or the quality or quantity of one’s labor. It’s a gift, freely given to all who want to go into the vineyard.
This is the good news since none of us really earned what we deserved. No different than the cartoon about Dilbert and his co-workers, our incompetence does not stop God from loving us any more or any less. Like meteorologist, we can get it wrong most of the time and still keep our job. We don’t need to renegotiate this deal. It will never get better than this.
Let’s just joyfully accept the truth that God is a lousy bookkeeper. When I told that to my friend he joked, “God’s a lousy bookkeeper because he adds infinity to every check he cuts.”
Imagine that: Infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness; healing; empowerment; joy. Infinite life; both now and in the Kingdom to come. No matter how many times God gives and gives and gives to us, his account continues to overflow. And his checks never bounce.
Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that God’s generosity is beyond our human capacity and logic. His mercy and grace is immeasurable. Like I said two weeks ago, it doesn’t add up. And we are the ones who benefit…because God is a lousy bookkeeper!
Five times the landowner goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. So let’s not worry about who gets what or when, because Christ died for all. And we all benefit because of it.
Instead of protesting or dividing sides, let us gather together with joy in our hearts to celebrate...because God is calling us into the vineyard where there is still work to be done.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
Gonzalez, Justo. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes. (Nashville: Abington, 1996) pp. 62-63.
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
One could argue that forgiveness is an essential element of love, kindness, peace and generosity; the good fruits of the Spirit that feeds and heals the world. Forgiveness is a way of life that resides at the very heart of our Christian faith.
Yes…it’s so simple to preach, yet so hard to practice.
As we marked the 16th anniversary of September 11th, Christians are forced to look at they way they practice forgiveness in the dark shadows of foreign and domestic terrorism.
While those 19 hijackers perished with their victims in 2001, a young man by the name of Dylann Roof had to face the rage and anger of those left behind in the wake of his violent rampage on fellow Americans. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the white supremacist who murdered nine African American Christians as they bowed their heads in prayer during a bible study.
What you might not remember is at his bond hearing something amazing happened. Just two days after the horrific killings inside a historic church in Charleston South Carolina, five family members chose to face a cold-blooded killer and offered him their forgiveness.
These deeply wounded people understood this was the only way to claim their freedom from the deep seeded hatred that had been stewing for more than a century. It was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain one man caused because of his beliefs.
Melvin Graham, a brother of one of the victims, told the white supremacist, “The hate you possess is beyond human comprehension… You may have wanted to start a race war, but instead you started a love war.”
We mustn’t think forgiveness as impossible, but instead we must always remember that it's invaluable.
Forgiveness is hard. And an unwillingness to forgive can lock us up in bitterness. For months I held on to deep seeded resentment towards a person who had worked hard to ruin my career and reputation. No matter how many times we applied the Biblical steps of reconciliation, she continued her deceitful campaign against me.
There was no telling how far she would be willing to go in order to get her way.
I’ll admit didn’t want to forgive her, but I knew in my heart I had to. And so I did. But not really. The words of my mouth were nothing more than manure that fertilized the seeds of bitterness festering within me. And quickly those seeds began to grow. Before I knew it, I was becoming the phony she claimed me to be. I was having trouble practicing the very words I was preaching.
The feelings I harbored only allowed her to imprison me. And even though I knew I was only hurting myself, and not her, I continued to struggle to break free. My spiritual health and faith had flat lined.
Even though I held the key forged by God’s amazing grace, my unwillingness to forgive this person rendered this gift useless.
I learned the hard way that an unforgiving heart chokes out gratefulness. It prevents us from experiencing the freedom that comes with free-flowing grace. And dare I say, it nullifies the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made on the cross...because it stops us from bearing good fruit.
This begs the question: how far are we willing to go for forgiveness?
Are we like Peter who wants a hard and fast numbers to give someone who has done him wrong? Or are we more like Jesus, who understands the real costs it takes to forgive a person?
Of course there’s nothing wrong with Peter’s question. He speaks to the relationships we all have with ourselves, with God and with those we love or even hardly know. But then Jesus goes and tells us to make room in our hearts for our enemies, and people who try to harm us. This is where things get a little weird. And people start to tune him out.
Peter asks, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” In response, Jesus answers with a parable:
“The kingdom of God is like this… You will be forgiven only as you forgive.”
Now Jesus isn’t suggesting God’s grace is conditional. He’s just setting the line Peter needs to see to understand that none of us are in the position to withhold forgiveness from another. We all need it.
