Gratitude, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Children’s books seem to fall into categories: one appears to be about obedience or learning to follow the rules, a great number are about bravery and perseverance, others are about understanding the world around you, but a great many of the books for children today are about teaching our children that they are loved unconditionally. There seems to be a lot of these books, yearning to reassure us that we are lovable. One book, Mama, Do You Love Me?, follows an Alaskan mother and daughter through a conversation where the toddler tests the boundaries and limits of her mother’s love, only to find that even if mama is angry, she loves her daughter still. It’s a story about how fragile we are as humans and how each of us is intrinsically good and worthy of love. It’s a great and honest book, and in some way tells the story of how much God loves us.

Today we find Jesus telling a parable that is also about how much we are loved. The parable of the five o’clock people tells of how fragile we are as humans and how boundless God’s love truly is. Many of us have heard a sermon every year on this parable. Sometimes it focuses on the anger and resentment of the people who showed up earlier in the day, sometimes it looks at why the people showed up at five, and other times we hear about how grace is given freely to all simply because they showed up. All of these ring true.

There is something quite fragile about humans; our fragility shows up when we baptize babies and ask their families to protect them from evil and for the community gathered to look after them. Each of us is born with the love and hope of God implanted in our hearts; unfortunately, we are born into a fragile and broken world. At baptism, each of us had people promise to look after us as we grew into the person God imagined us to be in the midst of our communities.

This is the world of the parable: good and fragile people doing their best, wondering why some got more for doing less. What we and the workers forget is that God is not like us. God is better and more loving than we can imagine being. God looks at the workers and says, “I love you regardless of what time you showed up for work, I’m just glad you showed up.” Like the mother in the book, God’s love is not conditional on our behavior, God just wants us to show up and work. It is a reminder that we need to be grateful for help in the work God has given us to do, regardless of what time that help arrives. The work is often about being a sign of love to the world, and finding ways to love others even if they don’t agree with us, look like us, or behave the way we want them to… or show up first thing in the morning for work.

One of the best ways we can be signs of love in the world is to say thank you. Gratitude is an expression of love. When someone does something kind for us, regardless of whether they had to or not, it is a reminder of the goodness in them meeting the goodness in us—and the natural response to kindness is gratitude. Gratitude is extraordinarily important because it is a way for us to remember the goodness in others and ourselves—but still, it is easy to forget to be grateful.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are remembering and giving thanks for the birth of Julia Chester Emery. One could argue that she was one who showed up early to work and that she worked without complaint. In the early 1900s, Julia helped organize the women of the church to participate in a daily spiritual discipline of gratitude. She asked that everyone remember that when something good happens in his or her day, that this is a gift from God, and to make a thank offering in remembrance that all good things come from God.

With this simple task, she began inviting people to participate in a spiritual discipline of gratitude. She worked tirelessly to promote gratitude and to support mission in the Episcopal Church with the funds collected each year. She did all of this at a time when women were not allowed to work if married and had very little status in the working world. She overcame much adversity to do the good thing that God planted in her heart. She was well known for her tireless dedication to her goal of helping support innovative ministries in the Episcopal Church. She rarely took “no” for an answer. Julia Chester Emery exemplified grit, faith, and the willingness to live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

A spiritual discipline of gratitude doesn’t sound like much, but how often do we forget to say thank you? Thank you seems too simple, and yet it has the power to transform our lives. Have you ever tried genuinely thanking someone from whom you ordered food or coffee? Yes, it is that person’s job to make the coffee, but aren’t you glad that he or she said “yes” to doing the job that day? What about people you work with? Have you thanked them for all they do to support you? Have you thanked your family and friends? Most of us know the pain of someone dying suddenly with words of gratitude left unspoken between us. Saying thank you is simple, but it is transformative.

The simple thank offering collected in 1883 continues to this day in the form of the United Thank Offering. All of the funds collected are given away to support innovative mission and ministry in our church, as a sign of gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives and a sign of gratitude for the good being done through others.

Today we give thanks for Julia Chester Emery, for her vision, dedication, and belief that we should all be more grateful. We’re thankful for the workers, missionaries, and grant sites that the United Thank Offering has supported. We give thanks for those that showed up early to labor to make the world better, and for those who are still showing up. We give thanks for all of those who promised to support us at our baptism, and we give thanks for all who do ministry on our behalf. Today we give thanks for the goodness planted in our hearts, and we ask that we might be brave and tireless in our task, just like Julia Chester Emery.

Download the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

An undeserved gift, 15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A) – 2014

September 21, 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8); Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

How long have you been a member of this church? Or are you a first-timer? Look around. How long do you think those sitting near you have been members of this church? Somewhere in the crowd is someone who has been here the longest. And somewhere is someone who has been a member for the shortest amount of time. Those of you in small churches know these people almost instinctively.

Do you think those who have been members longer should have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the vestry? Be first in line for pot-luck suppers?

Of course these are absurd questions. But what if they were not? Wouldn’t that cause us to understand better the sense of outrage expressed by the longer-serving laborers in today’s gospel story who saw their treatment as a matter of unfairness?

Can we fail to feel sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands labored harder and longer and got the same pay. How can we not feel a painful sense of injustice?

Living in community, we inevitably have experiences that allow us to identify with the workers in today’s gospel story, even if the situations were not as serious as economic and social injustice. We may well remember parents who gave up a great deal of time and energy coaching youth sports leagues or teaching Sunday School or leading scout troops, helping children of other able parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.

How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others in the family? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?

But as mature Christians, one of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our normal views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional theological views and the tenets of popular psychology.

