Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sixteenth after Pentecost

(Proper 20A2   Matthew 20: 1-16

Since the death of John the Baptist crowds and controversy have been pressing in on every side, and now Jesus and his disciples are heading straight into the storm--traveling from the Galilee toward Jerusalem to spend the Passover there with the thousands of Jewish pilgrims who will gather for the festival from around the known world.  Along the way Jesus seems quite clear in his teaching that his remaining time with his disciples is growing short—although they have a hard time understanding or accepting that.  As they pass Caesarea Philippi  after Peter’s Confession of faith Jesus promises his disciples that he will make something new out of them, that he will make them his church, a supernatural body of spiritual character and power so strong that even the Gates of Hell would fall before it. 

We recall in our readings from the last couple of weeks that Jesus spends a lot of this time talking with the disciples about their way of relating to each other, speaking to them about a new way of “life in community.”  That long section on dealing with differences and conflict resolution within the fellowship that we heard a couple of weeks ago.  And then last week the discussion about forgiveness.  About how the abundance of forgiveness, the sense of being a fellowship built on a spirit of humility, mutual deference, interdependence, overflowing mercy, was to be of the very essence of this church.  The Gospel of God’s Grace, the Good News of the Cross, forgiveness of sin, not “times 7” but “70 times 7,” the triumph over the powers of evil and death, to be presented not simply through theological concepts and words on a page, but most importantly through the visible culture and character of his Church.  How they live with each other. Repentance, forgiveness, amendment of life, mercy and peace and confidence in God’s victory to be so visible in how this new converted, redeemed, justified, sanctified people of God live together that the world will stand amazed.  There will be nobody like you anywhere!  You will be a  living sermon.  What difference does Jesus make in peoples’ lives?  Why should I listen to what these Christians are saying?  You don’t have to read a book to figure it out.  Just look at his church.  How they live together.  In their families.  In their congregations.  As they worship and pray and work and play together.  “See these Christians, how they live together, how they love one another.  These Christians, the gospel proclaimed not only with their lips, but in their lives.   Who wouldn’t want to be a part of their world?

To step back for a moment: I like to say that our daughter Linnea is not the only member of our family to have spent time in Mongolia.  She of course lived there for a couple of years, as many of you will remember.  But one Tuesday morning before she left on that adventure she and I took a long drive down to Washington D.C., parked the car in what would ordinarily have been an exceptionally expensive parking spot a block or two from Georgetown University, and stepped onto the grounds of the Mongolian embassy.  She had some paperwork to take care of related to her student visa and work permit.  I simply sat in the lobby, chatted with the Mongolian receptionist,  and enjoyed a little interval of rest in my global travel.  The embassy is of course just this very interesting concept.  At once here in the United States, just down the block from a great little Pizzaria Uno, where we would have lunch--but also at the same time in a legal and conceptual sense truly another country.  The reason the parking space would ordinarily have been exceptionally expensive, but was free for us on that particular day, was that it was October 11, and in Washington, D.C. -- Columbus Day.   A federal holiday.  But the visa office in the embassy was open, because Columbus Day isn’t a holiday in Mongolia . . . .  And that’s where we were.  Not Washington D.C., but Mongolia.

So something like this is what Jesus was talking about when he said he was building his church.  An analogy.  The frame for us to think about as we consider what it means to be members of the Church.  The Kingdom of God not yet realized in its fullness, for sure—but with an embassy here already, an outpost in this world dedicated as a real presence here and now and a foretaste of the life of the world to come.   Operating according to the Kingdom calendar, not the calendar of this world.  And that was going to be and continues to be the challenge for the church, for his disciples.  To be living supernaturally, as the Kingdom, even as we for a season continue in a world that was and would be foreign territory, even at times truly hostile territory.  A world that operates by different rules.   

