Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

Septuagesima, 2013
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

It is Septuagesima Sunday, the first of the famous “gesimas” in our church calendar. We hear again the sound of that unique name of this particular day, a day that orients us with greater precision to the central feast day in the Christian faith. It is seventy days – or so – before Easter. Easter comes early this year. The Epiphany season has been very short – only two Sundays after the Epiphany. Now, we enter our Pre Lenten season.

 

And on this particular day we also hear the wonderful parable of the householder, the laborers and the vineyard. It is a very rich and varied parable and it illustrates how we, as laborers in the vineyard, often fall short in accomplishing the tasks before us. It points out how we often fail to understand just what those tasks might be. And, oh, how we often fail to appreciate the work of others, those faithful ones who understand God's world and work for God's purpose and not only their own.

 

Matthew uses an agricultural metaphor to reveal the meaning of God's world and, yes, God's justice. Perhaps if he were writing today, he might use a sports metaphor. Though this would not be completely appropriate, given that laboring to win a race or a football game is not really labor in a productive sense. But it is something we can readily understand. This is where, once again, Lance Armstrong serves as a perfect example. For the purpose of illustration, let's transport Lance back to first century Judea. Lance understands perfectly the rewards of working in the vineyard. It is no less than entry into heaven. Lance is no fool; he is aware that entry into heaven will be great. He imagines all the wealth and glory that will be his. His fantasies include fame, great success, idolization and all of his dreams coming true. He seems to have a good idea of what heaven must be all about. But this first century Lance is also pretty clever. He sees what is going on. Laborers are hired over the course of the day. They are all hired for the same wages. Ah, he figures, if only I wait until the last hour, I, too, can get those wages and, because I will be rested, I can do a lot more work and get into heaven before everyone else. And I am going to recruit a team to work for me. They will pick lots of grapes and I will be in favor with the householder. I will stand atop the winner's platform and the householder will give me a lot more than a measly little penny.

 

Alas, poor Lance. His strategy succeeded. He waited until the last possible moment. He exerted a lot of effort. His team came in first. Because he was the last to be hired, he was the first to get paid. But when he did not receive any wages for what he had done, he was angry. “Not even a penny,” he asked the householder. “Look at what I have done.” Our first century Lance complained very loudly, but the householder was very clear: “You have not worked for anyone but yourself; you have failed to understand why we have worked here.” First Century Lance was very confused. He didn't know what to say. Finally one of his team members had an idea. “Say you're sorry,” he said. Lance was still confused. “You think that will work?” he asked. “Well,” said his teammate, “It can't hurt. Besides, I heard it worked for other people.” “OK,” said Ancient Judean Lance, “I'll give it a try. And so he did. This was a new concept for him and he was very hesitant. “I-I-I'm sorry,” he said. But the householder sighed sadly. “True repentance comes from the heart,” he told Ancient Lance and I have not heard your heart speak; only the words of your ambition. This was also a new concept for Old Lance. And as he turned away from the householder and sadly walked out of the vineyard, he began to wonder about what it was he should have done. “What was it I did wrong?” he asked himself. And he looked back at the laborers receiving their wages. And he was suddenly filled with envy at their success, a success he simply couldn't understand.

 

This parable has much to do with God's kingdom. The householder is Christ. Those who were hired in the first hour included Adam. Those hired later in the day included Noah and Abraham, Moses and David. They were the early ones. Their faithfulness to their task – and indeed their understanding of what their work was all about – determined whether they received their reward. But that reward was determined by God alone. It had nothing to do with their earning ability, their cleverness or their motivation. But it had much to do with faithfulness.

 

The task they were required to fulfill was not to earn their own wages, wages they could use for themselves; their task had everything to do with their service to God and God's kingdom. We have all been invited to serve in God's vineyard; we have all been given particular gifts for that purpose. Not for our own use only, but for the service of God.

 

We do at times believe that our good works ought to be – should be – recognized by God and qualify us for a place in heaven. But it doesn't work that way. God will do with his kingdom as He will. But when we enter the vineyard, we will find experienced workers there. There is Abraham and Moses and - yes – the householder Himself who will help us to know the work of our hands, the work of our hearts and what we must do. Christ the householder will know at the end, having taught us what we must know, whether we will receive our reward. This is not about a contest where there is one winner. The vineyard is not like that. The vineyard is not a place where the strongest or the most competitive have the best place. It is certainly not a place where envy and jealousy rule the day. Envy and jealousy are not part of heaven. These are simply not part of God's kingdom.

 

Those who receive their penny greet each other with a joy and understanding and love that is known and honored by God. Perhaps they look out a little sadly as they watch the First Century competitors like Old Judean Lance walking away. They yearn for his return, for his chance at redemption is always there. They want to embrace him and pray that they will have that chance.

 

Faithfulness is not always an easy thing, neither is forgiveness or justice or generosity of spirit. But these are the things we learn when we work truthfully in the vineyard and learn from those who have worked at the invitation from God since the beginning of time.

 

Let us pray: O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do; Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen