Saturday, July 26, 2014

“When God’s Justice Is Difficult to Accept”

            Quite frankly, I struggle with our scripture for this Sunday (July 27).  The scripture is Matthew 20: 1-16, which tells Jesus’ parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard”. 

            This parable is about the owner of a vineyard, who goes out early in the morning and hires workers for the day.  The owner and laborers agree upon compensation of one denarius for the day.  This was the usual daily wage rate at Jesus’ time, although this wage was barely enough to maintain a family at a subsistence level.  Several hours later—around 9 o’clock—the owner sees some other laborers idly sitting around the village marketplace.  When he discovers that no one offered to employ these workers, the vineyard owner hires them for the day and sends them out to his vineyard to join with those already working.  To this second group of workers, starting a few hours after the first group, the owner promises to pay:  “What is right.”

            As the parable continues, the vineyard owner goes out and hires additional workers at 12 noon, again at 3 pm, and finally some even at 5 pm.  When evening comes, the laborers gather up to receive their pay.  The owner first calls up those who didn’t begin working until 5 in the afternoon.  Each member of this group receives 1 denarius—the equivalent of a full day’s pay.  Seeing how much the 5 o’clock group has been paid, the workers who have been in the vineyard since sunrise assume that they will be paid significantly more than the usual day wage of 1 denarius.

            One by one, the vineyard owner calls up each group and each man gets the same compensation, 1 denarius, regardless of how long they worked in the field.  The first group, who have been laboring in the hot sun all day long, assumes that they will be paid more than the standard of 1 denarius per day.  Even though the customary wage rate is 1 denarius per day, the first group assumes that they will be paid more because they have labored all day long and the owner is already giving 1 denarius to those who worked for just one hour.

            When the first group complains to the owner, he reminds them that they had eagerly agreed to work all day in the vineyard for 1 denarius.  Then, he says:  “‘Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last [group] the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’” 

            Now, here’s where I struggle with this passage:  I agree with the first group of workers who labored all day under the hot sun.  Even though the customary wage-rate is 1 denarius, it seems unfair that the early bird workers get paid the same amount as latter groups of workers who did not work for nearly as long.  This violates the fundamental principle of justice as fairness which states that we should always treat equals, equally.  For instance, we do not believe it is fair to pay a man a higher salary than a woman, just because he happens to be male.  There should be equal pay for equal work, but in the parable the level of work is not equal.  So, it is not just or fair that those who worked 12 hours in the vineyard get the same wage as those who worked for only 1 hour.

            Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus probably told this parable as a means for explaining and justifying his willingness to accept tax collectors, prostitutes, and others who were outsiders in the Jewish culture at the time.  So, the point of Jesus’ parable was not to offer commentary on economic justice, as important as that topic is.  Rather, Jesus intends for us to hear his parable a pointing to a greater and deeper spiritual truth. 

            The key to interpreting this parable lies in the way Jesus concludes his telling of the story.  Jesus concludes by observing:  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, C. Eugene Boring observes, “The ‘first’ and ‘last’ in Matthew’s view both refer to insiders [in the Church], to Christians who have worked long and faithfully, and latecomers who have not.”[i]  In the parable, our relationship with God is based upon God’s generous, overflowing grace.  Our relationship is not based upon longevity or how hard we have labored to help build God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

            For many Christians, this is a difficult message to hear.  In my case, I was born and nurtured in the Church.  I have been a Christian all of my life—and an ordained pastor for over 30 years.  I clearly see myself as an “early bird” worker in the vineyard.  It’s just human nature to believe that I am entitled to some status and special treatment because “I have earned it.”  Yet, that’s not the way God thinks.  God’s grace extends to everyone and all of us are specially loved by God.  We do not earn God’s grace and love so much as we simply receive it.

            This is a difficult truth for me to accept, as well as many others, who have been a faithful part of a certain congregation for a long time.  Slowly, subtly, we drift from seeing it as “Jesus’ church” to thinking of it as “our church.”  We find our niche and become very comfortable. 

In vital, growing congregations, this can create unique challenges and difficulties.  As new persons become members of our community of faith, they bring new perspectives and new ways of doing things.  In short, they have new ideas.  Sometimes, we may need to step aside from positions of responsibility and power in order to make room for these newcomers who have new ideas.  We catch ourselves saying, “But, we’ve never done it like that before.” 

Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard is intended for those of us who have been long-standing “pillars” of our congregations.  This parable reminds us that the church does not belong to us, but rather to God.  It tells us that sometimes the most faithful response is to try something new and different or to step aside from a position which we have served in forever.

