Welcome to the Red Carpet

Inspired by Matthew 21:1-17

Welcome to Holy Week my friends. This is the week of the church year that our Journey with Christ to the cross and the empty tomb intensifies. We have been reading stories from this last week of Jesus’ life for about a month now, but things are going to get really real, really fast for Jesus after today’s celebration of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As a quick reminder or in case anyone doesn’t know the significance of this day, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on this day and though that sounds pretty ordinary to our eyes, it was a bold statement in Jesus’ day. You see, riding into a city on a donkey was what royalty did in a parade on the way to their coronation.

And if you think Jesus wouldn’t be that bold think again, Matthew paints this as a well thought out and planned event by Jesus himself. He knew what he was doing. Why he did it is a whole other question. Was he just being snarky? Was this just another example of the bad mood he was in? Or was it something deeper? Was he intentionally trying to get the ball rolling on his inevitable execution, sort of a let’s just get this over with kind of thing? I mean, the charge hanging over his head while he hung on the cross was the claim that he was the king of the Jews, it was the smoking gun they were looking for. It’s really hard to say why Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem that way, but he did, and that has left us with lots to ponder.

And what I’m pondering today is the concept of welcome. In fact, we will be pondering this all week. The sermon titles for the whole week are: Welcome to the Red Carpet, which is today’s; Welcome to the Table, for Maundy Thursday; Welcome to the Dark, for Good Friday; Welcome to the Light, for the Vigil of Easter; and Welcome to the New You, for Easter Sunday.

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished writing those sermons yet. So, the Holy Spirit might have a whole different plan in mind, so if you show up to our Holy Week services and this is not what I talk about, by all means, take it up with the Holy Spirit, she is the one in charge here! I think the reason that welcome is on my mind right now is because it’s been on a lot of our minds for quite some time. So much so in fact that we adopted a welcome statement that we are now learning how to live into. Maybe we can think of this as the Year of Welcome for Bethlehem.

However, for this week, rather than focusing solely on how we welcome or don’t welcome, I’d like to focus on God’s welcome, through Christ, as demonstrated during the events of Holy Week and Easter, beginning with today, Palm Sunday. So, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, in all his royalness, and the crowds greet him, welcome him, by laying their clothes on the ground in front of him, along with palm branches. So basically, they rolled out the red carpet for him. And here’s the surprising thing about this, he doesn’t correct them when they do that. Knowing Jesus the way we do, you’d expect him to take his usual ultra-humble road and say, “No, no, I’m but a humble servant, not royalty. Put away all this fanfare.” But he doesn’t say that! Remember, he’s the one that ordered that donkey in the first place.

Now, here’s what I find significant about all that. This is at the end of Jesus’ life, his last week on Earth, and depending on your beliefs about Jesus, it’s probably safe to assume that he knew this was his last week on Earth. And as such, he has had the gift of time to live into his role as the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen one, his majesty. And so, in this royal ride into Jerusalem, he owns all of that, boldly, right in the face of any Roman royalty and leadership there. Was it a risky move? Yes. They were fuming at the sight of him! And it’s what ultimately got him killed. So it begs the question again, why did he do it? Why risk his life that way? Was it really just to show up his enemies, the ones whom he knew were plotting to kill him? Was he really just trying to speed things along? Is that what was behind his red carpet entrance? And what’s so welcoming about that anyway?

So, let’s switch gears here for a minute. I took a class at CalLu last year for continuing education. It was a weeklong class and each day we had a different professor teach us on a different topic. And like most classes, it was made up of a variety of different personalities among us students. But this class proved to be a challenging one for the professors who taught it as well as for some of us students. To make a long story short, the class had more than its fair share of students that kept taking us down tangents, or who just monopolized the class’s time.

Teacher after teacher failed at keeping us on track. Then, we had a teacher who was somehow able to do just that. It was like watching a master at work in his craft as he kept us on the right path and gently but assertively kept those monopolizers at bay. Ironically, he was teaching leadership skills that day. And honestly, watching him lead in action was probably more useful than anything he said. Those of us who had been frustrated up to that point were all of a sudden relieved, at peace, and more focused than we had been all week.

