Word of the Week

Amazing Grace

When most preachers sit with Matthew 20:1-16, as was the gospel reading for this morning, or at least as I was taught this passage as a child, it all went back to getting into heaven on practical terms. All you had to do, I learned, was to pray a salvation prayer and you were in the "I'm Christian and going to heaven club." For, even if you prayed the sinners prayer on your death-bed on the last hour or if you prayed the prayer as young child, it was all the same to God.  God was ready to receive you no matter when you came home.

And, while this is all well and good, I think such an interpretation can easily lead to shallow faith. I think the Christian life is more than a call to get saved, and so I was eager to find other gems in this text. And, the theme of "grace" kept coming back to me.

I had questions like: how might this passage want to teach us about something altogether different about life in God's kingdom? How might grace come in and in its unhurried way mess everything we've come to know about "The American Dream?" Might the idea of the "American Dream" have to die if we are to live in the kingdom of heaven?

What most caught my attention about this text is that at the end of the day, each worker is given the same wage, a denarius, which was known at the time as a fair wage for what each worker needed to live on. More than minimum wage, a denarius was a living wage.  It's a passage that calls our attention to justice: in the household of God, we can't mistreat those who are "late to the game" so that we get ahead. And we can't take more than we need if we want others to simply live.

But whether you want to apply this passage to economics (which seems appropriate to do these days as our national leaders debate cutting spending to help the poor in an effort to give the rich more) or not the message of grace is all the same.

Grace in God's eyes is giving us exactly what we need, even when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it and especially when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it.  For, the message of grace works both ways-- to those of us who began laboring in the fields in the morning and those who got to the vineyard late in the afternoon. In grace, God asks both of us to lift up our heads and receive our provisions
for each day, trusting that it will be enough.

The statements that you and I often make like: "Look at me, I'm so good: I did this today. I earned my promotion. I signed up on E-harmony and through my hard work of submitting to the process I found Mrs. Right. After studying for three years and sacrificing the needs of my family, I earned my master's degree" doesn't seem to line up at all with the gospel's idea of grace.

I don't know if you are like me, but when I think of grace, I often think of examples of the "big" stuff in life. Grace, as being in the right place at the right time to meet the right someone. Grace, as not getting hurt in a car accident when I could have been killed. Grace, as deserving to get a ticket for speeding down I-66 but the cop pulling over the guy behind me.

Grace exists then as the classic definition of unmerited favor, but often goes back to "all about me." What about those people who don't show up at the right place at the right time and meet that special someone? About those persons who have almost identical car accidents to us and are tragically  killed instead of sparred? What about the unlucky guy who get the speeding ticket?

But there is something about this passage that helps us get away from grace as what we most like to view it as-- getting saved from unfavorable results that we would not want, to understanding grace as being given ENOUGH for what we need along with everyone else.

If you think about it, there is a lot of energy you and I spend hoping we've done just the right things, hoping to have enough money for retirement, hoping that our contributions to the world are enough to be agreeable with the man upstairs when we get upstairs, but what centered more of our energy in grace? What would our church look like if grace came first? How might we as long-term members of our faith communities respond differently to newcomers who make no promises of sticking around for a long time, giving a tithe or volunteering to teach something? How might we love differently?

But the thing is about grace is that it truly frees us. It frees us from rushing to and from what is next.  It frees us from feeling guilty all the time because of our bad choices. It frees us from feeling anxious about our good choices hoping they got us enough heavenly brownie points. And, I think as a church, grace might free us to love more extravagantly just as God has loved us-- loving others expecting nothing in return other than the love to simply be received.

One pastor puts it like this, "When we are working for a reward (to get up the ladder), we are always wondering if we are good enough, looking for clues to see if God accepts us, looking for human approval and praise when we can't hear from God. We are perpetually trapped. . . . Why climb the stairway to heaven when God takes us right to the top floor in an elevator?"

As an aside, I know we, at Washington Plaza, don't have that actual elevator at the church that we are all dreaming about and might not for a while-- grace is in no hurry on this project it seems-- but I do know we serve a God who has promised and will in abundant grace give us as individuals and as a congregation ENOUGH of what we need for this day.

So, if we are willing to be on such a journey, there is one thing I know for sure, and that is, that the ladders we've constructed and seemingly need from God to feel secure are going to have to fall away. Instead, the invitation is to simply hold out our hands and receive while we stand shoulder to shoulder to those in whom we least expect are receiving just the same.

Now doesn't this sound different now: "Amazing grace, how sweet, the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .?"