Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee

September 19, 1999
The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Justice or Generosity
he Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

Come walk with me this morning into this parable told by Jesus. Come walk with me into this ancient yet ageless story, and let us find our own story here in its telling. Come take my hand and walk with me into this particular tale of Gospel truth, and let us discover our own truth in it, the truth that we too are so often obsessed by what we desire that we fail to see the abundance that is already ours. Yes, come walk with me into the very presence of Jesus and let us experience there the longing of his heart to give to us his love which has no ending, his desire, his longing to give to us nothing less than the wholeness, the holiness of himself.

The parable begins by saying ... "A landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard...." He negotiated with the first to come their wages for the day, and generous wages they were. Then, during the course of the day, others came and joined the work force, and finally a last few stragglers joined just before the workday ended. And as the sun was beginning to set, it was these last workers who were the first called forward to receive their pay, and to the astonishment of all they received the same wage as had been promised to those who'd worked since the day began. Now imagine how clever they felt! "We worked only such a little while, and we're getting a full day's pay!" And perhaps those who'd worked since dawn were saying to themselves, "Hmmm! What is this? If they get a day's wage ... maybe then we'll get more." But they didn't -- they received the same as all the others. And they protested mightily, which I imagine you and I might've done as well. "Look at this discrepancy!" we'd say. "Why, we've worked since dawn, and they've only just arrived. It's not fair!" ... It's not fair... And that's precisely the point of the story. The grace of God is not meant to be fair. Generosity is not meant to be fair. Love is not meant to be fair. God's forgiveness and mercy and acceptance are not meant to be fair. Because all of them are gifts outright, given from the bounty of God's love of giving and from the bounty of God's love of the ones who receive the gifts. For you see, God's generosity towards us has nothing to do with our earning or deserving or expecting -- or even our needing. It simply pours forth from the very essence and being of God.

Now, an illustration: My Dad wasn't much of a churchgoer. Oh, he was probably familiar with this parable, since it's a fairly common reference in general conversation. But I'm sure he didn't consciously guide his actions by it in any way. Yet something he once did for me embedded the truth of this parable in me for the rest of my life. It was during the summertime after my first or second year of college. I'd had a wonderful summer, doing just about everything someone would yearn to do during the long, inviting break between 2 years of study. But come late August, there was one more thing I wanted to do. A group of my friends were going to get together for a weekend at the home of one of them up in Mississippi., and as only a teen-ager can, I yearned to be there. Well, my parents said, "No." I'd already had such a full summer. This just seemed like one thing too much. And besides I'd be leaving soon to go back to college. There were things to be done to get ready. Well, I didn't want no for an answer. So I cried, I pleaded, I begged, I made a regular pest of myself, but no was still the response. So I kept on! And finally my Dad said, "Well, alright, I suppose it's fine for you to go." Well, what happened next surprised me and I suppose him as well. I burst into tears and ran out into the backyard. He followed me out, mystified -- and asked me, "Well, now what's the matter?" And through my tears I said, "You're just so good to me. I really don't deserve to go." And he took me by the shoulders and looked me straight in the eye and said, "Darlin', what kind of a father would I be, if I'm able to give you what you need and yet chose not to give it?" That question pierced my soul, and it shapes my understanding still today. What it did was give me a visceral understanding of the power of generosity to change a life and to give to another human being a sense of value, a sense of validity, that far surpasses the value of the gift itself.

Yet I don't think I could've grasped what my Dad was saying or doing for me if it were an isolated deed. I could only understand it as a part of my knowledge of who he was. The deed and the person were one and the same. And this joining of person and action holds true for our understanding of what's happening in the parable as well. In it, you and I are being invited into a vision of the Kingdom of God -- the Kingdom of God, which is pictured here not as a place or a destination, but as a dynamic, a way of being, a way of living in relationship. It is like a gift which grows out of an urgent, irrepressible desire simply to be generous; like a loving which bursts forth from the heart where love for others knows no bounds and has no conditions or qualifications; like a forgiving which yearns to heal the breach and bind up the wound; the Kingdom of God is the embrace of acceptance which honors the intrinsic value of every human life.

This same Kingdom of God is being built even here and even now by the interactions between you and me and all the people of this earth. And you and I are the instruments, the carpenter's tools, if you will, in the hands of God the Builder. O God, help us to be strong and supple instruments in your hands for the building of your Kingdom.

What if we passed the collection plate on Sunday mornings and told you to take what you need from it? What if the homeless man down on Main Street with his grocery cart filled with the things that others have thrown away -- what if he gave you his only coat one morning because he saw you shivering with the cold? Or, as happened to me a few weeks ago, what if the neighborhood handyman whom you'd never met before started up a conversation in front of the corner market and then suddenly gave you the little guardian angel pin from his shirt collar for no reason at all, save for the pleasure of giving? What if God were to reach out to you and whisper in your ear, "Come now, I want to give you the Kingdom." Would you, perhaps like that young girl standing before the generosity of her Dad, would you burst into tears and cry out, "But I don't deserve your generosity!"? We don't deserve it. But if we receive it -- if we really embrace it, perhaps we will begin to be transformed. Perhaps we will become more generous and gracious ourselves. Perhaps our lives will become the instruments God uses to build the Kingdom of Heaven right here on this beautiful, fragile earth. Let it be
so, dear God, let it be so.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church.

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them
also received the usual daily wage. And 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? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (NRSV)

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