Have you ever had an experience like that? Whether you are a leader or a follower, we all know the benefits of having a strong leader in your midst, of having someone who was just in charge that you trusted and felt safe with. My dad has played that kind of role in my life. When he was around you just knew everything was going to be ok, you knew he was in charge, and more important than that, you had confidence that he “knew” what he was doing. Now, in hindsight, especially after having been a parent for 22 years now, I can say with confidence that he did not always know what he was doing! But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? The real magic was in the confidence and trust and comfort that he was able to conjure within me when I was around him, especially when I had no idea what I was doing.

Jesus will welcome us in a variety of different ways as we will see this week, but on this day, Palm Sunday, Jesus welcomes us with Jesus’ royalty. Not to flaunt it in our faces, or to lord it over us, but to say, “I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. I’m in control here.” How comforting is that? Jesus is like that ultimate parent who you always feel safe with, or that ultimate teacher who always is in control of the class. Jesus fills the role of one in charge whom you couldn’t have more confidence in! And that trust, and confidence, and comfort, welcomes us into Christ’s presence with an assuredness that we can have with no one else.

Jesus is royalty of a kind that you can trust, completely. And you know why else this was so important for Jesus to express? Because in the coming days, it will not look like he’s in control and it will not look like he knows what he’s doing. Jesus knew that he needed to be many different things to different people at different times in their life. And on this day, Jesus showed us that he can be that trustworthy servant-king when we need him to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Paying it Downward

Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

Picture it, the year is nineteen hundred and ninety-one. I’m a senior in high school, I’m having the time of my life, I’ve got my whole future ahead of me, everything’s coming up roses…and then my girlfriend dumps me. I’m devastated, just beside myself. I went from having to wear shades because my future was so bright, to wearing mourning clothes in a flat second! She was my first serious relationship and in the words of the Princess Bride, I thought, “I will never love again.” Teenage love, so dramatic, right? Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

However, on that day it sure felt like it! Believe it or not, the pain of that break up is not what left a lasting impression on me. Later that day I was at home and a close family member noticed I had been crying and asked what was wrong. After I explained, the response was a shrug of the shoulders and, “There’ll be other girls”, as they walked away. Not only did that seem like the coldest thing someone could have possibly said, I felt humiliated, nullified, and altogether judged for how I was feeling.

And oddly enough, I remember thinking, if I ever have a child, that goes through a breakup, I will not make them feel this way, I will make sure I affirm what they are going through, because it will be very real for them, even if it’s not for me. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever been treated a certain way and thought, I am never going to make someone feel the way I am feeling right now! I have a feeling we all could share a story like that. I call them pay it downward moments.

You’ve heard of pay it forward, right? When, instead of paying someone back for something nice they did for you, you pass that gift on to someone else? Well, pay it downward is when you take something bad someone has done or said to you and you just bury it down in the ground and let it die with you. You don’t pay it back to the person who hurt you, you don’t spread to someone else, you just lay it down, to die. Period.

Now, just to keep us grounded, we could also, I’m sure, share stories of us doing the exact opposite, right? Those times when we are wronged and so we wrong someone else, and we somehow justify it because of that past wrong that was done to us. Psychologists sometimes call this transference. Another phrase that describes it, that you may have heard is, “hurt people hurt people.” Instead of paying a wrong downward, and just letting it die a quick death, we sometimes have a tendency to transfer those feelings onto someone else and end up hurting them. Sometimes we do that to the ones we love the most but that’s for another sermon.

A lite version of this is when you hear someone say something like, “Well, back in my day I had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways, why do kids need a ride these days!” I joke, but it’s the same concept. That person feels they were wronged at some time in their life and so, instead of paying it downward, they choose to perpetuate the wrong, even a minor wrong like transportation to school.

Ok, so why all this talk about paying it downward, and past wrongs, and judgment? Well, Jesus has been talking a lot about judgment lately. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Jesus has been in a bad mood lately. Well, in our Bible story readings anyway, I think Jesus has gotten over it by now. But we have been reading stories from the last week of Jesus life for a few weeks now and these have been some tough passages.