And it’s by God’s grace we receive it. To deny someone of it would be like piling manure on God’s gracious heart.
To be Christ like is to practice unlimited and absolute forgiveness. Failing to do so implies we fail to recognize our own debt that we could never repay.
Jesus has set the parameters: The forgiven must forgive.
Now you might have a desire to punish those who have hurt you. And I get that. But let me ask you this. Is your moral superiority that demands punishment more fitting than God’s grace? Those five brave Christians in that South Carolina courtroom would beg to differ. They chose to use their time, not to sway judgment, but instead to forgive a young man who did not recognize his own need for forgiveness and grace.
There on live TV, they proclaimed the gospel. They did not side step the law to get what they wanted, but used a higher law to get what they needed; liberation from their pain and anger. They needed free themselves of their bitterness and hatred to make room in their hearts for God’s healing love.
The moral lesson is clear: Forgiveness Must Engender Forgiveness if there is going to be true healing within us, and within our world.
It's that simple...and still that complex.
So you see how I could preach this every day, and still many of you will hold on to your anger. You’ll wear your bitterness like a badge, until it cripples and crushes you. If bitterness isn’t good for fruit or coffee, why then would it be healthy for human relationships? We need the sweet nectar of God’s Spirit to help us be more like Christ who gave himself up willingly; even forgiving his enemies with his final breath.
Becoming a generous people who freely forgive is a painful process. For some of us, the hurts we have suffered and endured may never result in reconciliation or a restored relationship. That’s okay. But it doesn’t excuse us from participating in the process.
When you stop to think about it, Jesus didn’t say we should deny our hurt...or even forget the one who caused the wounds. He knows there are some events that happen that we must never forget:
September 11th is a great example; slavery; the holocaust; a violent relationship; a series of lies that turned your life upside down.
Jesus isn’t saying forget the pain, or the cause of it. He is simply saying constantly forgive and forgive and forgive... until forgiveness become as natural as God’s unending love towards us.
This finally became clear to me in the early morning of July 5, 2017. This was when I ran into that woman one last time. And when she saw me it was like catching a kid with their hand in the cookie jar. Not wanting to face the person she had harmed, she turned and quickly walked the other way in shame.
A part of me felt smug and I wanted to gloat. But inside my heart I just quietly bowed my head and asked God to forgive me for holding on to all that crap for so long. After that I asked God to forgive her for the pain and suffering she inflicted upon my family and my church. I took all that pain from my heart and left it in God’s hands. Then I got in my car and never looked back.
As those five families and their faith community demonstrated, the cultivation of a forgiving heart frees us from bondage… and opens us to the possibilities of giving forgiveness instead of punishing others or yourself.
For the one who first understands his or her need for forgiveness,... and then opens his or her heart up to forgive others,...is the one who enters the very heart of God’s everlasting love.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 68-73.
Story of Dylan Roof inspired by a piece written by Margaret Manning Shull on January 17, 2017 for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
The economy of grace doesn’t add up in human terms, because grace is based on who God is, not because of who we are.
A New York Times travel article on English pubs commented, “a good pub is a ready made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.” Having visited my fair share of pubs across the UK, I can honestly say this is certainly not “fake news.”
Now I can imagine Jesus sitting in a smoky pub, eating greasy food, and having a pint with his mates. Lifting up his voice over the loud Celtic music he talks with those around him…much to the chagrin of the puritans who poke their heads in before walking away in disgust.
I remember asking a friend if he thought Jesus would ever buy a round of beers at a bar. Before he could answer a stranger began to shout at me, calling me heretic for even considering such a thought. Standing proudly in his own Christian piety, he forgot one important point that Jesus always made: love others; don’t judge them.
Like the Pharisees in Luke’s story, this young man had a hard time understanding the power of God’s grace. As such, he couldn’t see that the beauty of God’s kingdom is “a ready made party, a club that anyone can join.”
Luke does not tell us if Jesus was in a pub or a house, but he does point out the people around him; sinners and tax collectors. And of course, the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling about the company Jesus keeps.
Sensing their disgusts, Jesus stop talking about being able to turn water into wine to tell a couple of parables about how all people are important to God; not just goody-two shoes, but the dishonest tax collectors, unclean shepherds and even irresponsible women.
Using a language they all could understand, Jesus speaks about God’s love in economic terms, about the things we humans put value on. For example, a shepherd values his flock and a woman values her hard earned money. The parables invite us all to think about the things we put value on. For me, it’s my family. For you it might be a relationship, or a material object, or a way of life.
