Gospel Freakonomics

Sermon preached September 18, 2011

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

So how are you doing? Last week we heard of a challenge being given by and to churches in our area to be good neighbors, to rediscover the art of neighboring. It begins with the simple act of getting to know those who are your neighbors, of asking the Fred Rogers question – “won’t you be my neighbor?” If you want to see others who are asking this question go to the site www.buildingblocks.us and enter your address. I will post this site on our church blog accessible from the web site and it will be in the text of my sermon when that is posted later this week.
Neighboring is such a nice concept. It kind of gives you that warm feeling. It evokes images of Mr. Rogers neighborhood. Yet just when we want to talk about such a positive topic, the lectionary gospel reading takes us into more conflicted territory. Jesus tells a story and he gets political. Politics is generally not the first conversation you want to have with your neighbor.
It is obvious here that Jesus is supportive of Tea Party Republicans. In the story the landowner says: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Get the government off the backs of the job creators. Shouldn’t we be allowed to do what we want with what belongs to us – sounds like less regulation, lower taxes.
It is obvious that Jesus is supportive of left-leaning Democrats. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” There is a concern here for those on the lower end of the social and economic spectrum. Jesus may even be a closet socialist. At the end of the day, everyone gets paid the same – to each according to their need. That was what the daily wage was, a subsistence wage. Had those who worked only part of the day not been paid the daily wage, there would not have been enough.
If “freakonomics” is the application of economic theory to diverse subjects not usually considered from an economic point of view, perhaps what we have in this story is “gospel freakonomics” – a story that pushes us beyond some typical ways of thinking about life.
Think with this story for a while. It is a convoluted and difficult story in many ways. It is harvest time, and I am guessing that there is some urgency when grapes need to be harvested. A landowner hires workers, and it seems a laborers market on one sense – more work than workers. The landowner agrees to pay the workers who he first hires the usual daily wage. The basic story line, wherein laborers get paid the same amount of money at the end of the day regardless of how long they worked violates our sense of fairness. The justification provided by the landowner, that he can do whatever he pleases with what is his, strikes me as capricious.
How can this story, then, tell us anything very helpful about the kingdom of God? Yet Jesus says it does – and here is one way I think it does. The story suggests that at some very fundamental level we are all valued just because we are, and this “being valued” is grace, and grace really takes us beyond easy calculations like those normally used in paying wages.
Grace – gospel freakonomics is about grace and grace says that not all of life fits into the categories of earning and deserving. Our fundamental relationship with God is one of grace, not of earning and deserving. Sometimes grace is defined as unmerited favor – that is getting something we don’t deserve. That may be part of grace, but I think grace is more radical than that. It explodes the calculus of earning and deserving.
Grace. Here is a rather sophisticated, yet at the same time beautiful understanding of grace. Bernard Meland, Fallible Forms and Symbols: The nexus of relationships that forms our existence… is given. We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining (151). With life itself comes goodness that we do not create, but from which we benefit. None of us willed our own births. That we are is grace. The love and care of a parent for a child does not fit well in any kind of calculation of deserving or earning. Who earns the beautiful orange full moon over the lake we have witnessed this week? It just is and that we see it is grace. Late this week, Eleanor Mondale and Kara Kennedy, both 51, died. Both had suffered from cancer. That I am here at age 52 is grace
Beauty, goodness, love come to us outside any calculation of earning or deserving, and the most powerful instance of this is God’s love toward us. It is present in our lives without our willing, earning or “deserving.” Theologian Daniel Day Williams puts it well. What makes the Christian gospel good news is its proclamation of the reality of God’s redeeming grace. A new life can come into being within the present wrong and failure, the bitter injustice and despair. (God’s Grace and Man’s Hope, 62). That is the essence of the Christian good news, that God’s love continues to touch our lives with beauty and goodness outside any calculations of earning or deserving. Gospel freakonomics.
I want to press on this just a bit more. Many of us still have somewhere deep inside of us this sense that God’s love is something to be earned and deserved. Often into our discussions of faith we hear the language of being “good enough” creep in. I was struck by this recently when I officiated at a funeral, not someone from here. The man who had died was someone for whom I was a pastor earlier in my ministry. He was a genuinely good and kind person, a real gem. As I was visiting with someone before the service, this person said about the man who died, “if he doesn’t get into heaven who will?” I understand where he is coming from, and our Christian faith is intended to mold and shape us toward goodness, kindness, and love. Yet the underlying narrative in that remark is that our ultimate acceptance by God is something to be earned, deserved. Gospel freakonomics says that isn’t so. Our ultimate acceptance by God is about grace.
I am going to press even further. For many of us, we may have some comfort with the idea of a calculus of deserving God’s acceptance. We look at our lives and see an overall balance of good over bad. We are kind. We try to do the right thing. We are like those workers hired at the beginning of the day, and we have done our work appropriately.
Even if our calculus comes out o.k., we may worry about the equation at some point, or worry that some past event that we have put behind us may come back to haunt us. And what if in someone’s life there is that kind of haunting event from the past. Perhaps someone who has struggled and overcome chemical addiction of some kind still carries shame for something done while under the influence and they wonder if they will ever be acceptable. As a member of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry I attended a workshop this week on compulsive behavior among clergy, especially related to adult sites on the internet. One phrase from the workshop was the “creeping ubiquity” of internet porn. So what if someone who has struggled with such issues carries images in their head which still create shame and they wonder if they will ever be ultimately acceptable? What if you once sent a picture or text with your cell phone that still haunts you and you wonder if you will ever be acceptable? Sufferers of abuse are often filled with shame not easily shaken. They wonder if they will ever be acceptable. For some people, maybe for some of us, the sense that there is a calculus for acceptance by God is discomforting. We feel will never make it, no matter how good we are from here on out. We carry our past like a millstone, maybe well-hidden, but still there.
The good news is for us all – that God’s love for us and acceptance of us is not based on a calculus, it is based on grace which operates outside of the calculus of deserving and earning. For some people that is the best news they have ever heard. You are loved and accepted by God just as you are! Gospel freakonomics – grace even if we arrived in the fields late.
Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace offers these words about this grace that really is amazing. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him…. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we’ve run. And maybe that is one reason we worship – to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own. (151) God has faith in us! God has called us God’s own!
But we began talking about neighboring – where did we lose our way? We didn’t. Christian neighboring begins with grace. It begins with who we are and how we are, knowing that we are loved and accepted and welcomed by God. It begins with letting that grace sink into the depths of our hearts and souls, even into those wounded places and dark places inside of us. As grace does its work in us we are made different. We receive grace and we live more graciously – we live more kindly toward others, including the neighbors we have.
Know grace. Be gracious. Be a gracious neighbor. Two anecdotes. When trying to explain grace as compassion, one person tells a story about a homeless person he encounters almost every day. The homeless man is trying to be resourceful by selling newspapers. Everyday the man who passes by stops to buy a paper, though he doesn’t need one. Not only does he buy the paper, but he tells the homeless man to keep it so he can sell it to someone else (Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, 130). This isn’t about earning or deserving, it is about grace. Mother Teresa once said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Do you always check to see if the person you are smiling at deserves a smile that day? Don’t you just sort of give them out? That’s grace.
Grace is given us. Let it sink in. Give grace back, including to your neighbors. Practice Gospel freakonomics. Amen.