A Look Back Part 1: My Very First Sermon

As I get ready to graduate and with each passing hour transform into the world’s biggest sentimental sap, the next series of blog posts will be a look back at my favorite pieces, beginning with my very first sermon, the single piece that changed everything about my seminary experience. Enjoy.

“The Mystery of Grace”

A reading from Matthew 20:1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them ‘ you also go and work in my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right ‘ . So they went

He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them ‘ why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing? ‘

‘ Because no one has hired us, ‘ they answered.

He said to them ‘ you also go and work in my vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘ call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going to the first. ‘ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more.

But each one of them also received a denarius.

When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘ These who were hired last worked only one hour, ‘ they said, ‘ and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day. ‘

But he answered one of them, ‘ I am not being unfair to you, friend.’ Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?

So the last will be first and the first will be last. ‘

A strawberry field in the middle of San Vicente, Baja California, Mexico. Early morning, about 8 AM. Jose Carlos,28, dedicated husband and father of three is hard at work, and has been for 3 hours.

A truck pulls in carting a load of people of different ages and physical abilities. The new truckload goes to work right away because there is much to do. More workers come throughout the day.

During the last hour of the working day, the truck returns with another load of people: old, withered, hunched grandmothers from Oaxaca, who have traveled to San Vicente to find seasonal work.

At the end of the day, the strawberry field owner asks the foreman to pay the workers. The foreman calls them over by name, beginning with the Oaxacan grandmothers, who are paid $10, the average daily wage for a migrant worker in Baja California, for their one hour of work. And so it goes, until the foreman calls Jose Carlos.

Jose Carlos thinks to himself as he approaches the foreman “those Oaxacan grandmothers only worked for an hour and they got the daily rate for their work. I’m in better shape, more productive, and I’ve been here ALL day. Finally, maybe today I’ll have money to put aside for Jose Manuel’s glasses and Clara’s new shoes for school”.

With ever so much of a spring in his step, he approaches the foreman.

He sticks out his hand to receive his pay.

$10.

It’s the standard, but he worked from 5 AM to 5 PM and the older workers from Oaxaca worked for one hour. How unfair to all be paid the same thing!

GRACE is hard to understand.

My sister and I were driving to lunch after church. A Ke$ha song came on the radio. In the song there is a line where she refers to Jefferey Dahmer. My sister is 17 and dramatic. She slammed off the radio, turned to me and asked “did you know that Jefferey Dahmer was converted in prison?!”

” Yes”, I said. “And?”

“And? And HE’s going to be in HEAVEN with US!”

Intrigued by her horror at the very thought, I went to to Google on a fact finding quest when I got home. I found an article by Roy Ratcliff, the Chaplain who had played a vital part in Dahmer’s conversion.

After reading the article, I don’t doubt Dahmer’s sincerity, but I understand my sister’s feelings about sharing her heaven with a known killer.

People questioned Ratcliff about the sincerity of Dahmer’s faith. He says

“ the questioner always seemed to hope I’d answer ‘no, he wasn’t sincere.’

The questioner seemed to be looking for a way to reject Jeffrey as a brother in Christ instead of seeing him as a sinner who has come to God.”

Ratcliff describes the moment he knew Dahmer was sincere in his faith. They had just finished that week’s Bible study. As Ratcliff rose to leave, Dahmer asked him if  he was sinning against God by continuing to live, when he should have been put to death by the state for what he had done.

Ratcliffe says

“ After that, how could I question Jeff’s sincerity? Jeff wanted to please God. He knew he had done terrible things and he needed me to tell him that his life mattered regardless.”

Grace is HARD to understand.

The idea of undeserved mercy is, in and of itself a mystery. When grace is given freely, in equal amounts to those of us who have put in years of faith and deeds and to those who accept this mercy at the end of a life filled with horrible acts, or of a life lived in apathy, grace seems not only mysterious, but unfair.

This mystery doesn’t have to lean to the extreme, either. A student who has found a way to cheat and cut corners in class may end up with the same grade as the most honest and hardest-working student in the class.

A crooked business person with no life objective other than to step on people to make money may prosper in the extreme, while a hard-working single mother of three balances two jobs to provide for her family and try to save for a better life for her children.

Grace IS hard to understand.

