Generosity: All Day Long

September 24, 2017

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC
Proper 20, Year A
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Listen here, or read below:

How’s everybody doing?

I don’t know about you, but it’s been a rough few weeks for me. I’m not talking about my start here at Church of the Servant and the move to Wilmington. That’s going great, unpacked boxes notwithstanding. I did finally take some time to go through the wonderful “gifts of Wilmington” y’all so generously left for me and Alice. We appreciate your kindness and your welcome!

The rough part has been all the images of destruction from the one-after-another natural disasters hitting our shores, as well as our neighbors in the Caribbean and Mexico. While the winds, waves, and tremors have caused havoc, taken lives, and left so many without power or shelter, the images relayed day after day on our tv’s and mobile devices have done their own share of beating-down our psyches.

And if that’s not enough, we have the anxiety producing rhetoric of world leaders threatening to destroy one another, a resurgence of unrest and racial tensions in St. Louis, and the very real fear of young Hispanic Dreamers whose future is now unclear with the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. It’s no surprise that tears welled-up in my eyes time and again as I watched the news this week. It’s just so much. Too much to take-in sometimes. 

An occupational hazard is to run toward the apocalyptic warning found in the gospels’ foretelling of the end-time. It speaks of wars and rumors of wars. Turbulent seas. Earthquakes and famines. Not to mention the blotting out of the sun!! With all that in mind, it’s not too hard to imagine why September 23rd was designated by some as the day the world would end. Fortunately, we find ourselves here today, on the morning of September 24th – the end of the world averted – at least for now.

And while these images of devastation are difficult, alongside them we’ve also seen many, many images of generosity. Some traveling from hundreds of miles away with boats to rescue people and pets from flooded homes. Others distributing cases of water for the Red Cross to shelters. Still more opened their doors to take in strangers. And this week, the dramatic images from Mexico City as many raised their fist in the air as a sign for silence, so rescue workers could listen for voices calling out from the rubble.

One thing that struck me about these images of generosity is that you couldn’t tell who was rich and who was poor. Neither the person in need nor the one providing care was checking id’s, bank accounts, religious affiliation or voting records – they just came together. The acts of generosity were given freely. Universally. Blind to those things we often let divide us.

We’ve also seen generous acts of advocacy. Faith leaders, business leaders, and everyday citizens sending messages to their elected officials imploring them to protect the Dreamers. In a statement addressed to President Trump and Congress, signed by 125 Episcopal bishops, including Bishop Skirving, it said in part:

In front of most of the Episcopal Churches across the country is a sign that says, ‘The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.’ We have this sign because we are followers of the way of Jesus of Nazareth, and our Christian tradition shares with many other faith bodies the absolute importance of welcoming the foreigner in our midst. Throughout the centuries this tradition has brought us great wisdom and strength as the foreigner among us has become a part of the fabric of our country’s life.

It concluded with:

We urge you to enact permanent, meaningful legislation that will protect ‘Dreamers’ and enable these young people to remain a part of our country—which is also theirs.

These acts of human generosity provide hope in turbulent times. We welcome and are encouraged by them. They also give us comfort.

I believe humankind’s capacity for generosity is an aspect of having been made in God’s image. It’s not really a natural instinct for animals to be kind and generous – our four-legged family members excluded, of course. Animal instinct is for self-preservation and self-protection. But humans, being made in God’s image, have been given the ability to reason and the ability to choose to act on behalf of others in generous ways. Yet, we must always remember that it was God’s generosity that came first.

We see evidence of God’s generosity in both the Old Testament and Gospel readings today. Yet, what’s striking, is how in both stories, these faithful God-followers struggle with that generosity – not when it’s directed toward them, but when it’s offered by God to others.

First, we heard part of the familiar story of Jonah and the whale. We always remember that Jonah spent three days in the belly of the big fish, but do you remember why he was running from God in the first place? God wanted Jonah to go and implore the people of Nineveh to repent of their evil ways. But, without any explanation, Jonah high-tails it in the other direction! But why?

We heard it in today’s reading. After the whale coughed-up Jonah, he went to Nineveh and implored them to repent. When they actually DO REPENT, God changes God’s mind about destroying them. Instead of being happy that his pleas for repentance  landed on accepting ears, and the people were saved, Jonah says:

O Lord! … That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah wants God to be wrathful, not generous, toward those who hadn’t been faithful to God all along. He didn’t think it was fair that God show compassion on these outsiders. Then Jonah goes off and sulks under a tree – a tree generously provided by God – by the way. 😉

The Gospel reading shows a similar challenge for God-followers to accept God’s generosity toward others. It’s the story about a landowner who needs people to work in his vineyard. He lines up some who agree to a daily wage, and they begin in the vineyard early in the morning. The landowner goes back out at 9am, noon, and 3pm and finds more workers to help in the vineyard. And finally, at 5pm, the landowner finds a few more who have been idle all day, to come and have something purposeful to do. And we all know what happens at the end of the day, right? The landowner gives the same daily wage to all the workers – whether they started at 5pm or at the crack of dawn.

Now, it might surprise you, but for some, this is the most unfair parable they’ve ever heard. The parable itself even says so. The ones who had worked all day were grumbling about not being paid more. I get the urge. We like to take these stories and apply earthly logic to them. But the parable isn’t about our earthly way of being. It starts with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And no one said the kingdom of heaven was fair. (I’m hearing echoes of my mom’s voice right now.)

The kingdom of heaven, at least according to this parable, isn’t fair. It’s generous!

I contend that it isn’t only generous to the workers that arrive in the vineyard later, but also to the early arrivers who worked all day in the vineyard. While the final reward was the same, what the early workers received was assurance ALL DAY LONG that they had something purposeful to do. They knew that their needs would be taken care of, to be nourished and strengthened ALL DAY LONG. They had a safe place to be. They had the camaraderie of others in the vineyard. They gained satisfaction in all they accomplished, even withstanding the blazing heat, under the care and commitment of the generous landowner – ALL DAY LONG.

I’m guessing that many of those who used their God-given gifts and resources – their boats, their strong backs, their caring spirit, their faithful prayers – for those affected by storms and quakes, had a reward greater than we can imagine. So, too, these life-long God-followers receive their own great reward, indeed!

As a cradle-Episcopalian, I count myself among those early vineyard-workers in the parable – though admittedly sneaking away from the vineyard from time to time. It has been comforting for me to have God’s generous love and mercy as a foundation of my life. When hardships arise, when I face confusion, fear, rejection, or anxiety, I have the assurance of a faithful and compassionate God who cares for me. I have the gift of Jesus as my teacher and guide to challenge me. What’s more, I have the capacity to live a life of generosity, strengthened by my faith tradition, and emboldened by my fellow field workers – no matter when they arrive.

So, while there is the promise of a final payment at the end, this is not what keeps me in the vineyard. Instead, it’s being part of the landowner’s generous spirit, and reciprocating that generosity by welcoming all who arrive in the vineyard.

As the bishops’ statement reminded us:

In front of most of the Episcopal Churches across the country is a sign that says, ‘The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.’

The one in front of this church simply says “WELCOME.” And we will do this for all who come to the vineyard – whether at the crack of dawn, under the noonday sun, or in the wee hours of night.

I’ll opt for a generous God over a fair God any day. The same God invites us to share that generosity with all others. ALL. DAY. LONG.




Gospel Text:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:1-16)


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