Employed by God

Employed by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 20, 2020

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16


While Presbytery meetings are generally informative and worthwhile, I am sure to enjoy them more when we have someone being examined for candidacy as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. You see, at this point in the ordination process, men and women are given an opportunity to share their call story. It is amazing to hear the various ways God has worked in their lives, thus far. For me, call stories echo the truth that the Spirit is still on the move, nudging, awakening, compelling… And no two stories are alike—God is creative like that! Some folks recognize a call in their teens. Others hear the voice of God calling them during college. Others, like me, enter ministry as a second career—in quite unexpected ways.

While I enjoy all the stories, I admit my favorites are from the young folks who have just completed college and are in seminary. They spark a romantic notion within me of a future filled with possibilities. Honestly, though, there was a time when I reacted to their stories with a twinge of regret on my own behalf—somehow wishing I had showed up earlier for the party—envisioning what it would have been like to set out on this road in my 20’s with a clearly defined call. But that is not my story and I have accepted it—more than that—I’m pleased about it. For, overtime, God has opened my eyes to the importance of diversity in all things—even in something like when, where, and how, a person accepts a call into ministry. We all have different roles to play. While mine is not one of the starry-eyed glow of youth, I still have something to bring to the party. I have life experiences; I have a sense of humor for which I thank God! And I am humbled when, every now and then, God uses me to speak a word of wisdom.

As a community of believers, we all have a part to play. We all bring something different to the party. Isn’t it wonderful? Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12. Hear these words as translated in The Message:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

We all have a role to play but sometimes we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. We begin to feel that since we are not gifted with A, B, or C, we have little to offer. And if we keep going down this path, we will find ourselves adrift in the story of someone else, wishing that their gifts and their successes were ours. Margaret Thatcher once said, “The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” And Proverbs 14:30 tells us, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” To grasp the fullness of this statement, let’s consider some context provided by a modern-day writer.

Bones were a reference to the whole body, the fullness of life. To say that envy rots the bones is to say that it breaks down and destroys the whole self. It tears life apart. Beyond that, the word used for bones in this particular verse comes from the Hebrew word meaning “where the strength is.” Bones provide structure, stability, power. Envy infects and decays that strength like an infectious disease. As with anything that opposes life, it is deceitful. It keeps us staring at others, resenting our apparent weaknesses, but meanwhile, it is literally boring a hole into our strengths, ripping apart the meaningful stories we are created for…When we look at the talents, titles, successes, and influences of our peers with anything less than pride and support, trying to mold ourselves into their image, we choose to let envy drill away at our God-given purposes.[i]

In today’s gospel reading Jesus offers a description of the kingdom of heaven. It is like a landowner who gives jobs to those who have no work. Some he hires at 9 in the morning, some at noon, some at 3 in the afternoon, and some at 5. But when quitting time comes, the landowner has such a big heart—he pays everyone a day’s wages. They get the same amount—no matter whether they worked all day or just a few hours. Of course, the human sense of fairness can’t stand such generosity so some of the workers grumble against the landowner. But the landowner comes right back at them with something like, “Wait just a minute here, friends. You agreed to the daily wage—so take it and get out of here. I will give as I see fit—it’s my money! I can be generous to whomever I wish to be generous. What business is it of yours?”

Jesus gives us an interesting story to ponder. Likely, you have heard sermons over the years dealing with one detail or another. Maybe you have heard it preached from the angle of the Pharisees and Jews who are jealous that with Jesus on the scene even the Gentiles have a place at the table of grace. Some have looked at the text and reflected on the struggle in certain churches where some people feel they pull the lion’s share of God’s work while too many others sit idly on the pews. Good, hard-working people look at the story and wonder what kind of God would be so unfair as to give the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not. It boggles the mind, really. But as God reminds us through his prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[ii]

While our human nature may lead us to look at the story through critical eyes and wonder how in the world God got to be such a lousy bookkeeper, it might behoove us to stand back and behold the broader picture Jesus is painting of his Abba Father. For in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone work to do. So instead of getting caught up in our favorite pastimes—comparing ourselves to others and grumbling against God—we might give thanks to God for the prize that is ours. Being employed by God is our reward—in and of itself! We are on God’s payroll.

Surely there is no better way to spend our time, talents, and treasures than in the pursuit of bringing the kingdom of heaven to all the earth. And the kingdom of heaven is not just some place to which we go in the sweet by and by. The kingdom of heaven is now. And in this time and this place—there’s work for us all to do. It isn’t work that we are bent on getting out of—rather it’s work to be honored. We have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard. With God as our employer—it is the job of a lifetime. And it is a waste of energy to compare our work with someone else’s work. Instead, let us cultivate our talents and passions. Let us celebrate and even complement each other’s gifts! Let us foster a spirit of gratitude because the Lord of the Vineyard so generously provides for us all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/problem-with-purpose-envy#yrc4dhjIWdLtb6Hk.99

[ii] Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission; Music CCLI 20016020/13