"God's Strange Generosity" - Pentecost 16A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener - Pentecost 16A
Delivered On
September 24, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Matthew 20:1-16

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: September 24, 2017; Pentecost 16A

Exodus 16:2-18; Matthew 20:1-16


God’s Strange Generosity


“I have done everything I’ve been asked to do! I didn’t understand it, but I’ve done it! And I haven’t once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?”!”

            “What are you saying, Ray?”

            “I’m saying, ‘What’s in it for me?’”[1]


            This little snippet of dialogue from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams illustrates well our desire for work and reward to correspond. Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer, opens himself to public ridicule by plowing under his corn to build a baseball diamond. He does this in response to a voice and a vision. After Ray builds the field; after long journeys to both Boston and Chisholm, Minnesota; after enduring pressure to sell from his brother-in-law; he is outraged to learn that he is not invited to go with the players “out in the corn”. Confronting the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, he demands to know what all his efforts are going to yield for him.


            Like Ray, we can also wonder what’s in it for us. What’s in the Christian life for us? Why should we have faith in God, give our time and treasure to our local congregation and to other ministries, serve on councils and committees, teach and serve others? I can tell you that eternal life with God is in it for you based on God’s grace alone, but that can feel awfully remote to us. The world to come feels so distant; the world now presses in on us with its concerns. And if the reward is based on God’s grace and has nothing to do with what I can do, then what’s the point of serving God in the first place? Why not take my ticket to heaven and do what I want to do in the meantime?


            Jesus tells a story that addresses those questions. It’s a story with a strange main character – a landowner with a vineyard. There is an urgency to him. He keeps going into town to hire more workers, even going one hour before quitting time to bring in more people. There are quite a number of unemployed people standing idle at different times of the day. And at the end of the day, he does something that seems totally bizarre; something that seems to ensure that he will never be able to hire someone for a full day’s work ever again. He orders his manager to pay everyone, beginning with the last hired and going to the first.


            It’s clear that the landowner wants to provoke a reaction. If he had wanted to be generous without causing a scene, he could have paid the last hired last. They would have been amazed at their good fortune and would have gone on their way. The first would have been none the wiser, assuming that they hadn’t run into the last paid in, say, the local watering hole on the way home! Everyone would have gone away more or less satisfied – the last because of the landowner’s grace, and the first because of the landowner’s fairness to them.


            But that’s not what happens. The landowner, like so many other authority figures in Matthew, has little regard for best economic practices. Just like the king who forgives a ridiculous amount of debt, the landowner takes no thought to how he will hire workers again after alienating those first hired. He simply does what he does. His mission is to get as many workers into the vineyard as he possibly can on that day, no matter when they come in. And his desire is to give everyone the same, no matter how much work they do. For this landowner, work does not correlate with reward. It isn’t a matter of how much a worker does. It is simply a matter of a worker being present by the end of the day.


            We can pause and ask where we see ourselves in this parable. There are several places and characters we might identify with, but I have a feeling that most of us identify with those first hired. Most of us, after all, have been part of the church our whole lives. Most of us were born and baptized as members of this congregation. Others of you who weren’t were faithful members of other congregations before coming to this one. We’ve done a lot that’s been asked of us. When we were asked to serve as an elder or a deacon or a trustee, we said, “Yes.” When we were asked to teach Sunday school or confirmation classes, we said, “Yes.” When we were told to bring our children to church to bring them up the right way, we said, “Yes.” When we’ve been asked to give a little more to the church to make up for shortfalls in the budget or to the Food Pantry or Grace Village or Wernle or Lutheran Disaster Response, we said, “Yes.” When Pr. David asked you to buy goofy yellow T-shirts for ‘God’s Work: Our Hands’ Day, many of you said, “Yes.” And we’re at a point in the history of this congregation when we may be asking, “What do we have to show for all these efforts over the years?” After all, people aren’t breaking our doors down to join. Many of our children have moved away. We don’t only ask, “What’s in it for us?” We also ask, “What difference have we made?” What’s the point of working in God’s vineyard at all if we cannot see the fruits of our labors? What’s the point of working in God’s vineyard if the reward doesn’t match the effort?


            The point is simply this: God has called us to work in his vineyard out of nothing but grace in the first place. It is God’s grace that brought us to baptismal waters, as infants, as children, or as adults. It is God’s grace that keeps bringing us back here, week after week, to hear God’s word and to receive God’s gifts at the table. It is God’s grace that calls you to God’s work in the world, whether at your work, or in your family, in other community organizations, or even among church councils and committees. As Luther remarked (and I’m paraphrasing), the Christian life is about simply serving God and neighbor, without expectation of reward, because God has already given us everything in Jesus Christ. Jesus has already taken on everything of ours – our human nature, with its mortality and weakness – to give us everything he has – righteousness, justification with God, and peace with each other. We all get the same, because the same is everything. All that Jesus has and is is everything that is or could possibly be worth having.


            So let’s not worry too much about what’s in it for us, or what difference we have made. Everything, both work and reward, are out of God’s grace – and nothing but that grace.


            Let us pray.


            Jesus, help us to let go of our need to see results. Help us to stop putting so much faith in our efforts, and to put faith in you and your promises fulfilled in yourself. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.


[1] Field of Dreams. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson. Performed by James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta Kevin Costner. 1989.