Two weeks ago Jesus told a story about a ruler who was throwing people into the farthest darkness. Last week Jesus told a story about a door shutting on bridesmaids that just wanted to join the wedding party. And today we have Jesus telling a story about everlasting fire, fallen angels, eternal punishment, and judgment! Either Jesus needs to refill his prescription of chill pills or, our author Matthew is expecting us to connect some dots here and draw our own conclusions. So let’s see if we can do that.

Jesus tells this story about the promised one, coming with all these angels, ready to cast judgment on the world, there’s a bit about sheep and goats but that’s not really important to the story. The bottom line here is the judgment that ensues, and that judgment is based on how we’ve treated Jesus in this life—how we have cared for Jesus or, wronged Jesus. The point that Jesus was trying to drive home was that whatever we do to people in this life, we are simultaneously doing to Jesus, good or bad, right or wrong. And that also means that, and this is a bit of a side note, that Jesus’ return, the return that he spoke about at the beginning of our reading, has already started. Because we meet Jesus in every single need that this world throws at us. But back to our story, where were we, ah yes, Jesus is coming to judge us.

Now, before I share with you how I imagine this judgment taking place, let me be clear, I take it very seriously, though maybe for different reasons than most people. I take it seriously when Jesus says when you didn’t do it for the least of these, you didn’t do it to me. That causes me to think twice when I want to pay someone back for the wrong they’ve done me, or when someone needs my help and all I want to do is go home and watch the game, or when I’m short with a loved one because I’ve had a bad day that they know nothing about. And the thought of reviewing all that with Jesus, not a happy thought let me tell you. And so, we can use that to motivate us to be the best baptized children of God that we can possibly be.

And I love the method that Jesus uses here to teach this to us in this story. Jesus basically gives us the ghost of Christmas future scene from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol! It’s like the ghost gave us all a vision of a possible future! What I love about this is that since we are in the now, and not in the future, it’s still in story form, it’s a parable, not reality. So, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wake up and either go about our business as usual, or we can do all we can with the time we have left, to make a lasting positive impact on our world the way God expects us to.

And though Jesus seems to be speaking of the end of the world here, time really has no meaning for Jesus. And it’s the present that’s important for Jesus anyway. In this story, I hear Jesus saying, don’t worry so much about the future, I need you to focus on the present. So, when I say I take this story seriously, I mean it. Jesus was not joking here.

Now, let’s figure this judgment stuff out. I mentioned earlier that Matthew was hoping we’d connect some dots here. Those dots lead us to Holy Week. This is Jesus last teaching before he’s handed over and arrested. The next verses after this passage are literally about the plot to have him killed while Jesus and his followers are on their way to share their last supper together. And here’s the key, Jesus then endures all that he had just taught them about in this last story.

Jesus was hungry and thirsty, but instead, he was beaten and given vinegar to drink. Jesus was a stranger to them and yet was “welcomed” with shouts of “Crucify him!” Jesus left clothed only to be stripped naked and humiliated. Jesus was not visited but instead was abandoned and denied by his closest followers. This is the one, the one who endured all of this wrong against him, all of this judgment against him, this is the one who will now come again to judge us.

Now, how do you think that judgment is going to go down? For two thousand years, the church has led you to believe that Jesus is going to come back in the same bad mood that he left in, and that Jesus is going to be looking for blood and vengeance. And my friends, that narrative really needs to die. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, if we, weak human beings that we are, we self-centered egotistical souls that we are, if we know how to pay it downward, if we know how to break the cycle of judgement, to break the cycle of abuse, to break the cycle of exclusion, to break the cycle of vengeance, if you and I know how to let judgment die with us rather than perpetuating it, how much more do you think Jesus will know how to do that when Jesus returns to judge us?

Knowing all that we know about Jesus, do we really think Jesus will come and pay us back for our wrongs, do we think Jesus will pay it forward and take his anger out on someone else? Or, knowing all that we know about Jesus, is it possible that Jesus will have the power, the might, the love, to pay it downward, and lay all those bad behaviors, all our wrongs, all our shortcomings, down, to die, for good, forever? I’ll let you answer that. Amen.

