Work, Wages and the Grace of God

Frederick Buechner in his book “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,” says: “Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks.”

Today there are lots of questions we could ask of scripture, but let’s look at what scripture asks us.

The first question is from the story of Jonah. God says to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah is angry with God because God forgives and saves the people of Ninevah. So Jonah goes out of the city and pouts. He is sitting in the hot sun and God causes a bush to grow over him for shade. Jonah is very happy about the bush and the shade. Then the bush dies and Jonah is angry again. So God is asking Jonah and us, “Is it right for you to be angry” when God forgives people who you don’t think should be forgiven?

Who’s on your list, your list of people who should not be forgiven? Who is on your list of people that make you angry.

We live in an angry age! There are more instances of anger on a daily basis than instances of love and forgiveness. Road rage abounds. Angry words exchanged in stores between customers and clerks are an everyday occurrence. Angry words between people of different ethnic origins are YouTube staples. So God asks us, today, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

By why are you angry?

As a pastor people feel I am a safe place to express anger. Oftentimes they need my help in getting them to understand the source of their anger.

I was sitting in my office one day, years ago, with the office door open.  Suddenly, a very angry man stood there and started screaming at me. He was a member of the congregation. He was swearing at me. I closed the door and listened. He was telling me in sentences laced with profanity what a lousy preacher I was. How the hymns from Sunday were the worst hymns he had ever heard sung in church. All of these sentences were filled with words that no one wants to hear, especially in church.

When he paused, I walked over him and asked him to sit down. He was drained from his rant. Then I asked him what was wrong. He burst into tears and said, “My wife has left me.”

That’s what he was angry about. It wasn’t with me or my sermons. We talked about the source of his anger and we prayed and we worked on how he was going to talk to his children and his parents without having to be angry.

The second question that is asked today is: “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the Gospel reading, the landowner pays everyone the same, regardless of how long they worked for the day.

“This 500th year of Martin Luther’s life work – in which he so faithfully taught the Gospel and overturned doctrines which misinterpreted it – we celebrate his recognition that no one can work enough to earn salvation from sin, that it is the grace of God that saves us, no amount of work or good deeds we amass before we die.

Luther reflects Jesus’ parable in this: we are not engaged by God in a life where those who work the hardest win the right to enter heaven. Nor are we competitively engaged in producing good works, in order to earn the right to be part of the kingdom.

There is a wonderful called All Saints, which is the name of a church in Tennessee. It is a true story of what happened to this church, when the older, dwindling, hard-working, English-speaking congregation could no longer support the building and was in anguish about closing it.

A group of desperately poor immigrants from Burma were settled in their town and came to church. They were not the answer to the poor white folks’ prayers. The needed a huge amount of support. And they needed the church to change its ways.

What happened was a miracle. The very kind Jesus talks about in kingdom parables. Everyone in the church had to work incredibly hard. Setbacks occurred often, and they occurred when people were exhausted.

The future was hard to see and many wanted to stop working, but they kept going in faith. The miracle was not so much in what they did, but what happened to them along the way.

In the wake of each set back they grew a little closer, became a little more of a community, lived a little more by faith.

They argued. Yes they did. As Jesus tells us, the workers in the kingdom argued about what was just and fair. So we learn that argument is part of life in the kingdom, it isn’t all Kum-bay-yah moments.

And that makes the kingdom a little bit like life in America today:

a place where we have to do the difficult work of making room for people whose experience isn’t like ours, but who are exactly the people we need. Only we can’t see it at first. We can only see it at last.

So in all kinds of ways, first becomes last, and last becomes first – in the parable, in hope, in kingdom time, and in faithful life.

The parable of the generous landowner is about grace. And mercy. And hope. And the image of God, in us and in the world.