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The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss

The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss is senior pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in West Des Moines, IA, and the author of several books.

Member of:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Representative of:

St. Mark Lutheran Church, West Des Moines, IA


The Generosity of God

Matthew 20:1-16

Proper 20 - Year A

September 21, 2008

When Rabbi Menachem Mendel was a small child, his grandfather, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, held him on his lap and asked, "Where is Zeide?" That is, "Where is Grandfather?"

The child touched the grandfather's nose. "No," the rabbi said, "that is Zeide's nose. But where is Zeide?"

The child touched his grandfather's beard. "No, that is Zeide's beard. But where is Zeide?"

The child left his grandfather's lap, ran into the next room and shouted, "Zeide!" and Rabbi Shneur Zalman went into the room, and gleefully the child pointed, "There is Zeide!"

Beloved people of God, God's choice is to be the one who always comes. In this parable of Jesus, God is the one to invite. The scene is one that any person familiar with either vegetable or fruit farming or anyone familiar with the places in the city that day laborers gather can picture. The owner of the vineyard goes to where the day laborers gather to invite them to work. This invitation to work means so much more to those who wait for labor. For the day laborer, you see, the invitation to work offers the possibilities of feeding the family. The chance to labor in the field is the only alternative to the nakedness or want of privation. But, more than that, it is the invitation to worth: it is not a haphazard use of language when we speak of someone as worthless who does not work. Work is our en-valuing, isn't it?

So, this is the God who invites us to discover our value. This is also the God who comes and invites us to relationship. When I would drive by the Dunkin' Donuts shop on Ponce De Leon in Atlanta, GA, I would see the day laborers gathered there each morning. Rarely did I see someone standing off by themselves. There was a kind of fluid community that emerged as they waited for employment. To be invited to work is to be invited into relationship--to wait beside, and then labor beside others.

When I worked as a young man in the orchards of Washington State, I was always struck by the camaraderie of the migrant workers that I worked beside. This God who always comes also invites us to the vineyard.

In Isaiah 5 we read that God's beloved people, Israel, is God's vineyard. The invitation to work and to relationship is to come into the Christian Church--the community of God. Clearly that's what Matthew understands in this parable and that allows the surprising twist at the end.

God's invitation is to reward--the reward of faith. The reward in this parable is understood by Matthew to be eternal life. The duration of one's participation in Christ's Church, in the Christian faith, has no real bearing on the gift of forever, does it? But by using the common hiring and paying of the day laborer, Jesus exposes the human dynamics present among faithful people as well as in the world.

Beloved fellow laborers in God's vineyard, God's choice is to invite, but our choices emerge as we respond.

She is a famous author and philanthropist. She owns a publishing company, best-selling book and tape series, and a house by the ocean. Louise Hay was once asked what led her to her great work. Her response? She said, "It was simple. I just did the next thing in front of me and helped out where I could." (Jesus CEO; Laurie Beth Jones; pg. 131) The first choice we have in any opportunity is to be willing. I know it sounds simplistic--but it's nonetheless true. Louise Hay attributes her life success to the simple formula of being willing to do what comes next.

I can't help but wonder how many wonderful works of art, compositions of music or great achievements in business or politics never saw the light of day because the one who could do it kept waiting for "the big thing." Life just doesn't work that way; there is no "big thing"--just a series of little things that add up to big things.

In the parable the laborers' willingness to work--even after the day was spent--led to great reward. What about you? What "big thing" have you been waiting for before you will give your all to that project you've been putting off? What "big thing" have you been waiting for before you will take that risk and write that book, start that business or go to college? God's invitation to you is to just take the next step and then see what our inviting God, the One who always comes, can do.

More specifically to Jesus' parable is the invitation to be willing to work with others and share the rewards. And that's the other side of our choices isn't it--to choose to reject unhealthy attitudes and behaviors?

The drama of the parable emerges when the laborers--some of whom have worked all day while others have worked a short while--come to get paid. It is in that moment that Jesus exposes destructive attitudes of jealousy, position and keeping score.

We read: "Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, '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.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?... I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you'" (vs. 10-14).

The parable sounds so reasonable...until a new member is elected to the Church Council, until a new person at church is honored instead of an old-guard member. I have even heard it debated whether death-bed confessions really ought to bring eternal life or not. The problem is we are not the Giver--God is.

When I have had the privilege of consulting or speaking at a congregation, I am fond of asking, "Whose Church is this?" And the answer is, "It's God's church," or it is not a church. It's a club.

We are called to reject those attitudes and behaviors that do not testify to God as the author of all good things. What the assertion of position before God misses is that God's love is a free gift to all. What score keeping and comparison miss is the privilege of being called into God's vineyard.

On countless occasions I have listened as Christians have talked about their ministries, how they went out of their way and beyond their schedules to care for others. And in every conversation they were eager to admit that they got more in the giving than the other did in their receiving. That's why jealousy, position and score keeping are, quite frankly, irrelevant to the kingdom of heaven.

Beloved people of God, this parable is, finally, about God's generosity.

You may have read the story about the boy with a rare disease that had to live his entire life in a sterile plastic bubble, for a single germ, an un-sterilized touch, could be fatal. Anyone reaching to him through that hermetically sealed opening in the bubble had to wear sterilized gloves, and everything that came to him--books, food, utensils, gifts--had to be decontaminated before passing through that opening. He was sealed off, isolated, in permanent quarantine. But even the airtight, sterile bubble couldn't save him. When the boy understood that he was dying, he asked for only one thing--to reach outside the bubble and touch his father. Doomed, knowing that this encounter was death itself, the boy reached out and touched his father's hand.

You can't outgive God.

The incredible longing for human touch that led that boy to reach out to his father is a planting by God inside each one of us. But many of us have put God in the bubble; the eternal longing of God's heart was to reach out and touch us. God sent Jesus as that touch, and death was the inevitable consequence. But God's generosity was so great that death itself has become the touch of eternity.

The first--Jesus--became the last, and all who trust in him share the touch of God which is life forever. Have you been touched by God's heart? God wants to reach through the bubble of our skepticism and give us faith. The living God would reach outside the bubble of our daily monotony and imbue each day with a touch of forever.

The God of love wants to reach out to you and me and take that pain, that heartbreak, that challenge that seems overwhelming and give us hope. And when we have felt this reaching touch of God, we will not begrudge it to anyone, no matter how long or short their faith life might be.

Eternity is God's gift. Oh, I know that shouldn't surprise us. After all, only the eternal God can give it. Our paltry bubbles of jealousy, position and score-keeping will not block this touch of God. As God has given to you and me, let us pray that God will touch the lives of those whom we love, those we know and don't know, because the generosity of God is multiplied as we share it--without reservation. Amen.

Let us pray together.

Almighty God, you reached through the bubble of eternity to touch us in the Savior Jesus Christ. As we have been touched by your eternal love, turn us outward that we might be your touch in your world. Amen.


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