Are We There Yet?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
18 September 2005
My boyfriend is a good churchman, but he is also an accountant. He’s a church accountant, so he must often work at the nexus of two things that are vastly different from one another. Accounting as a discipline isn’t exactly known for grace and overwhelming generosity. So, John has developed a joking line that he uses occasionally when working with church folk. The line is “Step away from grace!”
I suspect that often we want to do exactly that. Because true grace is just too much for us. I have been preaching about the Christian life being like a journey. It is a journey that requires us to develop various skills and learn to practice virtues that don’t come naturally for us. We’ve talked about courage, forgiveness, humility, and nonviolence. And now we’re talking about this revolutionary image of grace.
This is the point in the trip when the kids, sitting in the backseat, start asking, “Are we there yet?” They are bored. Maybe they’ve played with every toy or game they brought. Maybe they’ve started picking at each other and are now annoyed by this trip. Or they could simply be tired. They didn’t realize how long the journey is or what will be required of them. I suspect that sometimes when we reflect on exactly what all is involved in the Christian journey that we end up being like those kids and want to jump ahead to the destination and get the journey over with. “Are we there yet?”
When I first moved to Dallas I was driving one morning down Royal Lane near Josey and encountered an intersection full of men just standing around in parking lots and along the streets. These were day labourers, mostly Hispanic. They didn’t have regular jobs, but would wait at this and other locations for contractors, landscape businesses, and others to come by and employ them for the day. They would be employed at some of the most physically demanding, hot, and dirty jobs in the city. In fact, the very jobs that make life in the city possible for everyone else.
Jesus’ story is about these kinds of workers. The first grace in this story is that any of them get a job to begin with. It is completely possible that none of them would have worked that day. Plus, they are going to be paid a denarius, which was actually a living wage for a day’s work. Over the course of the day, this odd vineyard owner keeps coming back and hiring more labourers. We would say that he is a generous and kind man to employ all these people and promise them a fair wage.
Then Jesus surprises us. Jesus’ lesson isn’t simply to be kind and generous to the poorest of the poor. No that message, Jesus thinks, is too easy, too obvious. That isn’t the point of this story.
The vineyard owner gives each man a day’s wage, whether he worked the full day or just an hour. Those who worked all day are angry. And we are shocked. What is the meaning of this story? One reading wants to spiritualize this story too much, by saying the point of this story is that all of us receive the same reward in God’s reign whether we were among the first disciples or those who come later. Whether we are a Christian all our lives or become one on our deathbed. But I think that over-spiritualizes the parable. And the attempt to spiritualize it is motivated, I believe by people who don’t want to face the implications of the story.
Jesus is saying that justice and fairness, which so many don’t receive, are themselves not enough. Yes, we should make sure that every person receives what they deserve. That’s basic human decency. But it also isn’t enough. If you’re going to follow Jesus then you have to treat people even better and give them even more.
It means that our human rules and reasons are not of ultimate importance. The life of grace is not a life governed by rules and policies and logical arguments. That’s probably one reason that my accountant boyfriend occasionally wants folk to “step away from grace.” And it is one reason we’d love to get to the end of the journey without all the hard work of the trip. What the vineyard owner demonstrates is an overwhelming generosity that violates our rational impulses.
This Sunday we have begun a four week Commitment Campaign during which church members will share their stories about why they come to Cathedral of Hope and why they are committed to its ministries. This church has an amazing ministry in this community. All the time we hear stories about some person in need whom we have helped. We know that there are many more people out there who need to hear a message of radical inclusion, relentless compassion, and, yes, extravagant grace. Too many people have experienced church as a place of rules and regulations, of judgment and exclusion. In order to continue in our ministries, we need people committed to the life of this church. We need people willing to commit their time and talents and energy and creativity. As we expand our ministries it becomes essential that we recruit and train new leadership, because for so long the burden has fallen on the same folk who often are performing five different roles.
Our ministry also requires that people be committed with their generosity. Talking about money is always a sensitive issue. There are always some people who cannot afford to support the church financially, and we understand that. And some people are already giving so much that they feel insulted when the topic comes up. Plus, at this time I am even more sensitive to this issue. Right now our country needs to be generous in supporting those in need whose lives have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. The financial impact of Katrina is affecting each of us; we may be headed into an economic downturn. So, with all that sensitivity, I come timidly to this topic.
The truth is that we are a mission church five years old. We do not currently support our own ministries. For instance, 69% of my salary is paid out of an offering taken last spring at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. For fiscal year 2004-2005 our receipts fell something like $20,000 short of our expenses, with the extra being picked up by our generous sisters and brothers in Dallas.
