How Odd

Sermon preached September 21, 2014

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16


“How Odd” Power Point with

How odd.  A while back I was reading some essays by E.B. White, the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, who was also an essayist and editor and contributor to The New Yorker.  In one of his essays he writes: “I discovered , though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.”  (Essays of E. B. White, 25).  I posted this on Facebook on Friday with the comment – “I’ll take his word for it.”  How odd.

We, though, as followers of Jesus should be no strangers to strangeness, nor to oddity.  Jesus often told stories with odd dimensions to them to provoke our deeper thinking.  He wanted his stories to so grab hold of us that there would be no turning back, no chance of resuming stereotyped roles.

Today’s story is no exception.  A land owner is in need of workers for his vineyard.  He goes out early in the day and hires workers, agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage.  He hires more workers at nine, noon, three, and five.  At the end of the work day, the owner wants to settle accounts.  He has his manager pay the workers, beginning with those hired last.  Seems like an odd choice.  These workers receive the daily wage.  We don’t hear about any of the other workers, except for those who were hired at the beginning of the day, who signed on to work for the usual daily wage.  You get the impression, though, that the others had been getting that same daily wage.  In any event, after waiting their turn, and beginning to anticipate a bonus for their long day of work, they are paid what they agreed to work for, the usual daily wage.

Their response is not unreasonable.  They grumbled.  “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  The owner replies that he has not done them wrong.  He kept the contract agreed to.  He then adds: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

There is a strangeness to this story, many odd elements.  We noted one, that the owner paid the last hired first, almost as if he wanted those who worked first to see what he was doing.  The understandable reaction of the workers seems denigrated in the story.  The owner may have been generous to those last hired, but he would not have been considered generous by those first hired.  He may have been “fair” but not generous with these workers.  The owner comes across as a mixed bag – generous, manipulative, capricious.  He is not very well-schooled in understanding human behavior.  His system of payment might encourage workers to seek to be hired later in the day.

Here’s another oddity.  If you want to try and apply Jesus story to current political economy, you could get two very different directions.  On the one hand, the story could support a decent minimum wage for all.  The usual daily wage in the time of Jesus was really a subsistence wage.  It was just enough to get by.  Those who got hired early in the day should, at some level, been glad that those families of the workers hired later in the day would have enough.  Less pay would have meant some kind of deprivation.  On the other hand, the story gives great latitude to the job creator.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  Who should tell this entrepreneur what he has to do with what belongs to him?  It seems this story may not be much help as we go to the polls in November.

So what’s up with this odd little tale?  I think this story is really trying to tell us that there are some things that just don’t fit into calculations of deserving, and God’s grace is one of them.  God offers love freely and generously to all, and never gives up offering it.  God’s love is not something we “deserve” except in the sense that we all deserve to be loved, which really means that we need some sense of being loved in our lives to become the full and rich people we can be, to become our creative best.

I think of the theological reflection on Bernard Meland about human existence.  Meland notes that we are born into a “nexus of relationships.”  He goes on: 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 meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defnining. (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151)  The tragedy of life is that some come into a nexus of relationships that is not very healthy.  All the news about child abuse and mistreatment this week arises because we know how painful and scarring mistreatment can be for children as they grow into adulthood.  The good news is that God is also always a part of that nexus of relationships, offering opportunities for healing, growth, redemption.

In Jesus story, there are also echoes of an older story from his tradition.  In Exodus, the Israelites are none too pleased about their travel accommodations.  They complained to Moses and Aaron, wishing to be back in Egypt where at least there was bread and meat.  All they see now is wilderness, desert.  God responds.  “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread.” Quail provided meat, and a kind of thin bread was given, though they thought it odd.  And each day, there is just enough for that day.  And this is grace.

Frederick Buechner: The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you. (Wishful Thinking).

In another essay, Buechner also writes movingly about grace, about the experience of grace. Not every moment of our lives, Heaven knows, but at certain rare moments of greenness and stillness, we are shepherded by the knowledge that though all is far from right with any world you or I know anything about, all is right deep down. (The Clown in the Belfry, 113)  This is grace.

This is grace.  God offers love freely and generously to all, and never gives up offering it.  God’s love is not something we “deserve” except in the sense that we all deserve to be loved, which really means that we need some sense of being loved in our lives to become the full and rich people we can be, to become our creative best.  Grace is God’s constant offer of that love.

In his book Calm Surrender, Bemidji writer Kent Nerburn shares two memories that help him think about God and forgiveness and grace.  The first story he recalls is about the child of a friend, seven months old. Nerburn writes about visiting his friend, and his bond with the child.  I would cradle him in my arms; he would grasp me tightly. We would stand together, a man in the full strength and awareness of midlife, and a child in the dawning of his days, sharing a warmth and a trust that overcame all differences of biology and chronology, and made us, for a moment, two people with a common heart. (128)  The second memory is of time spent with an elderly aunt.  We had cared about each other, but there had been no deep sharing of the intimacies of each other’s lives. But on her deathbed, something changed.  When I came to visit her, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to each other….  She craved my presence, and I, hers.  I would sit by her bedside, holding her hand, telling her what I knew about different religion’s beliefs about death, asking her about the uncharted landscape she was exploring moment by moment, and simply being present to the mysterious power of her dying.  As I left her the last time… we simply held each other. (129)

Nerburn reflects: Neither of these events was momentous. They were the common clay of everyday life.  But, each, in its own way, spoke the same fundamental truth.  Here I was, at the peak of my powers in life, having been blessed with the opportunity to be present to two people – one at the beginning of life, one at the end of the journey – who were physically helpless but spiritually guileless and pure of heart.  And, in each case, what they sought most from me, and I from them, was to be held.  Anything else we would have shared would not have meant as much. (129-130)

To be held, this is grace.  We are held in God’s embrace.  And just a quick word – this being held by God changes us, transforms our lives.  If we really let ourselves be held by God in grace there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.  It may even have an impact on our social lives and politics.  Accountability matters.  Doing good matters.  But is there some floor below which we will do our best as a human community not to let anyone fall below?  What might that look like and how might we best get there?  That is another topic for another day.

Grace transforms, but we need to let it.  The problem with those workers in the story of Jesus is that they missed the opportunity to see grace.  They started calculating what is essentially incalculable.  What is the price of being held?  And the problem with the Israelites is that they, too, had trouble seeing grace. “What is it?”

This is your life, you might not have been, but you are, and this is grace.  There are moments when amidst all the chaos and pain of the world, you know a deep down rightness, and this is grace.  Something inside of you gives you the strength and courage to hold someone else, and this is grace.  And you are held, and this is grace.

And just like giving a pig an enema, grace changes us.  There is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.  How odd of God to keep offering us that grace, to keep holding us, embracing us.  How utterly odd.  How utterly beautiful.  Amen.