The Realistic & Optimistic Bridesmaids

Inspired by Matthew 25:1-13

So we have yet another parable using wedding imagery. Last week we read the parable of the wedding feast and today we have the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which the movie Bridesmaids is loosely based on. I’m kidding! Anyone who has seen that movie knows that couldn’t be further from the truth! Seriously though, if all this wedding imagery being used to speak about God seems strange, it’s really not. These aren’t the only two times in the Bible that wedding or romantic imagery is used. In fact, weddings, marriage, and romantic love are all frequently used throughout the entire Bible to help describe our relationship with God. Now, that might sound kind of creepy at first but that’s simply because our culture has a tendency to sexualize everything we possibly can.

However, sex aside, there is a lot that marriage or romantic love can teach us about who God is and how God relates to us. Themes like commitment, faithfulness, love, dedication, sacrifice, patience, forgiveness, all important for any marriage, are in fact also important, crucial aspects of our relationship with God. So it’s no wonder that stories like Ruth or Esther or the book Song of Songs, or the way Paul described the church as the bride of Christ, all use romantic love to teach us something of God.

It’s quite beautiful really, the way that biblical authors weren’t afraid to go down that road to explore who God is to us. Doing so describes a relationship that is strong, well-rounded, and intimate. We will do this parable justice if we keep these things in mind while we try to interpret it; especially because, like last week, this parable is a tough one.

So, let’s dive in. Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids who went out to meet the groom, and right away we’re already scratching our heads. Why would bridesmaids be doing that in the first place? That’s not how weddings work! This is one of those cases when you have a Bible story that is closely tied to a cultural practice that is either different than ours or no longer even exists. In that culture, what we think of as a wedding ceremony was actually done at the engagement.

That’s when they would exchange vows, dowries were paid, that’s when the marriage was ceremonially formalized. Then, at a later date, when it was time for the bride to move in with her new husband, they would form a procession all the way to the groom’s house to have, you guessed it, a wedding party! That’s the part of the wedding that this story takes place in.

So now they are waiting for the groom to show up so they can get their party on, and the story focuses on these ten bridesmaids. They have their lamps all ready and wait patiently for the groom to arrive. Unfortunately, the groom is late. And this is a problem for five of the bridesmaids because they didn’t bring any extra oil for their lamps like the others did. And so they are called fools, and the others are called wise. And to make a long story short, the foolish bridesmaids end up missing the celebration. I know, I skipped some of the more challenging parts of this parable but remember what I’ve told you about parables, you can’t over-analyze them, you can’t get lost in the details, and there isn’t always a nice one to one ratio between each part of the parable and real life. It’s a story, and should be treated as such.

I’d like to focus on how these bridesmaids are judged, because I’m not really convinced that they are wise and foolish. I think to call those five wise is a bit of an overstatement. I mean, so what, they brought some extra oil, that doesn’t exactly earn them a wisdom award! And for the other five, foolish just seems a bit harsh, if not altogether inaccurate. I wouldn’t call them wise and foolish, I’d call them the realistic and optimistic bridesmaids.

Let’s start with the realistic ones. They knew that they had no idea how long the wait would be. There was no way of knowing that the oil in the lamps was going to be enough. The groom being late was a possibility and being the realists that they were, they brought some extra oil just in case. They were simply being practical realists. They had faith that the groom would indeed show up, they just didn’t know when.

Now the other five were the optimists. They weren’t foolish. They weren’t careless. They weren’t disrespectful. They left their house with faith that not only would the groom show up, but he’d be on time, and all would be well! They went with the hope and confidence that everything would work out as planned. Unfortunately, they were wrong this time. Does that make them fools? I don’t think so. Will they make the same mistake again? That will tell us whether they are fools are not. But we don’t know that.

I’m more interested with how each group left their house that day. One group left with a healthy practical realistic attitude toward life. And the other group left their house with a beautiful innocent optimistic attitude toward life. To ask, who was right and who was wrong after reading this parable, I think that’s just the wrong question to be asking.

