A minister died and went to heaven. You know…the usual picture: A long line of potential saints waiting to be vetted by St. Peter at the gates. In front of him was Mort, a New York taxi driver, he was short, wearing a ball cap, smoking a cigar and very gruff. Mort was warmly greeted by Peter, given a white and golden robe, a jeweled crown and with greetings of “Well done, good and faithful servant, he was led into heaven.”
Then the minister stepped up.
He was given a terrycloth bathrobe, worn out slippers and a paper hat and then handed off to a tired old angel with a flashlight who just grunted at the newcomer.
“Hey!” the minister protested. “What’s the deal? I am a priest of the church! I preached the word and cared for the church! He come he rates the white robe and all I get is…is…this?”
Peter looks up from his book and says “Look, in heaven we look for results. When you preached, people slept. When he drove, people prayed.”
God has organized the Kingdom differently than we expect. We want things to be fair, especially to us! When we don’t get what we think we deserve, we feel cheated and resent the unfairness, the person getting what we wish we had, and we end up resenting the one giving out the prizes. And above all, we forget that no matter how long we’ve been at the Church-stuff, we are all in the end newbies and learners in the spiritual life.
The essence of Jesus’ teaching today is that, unlike the story of the minister and Mort the taxi driver, God gives his grace and favor equally. And, furthermore, we learn that Jesus has a special place in his heart for those who come to God in wonder, awe, curiosity, playfulness and gratitude. We discover that it’s the child-like wonder that’s important, not only for those who are new to the Church and even more so for those who have observed the rules, the rites, and the traditions for a long, long time.
Jesus’ teaching that we heard today was first directed to a Christian community that was filled with Jewish Christians who carried with them not only the covenant of the patriarchs and prophets and the ancient traditions of His people as well as the new covenant in Jesus Christ. This community also had within it people who were brand new to the faith…recent converts, many of them Gentile and perhaps unfamiliar with the heritage and lineage of Israel. There were people who followed Jesus’ teachings from the beginning—maybe even going back to the ministry of John the Baptist! –and some who heard the Word and believed very recently.
There were newcomers and long-timers alike, and God’s welcome and grace extended to all of them!
But, you know, there is still that nagging question of fairness. We can’t shake it. We struggle with fairness in workplace and in daily living and spiritually, too. Some religions have a hierarchy of heaven depending on how good or well-behaved you are; or believe that what you are in this life depended on how good or bad you were in the last; or who think that one’s rank in God’s hierarchy depends on our birth, our race, our sexuality, or our heritage. We think that experience ought to count for something.
While I’d like to think that we sophisticated Episcopalians are above all that. I know that as one of those so-called cradle Episcopalians, I get kind of a charge when one of our own makes good. I mean, a few years back when our Presiding Bishop got to preach at a royal wedding, there was a part of me that wanted to shout “go team!” And, the truth be told, many of us (me, included) did just that.
At the same time, I feel like these new to our tradition have to earn their stripes... they have to know when to stand, sit, kneel, and know the difference between Rite One and Rite Two, and can recite not just the creeds but the collect for purity (p. 355) from memory. These are the folks who, when they hear the spirit of Obi-Wan say to Luke Skywalker, "The Force will always be with you," we want Luke to say back "and also with you."
We can’t seem to get past the idea that God must love us in proportion to our goodness, our experience longevity and church resume—and maybe even our coolness.
But Jesus says in today’s Gospel that there is plenty of grace to go around in God’s reign! That all of us…long timers and newcomers both, those who know the Bible (or Prayer Book!) by heart and those who’ve up until now only used a hotel Gideon’s bible as a coaster… can be astounded, awestruck, and joyously curious in response to the abundant love of God.
Jesus’ message is one of comfort and hope to the long-times and newcomers wherever they may be found!
So often over the course of my ministry in congregations and in hospitals, I have heard people tell me that they wish they could pray, or receive the sacrament, or have faith; but, they tell me with a certain sadness and resignation, that it is too late for them.
In another part of the Gospel Jesus, using the image of workers in a vineyard, teaches that whether we come to faith and arrive at the vineyard early in the day or late, we are all called in and we all receive the same reward. It is not too early, and it is never too late for any of us.
Have you ever had the experience of being left out, or when you come to a group, feel as if the people there are just talking past you? It doesn’t just happen at church. Once I went to a car-show that was part of a local fair, so I decided to go after church, and changed from my clergy shirt to a polo shirt that I got at a car museum with the logo “Studebaker” on it. And when I came to the section where all the “Studies” were gathered, I looked at the cars and then I tried to strike up conversation with a few of the owners. But I couldn’t break in. They were too busy swapping their stories and trading their tips. Look, I get it, part of the reason for the show was so these hobbyists could renew their friendships and talk about their hobby. They probably never realized that someone curious about their interest was trying to get in on the fun. So, after a few minutes of wary nods and strange looks, I walked away.
Of course, this happens in Churches, too, doesn’t it? I once supplied at a church where the front door was always locked on Sunday because their street had become a busy highway and it would have been noisy and drafty to leave it open before and during the service. But there was no sign, no message, no usher, to direct people to the new regular entrance around back. And no one to show how one gets a bulletin, or where to go for coffee, or the rest room. They were so used to how things were that they forgot the child-like wonder that can go with being a follower of Jesus… let alone how to welcome a visitor!
This is Jesus’ message for us long-timers: God wants all of us to share in his bounty, to be apart of the family of God and the community of Christ’s people. And while we are tempted to think of ourselves as more deserving or more worthy for time served, that is not the point. God’s kingdom is for everyone. And when we step out of “the way it’s always been done,” and discover the playful and wondrous side, and recover the newness of being a friend and apprentice of Jesus, then we can help invite, greet, and welcome people into walking with Jesus, too.
When we help someone to pray, or walk with them as they discover their gifts, or are present to someone in trouble and when we as a community are open to the enthusiasm and energy of people who, out of all expectation, have been called into fellowship with Jesus and his people, then we are adding measure upon measure to the riches we have already received. And we discover the amazing grace and truth, that when we have truly welcomed another into God’s family, the Church, whether they are young or old, whatever their story, then we have in fact welcomed Jesus himself and demonstrated the fullness and depth of God’s love and grace.
Jesus teaches us that we all must approach God with wonder, awe, and love—like a child discovering something new—no matter how long we’ve been at it, and that all of us, no matter how new or experienced we are, have gifts to share and lives to touch.