Sunday, September 21st, 2014 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
Hymns: “All Creatures of Our God and King”, “Here I Am to Worship”, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”, “For All the Saints”
For All the Saints
Every church out there has a collection of folks – elders of the congregation, the wise, older members – who are commonly referred to as the “saints of the church”. These are the members of the church who are considered to be above reproach, who have led lives pleasing in the sight of God, who are turned to for wisdom and guidance in times both of struggle and of joy. The church grieves when they pass, and yet simultaneously rejoices that such a saint has been welcomed into the kingdom.
There was a particular one at my home church, Foothills – her name was Dorothy Reece. Born in an Appalachian holler in the Kentucky foothills in 1917, she and her husband, Richard, retired to Phoenix in 1980, joining Phoenix Central Christian Church – the congregation that would become Foothills. When my family joined the church in late 1983, she took a special interest in me. Over the years that followed, she always made sure to keep track of where I was in life, and if she could ever do something to help me out, she would. One particular moment that stands out in my mind comes from March of 2003 – I was in rather dire financial straits, and my grades at Northern Arizona University were suffering. I had come home to Phoenix for the weekend for a congregational vote on a new pastor, and after church on Sunday, Dorothy came to speak to me. “You seem troubled, Jimmy,” she told me, and because she was basically a Jedi, before I knew what I was doing, I had spilled my guts to her.
As soon as my story was done, she reached into her purse, pulled out a $20 bill, and handed it to me. “I know this isn’t much, but I’ll be praying for you too,” she told me. And I’ll tell you what, knowing that Dorothy Reece was praying for me meant far more to me than $20 ever could.
Dorothy lived long enough to see cancer and various other illnesses claim the other saints of Phoenix Central and Foothills Christian Church – Fairy Mae McKiernan, the Rev. E. Phil Dubbs, Everett Figgs, just to name a few. Finally, at the age of 95, she too passed from this earth into the Lord’s embrace.
Just like when I spoke of my piano teacher, Mrs. Marcus, a few weeks ago, I was also not able to attend Dorothy’s funeral – but in this case, it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it, but because I was in the midst of my final fall semester at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, interning close to 40 hours a week at a Veterans Affairs hospital some 85 miles from my house, and taking an additional nine credit hours of classes at Wake Forest to boot. Taking the time to travel from North Carolina to Arizona for a funeral on a Wednesday was, unfortunately, out of the question.
The day of her funeral, I was at the V.A. hospital. My chaplaincy internship cohort met on Wednesday afternoons, from noon to 3:00, and part of our time focused on our own personal well-being. As we discussed that afternoon, I mentioned Dorothy, and how her funeral was going on that afternoon. I described her to the cohort, and did in fact refer to her as a “saint” of the church. When I had finished, one of the other interns in my group, who was in training to be a pastor in the United Church of Christ, said, “That sounds like somebody whose reward will be great in heaven.”
And I STARTED to agree – but then, I remembered something that Dorothy herself had said to me more than twelve years before. In May of 2000, just before graduating high school, I had preached my very first sermon, given the opportunity because I was a graduating senior. Part of that sermon had involved reflecting on growing up at Foothills, and in it, I had referred to Dorothy as a saint, and said something to the very same effect as my colleague at the V.A. – that her reward would be great.
Afterwards, however, Dorothy had taken me aside and said, in her inimitable Kentucky accent, “I know that you and many others look up to me, and I appreciate it, but I’m no better than anybody else here. God’s gonna treat us all just the same when we get to heaven. The Lord loves each of his children equally, you just as much as me.”
It was a profound statement – perhaps a bit too profound for an eighteen year old to fully comprehend – but it certainly stuck with me, enough so to crop up in my mind again in September of 2012. And of course, it surfaced again when I was reading through this week’s Gospel text.
God’s gonna treat us all just the same when we get to heaven.
