September 24, 2017 - Soli Gratia from the Reformation series


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Scripture: MATTHEW 20:1-16
Well, one thing is clear: there’s no way I want that landowner as my boss! Are you kidding me?! Work all day in the heat, do everything a good worker should do, and then, when payday comes, you’re paid exactly the same as these slackers who show up at the end of the day? You’d think, after the latecomers are paid what you’ve been told you’ll get, that you’ll be paid a lot more. And you’re not. So what gives? A first-grader can see that this story isn’t even close to fair. And any worker worth having is going to leave for another job. Employee loyalty? Hardly. Not with that patently unfair management.
So what are we to do with this story? We could just write it off as a mistake. Even Jesus, we suppose, might occasionally have missed the mark and laid an egg. Or maybe there’s something more than meets the eye here. Just maybe it’s not Jesus we should be doubting here, but rather ourselves. Maybe Jesus had something deeply right here and we’re invited to enter an odd and somewhat disturbing world.
Fairness, of course, is a core value in our culture. If there are three cookies left and two children, we teach them that neither child is entitled to the entire third cookie. They each get one, and they can split the third, or give it to someone else. But neither gets to hog it.
At work, too, we expect to be treated fairly. If one employee always shows up late or takes overly-long lunch breaks, we expect them to be reprimanded for it. If one team member does all the heavy lifting, it doesn’t seem right if everyone on the team gets exactly the same bonus or the same raise as the one who did the lion’s share of the work. We instinctively know if a parent has favored one of our siblings over us, or if a boss has given too much leeway to a colleague. And it irks us!
Fairness is a great virtue. We rightfully prize it. The thing is, it’s not the only virtue. And it may not even be the central one. The story Jesus tells about the laborers in the vineyard wrenches us out of what we think we know and leads us down a different path. Fairness may be fine, but the story suggests there’s something else that matters even more. And that’s grace.
“Grace” is a word that is central to Christian life, but also difficult to define. At our staff meeting this week, Mark Simone reminded us of a pithy phrase: “Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. Mercy is being spared what you do deserve.” That is, grace is a free gift, and mercy is a sort of forgiveness. That’s a clever and evocative distinction, but grace and mercy are really two sides of the same coin. They both represent God startling us with a surprise—overturning our expectations and giving us something that’s neither logical nor merited.
Even if we can’t easily define grace, we know ungrace when we see it. It’s all around us. To watch the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, as Mary and I have been doing this week, is to see a scarcity of grace. There was certainly heroism and bravery in that war, but it is largely overwhelmed by the vying and hatred and destruction that were so prevalent there. I find the series both riveting and distressing. War is so often ungrace.
Schools can be laboratories of ungrace, as well. They’re so often a competitive jungle of grades and athletic accomplishment and social standing. Cattiness and shunning and hazing and bullying are symptoms of a sometimes Darwinian world in which some are in and many are out.
Workplaces are notorious for lacking grace. Too many bosses heartlessly demand more and more, and rarely, if ever, offer a word of praise or thanks. Your salary, the promotion, the corner office, the best projects: these are the plums awarded for meritorious achievement. Far from grace-full settings, workplaces typically reward you on the basis of what you accomplish. Did you meet your sales quota? Was your production up to par? Did your students exceed expectations?
Neighborhoods and communities have their own spin on this. There’s a distinct currency of accomplishment in much of society. Title, salary, zip code, physical appearance, “coolness”: these are what determine who’s elite and who’s an also-ran.
Families, too, can be campgrounds of ungrace. Here a father pushes his son into taking over the family business or entering law or medicine. There a mother speaks fluently the language of criticism—of bad manners, choice of friends, cleanliness of room, overall character. A sibling incessantly finds fault and never loveliness. A teenager sees a parent as the most embarrassing thing ever to hit this planet. In endless ways, families can convey that love is something you’ll receive if and only if you deserve it. Grace? Ha!
My mother grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, where her father was the minister of the Congregational church. One of the church’s members was Grace Hall Hemingway, whose son was Ernest Hemingway. Every Sunday Grace sat in the first pew during worship. One Sunday, during his sermon, my grandfather quoted something that son Ernest had written. And as he quoted Ernest, Grace sat in the first pew vehemently shaking her head “no.” Grace detested the libertine her son had become, and she wanted to make her disapproval abundantly clear.
Philip Yancey says that Grace Hemingway was a particularly vivid example of stinginess in grace. Her name “Grace” fit her not at all. She finally refused to allow Ernest to be in her presence. “One year for his birthday, she mailed him a cake along with the gun his father had used to kill himself.” Another year she wrote him a letter explaining that he had never done enough to express his gratitude for all she had done to raise him well. Ernest never stopped hating her (What’s So Amazing About Grace?, p. 38). Ungrace can ooze with a power all its own, between nations, in communities, in workplaces, and even in families.
So it’s in that context that Jesus tells a bracing story about life. An owner pays workers the same no matter how long they’ve worked. Start at the beginning of the day or the end of the day—it doesn’t matter: you’re going to be paid the same. And everything we know about the importance of fairness is thrown up in the air. Divine affection, Jesus seems to say, is showered on people not because of anything they’ve done, but simply because they are. Whether you’ve worked your fingers to the bone or idled away your day, God loves you. Whether you’ve lived life clean as a whistle or committed a serious crime, God loves you. Whether everything you touch turns to gold or you can’t buy a break, God loves you.