            As someone who would be one of the first laborers in the vineyard, this is a difficult parable to accept.  In my struggles, I have found “The Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition” to be a source of solace and perspective:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.[ii]

           Come, join us this Sunday, July 27th.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] C. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8.  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), Accessed on CD_ROM.
[ii] The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), No. 607.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Bravery of the Flawed"

         As we celebrate American Independence this weekend, our summer worship series shifts its attention to the Christian value of bravery.  Bravery is frequently portrayed as a core characteristic of American patriotism.  At the same time, it should also be included as an essential Christian virtue.  Afterall, it takes great bravery to become a martyr for one’s faith as many Christians have done from the persecution of the early Church by the Romans down through the ages until the present time.

            Over the past few weeks, we have been using popular, cartoon feature films by Disney to explore core Christian values in a series we have called, “Films, Fun, & Faith.”  To explore the Christian value of bravery, we are examining the film, Planes, this weekend.  Planes tells the story of “Dusty Crophopper,” a plane designed for agricultural crop dusting.  However, Dusty is not content being “only” a crop dusting aircraft.  Rather, he aspires to be a racing plane and to compete in the upcoming “Wings Across the Globe” air race.

            Unfortunately, Dusty suffers from a fear of heights.  So, the film, Planes, revolves around the story of Dusty overcoming his fear of heights in order to win the prestigious “Wings Across the Globe” air race.  Although well done, Planes follows a standard plot line in which bravery is depicted through a relatively young protagonist overcoming a particular fear or challenge in order to obtain a highly valued goal.  Although I recognize the validity of conceiving bravery in this way, I would like to explore a different understanding of bravery this weekend. 

I call this alternative understanding the bravery of the flawed.  To develop our thinking about bravery of the flawed, we will not focus on the character Dusty, but rather his mentor, “Skipper.”  Skipper is a broken down Navy war plane.  Although he has not flown for decades, Skipper enjoys regaling any listeners he can find with stories of his battle exploits during World War II.  Yet, at the same time, Skipper is hiding a deep, dark secret.  During the air race around the world, Dusty inadvertently discovers Skipper’s secret.

            Skipper’s dark secret is that he actually only flew one mission during the war.  Disobeying orders from his commander, Skipper led a whole squadron of trainees into an ambush by the Japanese Navy, resulting in the deaths of every single trainee, with only Skipper escaping.  In a poignant moment in the film, Skipper confesses to Dusty and then apologizes for misleading him.

            Skipper’s role in Planes does not end with his confession to Dusty.  Later in the film, Skipper must summon the bravery in order rescue Dusty from an attack by three competitor planes in the air race, who are literally trying to destroy the small crop-duster.  Once rescued from the attacking competitors, Dusty is able to overcome his fear of heights and win the race.

              I believe that there are some striking similarities between the story of Skipper in Planes and the story of Samson in the Bible.  (See the Book of Judges 13-16.)  At this point in its history, Israel is led individuals called “Judges.”  These Judges provided religious, civil, and military leadership as Israel developed as a nation-state.  From before his birth, God sets aside Samson as a Judge to lead Israel.  God blesses Samson with special gifts to lead his people, including an incredible physical strength. 

Unfortunately, Samson is unfaithful to God and the people of Israel whom he has been called to lead.  Ultimately, Samson is betrayed by his wife, who shaved his head and thus negated his superhuman strength.  Thus weakened, Samson was easily captured by the Philistines who were enemies of Israel.  The Philistines, then, gouged out Samson’s eyes and humiliated him by forcing him to perform for them during their religious festival.

At this festival, Samson prays that God will return his strength one last time.  With his strength renewed, Samson bravely collapses the pillars holding up the roof of the Philistine temple.  When the roof collapses it kills thousands of Philistines, as well as Samson himself.

Just as Skipper in the fictional film, Planes, so also Samson is a tragically flawed historical figure.  Samson has been given extraordinary gifts by God and called by God to the special roles as Judge.  Samson fritters away his gifts and is unfaithful towards God and the people of Israel.  In a moment of truth, Just as the fictional plane, Skipper, so also Samson must confess his shortcomings and repent from his sins, before finding the courage to perform the role which he was created to fulfill.

Although bravery is usually depicted as the story of Dusty the crop-duster, for most of us our reality is more akin to Skipper and to Samson.  Just like these two characters, so also we are flawed persons.  We have weaknesses; we have regrets; we have not always done as much with our talents and opportunities as we should have.  In theological terms, we are sinners.  Yet, despite our flawed characters, God offers us forgiveness, healing, and a second chance to be brave in the things that really matter.  This is the bravery of the flawed, and God calls us to develop this virtue of a “flawed bravery.”

Come, join us this Sunday, July 6th, as we explore what it means to be brave.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  We will also watch and discuss the film, Planes on Sunday afternoon, beginning at 5 pm. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.