So here’s a different question, “Which one are you?” And try to ignore how this story ends! I know, easier said than done, right? Because the story as told certainly pits one group against the other. Before you admit which one you are, hear this first—both are needed. We need people who are practical realists who always make sure we are prepared for any scenario. But we also need the optimistic, leap of faith people who aren’t afraid to push us toward an experience that can only be had with enough confidence and hope. So, now, which one are you? You don’t have to answer that out loud, you know who you are, we all know who you are! The challenge is, can we appreciate and value who we all are?

So, not that this is going to be a surprise to most of you, but I’m a practical realist bridesmaid. I like to be as prepared as possible for any contingency. I love numbers and statistics to help me in my planning. I am usually the one in the group to warn of the possible doom inherent in any given plan. As such, we practical realist bridesmaids are often thought of as Debbie Downers, sticks in the mud, Eeyores, and we’re often mistaken for pessimists. That’s like the worst insult you could give a practical realist bridesmaid! To be clear, before I get too defensive, a pessimistic bridesmaid wouldn’t even have been there because she would have turned down the offer to be a bridesmaid because she’d be sure that the groom wouldn't show up anyway! But I digress.

To be fair, we practical realist bridesmaids throw just as much shade, just as much judgment, at our counterparts. We look at them on the other side of the yellow brick road, see, I’m doing it already, we look at them and we secretly, or not so secretly, call them Pollyannas, or Dreamworld citizens, or when we’re really fired up, impractical idealists! I apologize for my language. I don’t know what got into me. Joking aside, if I’m honest, and willing to be a bit vulnerable, there is so much about the optimistic bridesmaids that I’m envious of. And, when I am at my best, I recognize how much I need them in my life…no matter how annoying they may be. Now see, I couldn’t just leave it there. Bad bridesmaid! Bad bridesmaid!

No matter which type you are, we are at our best as a community, when we value each other’s differences—so much so, that we realize that we need each other’s differences, that they actually make us better, stronger, healthier human beings. If there was anything foolish about these ten bridesmaids, it was that they didn’t have each other as a regular part of their lives. If they had, they’d certainly rub off on each other, learn from each other, be better because of each other.

And in this case, those five would have probably left the house with extra oil because of the time they had spent with the other five. It’s so easy these days to get trapped into the kind of thinking that tells us that our differences are what divide us. When the truth is, our differences can unite us, strengthen us, and make us the best bridesmaids we can be. God needs all of you, we need all of you, no matter who or what you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Feast

Inspired by Matthew 22:1-14

I warned you these tough parables were coming! Whew! This one’s a doozy isn’t it? Did Jesus wake up on the wrong side of the bed that day? Was he fighting a cold or something? Did he need to up his fiber intake? I don’t know but I’m sure many of you listened to this and thought, “Well that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know!” Well it is! I didn’t make that up! It’s right out of Matthew’s Gospel! And though I joke about Jesus just being in a bad mood that day, I do think there is some truth to that as well. Let me explain.

Like last week, we skipped a chapter between Sunday readings. Last week we read from chapter 20 and today we read from chapter 22. And since scripture should never be read out of context, we have to ask what was in chapter 21! That chapter starts with Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Which means that, even though we are in the middle of Lent, the rest of our readings in Matthew between now and Easter will all occur during Jesus’ last week on earth, they’ll all occur during the events of Holy Week.

So, for Jesus, his end is now in sight—tensions are tight, stress levels are high, emotions are running deep. And where does Jesus go as he’s riding on his donkey like royalty into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Praise God!” and waving palm branches in the air? He rides straight to the temple! And what does he do there? He throws out the money changers! He knocks over their tables and money and animals that they were selling! He throws a tantrum! And before he leaves he ends with some name-calling by calling them a bunch of crooks! Talk about waking up on the wrong side of bed!

But the chapter doesn’t end there, nor does his bad mood. Early Monday morning Jesus wakes up hungry, wants some breakfast, so he goes out to pick some figs off a tree only the tree didn’t have any. What does he do? He curses it! No, he doesn’t curse at it. He places a curse on it so that it’ll never bear fruit again! The disciples were probably like, “Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those kinds of days is it? Ok! Everybody stay out of Jesus way then shall we?”

