Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grace in Your Face

NW MN Synod

Theology for Ministry Conference

Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 17, 2008
Matthew 20:1-16

Will Willimon, Methodist preacher and now bishop, tells about a time he preached on this text in the magnificent Chapel at Duke University. He writes:

She came up to me at the end of the service saying, “I was really troubled by the service today.” She was wearing a Duke blue usher’s robe. “Where do you get these stories that you tell in your talk?” she asked. “Stories? I guess I get them from growing up in South Carolina,” I said. “Well I was really bothered by the one today,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s anyway to treat people. I mean, if you work longer than other people, you should get paid more.” “Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s not my story, that’s from Matthew.” “Matthew?” she asked. “It’s in the Bible,” I said. “Why are you ushering here?” I asked. “Well that tall guy over there, I’m dating him. And he needed somebody to usher today so he called me and here I am,” she said. “Next question,” I said, “what is your religious background?” “We went to church some when I was a kid, but I’m not anything really,” she said. “Well let me tell you something. Just for your information. There is a sense in which you are the only person who got the story this morning. You found it offensive to your notion of justice. Right? Outrageous. Right? Well, just for your information, the man who told that story was later murdered for telling it. You got it. It really is an offensive, outrageous story. You got it.”

SOURCE: William Willimon, “Defining Justice with Jesus”
Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel 9/19/1999

You could say, I think, that Will Willimon had a “post-modern moment” with that young usher in the Duke Chapel. She wasn’t buying what he was selling. Just because it was in the Bible, just because Jesus said it—she wasn’t swallowing it.

And that can be unsettling for us preachers—can’t it?

I think I had my own “post-modern moment” a few Sundays ago. I was in a congregation of our synod, preaching on Matthew 18:15-20…..and about midway through the sermon it’s like I was losing about a third of my hearers. A massive, simultaneous glazing-over-of-eyes seemed to be taking place. And I don’t think they were responding to me as a preacher as much as they were responding to Jesus and his hard word about treating folks who refuse to be reconciled as if they’re Gentiles or tax collectors.

It all came to a head when I uttered the e-word: “excommunication.” Right then, I thought one or two persons were ready to get up and walk out, and a whole bunch of others had pained looks on their faces that said: “You’ve got to be kidding!”

In that moment I thought to myself: “I’m not making this up. Jesus made this up and said it and (most of all) lived it and the evangelist wrote it down so that we can keep saying it….even though some folks, maybe many folks aren’t buying it.”

We’ve been pondering what it’s like to preach and “do church” at the post-modern turn, and, no offense to our great speakers, but I’m not sure I’m leaving this conference any smarter than I came. I doubt I’m going home any better equipped to preach and share Christ with a generation that reserves judgment about truth claims that used to be taken at face value, but now have to be defended, argued for, and (most importantly) lived out with greater and greater authenticity.

Part of me—a pretty big part of me—will never buy into this “post-modern” stuff….but this much I do know: it’s in the air we breathe, and we best remember that as we venture out to proclaim the truth that has met us in Jesus. We may not like the post-modern mindset (just as some days we may not like gravity!)…but we best learn how to deal with it.

Folks ain’t necessarily gonna buy the truth that we have to sell.

And maybe that’s just as well. There could be one thing worse than post-modern skepticism or post-modern relativism….and that’s the over-familiarity of the faithful, who nod encouragingly, look at us sympathetically while we preach, and then quickly glance down at their watches to see how many more minutes remain before the Vikings’ kickoff.

This young woman that Will Willimon talked about, all dressed up in her Duke Chapel blue ushers robe….this audacious young woman was at least grabbed by the truth enough to struggle with it and push back against it.

She got something other hearers missed—the sheer, “in your face” offensiveness of this story and its implications.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner. It must have been one of those years when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, when the harvest can’t wait another second longer….

So he keeps trotting back to the day labor pool that gathered in the marketplace….he makes five, count them, five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm crowd...down to the slackers who showed up late and hung over, still unemployed at the end of the afternoon….the vineyard owner just keeps snagging them all, putting them to work, promising them each a fair wage.

This vineyard owner…you just know he’s “up to something!”

And sure enough, at the end of the day, he stages—stages, mind you!—a most unusual method of doing the payroll. He has his manager line them up in order (something that’s always happening in Matthew’s gospel—have you been noticing that??)….the manager lines them up from last-hired down to first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

The vineyard owner, in short, WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a denarius and all sorts of eyes that line bug out! “Amazing! If those slackers each get a whole denarius, we’re going to receive even more. Happy days are here again…”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating), as that same denarius keeps getting paid to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now felt like fools—and worse, they felt cheated. And, in that frame of mind, they gave voice to envy, surely one of the ugliest of human emotions.

Here, right before their eyes, they had watched the value of the denarius drop. Talk about currency deflation!

Or was it? Each of the end-of-the-line crowd had agreed--had they not?--to work all day for a standard day’s wage? Wasn’t that the deal?

But we’re always noticing, aren’t we? We’re always situating ourselves in relation to others—and it’s those others and how they get treated that rankle us here.

When the Vineyard Owner catches wind of the grumbling, he says nothing that might soothe the troubled waters. In fact he actually makes matters worse. He gets in the face of the grumblers--reminding them that he did the hiring, he promised the fair wage, and he would pay them with his money—money he could do with exactly as he pleased, even if that meant being lavishly, extravagantly, breaking-the-bank-generous with those last-hired.

What’s offensive here, you see, is the Vineyard Owner’s “in your face grace.”

When we get the preaching of it right—which may not be all that often—when we say it right, somebody is going to be torqued off, someone’s going to get up and leave, someone will refuse be embraced by the truth of it.

And there, perhaps there, the post-modern mindset crowd does us all a favor, by giving voice to the skepticism that itself may be the strongest testimony to the truth of the gospel!

The Duke chapel usher giving the preacher a piece of her mind—she was pitching a slow ball, right over the plate to Will Willimon! She got it—that that Vineyard Owner with his Donald Trump attitude—that he was indeed “up to something,” getting right in the face of his most faithful employees—the ones whose blue ribbon work ethic was keeping them from“getting” their master’s amazing generosity.

The Duke chapel usher, in her skepticism, was so precariously close to faith…so frighteningly close to realizing how God is “up to something” in Jesus Christ. She was about a smidgin away from “catching” God’s “in your face grace.”

I wonder what happened to her, this earnest young coed in Duke Chapel. Did God’s in-your-face-grace finally wash over her? Did she become the president of the Duke Chapel ushers society and go on to the divinity school? Is she perhaps serving a three-point parish out in western North Dakota?

Or is she still searching for a believe-able God…still accosting preachers, keeping them humble, and demanding from them utter authenticity?

Hard to say! And it’s even harder to say which of those two paths might finally render greater service in God’s mission…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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