The Giveaway God
September 18, 2005 (Proper 20A)
St. Alban's Chapel,
Text: Matthew 20:1 - 16
First, a few personal observations about Katrina.
I'm aware of my own inability to concentrate normally right now. And I'm told that's normal. All the studies show that it's normal behavior to have trouble concentrating following a disaster of this magnitude. It's number three on the list of 'normal' responses to a disaster.
Just between you and me, I don't think I want to be told "that's normal" anymore, especially from an out-of-state expert. In fact, I'm with Mary Landrieu. I'm going to punch the next person who tells me I'm behaving normally.
I'm also irritable. "Well, that's normal."
Okay, I've also started playing with dolls and skipping across the campus. "That's normal too."
Please leave me the dignity of being just a little abnormal!
This crisis we're in is not normal. It's not normal for our church to fail to give people who've experienced a great loss focused attention. Under normal circumstances, if someone in this church lost a home, a job, a loved one, they would be given the dignity of people stopping their activity long enough to focus on them -- to sit down with them, to listen to all the details of their story, to mourn with them. Normally, their story would be given the dignity of being set apart as unusual: "Did you hear about Ben and Elaine? A tree fell on their house." But when you have city full of evacuees, the needs, the stories, -- they are just overwhelming. What's another story about a tree falling on a house? It's just one more story. I was standing in the barbecue line here yesterday and an old friend was telling me how they'd lost their home. My response: "Hmmmm. Any cole slaw?"
And there' so much that needs to be done: apartments to be found, supplies to be moved, homes to be rebuilt, people to be RESCUED! If you are at all given to workaholism -- or if you have any sort of a Messiah Complex -- this is your day to shine!
I've just rambled into our gospel reading for today -- one of Jesus' parables.
Who are these "first laborers"?
In this parable, a landowner goes out early in the morning to find workers. At daybreak, he hires a group of laborers -- the "first laborers" -- and these people work from sunup to sundown. They bear the scorching heat of the sun all day. And it's these "first laborers" who come to the landowner at the end of the story and complain that the latecomers got paid the same wage, even though they only worked an hour.
I know exactly who these "first laborers" are. Let me just make this clear and simple. These first laborers are all first children.. The parable doesn't say anything about birth order, but trust me. I'm a first child myself. That's exactly who these people are. We first children tend to have an overdeveloped sense of duty, responsibility, and fair play.
Do you remember the TV series Bonanza? (Okay, so this isn't the deepest sermon that I've ever preached in my life.) Who was the older son on Bonanza? Adam, right? (Get it? Adam.) Adam was the oldest and Little Joe was the youngest. Adam was always out working all day on the ranch; Little Joe was always goofing off with the ponies, writing poetry, and falling in love. And every other episode old Ben Cartwright would call Adam into his study and tell him, "Adam, a cow stepped on Little Joe's foot" or "Little Joe's gone and gotten himself kidnapped. You go rescue him." That's the whole show. Adam finally had to leave the show because he got so sick of rescuing Little Joe. That's what first children do.
These first laborers, these first children, have put in a responsible days work, eight to five. These first laborers are also keeping careful track of their and everyone else's work hours. They're concerned about fairness and so they complain to the landowner (Almighty God), "This is no way to run a vineyard!" These "first laborers" are all older brothers and sisters who do the responsible thing all day long but then resent the mother or father extending grace to their younger siblings.
What is behind that kind of complaint? What drives us to work dutifully and then resent others being paid? What makes someone go to God and grumble that He's passing out grace too carelessly?
Perhaps there's connection between that behavior and our view of God?
Denethor, High Steward of Gondor
Do you remember the character Denethor from The Lord of the Rings? (I'm allowed three Tolkien illustrations a year. Here's number one.) Denethor was the High Steward of Gondor, charged with ruling the largest and greatest
And the hosts of Mordor, the evil armies of Sauron the Great, are closing in on Gondor. The day has come when the land must have a king to lead them or they'll be overrun. But Denethor is locked away, depressed and despairing over his first son, the son that he loved.
But he has a younger son -- Faramir. Faramir is brave and ready to lead the armies of Gondor. He stands before his father, the King. All he needs is his father's blessing. All he wants is a bit of the same grace the Denethor so gladly gave to his first son. But Denethor turns his head away and refuses to give out any more grace.
Is God like that?
Who Is This Landowner?
How is God portrayed in this parable that Jesus tells? This parable is primarily concerned with the travel and hiring habits of the landowner. It's about a man who makes five different trips to town to hire workers. The parable begins: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning . . . . That's when these "first laborers" are hired. But then, at 9:00, the landowner goes out searching again and hires more. At noon, when you might think he'd be back in his mansion, the landowner heads for town again. Then, at 3:00, he makes another trip. And as the workday comes to an end, at 5:00, he makes one final trip into town, still hoping to find a last group to bring in.
This landowner spends much of the day on the road. He won't stop taking trips into town. He won't stop hiring. He can't seem to stop extending his grace, all day long. He goes into town in order to get people out into his fields. He doesn't seem concerned about anybody earning anything. He won't be satisfied until everyone is in the vineyard.
The Bible describes a God who refuses to leave us alone. This God pursues us. He comes out after u, wanting to extend his grace to us. His grace is given in the morning. But his grace is also given as the sun goes down. That's the way the New Testament describes God.
The Giveaway God
I'll close with a story right out of the life of our congregation. As you know, we've had the Common Hall stocked with school supplies, toiletries, clothes and various items for these displaced students who've enrolled at LSU from Dillard, UNO, Xavier, Tulane, and Loyola (about 3000 of them). Most of the time we've had parishioners in there to welcome students as they come in and look around. Last week, in the middle of all this activity, I asked Laurie, our administrator, to go to the store and buy four standing lamps for the loft. (It's too dark up there.) So she came back with these halogen lamps that throw light upwards -- very nice -- maybe $80 each. And she brought one of them into the office to put it together. Later in the day, she comes in and tells me that the other three are missing out of the Common Hall!
I just couldn't believe it. "Here we are in the middle of a national disaster. We've been working 8 - 5 to provide these evacuees with supplies. We paid for all this stuff. (Okay. We didn't pay for it. It was mostly out-of-state donations.) But we moved it. We organized it. And some evacuee comes into the church and steals our three brand new lamps. We've been looted!" (I was on a rant and storming around the office.)
Then an older and wiser parishioner who was in the office said, "Perhaps they thought the lamps were part of the school supplies." Hmmmm.
These halogen lamps have become an object of theological reflection for me. I still don't really know what happened. But now I'm picturing the scene differently. This is what I now choose to believe happened. Some displaced student sees a sign about free school supplies. They go into the Common Hall and get a bunch of paper and notebooks. They see these boxed lamps and they think, "I don't have a lamp. I don't even have a desk. God is good."
And I also choose to believe that this student goes walking back through campus with their school supplies and an $80 boxed, Halogen lamp on his shoulder. And he runs into his friends and exclaims to them, "Man, you wouldn't believe this church. Not only are they giving away school supplies. They're giving away lamps and chairs and tables and couches. You gotta get over there. They are SO generous! God is good!"
We may not really be like that. But isn't it a wonderful image? Isn't that what you'd want people to believe about the church. I choose to imagine these waves of students heading towards St. Alban's, awed by God's generosity and grace. That's how the Bible describes God.
God is still going out into the marketplace, extending his grace. God is still searching, pursuing, seeking to give away his love freely from sunrise to sunset.
And the first children are still back in that office counting the lamps.