So as they travel one of the things Jesus does is tell these stories, paint these pictures, the “Parables of the Kingdom.”  Which is to say, parables about what God is going to do in the future, and at the same time about what is already happening, we might say, on the grounds of his embassy.    Images, situations, to engage their thoughts, their imaginations, to guide his disciples in their thinking and their feeling, to stretch them in their assumptions, in their emerging and transforming identities and relationships, with ways to provoke questions about values and meanings, about how to get their heads around the idea that they are to be really and truly in Mongolia while still also in Washington D.C., about how to be God’s Kingdom and to communicate God’s kingdom message here and now-- in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So here at Matthew 20, a Parable of the Kingdom.  The Householder has a lot of work to be done in his vineyard.  He hires a crew in the morning, adds new workers midmorning, more at noon, then again late in the afternoon, and finally just a few minutes before the end of the day.  And when the sun sets and the laborers gather to receive their pay envelopes they all receive the standard wage for a full day’s work.  Confusion follows.  We certainly might imagine that the workers who got hired on at 4:45 and then who collected their pay at 5 were surprised and delighted at the unexpected generosity of their employer.   A whole day’s wage!  And we see and we understand and sympathize, that those who actually put in the full day in the vineyard suddenly feel aggrieved.  While it’s true they are receiving the wage they agreed would be fair and appropriate at the beginning of the day, it somehow seems unfair now in light of the exceptional generosity that has been shown by the Householder to those who worked fewer hours.   What kind of a world is this, that this makes sense? 

Hard for us Bible readers not to connect back to the Book of Job here, the great Old Testament essay of wisdom on the topic of the contrast between our human ideas of how God should act and God’s free and supernatural sovereignty.   There God’s answer to Job’s question of “why bad things happen to good people” goes like this:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.”  Or as the Householder of Matthew 20 says to the perplexed Laborers, simply, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

The theme and message of God’s sovereignty is the persistent note of the Bible, of course, but we still take a breath and shake our heads in amazement.  The first and most important thing to remember when we think about the life in the Kingdom of God is that in the Kingdom of God, God is King, and we aren’t.  We have our priorities and plans, our agendas, our ways of making our way through life, but in the Kingdom of God, God is in charge, not us.  And when he is in charge, things are going to be different.   “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.” 

Yesterday at our annual Fall Vestry Day I was reminded of this again.  And in a good way.  Really a great way.  The agenda ahead of time looked pretty serious.  Conversations about parish culture, patterns of attendance and participation, which have been kind of a struggle for us lately on a number of fronts--the inevitable concern and conversation about how to gather and deploy financial resources to do everything or even most of what we have been doing around this place.  But I’m just going to say here without getting down into the weeds that I was surprised a little, and wonderfully surprised, that the spirit of the day shifted pretty quickly from questions about management and programs and administration to a really energetic and sincere time of sharing about discerning God’s hand, God’s will, God’s presence-- learning to listen for his voice, seeking together a space for growing faith and maturity and for affectionate and meaningful  Christian life together.   So not just business as usual, not just an effort to shore up the status quo for another year and then go home.  But I think the beginning of a conversation to cultivate openness and with humility to seeing what God may really and truly be doing in our lives here at St. Andrew’s.  No tidy answers at the end of the afternoon, which would actually be a bad sign:  but a commitment to having open eyes and open ears, to ask questions, and to expect the unexpected.  To take the word “should” out of our vocabularies for a while.  What we think “should happen,” how we think things “should be.”    God has his own ways, and if we think we know for sure from the start what that’s supposed to look like, we most of the time have another “think” coming.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose to what belongs to me?”  So we just remember that he is.  He is.  And we remember that this place, and all of us, this is his place, and we are his.  It’s not about him getting on board with our program, but about our figuring out how to get board with his.  Take a look at the list of the vestry members on the back of the leaflet, if you want, and maybe over a cup of coffee ask them for their take on the day.  If you’re not sure about the names, their snapshots are on the bulletin board right inside the Parish House entrance.  One of the things we did take away from the table was to say that it would be good to open wide the conversation, to keep it going, to expand the circle, to listen to each other.  Informally, wherever coffee is served—but formally as well, as we invite over the next few months some opportunities to talk together, and more importantly to listen together.    Who knows what we might find?  Thinking about those workers who came late in the day, which is really all of us, and then to say with confidence, as they opened their pay envelopes,  that he has better things in mind for all of us than we can ask for or imagine.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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