Jesus succeeds in shocking us out of our common misunderstandings of God, by affirming a deeper insight into the character and purposes of God. He wants to shake us out of our usual self-understanding by opening us to a deeper awareness of ourselves, and to transform us more into the image of God.

Jesus wants us to experience this parable as a way to learn what lies beyond viewing the events as simply unfair or fair and to catch a glimpse of the utter limitless generosity of God. He wants us to understand that the worth of human beings is not measured by how much we earn in pay or how well we perform or by any of our usual measures – status, popularity, social achievement, productivity, wealth, physical appearance.

Jesus wants us to know that our worth as human beings is absolutely affirmed by God, who guarantees our value as human beings – not because of anything we have done or can do – but because of God’s creative and life-affirming love for us. Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.

God gives us chances to realize our potential – each in our unique way, restricted, of course, by our own limitations, but empowered by our individual talents and gifts.

Jesus wants us to know the overwhelming reality of God’s love in this world. Jesus especially wants us to recognize the power and presence of God in the life of each and every one of us. Jesus wants us to know that God calls us to respond positively to what he has given us. He wants us to work in his vineyard with happy hearts and willing bodies.

Jesus wants us to know that working and serving in God’s world is a great privilege and opportunity. The reward for our service is the joy of knowing that we are part of a great adventure that gives meaning to our lives. The reward for serving others is found in knowing that we are part of a Christian process of laboring to leave the world a little better than when we entered it.

In telling this parable of the laborers in the vineyard – the ones who worked different amounts for the same pay – Jesus wants us to know that God would have us concentrate on our own spiritual condition, not spending time and energy considering everybody else’s spiritual condition, and to accept our ultimate worth and our ultimate purpose without comparing our contributions to those of others.

Today we have heard Jesus turn one of our normal, worldly views upside down. In so doing, according to our faith, he actually places those values right-side up. Today’s parable teaches that life is from God’s point of view, not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It is not a matter of deserving or undeserving.

Through today’s parable, Jesus reminds us that whatever we have is, after all, a gift from God. Whatever we have is more than we deserve. God is overwhelmingly generous. It is enough that we have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

We are created to love and to give, Pentecost 14, Proper 20 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The scene in today’s reading from Matthew becomes more and more familiar. People are waiting for work. Waiting to be hired. Waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family.

The issue, then, is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying for and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next?

Consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day. To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wage means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done.

To not be chosen to work creates anxiety, and the anxiety of going home empty handed becomes more and more intense as each hour passes by. Is laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of identity, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause often feel a deep sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult; but to be out of work can be even worse.

The lesson in today’s gospel reading is one of extraordinary generosity and fairness. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn, a return to manna season, a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It begins to crawl with worms. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cry of those hired early in the day is oh so familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were here first. We deserve more because we did more.”

And we glibly reply to our children, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just, is established by God, not by our standards of merit. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God – a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving to stake a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven is “enough,” heaven’s daily bread and heaven’s daily wage make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous toward God and others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. As John 3:16 states, ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only son.’ We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with our giving to God and to others as God is with us.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Extraordinary generosity, Pentecost 19, Proper 20 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The scene in Matthew is becoming more and more familiar. People are waiting for work, waiting to be hired, waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family. The issue then is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.
To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wages means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done. To not be chosen to work creates anxiety.

The lesson here is one of extraordinary generosity. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next? People who do, come to our church doors every day hoping we have listened to Jesus tell this story – and that we believe it.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn – a return to manna season – a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It starts crawling with worms and moths. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cries of those hired early in the day are oh-so-familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were there first. We deserve more because we did more.” And we glibly reply, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just is established by God, not by our standards of merit, qualifications, and grounds for staking a claim. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God, a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

As Marguerite Shuster observes in The Lectionary Commentary:

“Grace is not grace if it is qualified by superior virtue in the recipient. Sinners are not sinners if some are less dependent on grace than others. Besides, if one has enough oneself … why would one even want more than someone else, unless out of some sense of pride and self-righteousness? That it seems odd to put the question that way – so normal, so natural, is our desire to want more – shows the depth of our sin. The more we insist on our tit-for-tat way of thinking, the more baffled and angry we will be at God’s whole way of dealing with us.”

Again, consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day with the anxiety of going home empty handed intensifying as each hour passes by. Is even laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of creation, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause, must feel a deeper sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult, but to be out of work can be even worse.

I think of all the people who leave home each day, briefcase or tool box in hand, pretending to go to work long after they have been laid off. They cannot face telling their families that they no longer have a job. We are tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The temptation is always to assume God serves our sense of what is fair, our sense of “justice.” The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving and have stake to a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven’s “enough,” heaven’s daily bread, and heaven’s daily wages make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

Jesus’ assurance that the last shall be first and the first shall be last is tied to manna season, and settling for bread and wages that are given daily. We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.

Jesus seems to be announcing a great reversal of places in the kingdom. The New Testament calls this “turning the world upside down.” People outside the church in the first centuries called Christians “those people who are turning the world upside down.” Go figure!

So if 10 is Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei, and 1 is the poorest of the poor, it has been suggested that those who are really clever will live around number 5. That way, when it all turns upside down, they will feel the least amount of disruption in their lives.

Manna season: when everyone has enough, no one has too much. If you store it up, it sours on you. The world lived at number 5.

Sounds easy! But on a global and even national scale, most of us are living conservatively at number 9, except on April 15 when we pay our taxes and attempt to argue ourselves down to an 8.5. Looked at from this perspective, the journey to number 5 looks like a long, long journey. But, says Jesus, it is the journey to life lived in its fullest!

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous to others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. And as John 3:16 states, “God so loved the world that God gave … .”

God loves and God gives. We are created in God’s image. We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with others as God is with us.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.