Then Jesus returns to the temple and the chief priests and elders start in on him by questioning his authority. His disciples were probably thinking, well this is going to end well, not in the mood that he’s been in! So Jesus answers their question with a question and they can’t answer his question so he says, “Well, then I’m not going to answer yours!” I mean, the sass coming out of Jesus that day is off the charts!

Then Jesus starts telling them parables that I’m sure no one was asking for but no one was going to dare say anything. He tells a parable about a disobedient son, then he tells one about violent murderous farmers! I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up! Then we finally get to the parable that we have before us today, the parable of the wedding party. So, if you were one of those thinking, that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know, now you know, there was good reason for that.

So, to recap, a few things to keep in mind as we delve into these Holy Week readings between now and Easter: one, Jesus was in a bad mood and he was justified for being in one; two, his justification comes from the fact that this is the last week of his life. Think of Holy Week as Jesus’ last week on death row; and three, as such, tensions, emotions, stress, are at an all-time high for Jesus. But maybe even more important than all of those things, this week’s reading has one more thing to keep in mind.

And it’s who Jesus is talking to. He’s not on a mountainside talking to his thousands of followers, he’s in the temple, and he’s talking to the Jewish leadership. The Jewish leadership that will, in just a few short days, be handing him over to be executed. That’s who Jesus is talking to in this hard-hitting, cutthroat parable. Knowing who he was talking to is not insignificant! Jesus was human, and we humans talk to different people in different ways, right? We all do it, and so did Jesus. And to be frank, in the spirit of Jesus’ mood, to assume that every word out of Jesus’ mouth is directed at us, is a bit on the self-centered side.

However, by no means am I saying we should dismiss this parable. There’s a lot of good stuff to be harvested from it. But I’m going to give you what is probably a different way for you to look at it than you have in the past. One of our hang-ups with this parable is that it paints God in a very different light than we are used to. In this story, the ruler is vengeful, violent, and easily insulted. But, who said the ruler in this story is God? Matthew didn’t say that! Jesus didn’t say that! That’s an assumption that readers of this story have made but I’m not convinced that this is the wisest interpretation. And the big red flag here is the fact that the ruler doesn’t behave like the God we have come to know. So, here’s an alternative for those of you who struggle with this parable like I do. What if, God is in this story, but not as the ruler?

What if God is the feast at the wedding party? And everything that is going on around that feast is all the chaos that we humans bring—the fighting that we do, the killing that we do, the carelessness, the apathy, the exclusiveness, that we bring around the feast. Think about it, God is there for us to feast with and to feast on, whenever we want. No one makes themselves more accessible than God does right? What gets in the way is all the foolish chaos that we bring around God, that not only gets in our way, but worse than that, gets in the way of others on their way to the feast that we know as God. It’s bad enough when we get in our own way, but even worse when our actions or inaction, get in other people’s way of experiencing the lavish feast, the amazing party, the celebration, that is God.

And we get in people’s way all the time, don’t we? And we do that in both overt and subtle ways. By the way we behave sometimes, the things we say without thinking, the opportunities to be kind that we allow to pass without acting on them. Some churches do this in very direct ways like making it clear that certain groups of people are not fully welcome in their churches. But I think the real threat, is in the more subtle ways that we get in people’s way of the feast.

Maybe it’s in the assumptions that we make about people based on their appearance and the questions that we ask them based on those assumptions. Maybe it’s in our inability to recognize that people from different cultures behave differently but we assume they’re being inappropriate when they really aren’t. I see that across generations as well. One generation will see the behavior or language of another generation and deem it as inappropriate or even insulting but it’s really not, not for their generation anyway. But the judgment that ensues creates barriers as well as an unwelcome atmosphere.

I won’t get into specifics of the different ways that we do this, I’ll let you come up with your own examples. The bottom line here is, God is a feast available to anyone who wants it, those that we would deem as good and those who we would judge as bad. Our job is not to differentiate between the two. Our job is to get out of the way, or better yet, clear the way, clear the way for all to get to the feast, to the party, to the celebration, that is our God. Amen.

Waiting with...

