Pentecost - Proper 20 A
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-27; Matthew 20:1-16; Psalm 145
THE REV. PORTIA SWEET
As I see it now, life really is a journey, and I know that phrase has become almost cliché. But for me it is true. We are physically born into a strange environment, explore our physical parts then that small landscape immediately adjacent to us. At some point we become self-aware, then more and more we explore and then exert our strengths - physical and intellectual. Most of us become to one degree or another, rather impressed with what we can do and we begin to enjoy the feeling of autonomy. Even at two years of age, we learn that if we say NO often enough and loud enough, the big people will give in.
Life's journey takes us across mountains and through valleys and we find, if we mature and don't stagnate at a very young emotional age, that much of how we have perceived life and the world is illusory. It is about here on the trail that we begin to whine. "Why me?" "That's not fair." "God, could you cut me some slack?" And it is also about here that many of our prayers amount to requests for handouts. "God, I want you to do this" "God, would you just let me pass this test, or get this job, etc etc. And If the request is not met and in our time frame, what do we do? We doubt, we complain, we become grumpy cats.
Today's readings include several examples of Grumpy Cats - you know, that famous or infamous sour-faced feline on You-Tube, Facebook and many merchandise. The Israelites were on a journey; they have been delivered out of slavery in Egypt. God even parted the waters for them to escape their enemy. They were in the desert and complained bitterly to Moses that they were starving. Being free of their cruel slave masters was not enough, and note that we don't seem to have a story about the fact that they were grateful for that.
Moses appealed to God on their behalf, and God, loving these grumpy cats of his so much, provided both meat and bread to assuage their hunger. Moses, throughout this journey, attempts to bring the Israelites into more intimate and meaningful relationship with God. As you will see in future installments of this saga, these insatiable human beings, like us, were not through with their complaining.Paul's letter to the Philippians was written while he was in prison, about 61-63 AD. He was allowed visits with Timothy, with whom he wrote this epistle.
The Philippians were experiencing differences of opinion and quarreling among themselves about the "Proper" or "True" way to believe and proclaim Christ. Paul loved the people of the church in Philippi very, very much and even though he himself was suffering, he earnestly desired that they be about fruitful labor and about becoming more at one with Christ.
Christians in those first few centuries were widely and severely persecuted, and imprisonment carried the distinct probability of impending death. Paul urges his beloved friends to forgo their petty squabbles over inconsequential matters, focus on living the Christ life, including suffering with and for Christ, and assuring them that he, too, is and has suffered in similar ways.
Perhaps he was literally telling them to put on their big Philippian pantaloons and Come to Jesus, who, he reminds them has suffered for them as well.Matthew brings us even more grumpy cats in today's Gospel reading. Jesus tells a story about a wealthy landowner and the laborers he hired to work his land. Often in Jesus' parables, the landowner or head of the household or king is a character he uses to tell us how God acts. In this instance, laborers are hired in the morning, more at noon, others in mid-afternoon, and finally some who are still waiting for a job are hired near day's end.
When it is time to receive their wages, they are each given a full day's wage. Oh, how the men who worked all day howled about the unfairness of that! What would today's labor union stewards make of that? My, My. Now this story is placed in Matthew near the one in which the disciples whine that they have left everything to follow Jesus, and complain that they have little to show for it all.
There is also the story Jesus tells elsewhere in which he assures us the first will be last and the last first. In all of these examples, Jesus is attempting to let us know who and how God is, how God's unlimited grace is poured out as God himself sees fit, and not by any rules of engagement that man has drawn up. You see, the Landowner said two important things in response to the complainants. First, that he is doing the men no wrong, and he calls them, "Friend". Second, that they agreed to work for a day's wage, and they have been paid according to the agreement. What is his he may do with as he wishes.
I am reminded in this that ultimately Jesus called his disciples, "friend". I also recall that Jesus is the NEW contract, the new covenant. That it is this contract, if you will, that we enter into when we are baptized - whether as infants, young adults, mid life or on our deathbeds in old age.
This Sunday is Invitation Sunday in the Episcopal Church. For any who may be in church or with us for the first time, may I say "Welcome", and assure you that this Gospel we preach here is a message of grace to those who come late as well as to those who come early. Sitting in that pew for 20 years does not make it yours. The Jewish people had waited long for the Messiah and had certain ideas about what that savior would do and how he would save them, and that they would be his privileged class. Well, the people that Jesus, the disciples and Paul actually reached out to were very different yet were beloved. Think Beatitudes. And those who thought they were in charge of God instead of the other way around, complained and plotted against the gift they were sent. Even if we do everything that Paul preaches by way of living a Christ life, doing good works, bearing good fruits from our labors - all that - even then we can do nothing to earn God's Grace. That is the message of the Cross, my friends.
It is God's and, make no mistake, God is in charge. He has created us. He has created the road on which we travel. He bides his time while we whine, while we wail and complain and put on our Grumpy cat masks. We are all late-comers , all on a journey, all late bloomers spiritually. And by the grace of God, through our risen Lord who came and lived as one of us, who died and rose again to reconcile us to the Father, we are recipients of more abundance than any desert or prison could ever hold. We are fed, we are saved from eternal death. We grumpy cats are loved. Amen