Imagine you’ve lost that one thing you love more than anything else. Maybe because of your own carelessness, or someone’s intent, or it was taken from you. Whatever the case, it’s gone. What length would you go to find it, and to ensure nothing bad ever happens to it again?
I suspect those around Jesus understood that a flock is a shepherd’s source of income and each sheep has an actual monetary worth. Say you have five sheep; losing one means taking a 20% loss on your investment. If you have a 100 sheep, it’s not that big of a loss…if in fact you even notice one is missing. But Jesus says every sheep is valuable. So the shepherd will leave the other 99 behind where they are vulnerable to theft, harm, or even the natural desire to bolt free.
Rich or poor, the shepherd will take whatever risks are necessary to protect his investment. So too does God.
Now if you’ve ever misplaced or lost a paycheck, you can sympathize with the plight of the woman, who values the hard earned money she has saved to pay her rent and feed her family. You probably know what a relief it is when you recover the lost treasure. You rejoice! So too does God.
These parables remind us of our worth as God’s children. Hidden inside is the treasure so valuable it’s impossible to buy.
Now it’s easy to see God as the shepherd who values each sheep, or as the woman who accounts for every silver coin in her purse. But for many of us it’s hard to fathom that we are ones whom God treasures the most. We are worth something in spite of what others might think.
Jesus says even the most fiercely independent or most ornery lamb is worth chasing after. No matter the cost. From a copper penny to a gold doubloon, every coin is worth hunting for. One needs to look no further than the cross to understand the length God will go to rescue us. This is the nature of who God is.
But the economics of God’s grace don’t add up. Certainly a murderer or a child predator must pay for their crimes, right?
In his book “What’s so Amazing about Grace,” Phillip Yancey writes that “grace solves a great dilemma for God; on one hand, God loves us; on the other hand our behavior repulses him.” Grace is that rope that pulls the sheep out of the ditch and brings her back safely into the shepherd’s arms. Grace is the shine on the coin that reflects the bright light, which can penetrate the darkest hiding spots.
We are the runaway sheep. We are the coin lost in the cracks, the prodigal child, the broken and battered sons and daughters of a parent who loves us no matter what. In us “God sees shattered fragments of his image…and cannot – or will not – give up on us.” No wonder heaven rejoices when we are returned. We have value.
Best of all, this amazing gift is undeserved. We can’t buy it or earn it. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Eph. 2:8-9 NLT).
In a tit-for-tat world, the economics of God’s grace don’t add up…but just the same, it can’t be subtracted from life either.
Paul knows what could happen if we thought we had to earn God’s love and approval. Think about a time when perhaps you felt unloved, or completely weak or lost, or that you had failed so badly that you have no other recourse but to put your tail between your legs and take the beating you think you deserve.
Where do you go, or to whom would you turn, if you feared that God might stop loving you when he discovers the real truth about you?
In those bleak moments of life, you need God more than ever. It doesn’t take us long to realize that like a bleating sheep hiding in the thicket from predators, we cannot save ourselves.
God’s grace reminds us that God believes in us. We are important and worthy of this divine, all-encompassing love. And when we come to God, he doesn’t condemn us or beat us down. Instead a party is thrown in our honor! And God invites everyone to the celebration to rejoice. We have value in spite of what others might think.
The economy of grace doesn’t add up in human terms, because grace is based on who God is, not because of who we are.
Despite all our faults and messiness, God has found a way to love us. Through Jesus, God came to us. And walked on the wrong side of town and talked with the wrong kind of people. He sat in pubs and fed nachos to the hungry; bought drinks for the thirsty. He went into back alley and healed the dope sick. And he looked into the dark eyes of the unlovable and did the unthinkable…he loved them.
Jesus is the proof that God loves us so much that “he would rather give his Son up on a cross than give up on humanity.”
This is THE GOOD NEWS. From the pub-crawlers and drunks to the pious priest and the pure of heart, God’s love and grace is shockingly personal. There is no catch. There are no loopholes. There is nothing that disqualifies you from being the beloved child of a beloved God, whose ears are always listening; whose eyes are always searching; and whose arms are always extended to welcome you home.
Let us pray: Cheers to you God, for all the love and grace you give.
Bible. Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV).
Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4. Westminster John Knox Press. (Louisville, 2010). pp. 68-72.
Yancey, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervon, 1997. pp. 59, 64-67.
It’s remarkable that a barely noticeable, simple unassuming mark represents everything you’ve done in your entire lifetime. How does that make you feel? What does it make you want to do?