Inspired by Matthew 20:1-16

This is by far one of my favorite parables of Jesus’. I love it because it is so counter-cultural, it’s so against the grain, and it just chaps people’s hides! And if you think about it, it’s also a very anti-American, anti-capitalism, anti-Social Darwinism story. You won’t find any “survival of the fittest” kind of thinking coming from Jesus. Ideas like, “work hard enough and you can achieve anything” or “the world is your oyster,” you won’t hear those from Jesus. No, instead you get this parable of the vineyard workers.

Which, depending on your perspective, could be an amazing story! But for many of us, dare I say, for most of us, it’s easy to walk away from this story a bit confused, at best, if not altogether angry. Most of us are raised with a very particular idea of fairness, and this story that Jesus tells flies in the face of that principle that we hold so dear.

That’s the direction that I usually go with in this text but I was caught off guard when I saw something a little different in the story this time. So let’s first talk about waiting for a minute. Waiting sounds more like an Advent theme but I think it’s just as applicable to Lent too, especially because Lent is about twice as long as Advent, plus, you normally don’t give anything up for Advent. Although, that might be an interesting idea for us to do sometime. When we think of waiting, we often think of it negatively but there are positive types of waiting as well as negative ones.

Some positive examples might be: waiting for the birth of a child; waiting in line for a concert, waiting for Christmas morning, and though any kind of waiting has challenges, these are usually thought of in a positive light. And then there are not so pleasant types of waiting: waiting to get pregnant, after years of trying; waiting for the results of a biopsy; waiting to be granted citizenship before you’re deported; waiting in line at the unemployment or welfare office; or waiting for a loved one to take their last breath.

We’ve all had to experience the pleasant and not so pleasant kinds of waiting. There’s always something we have to wait for isn’t there? The waiting story that first came to my mind to share with you, was waiting to become a pastor. As many of you know I felt the call to become a pastor in my senior year of high school but it didn’t become a reality until I was 38 years old! It was a long wait that was filled with failed attempts at school, figuring out how we would pay for it, figuring out how we would support a family at the same time, battling thoughts like, “If it’s taking this long then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” From that first sense of call in high school, twenty years of waiting. How did I get through it? More on that in a minute. Let’s turn to our story now and I’ll explain why I’m talking about waiting.

Matthew shares this parable of vineyard workers with us in chapter twenty of his gospel. Last week we read from chapter eighteen, so that means we skipped chapter nineteen, but not because it’s less important, far from. As I’ve mentioned before, our biblical authors shared these stories in a very particular sequence hoping that you’d connect the dots between them all. So, what was in chapter nineteen? That chapter is mostly about sacrifice, but I’m not talking about the cross. Jesus was talking about giving up things on behalf of others, giving up things for the betterment of those around us. That’s the kind of sacrifice that Jesus was talking about in that chapter. So with that in mind, Matthew then shares this parable of the vineyard workers.

The landowner hires workers at different times of the day, some at sunrise, the typical start of a workday in that culture, sun up to sun down, and others as late as five o’clock, with only an hour left in the workday. Then Jesus lays on them one of his typical plot twists, by stating that the landowner paid all of those that were hired to work the vineyard, no matter the time, the same amount. They all got a full day’s wage. Naturally, the ones that got hired at sunrise were furious, even though when they got hired, the amount seemed fine, but then when they compared it to what the last hired workers received, then all of a sudden it was unfair. Jesus then ends the parable with the landowner basically saying, “As the landowner, I can do whatever I want with my money. Take your pay and get outta here!”

An interesting exercise when interpreting a parable is putting yourself in the shoes of the different characters, at different points in their story. What must it have been like to be the landowner while hiring the workers, and what must it have been like to be paying the workers at the end of the story? What must it have been like to be the manager of all these workers and watching this all unfold? What must it have been like to get hired first and know that you were going to get a full day’s wage?

But the shoes I want you to put on for the purposes of this sermon, are the ones who were hired last, but not them at the end of the story when they were getting paid, them at the beginning of the story, when they were waiting, waiting all day not knowing if any work was going to come their way. Just waiting, while they watched others get what they had dreamed about the night before.