Here is the honest picture. Our current average attendance in worship is something like 83 people. If you take our anticipated expenses for 2005-2006, divide that by 52 weeks, and then divide that by 83 people, then the cost per person per week to sustain the current ministries of this church is $27. Now, some of you can’t afford that and some of you are currently giving more than that. But what if 83 people were able to pledge $5 more a week. Five dollars is less than many of us spend on lunch. It’s about the cost of a latte or a smoothie. Just that amount would bring us over 21000 more dollars for the year and close the gap that we had between expenses and receipts last year.
I don’t want you to think that I am saying that giving money to the church is the only way to be generous or even the most important way. I simply want to be direct and honest with you about our needs. And with that, I’m done with the church money talk.
Generosity – of time, money, emotions – is a spiritual discipline. It is a way of life. It is a way of approaching other people with grace, love, and compassion. The Rev. John Claypool said that “generosity is God’s deepest characteristic” that it is the “source out of which all creation comes.” Expanding on these thoughts Claypool said,
I had an old mentor say once that there are only two realities finally. There is love and there is fear. Love is the confidence that there is enough and fear is the suspicion that there isn’t enough. He said if you live your life out of the sense of scarcity, then you are always trying to get. You are always trying to hoard. You are always being stingy and you can at times even become violent. But if you are living out of a sense of the fullness of creation, which I think is the heart of the biblical vision, then you can be generous. . . . So I really think the most creative people are the ones who are the most grateful and the most confident about where life comes from and what life is. They’re not driven by this sense that there’s not enough, that I’ve got to get something from you; I’ve got to keep something from you or even got to take something from you.
John Claypool was one of the greatest American preachers of the twentieth century. He was a longtime Southern Baptist, serving some of the most prestigious Baptist churches in the South. In 1986 he left the Southern Baptist Convention and became an Episcopalian serving as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama for almost fourteen years.
I first encountered John Claypool when I was a freshman at Oklahoma Baptist University. Jacob Zimmer, who lived across the hall from me in Brotherhood Dormitory gave me a cassette copy of a sermon. Jacob had grown up at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where Claypool had been pastor in the sixties. In the early ‘90’s he returned to preach a sermon on one of the church’s anniversaries. At the time that sermon was the single greatest I had ever heard, and still may be. I kept the tape and listened to that sermon often. Because I loved it, I would loan it to people, one of whom eventually never returned it. That sermon was preached on the Parable of the Day Labourers.
John Claypool died on September 3 of this year after a battle with cancer. I had planned for some time to reference to his sermon when preaching this week. So, out of gratitude and tribute, I want to conclude this sermon of mine by quoting extensively from John Claypool’s sermons on this gospel passage.
I think Jesus is trying to say to us here: The goodness of God is never seen through the eyes of envy. It is only seen through the eyes of wonder and of gratitude.
I want to give you a sure-fire formula for how to be utterly miserable at the place at which you find yourself today. that is do what those who were hired first in the morning chose to do with their lives. If they had stayed in touch with the primal grace that had surrounded that event at 6:00 a.m., if they had realized that before they woke up they could not have made work happen but it had been given to them, if they had stayed in touch with that, then they would have had reasons to rejoice all the day long. The problem was they shifted their focus from that primal grace and began the side-long glance of comparing. They looked at what others had gotten instead of what they had received and when they began to compare, lo the side-long glance of envy turned the joy of the morning into curdled resentment at the end of the day.
Now that same thing can happen to each one of us. If you want to look at your aliveness in terms of the particularities of what you have: your kind of body, your financial resources, your intellectual capacities, and then compare yourself side long with what other people have, you will always find people who have more than you do and, therefore, you can be indignant. You can say life is not fair. If you compare yourself to others, there is always going to be somebody that seems to have life different.
I was helped in understanding what I think is Jesus' main point in this parable when I heard a later parable. It came from an 18th Century Jewish Rabbi. And when I lay it alongside this story, perhaps it will help you see what I think was the real issue that Jesus was getting at. In this parable, a poor Jewish farmer was awakened one night and was startled to find an angel standing at the foot of his bed. And the angel said, "You have found favor in the eyes of God. He wants to bless you as he did your ancestor Abraham. Therefore, he has sent me to say you can make any three requests that you will of the Almighty, and he will grant them. There is only one condition. Your neighbor will be given a double portion of whatever is bequeathed to you."
Well the farmer didn't know what to do. He was startled because the angel disappeared. He woke up his wife -- she was far more practical than he -- and when he told her what had happened, she said, "Well let's put it to the test. It wouldn't be hard to find out if this is just a dream, illusion or reality." And so because they were poor, it's not surprising when they dug deep that their first desire was for something material. And so he kneels down and says, "Lord God of the universe, give me a thousand cattle. If I just had that, I could break the cycle of poverty. It would make all the difference in the world." And no sooner had he said the words, than he heard noises outside. He went and the sun was just beginning to come up, and there in the dawn, he saw a thousand magnificent animals, exactly what he'd asked for.