Imagine sitting as a spectator at your own funeral, listening to people talk about your little dash. What would you hear? Or better yet would you like them to say? That you worked hard, but could have worked harder? Or that you had a nice house filled with really cool stuff, but it could have been nicer had you bought cooler stuff?
At the end of the day, what really matters most? As the poem states, it’s how we spend our time, living and loving between the years of our birth… all the way to our very last breath. When my time comes, I hope I’ll be remembered as a great lover… and caretaker to all people, in spite of our differences of opinions or affiliations.
Now in this morning’s reading, Paul lays out a poetic yet profound “how-to” manual on living life in a way that represents God’s love for us. Like the 10 Commandments, he provides a list of core values that help define us as a church, and teaches each one of us on how to live into the world as ambassadors and imitators of Christ. And surprise, surprise, it begins with Jesus’ favorite topic…love.
Love was and is very important to Jesus. The dash that represents his life is a perfect testimony to this assertion. So it is with Paul, who emphatically states, “Let love be genuine; Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good.”
This is the bar set by Christ. The one we all must strive to grab hold of if we desire to be like him. If we let our hearts be real and do what is right in the eyes of God, then we will do what Christ did…leave the world a better place than how we found it. What a great way to be remembered, don’t you think? Someone who changed the world.
Paul, like Christ, understood love is an action, not an emotion. It needs to be put to work in order for it to work. But first we have to be willing to do the work, to love with a genuine heart for good.
For those who set Jesus as their example, you must not cling to pride, selfishness, favoritism or revenge. These are the things of the world. Instead, hold tightly to humility, selflessness, generosity, and servanthood. If the sacrificial and self-giving love of Jesus has taught us anything it’s: love without action is not love.
As followers of Christ, we must be willing to lead the way. We must be the first to set aside our differences, and lift each other up to touch that bar he has set for us; by forgiving one another as He forgave us, and serving each other as He taught us to serve.
Paul goes so far as to encourage some friendly competition; calling us to outdo each other in the ways we honor one another. To his point, when we think first about what we can offer in a relationship rather than what we will receive, we might be surprised at how quickly we can understand or (dare I say) actually like someone who is different than us. That’s love at work.
Love that takes the initiative has the power to be transformative. It has the power to change the world.
When we put our faith and heart to practice, it becomes easier for us to share God’s grace and mercy with others. When we put our faith and heart to practice, we are better able to rejoice in hope when a relationship seems hopeless. And have the patience to overcome the pain or suffering others might inflict upon us.
Putting our faith and heart to work can free us to pray with authority, give to the needs of others without thinking twice, and extend radical, Christlike hospitality to strangers. We can set aside our differences and leave our judgments and anger with God.
When we put our faith and heart to practice, we bless others by sharing their joy and pain; we are able to live in harmony. There is no need to separate yourself because you’re richer, smarter, or born in the right place. Real Christlike love gets down in the mud and lifts up anyone who is need of what you have to offer. It encourages and supports, and invites others to participate in peacemaking and joy.
Sharing your love with others is the best way we can bring others back to God.
By being present in someone else’s joy and pain, we build bridges not walls. We create communities that draw people together, not tear them apart. And uphold the virtues that represent God’s grace and mercy that heal relationships instead of inflicting more damage.
We may not be perfect at this, and in fact it’s a guarantee we will fail. We will have to rely on other’s help just as much as others will have to rely on us. But the point is not so much about perfection as it is about participation. For love without action is not love.
Jesus will always be remembered best for the ways he represented God’s love in the world. It was so important to Him that it compelled Him to give up His life for us!
And so I leave you with this question: What will God’s love compel you to do that will change the way people will speak of the dash that separates your years?
The sermon concludes with reading the final verses to the poem.
Ellis, Linda. The Dash, (www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html). Sept. 2, 2017.
Paul's "How To" List
Let love be genuine
Hate what is evil
Hold on to what is good
Love one another with mutual affection
Outdo one another in showing honor
Do not lag in zeal
Be ardent in spirit
Serve the Lord
Rejoice in hope
Be patient in suffering
Persevere in prayer
Contribute to the needs of the saints
Extend hospitality to strangers
Bless those who persecute
Rejoice with those who rejoice
Weep with those who weep
Live in harmony with one another
Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly
Do not claim to be wiser than you are
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Live peaceably with all.
Never avenge yourselves, leave the wrath to God
If your enemies are hungry, feed them
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink
Do not be overcome by evil,
Overcome evil with good.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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