Gracious Acceptance

In September 1997, millions of people around the world sat glued to their television sets, watching the funerals of two very famous women. The first funeral was for Diana, Princess of Wales, who met an untimely death at the age of 36, a fatality in an accident in which two other people were also killed.

No one who watched the outpouring of grief in London will ever forget it: the tons of fresh flowers left outside Kensington and Buckingham Palaces, the makeshift shrines, the parade of celebrities at Westminster Abbey and the moving arrangements of white roses on the coffin, accompanied by a card with the simple inscription "Mummy."

The funeral service was billed as "a unique service for a unique person," and it certainly was that. Elton John's song, "Candle in the Wind," and Earl Spencer's tribute to his sister contributed to the secular canonization of Diana.

When watching the funeral I didn't expect to hear about the late princess' adulterous affairs, temper tantrums, extravagance, or eating disorders in the eulogy. Most of the service suggested that Diana was a worthier candidate for heaven, if not sainthood, than the majority of the mourners.

The other famous funeral was the funeral for Mother Theresa who died only a few days later. Her funeral was in stark contrast to the spectacle at Westminster Abbey.

Prior to the mass for Mother Theresa, the nun's body lay in state on a block of ice to prevent decay, not in a royal chapel. While religious and political leaders from around the world praised Mother Theresa, some were there for the funeral. The funeral followed the prescribed order for the mass rather than being designed for a much-admired woman.

There were prayers for her soul, and petitions made to God to have mercy on her and receive her as his own. Nothing said or sung in the liturgy made special claim on divine favor.

The funeral reminded viewers and participants of the need of all humanity for God's grace.

Both the Old Testament and the gospel readings for today deal with a paradox: the difference between human ideas of deserving, and divine compassion offered to all, knowing that all are undeserving. In other words, our readings today present us with two ideas, entitlement or grace.

There is a human tendency to demand God's justice, when what is really needed is God's mercy.

In the Old Testament lesson, Jonah went back and forth between wanting justice from God, in the form of destroying the Ninevites, and in pleading for mercy for himself.

We don't know if it was an instinct for self-preservation or simply loathing for Nineveh and its people that prompted Jonah to disobey God and set sail for Tarshish instead.

When Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, he implored God for deliverance and mercy, saying, "I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice…When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple…Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"

Once released to do the work to which God called him, Jonah proceeded to Nineveh. He announced the impending destruction of the city, and then waited outside the city limits so he could watch God's judgment fall on it.

But Nineveh repented, from the king to the poorest citizen, and in so doing the city received divine mercy. Jonah was upset because the Lord had as much compassion for a sinful city as he had shown toward a sinful prophet.

After all, he had been God's servant much longer than the people of Nineveh. Justice would seem to demand that punishment be proportionate to the length or degree of obedience versus disobedience. This is how our civil justice system is set up, isn't it? Punishment is based on the severity of the crime. Clearly Jonah felt strongly that Nineveh deserved a harsh punishment because they had lived in sin and disobedience a lot longer then he had.

In the gospel reading we find a second instance of paradox: wanting justice and resenting the idea of mercy.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard doesn't identify who the "first hired" and the "last hired" were. Jesus seems to allow his listeners to find their own point of identification in the story. And the parable does seem to reveal as much about God as it describes the human condition.

While some of the laborers were in the vineyard through the heat of the day, and others came only for the last hour or two of work, the treatment given each of them by the landlord was the same.

All the workers in the vineyard were in need of the same thing: the means to support themselves. The vineyard owner finds all in the same location: the marketplace. And an explicit promise made to those who were hired first was fulfilled.

The first hired were satisfied with justice until they saw their employer's generosity toward latecomers to the vineyard. They were upset that they had worked all day and received the same pay as those who worked for only a short time.

And if we are honest this too upsets us, doesn't it? It doesn't seem fair that those who work long and hard get the same or perhaps less than those who seem to coast along. If only the workers took to heart Jesus' teaching in verse 16 that "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" would they be grateful for the evenhanded and unearned generosity of the vineyard owner.

The conclusion is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn't it? This too is a story of reversals: the lost is found, the dead is alive, the son who stayed home now stays outside.

The estate of the waiting father is shared equally between the two sons. The wayward one who returns home receives as much as his elder brother who worked the farm and never strayed.