When asked by the landowner why they were not working, they answered, “Because nobody has hired us.” They weren’t unemployed because they were lazy, or because they didn’t want to work, or because they were content living off of others generosity. They were unemployed simply because they had not been given an opportunity to work. Meanwhile, they had been waiting all day. So imagine, getting there with everyone else just before dawn with high hopes of getting work. If they could get a full day’s work that could feed their family for a while, or help pay rent, or buy clothes. They stood with everyone else, watching the sunrise, and with that sunrise were all their hopes and dreams for an honest day’s work and pay.

A landowner shows up and hires a bunch of them, but not you. So you wait. Nine o’clock rolls around and another landowner shows up, hires a bunch of workers, but not you. So you wait. It’s still early, it’s ok. At noon the same thing happens. Your shoulders begin to droop. At three o’clock the same thing happens. You hang your head in despair. It’s time to give up. It’s time to go home but you hesitate because now you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to go home and explain your empty pockets, let alone where dinner is going to come from—and so you wait some more.

Those are the shoes that I’d like you to try on today—the shoes of one waiting, waiting for grace to come your way, on the verge of giving up. Why? Because there are a lot of people waiting in this world, waiting for grace to come their way even though the chances of that happening are slim to none. Maybe you’ve been there. What is your story of waiting? What got you through it? I’ll tell you what got me through mine, even though it wasn’t life threatening, it was still quite a challenge.

What got me through it were those around me, supporting me, encouraging me, lifting me, crying with me, never giving up on me or my dream, waiting with me. People like my wife, my children, my pastors, my fellow church members, my friends. In all those twenty years of waiting, no one ever told me I was a fool for waiting, no one ever told me it was time to give up, instead, they kept the dream alive in me even when I could not, some even went so far as to financially support us, my wife sacrificed to be our sole provider so I could attend school full-time.

So my question for you this week is, how are we called to wait with those who are waiting? What is our role in their waiting? But, first of all, who is in this state of waiting in our world? Who are those that are waiting for grace to show up? Certainly the hungry and poor of our world are in this state of waiting. Those who are mourning the death of a loved one and wondering, “How long O God?”

I also can’t help but think of our Muslim siblings throughout the world right now after the mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, who continue to wait for a world where they are welcome. Can we even put our feet in their shoes for a second? Can we even imagine being targeted and killed around the world just for being Lutheran? Also on my mind are our LGBTQ siblings in the United Methodist Church, which recently dug it’s heals in to not allow LGBTQ people to become pastors, or for LGBTQ people to be married in their denomination. They continue to wait for grace.

I’m sure you can think of others who you know are waiting for grace to arrive. Could that grace be you in some way, in some form? And if so, what might that look like? How can you wait with those who are waiting? The answer to that might be as simple as answering, “How have people waited with you when you were waiting?” How can we support those who are waiting for grace to come into their lives, how can we encourage them, how can we help them feel safe in the state that they are currently in?

And to be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about solving their problems, there will be other opportunities for us to talk about that. Rather, how can we be present in their waiting? We are the recipients of a God who walks with us through thick and thin, no matter where we go or how we got there. Shouldn’t we then be a people who walk with others, through thick or thin, no matter where they go or how they got there or how different they are from us?

And if the answer is yes, might that require a sacrifice of some kind on our part? It may be a simple sacrifice like a sacrifice of our time or maybe even of our money. But it may be a more complex sacrifice—like a sacrifice of our emotions, our feelings, a sacrifice of our heart. Or, it may be a sacrifice of a certain way of thinking or believing. For instance, it may require you to sacrifice what you believe about Muslims in order to answer the call to wait with them in their suffering.

Or, you may have to sacrifice what you’ve always believed about certain Bible passages in order to wait and walk with your LGBTQ siblings. Or how about our feelings about drug addicts, or mental health patients, or, I’ll let you fill in the blank. More often than not, to answer the call to walk and wait with those who are waiting for grace, requires a sacrifice of some kind on our part, and spoiler alert, it’s probably not going to seem fair! Thankfully, God isn’t fair with us. Instead, God has sacrificed all that God is, in order to walk with us, as we wait. Amen.