Isn’t that remarkable? Think about it. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how good a life you may have led. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a Christian for your entire life, or if you came to know Christ in your very last days. Think back to last week – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but the forgiveness of God extends to all persons. When the day comes that we stand before the Lord, there will be no judgment, there will be no trial, there will be no separation. Sinner and saint will stand side by side and be welcomed into God’s eternal realm, the resurrection of Jesus Christ having given eternal power over the death of sin.
And that’s not an easy pill for some people to swallow.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? We like to think that when the day comes for Billy Graham to enter into God’s embrace, he will receive the grandest of dwellings in heaven, whereas serial killer Ted Bundy, who said he came to Christ while on death row, should have a little shack on the wrong side of the tracks. We like to think that those who did good on earth will receive more of a reward than those who did terrible things, regardless of their eventual confession of faith.
But that’s not how it works. John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him early on shall get the really good stuff in eternal life. No, it simply says, whoever believes in him shall have eternal life.
And that’s the point of today’s Gospel lesson. In Roman-occupied first century Palestine, day labor was a common practice among the Jewish natives. A wealthy landowner – usually a Roman transplant from Italy – would go to the town square at dawn and seek out able-bodied local men to work on his land. They would agree on what was a fair day’s wages, and at the end of the day, the landowner would pay out those wages to the laborers, and they would go home. The process would repeat each day.
In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20, however, the landowner – a vineyard owner who was bringing in the grape harvest to make wine – apparently realized a few times throughout the day that he hadn’t hired enough people. He brought in more at 9:00 AM, noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM – almost the end of the working day. With each group – the first included – he said he would pay them a day’s wages. And at the end of the day – call it 6:00 PM – he paid everybody a day’s wages. The workers that came in at dawn, the workers that came in mid-morning, the workers that came in at lunchtime, the workers that came in at mid-afternoon, and the workers that came in a scant hour before the end of the working day all received the same wages.
Now, the workers who were in the vineyards all day didn’t exactly think that was fair, and they let the landowner know as much. “Hey, I’m sorry, but you agreed to work today for the wages I offered you,” he replied. He didn’t cheat them out of anything he had promised them, and it was entirely his prerogative what he chose to pay the other workers he hired over the course of the day.
So it is in the kingdom of heaven.
It hardly seems fair, does it? That saints of the church who have pursued a Christ-like way of living for decades and decades, treated the same way as those who came to Christ very, very late in life. We certainly don’t treat them the same here on earth. It’s not fair, we say.
But here’s the thing – neither is the mercy of God’s forgiveness that we are granted through God’s divine grace. It’s not fair that we should receive forgiveness for the sins that we have committed. It’s not fair that God should look past the fact that we sin against God’s other children, that we sin against God’s great creation, that we sin against God directly.
It most certainly isn’t fair that Jesus went to the cross in order to conquer death and give us victory over sin in the resurrection.
God doesn’t play by our rules when it comes to redemption and reward. God plays only by the rulebook that God has written, and in that rulebook, there is no hierarchy, no order, no preference. The only rule is this: you are forgiven, and therefore you will enter into God’s presence welcomed, beloved, and celebrated. The first will be last, the last will be first – it doesn’t matter WHEN you got there, everybody is loved by God exactly the same.
This is not to say that we should not be thankful for the saints of the church. These are the people whose examples of living a Christ-like life shines like a beacon in the night, inspiring those around them to seek the will of God and live Christ-like lives themselves. These are the people who provide strength when the church is weak, who provide calm when the church is in turmoil, who provide hope when the church despairs.
And more often than not, they will be the first to tell you that no other person is any less a beloved child of God than they themselves are.
I will always be grateful to Dorothy Reece for her influence on my life. She showed me the grace and love of God through her life, and I will always credit her as being one of the reasons I went into ministry. But I will never forget that she didn’t regard herself as better than any other, that she knew that each child of God was equal before the Lord.
May it be so for all the saints.