The younger son receives grace unexpectedly and, we assume, gratefully, while his brother sees only injustice. The "last being first" in this story is the wastefulness of the prodigal son being cancelled out by the compassion and love of the father. While this same love arouses anger and alienation from the elder son.

Both sons would have nothing without the father's kindness. Both were heirs because it was his will to make them such.

The ending of the Jonah story, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and the prodigal son are all good news to contemporary listeners, because the truth is that no matter which of the characters we identify with, or how long we've "labored in the vineyard," we are all in need of God's pity and compassion. We all are in need of God's grace

We pretend this isn't so, but if we are really honest with ourselves we know it is. We want to think we can earn favor in God's eyes by working hard, so that we might receive an appropriate piece of the heavenly kingdom.

Those of us who listen to sermons on a regular basis are apt to smart with the perceived injustice of the vineyard owner giving as much to latecomers as he does to longtime workers.

We secretly sympathize with the elder brother, wondering whether the cost of the fatted calf and the big party will come out of our share of the inheritance. And sad to say, many of us rejoice with Jonah at the prospect of judgment falling upon those we despise.

"Actions have consequences," we self-righteously remind one another, secure in the thought that we are not guilty of the particular actions in question.

There is nothing to be gained in this mindset. It leaves us huddled on the outskirts of Nineveh, focused on a withered gourd vine instead of the work of redemption going on before us.

It pushes away the father's love that would include us in the celebration of our brother or sisters restoration. It turns us sour on the generous reward God promised us at the end of the day. It blinds us to our own neediness, our own undeserving.

No one understood this better then the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote, "If anyone thinks he or she has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of the Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteous under the law blameless." Prior to his conversion to faith in Christ, this man would not have relied on God's grace at all, but rather on his own actions. But this same Paul wrote, "This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

In Christ's vineyard, in contrast to every other vineyard we know, our degrees and seniority, our years of distinguished service our titles - vice president, chairperson, dean, doctor, professor, honorable, reverend, whatever - are irrelevant to the overriding question: Are we immersed in and compelled by love?

Are we saving, serving, and seeking creative community among others? Is our discipleship exercised from a community founded to heal wounds caused by the conceit of birthrights, the arrogance of racial identities, the disparities of privilege rooted in gender. The truth is all of our definitions of success reflected in status, income, residence, and luck dissolve and have no merit or meaning in the vineyard of Christ.

Because God is faithful and just, his promises may be relied on. He has pledged certain reward for those who answer his call, whether to go to Nineveh or labor in the vineyard.

But because God is compassionate, the call is issued over and over, offering the kingdom to all who acknowledge their need of grace to have any share in it.

And this should be good news to all of us. Because without exception we have at one time or another ignored God's call. We have ignored God's teaching. We have ignored God period! Thank God he forgives us and offers us grace, and never gives up on us, even when we give up on ourselves.

Yes this means that a person who lived a life full of sin and deceit can have what some call a death bed conversion and receive his or her full inheritance in heaven.

Now this may not seem fair to us, those of us who try to live a godly life. But like the vineyard owner, God doesn't have to give us a thing. We ought to be thankful for God's grace, and be thankful that God receives us.

You see God just wants a relationship with us, so when we turn away but come back home he is very happy. Much like the father in the story of the prodigal son. The father was just happy to have his son back, so that their relationship could be restored. And I would also argue that as people come into a relationship with Christ and strive to live a holy life, they live a more joyful, and peaceful life on this earth more so then many of the folks who don't receive Christ until very late in life.

We shouldn't flaunt this truth, just recognize it as grace, thank God, and share this truth with others. We shouldn't seek gradations of reward, we should rejoice when any of God's lost sheep return home, hoping and praying they do return home before it's too late.

The sad truth is for some the turning point, the desire to return home doesn't come until they are in the belly of the whale, or are struck down on the road to Damascus, are unable to earn a living, or are eating hog slop in a far away country.

To some the turning point, the realized need for Christ in their life, doesn't come until they reach the bottom, the very pit of darkness. It's at this time the grace of God, which has been available to all since the time of our physical birth, is received and we are justified by God, forgiven of our sins, and experience a new birth, a new spiritual birth, which launches us on a new holy journey to wholeness, and perfection.

Thanks be to God for his grace, which is available to all, and to his gracious acceptance of all who receive Jesus into their hearts. Amen.

Read other messages by Pastor Wade