The workers who have been sent into the vineyard know these hard to grasp parts of grace first-hand. Those hired first, at sun-up, who have put in a full days’ work in the heat of the day can’t wrap their minds around it:

at the close of a hard days’ work, they have been made equal with people who spent an entire day standing idle in the marketplace and worked only an hour in the coolest part of the day.

And that’s not fair.

The owner asks the last workers, “Why have you been standing idle in the marketplace?”

They answer, “Because no one hired us.”

Why did no one hire them? Maybe they didn’t look productive enough. Maybe they had handicaps of some sort. Maybe they were from the wrong side of town.

The vineyard owner represents Jesus and those called to work in the vineyard represent Jesus’ disciples, chosen by Christ to work in his kingdom.

The last workers represent those whom Jesus welcomed into his kingdom, even when no one else would.
They are the tax collectors, prostitutes, and  the rest of society’s untouchables.

That’s the most disturbing part of the first worker’s complaint. He obviously did more work just by being there longer, not to mention, he was hired among those first selected.

Most of his resentment comes, not from missing out on a bonus he felt he deserved, but from being made EQUAL with the worst of the bunch.

Imagine being a disciple of Jesus and hearing this parable.

YOU, who have spent countless days traveling with the Lord and learning from him, having left family and friends just to be with him,

You hear the message loud and clear: the last will be first and the first will be last.

Those rejected on the earth by society, perhaps at times even by you, the disciple, will receive an equal share of the grace given you…

AND, they will receive it first.

That seems unfair. But, the good news for the disciples is at the beginning of this parable. Jesus begins  with the words “for the kingdom of heaven is like…”

Jesus is saying that the community of believers of all kinds (from those who have served for years to those who have only one hour of service) is like this group of people who are made equal by God in Christ at the last judgment.

And you can be a part of it.
The good news for the disciples is that they get to embrace
the tax collectors
the prostitutes
the sinners.

The tax-collectors and sinners, in turn get to experience the good news of God’s grace that extends to everyone, equally.

The first worker in the vineyard should take this as good news too!

An appropriate response to the realization that God’s grace extends equally to everyone should be a shift from a complaint of unfairness, to gratitude for an undeserved mercy.

And that’s the good news for us too. Jesus walks the streets extending his mercy to the unwanted.

We can bring the grace of God to society’s unwanted.

The beauty of Jesus’ words is that we don’t have to understand grace to be a part of it.

God gives us the strength to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us, to show compassion to the least deserving, to stand with the oppressed, to give to the poor, and to defend the weak.

The challenge for us is to examine our lives for areas in which we have withheld grace from someone, and reconcile those areas.

Have you ever pulled up to a red light and seen a person on the curb holding up a sign that says “hungry” or “homeless” ?  You’re sitting there, shifting  uncomfortably, or pretending  to look for spare change in your car. Maybe you capitalize on the opportunity to neaten your car a little, thankful for the excuse to avoid eye contact with him. You think to yourself, perhaps audibly, “PLEASE, traffic light? PLEASE turn green so I can GO!”

So awkward.

What if it doesn’t have to be awkward?

What if being generous with grace simply involves a shift?

Instead of frantically searching for change to give to the person, as an afterthought, what if I made room for him in my grocery budget, thinking ahead to stock my car with a few tuna kits and bottles of water?

I pull up to the light. Instead of avoiding eye contact, I wait for his eyes to meet mine.

He makes his way over as I roll down my window and hand him a tuna kit and a bottle of water.

As he takes them from my hands, his eyes say “thank you for seeing me”.

We share a smile.

As I drive away, Jesus says “thank you for sharing my grace”.

We can be generous with grace.

We can stand with the accused while we embrace the ones seeking justice and an end to their pain.

We can minister to those who buy companionship in red light districts while we defend the rights of the ones being used.

We can stand united in prayer with Christians who are being persecuted, praying for their deliverance while we pray for the hearts of their oppressors.

Grace is hard to understand, and grace is ours to share.

As we contemplate what our response should be to the grace that covers us, let’s remember that everyone is  equal in God’s eyes.  Let’s let our lives reflect our gratitude for this grace in the words that we say and the things that we do.

Let’s be people who pray for the strength to see everyone we meet as an equal recipient of God’s grace; and let’s always be grateful for this mysterious gift.

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