Jesus’ point is that divine love is not parceled out parsimoniously by a rigid, demanding God. God’s love is poured out like a nourishing rain on both the just and the unjust, the pure and the morally flawed, the highly accomplished and those whose dreams have always fallen short.
The jarring dynamic Jesus points to is this: most of us, when we hear this parable, assume we’re the workers who have slaved away all day and we should get special rewards for our diligence and achievements. What if, instead, we’re really the workers who came on board at the eleventh hour? What if, in other words, like every single other human being, what we have with God is not in any way dependent on our own worthiness, our own excellence? What God gives us is an absolutely free gift, not dependent, to even the slightest degree, on anything we have done or earned. Yancey, in his book about grace, says, “Grace teaches us that God loves us because of who God is, not because of who we are. Categories of worthiness do not apply” (p. 280).
Put aside questions of fairness for a moment. Isn’t there something unbelievably fantastic about just being loved for who we are, and not because of anything we’ve done? So many people come to church, or stay away from church, assuming that church is where they’ll be prodded to be perfect so they can be good enough for God to validate them. No, no, no! All that’s asked of you in coming to church is that you let go of all conditions, all expectations, all requirements, and that you say simply, “Here I am, God. Thank you for loving me.” Church isn’t here to perfect you for your reward. It’s here to tell you that you already have the reward.
This is where so many of us get it backwards. UCC minister Donna Schaper quotes the great African-American preacher James Forbes as saying, “White churches always want to know what they can do for God; Black churches want to talk about what God has done for them” (A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, p. 7). There isn’t something we have to do. God has already done it all for us.
This is what was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation some 500 years ago. Of the seven solae, the seven “onlys” that we are lifting up this fall, the most significant of them all is “sola gratia”—only by grace. The church had been selling what they called “indulgences” as a way of making money. An indulgence was promoted as a way to buy the salvation of a loved one, or oneself. Martin Luther came along and said this was an egregious bastardization of the relationship we have with God. You cannot buy salvation, said Luther. There is, in fact, not a single thing you can do to make yourself right with God. That is done by God, and God alone. As the great theologian Paul Tillich once said, your only job, the only task you need to embark upon, is to accept your acceptance. You ARE accepted. Now accept that truth.
That’s God’s stance toward you and me. And our sole job, as children of God, is to pass that grace on to each other, to make palpable the grace God has shown to each and every one of us. We are so often, in other words, vessels of that grace. Goodness matters immeasurably. But it’s as a response to a gracious God, not a way to earn God’s favor.
And grace is shown most vividly not by words but by pictures. So here are some verbal pictures. I met a man last week who had recently left Florida as Hurricane Irma was approaching. Along with countless other people, he and his girlfriend got on the road and inched their way northward for hour after hour. Along the way, they couldn’t find a place to stay over-night. Every motel and inn was full. So they kept driving, looking for a well-lit parking lot in which they might sleep in their car. Before calling it a night, they stopped in a diner, in South Carolina, I think. They got to talking with the server in the diner, and when they told her about their journey, she suddenly said to them, “You’re not sleeping in your car. You’re coming to our house for the night.” Unearned grace. Pure gift.
Several years ago, a man told me that he was a recovering alcoholic, and that after a number of years of sobriety, he had slipped and taken a drink. He felt terrible about himself. He felt like the worst person ever to walk the face of the earth. And he was most mortified about the prospect of telling his husband. Would his husband be furious? Would he leave this man? Petrified, he went to his husband and confessed what he had done. His husband simply took him in his arms and held him close and whispered in his ear that it was going to be alright. And the man hasn’t had another drink since. Unearned grace. Pure gift.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber grew up in the extremely constricting denomination known as the Church of Christ (not to be confused with our denomination, the United Church of Christ). In the Church of Christ, women were not permitted to have any leadership role. They couldn’t be elders, preachers, or even ushers.
Despite this upbringing, eventually Nadia began to feel the stirrings calling her to be a pastor. She was plagued by many doubts, and was especially fearful of telling her parents. They were devout members of the Church of Christ, and she knew this news would undo them. She was afraid they would squash this dream, this calling, of hers.
“And yet,” as she says, “they had to know at some point, so [one] Saturday . . ., I sat in my parents’ living room on their brocade, overstuffed sofa, and . . . I confessed [my desire to be a pastor]. I was terrified that they would reject the idea and shame me for my disregard for the scriptures, which forbid a woman to teach. And I wasn’t sure what felt worse: the possibility of them shaming me or the fact that they still could.
“At that moment, my father silently stood up, walked to the bookshelf and took down his worn, leather-bound Bible. Here we go, I thought, he’s going to beat me with the scripture stick.
“He opened it up and read. . . From my father I heard only these words: ‘But you were born for such a day as this.’ He closed the book and my mother joined him in embracing me. They prayed over me and they gave me a blessing. And some blessings, like the one my conservative Christian parents gave to their soon-to-be-Lutheran pastor daughter who had put them through hell, are the kind of blessings that stay with you for the rest of your life. The kind you can’t speak of without crying all over again” (Pastrix, pp. 12, 17-18).
Grace: the sublime gift of the merciful God. It’s yours and mine now, without our having to earn it or do anything for it. So may we go forth from here to live in that grace and to embody it wherever we go.

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