Well he spent the next 24 hours praising God for his surprising grace and beginning to make provisions for this newfound affluence. And the next afternoon, he was up on a hill trying to decide where to build a barn to help shelter these animals, when for the first time he looked across, and on his neighbor's field were two thousand magnificent cattle. And for the first time since this wonderful grace had happened to him, his joy evaporated and a sense of resentment filled his heart. He came home that night in a terrible mood, refused to eat or talk to his wife, went to bed early. Every time he shut his eyes, all he could see was his neighbor's good fortune, and it galled him to the core. But late in the night, he remembered that the angel had said he had three requests. And so he took his focus off the neighbor and [put it] back on his own situation and began to ask, what do I really want? And it soon came clear that some link to the future had always been a great desire of his. Some child that could be his way into the next generation. So he bows and asks God, if possible, to give him an heir. Because of his experience with the cattle, he was not all that surprised a few weeks later when his wife came in and said, "I am bearing in my own body a life not my own."
Well the next eight months were passed in great delight. He was enjoying the new affluence that the thousand cattle had brought him. He was anticipating parenthood. On Friday, right before Sabbath began, a child was born into that circle of love. He was overjoyed. He went to Synagogue the next morning. When it came time for the prayers of the people, he stood up and said, "God is indeed gracious. Let me tell you that last night a long dream of ours was fulfilled. We now have a child to live on into the future." And a whole murmur of delight went over the whole little congregation, and he sat down. On the other side of the Synagogue, his neighbor gets up and says, "God is indeed good, because last night twins were born to our house." And the minute he hears this, the same thing that happened on the hill behind the house once again happened. His joy evaporated; resentment filled his heart. He went home from the Synagogue in a very different mood than he had gone, and these dark feelings did not abate.
Late that night when Sabbath was over, he knelt beside his bed and made his third and final request. He said, "Lord God of the universe, I beg you gouge out my right eye." There was this long silence, and then the angel who had started the whole process materialized and said, "Why, oh son of Abraham, have you turned to such dark desiring." With fire in his eyes, he said, "I will gladly sacrifice half of my vision for the satisfaction of knowing that my neighbor will not be able to look at all on his. I cannot stand the good fortune that has come to him." A deep silence enveloped the room, and the farmer looked, and there were tears forming in the eyes of the angel, and he said, "Let me say to you that your last request will not be granted, not because God lacks integrity, but because God is full of mercy. But know this, son of Abraham, what you have chosen to do with God's desire to bless has not only brought sadness to your heart, but it's brought sadness to the heart of God."
There's another, even later parable, this one in the 20th Century, that helps me understand the vineyard owner, who is, I think, here the image of God.
The parable . . . is about . . . another Jewish farmer, who had two boys. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields. He gently taught them everything he knew about growing crops and raising animals. He taught them how to work together beautifully. When he got too old to work, the two brothers took over the farm. And when the father died, they found such joy in their joint partnership that, instead of dividing the inheritance, they simply stayed in partnership, each contributing what he was best at. And at the end of every harvest, each would take half of what they had produced. The older brother never married and stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother married and had eight wonderful children born to him.
Years went by, and during a particularly bountiful harvest season, the bachelor brother was thinking one night: You know I only have one mouth to feed, and my brother over there has 10 mouths he's responsible for. He really needs more of this harvest than I do. But I know, he's far too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night while he and his family are asleep, I'll take some of what I've already put in my barn and I'll go over and I'll slip it into his barn, so he'll have more to feed his family.” And at the very time the old bachelor was thinking those thoughts, the younger brother was saying to himself: "You know God has granted me these wonderful children. They'll care for me when I'm old. My older brother hasn't had that good fortune. He really needs more of this harvest to prepare for the future, but I know he's too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do, in the depths of the night, I'll take some of what I've harvested and put it in his barn, so he'll have more for his old age."
So as you may have already anticipated, one night when the moon was full, those two brothers came face to face, each on missions of generosity.
And the old Rabbi said, "Although there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall."
Do you know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. That there is enough, always has been and always will be. And living in self-absorption is the way to misery. Living in compassion and awareness and generosity to others, that is the secret of joy, because it is the very essence of God likeness. That's why the vineyard owner did what he did at the end of the day. He had other concerns than justice. He was concerned with the generosity that is the first cousin of incredible grace.
We are travelers on a journey together. A journey of boldly proclaiming God’s good news to the world. A journey that requires us here and now to live God’s way. A journey that can only be faithfully completed if we learn how to interact with other people and live a life of extravagant generosity, grace, and joy.