First Christian Church
 Open Hearts, Open Minds, An Open Table
 224 West Dryden, Odessa MO 64076*  816-633-7726*  
Home      Sermon for September 18, 2011
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Scripture Reference: Matthew 20: 1-16

I read a story recently about a minister who retired after 25 years of preaching at a country church.  While packing up his things in the parsonage he discovered under a bed a small bowl with 5 eggs in it and $500.00. Puzzled, this distinguished clergyman called his wife. “Honey, what is this basket doing under the bed with 5 eggs and $500.00 in it?" "Oh, " she said, "I must confess that the basket is mine. Every time you preached a bad sermon I put an egg in the basket." The preacher was flattered - in 25 years he'd only had five bad sermons? "But" he asked, "what about the $500?" "Every time I got a dozen I sold them." I hope this is a good sermon!
Today we're faced with Jesus' words once again.  You know, Jesus wasn’t crucified because of his miracles or deeds.  Jesus wound up on the cross due to his words, stories just like this one.  Coming from our culture it is very difficult to hear the truth in this story. It may strikes us as a nice or sweet story, but it flies in the face of principles which we as Americans hold dear.  I learned in kindergarten that if you want to succeed in life you must work hard. The American dream is that any person with hard work, the right skill and timing, combined with a little luck can become financially successful.
In our society a person’s financial value is determined by how difficult it is to replace him or her. The reason Peyton Manning is paid 100 million dollars to throw a football around the field is because he is difficult or almost impossible to replace. Most of us here are probably average folks. We don’t possess specialzed skills or abilities. Thus we earn average wages. There are the retired. They put their time in. There are the young. Hopefully they will obtain gainful employment.  And then there is the unemployed. There are those who cannot or will not enter the work force.  In our economic understanding of things Peyton Manning is valuable and a person on welfare not so valuable.
But God’s value system differs from that of the world. God loves all people. God is no respecter of persons. Please notice that at the beginning of this story all the workers are unemployed. No one has work. The land owner offers a job and the people agree. Interesting that when it comes time to receive their wages the first hired workers seem to have lost touch with the fact that they were once unemployed, forgetting their connection with their fellow laborers as they demand more money. 
The beauty of parables is that they invite speculation.  So let's think a little about what this story tells us.  How would the vineyard owner choose his workers?  I imagine he chose the strongest ones first.   It’s like in school when we choose up teams. The last person picked was almost always the weakest player. In fact if I remember correctly the last players picked were often a liability. The last players were not good. They did not help the team much, instead they could hurt the team. You know the last ones don’t really deserve to be on the team.
I’ll confess to you I possess a rather strong idea of what fairness is.  If you work hard then you get rewarded. If you don’t work hard you don’t get ahead. I recall when I first began working at the halfway house in NY. Almost all the clients there are on welfare. The average stay is 6 months. For 6 months these men get a roof over their heads, a warm bed, three square meals a day. They have a place to do their laundry and I, as the activity coordinator, worked hard to find them fun sober activities. And let’s be honest. Some of those men, in my opinion, were clearly milking the system. From their own words you could tell that they were not serious about recovery. They would do what they could to stay in the halfway house, but at the end of their time they would go out, return to their old addictive lifestyles, and wind up right back in the system. And many of these guys would call themselves Christians. Not difficult to get angry about this kind of situation. These guys don’t deserve it this good.
But then two things happened.  First I got to know these clients. When I began to learn their stories, the experiences they went through in life, suddenly their lives began to make more sense to me. I’ve mentioned before that I never met a client whose ambition in life had been to live in that halfway house. Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up. Truck driver, fire fighter, pilot, teacher. They almost always long to be a productive member of society. There are reasons why people don’t succeed in life. There are reasons why those last workers were hired last. We may not like the reasons. We may not agree with the reasons. But the reasons are real and they are true.
Second was an encounter I had with the Lord. One day while wrestling with God over these clients God spoke to me. God asked me one question. God said, “Clint with which one of these clients would you like to trade places?” "Well," I answered, "God, I'm angry at these clients for apparently taking advantage of things and the pain they've caused, but by no means would I want to change places with any one of them. I’m happy that I am on my own able to work and that I know you so well."  That's when I knew, "weaker" people aren't week because they choose to be, but because of conditions of their life.
God keeps bringing this back to me. I am convinced that every single one of us here has a purpose. God has a plan for our lives. Our responsibility is to discover that plan and say yes to it. I sense God asking today. How serious are we about discovering this plan? Clients would be asked this in AA. How serious are you about not drinking? Are you willing to never ever go to a bar? Are you so wanting to stop drinking that you will refrain from watching tv with all the beer commercials. How serious are you? How far are we willing to go? How serious are we to know what God wants us to do? Are we willing to consistenly seek God in prayer? Are we willing to daily read our Bibles? Are we willing to attend church and Sunday school? Are we willing to serve and give of our time and money as the Lord leads us?
I’ve shared before about my fascination with John the Baptist. From before birth John was radically devoted to God. Alcohol never touched his lips.  He ate locusts and wild honey out in the desert. People, even the religious leaders left the temple to come and hear him. What an amazing ministry. John clearly says, “I am not the Messiah. I am the messenger preparing the way.” When John encounters Jesus he responds, “He must increase. I must decrease.” And for this humility and obedience John is locked up and ultimately loses his head. And yet I know that if we could speak to John today he would tell us that he would not have changed a thing. John discovered his path and he walked on it. By no means was it an easy path, but John was following and serving the living God and there is no greater reward in this life.
God may choose to use the Baptist church. They may grow in leaps and bounds. Our question should always remain, “God what role would you have me play? Thank you for including us in your kingdom. Thank you for hiring us. Whatever work you have for us we are more than happy to do.”
Listen I wish that I could stand up here today and tell you that in the parable I would be one of the first hired. I’m a minister. I have a seminary degree. No, this is God I’m dealing with. I know that I am one of the later ones hired. I am grateful merely to be a participant in God’s kingdom. May I never forget that I was once unemployed. But God gave me a job. May I and we do our jobs with all of our hearts. I invite you to join me in prayer.