Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
September 24, 2017; Proper 20A: Exodus 16:2-15 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16
Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk Taking Mission Service, and Extravagant Generosity. These are Robert Schnase’s “five practices of fruitful congregations,” his distillation of best practices of thriving churches. I like these five practices because I think they describe well my priorities of St. Luke’s. I like them even more because I think they are great personal goals for people of faith and, most importantly, descriptors of Jesus and the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. In other words, these are not just good things to do, they are what Jesus would do – and what Jesus would have his followers do as well. Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk Taking Mission Service, and Extravagant Generosity. Each of these practices are worthy of reflection for individuals and the faith communities to which they belong. Today I want to focus on the fifth one, extravagant generosity, the theme of the readings we heard a few minutes ago.
Most people are familiar with the story of God providing some sort of insect larvae or fast growing lichen to keep the people of Israel from starving in the wilderness. (While we think of it as “bread,” the Hebrew word “Manna” more accurately means “What’s this?”) As a bonus, the manna was supplemented by meat from birds, blown off course by storms, who landed exhausted in the desert, a not uncommon experience. Did you notice, however, that the bulk of this morning’s passage wasn’t about the manna – or the quails – but about the quailing, the kvetching, and constant complaining of the people? (This suggests that our passage is an accurate account!) While later readers would describe this as a faithful God responding to faithful people in a foreshadowing of the feeding of the 5000 and even the Eucharist, today’s version of the story doesn’t very holy. The interesting thing is that God’s gave them what they needed, even if – particularly in Moses’ mind – they didn’t seem to deserve it at all. The same is true for this morning’s gospel passage, when those who came late in the day got paid the same as those who labored all day long. It is a reminder of the story of the Prodigal Son, where the son who returned from wasting his money was treated the same as the son who stayed at home, was loyal, and helpful his whole life. It just doesn’t seem fair. Let me suggest that these stories are not about fairness, but are rather about the abundant generosity of God – a God who recognizes all our human imperfections, and loves and takes care of us anyway, in the most extravagant of ways.
Let me put our gospel passage in context. Matthew was writing some 70 or 80 years after the birth of Christ. This was after the temple had been destroyed and the Jewish diaspora had begun. It was a time when the church had spread far beyond Israel, when church leaders had decided that converts did not have to follow Jewish dietary or circumcision laws before they could become Christian. Matthew intentionally used his gospel to tie the New Testament with the Old, both reminding Gentile Christians of their Jewish roots, and, at the same time, reminding Christians with Jewish roots that their mission and their church were global and truly open to all. The story of the tension between laborers who had worked all day and those who came later was a pretty good description of conflict in the church in Matthew’s day… and, if we’re honest, is something we still struggle with in our own. It is also a good description of Matthew’s personal story and journey of faith. Matthew, you may recall, was a tax collector, a job that involved working for the Roman oppressors, and making money by extorting and bullying his own people. He was despised by his people and must have despised himself. Jesus, however, loved him, welcomed him, and gave him a renewed and reconciled connection with his faith. When it came to his religion, Matthew probably saw himself as one of the laborers who came late in the day, yet received a full measure of God’s love. He probably recognized that not everyone saw it that way and may have even experienced some prejudice himself. Building on this idea, notice that Matthew does not say that those who worked just at the end were lazy, or avoiding work. They might have been willing to work. It’s just that they just weren’t asked until late in the afternoon. Could it be that there was a reason – the owner’s budget constraints, a glut of other workers, or perhaps some sort of prejudice about age, gender, race or nationality – that was beyond their control? Could it be that – like many who come to church later in life – the late coming workers had a history or a previous experience that made them cautious about diving in? Could it be that no one invited them in? Could the message here be that it’s never too late, that there is plenty of God’s love to go around?
The problem is that when we hear the story of the laborers in the vineyard or the prodigal son, most of us think of ourselves as one of those who have been working all day – the first son who has stuck by his father the whole time. Many of us who work for or volunteer in the church are tired, feel like we have been going at this a long, long time, and deserve a little extra credit or at least a thank you. (Yes?) But what if we have it backwards? What if we are the late starting laborers? What if, like those non-Jewish believers and Matthew himself, we are the new kids on the block? What if, like the prodigal son, we are the ones who went away and have been welcomed home?
We get stuck when we think of life as a zero-sum game, that if someone is getting more, we must be getting less. Remember, this parable isn’t about personnel management; it’s about the kingdom of heaven. It isn’t about money. It’s about love. Specifically, it’s about God’s love which has this amazing way of increasing again and again and again. Last Sunday I had a conversation with some parents who are expecting their second child. I told them of how when Shari was pregnant with our second child, I was afraid. I couldn’t imagine loving someone as much as I loved my son and I didn’t want to love this second baby any less. What I didn’t know – and couldn’t know until it happened – was that when my daughter was born, my heart just grew. I loved her just as much as I loved him – and still loved him the same. The family had grown, the love had grown, but the love of the first had stayed the same. Whether you are the newcomer, the one who has returned after having been away, or the one who has been there all along, God feels the same way about you.
If that is how God treats us, that is how we should treat others, both ourselves and as a church. Though what we do with our money – our time, talent, and treasure – is an important part of it, Extravagant Generosity is about far more than that. Extravagant Generosity is about going beyond what is fair or logical to do what is loving and right, even when it may not be deserved or be the most cost-effective. When Shari and I still heated with oil, we paid more money to buy biofuel, because we believed it was the right thing to do. I know others who have had put solar panels on their homes for the exact same reason. Even when the numbers didn’t quite make sense, it made sense for the planet and matched their desire to put their faith in action. They are modeling extravagant generosity – looking above the bottom line to the upper reaches of the Kingdom of heaven. The current debates about health care and various assistance programs have to do with keeping costs low by cutting out people who “don’t deserve” the care. Imagine how it might look if instead, we were talking about how to keep people – all people – healthy. Imagine what would happen if instead of seeing things the lens of scarcity, we looked at them through the lens of abundance. Extravagant generosity is not about fairness. It’s not about what we do or don’t deserve or what we have or haven’t earned. It is about love, God’s love, that we are called to proclaim and model in our everyday lives. Those who took Financial Peace University know Dave Ramsey’s charge to “Live like no one else so you can give like no one else.” In his letter to the Philippians, Paul puts it simply, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The five practices, Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk Taking Mission Service, and Extravagant Generosity are a good place to start. The last one, extravagant generosity becomes easier when we realize that it is precisely what God has given – and is giving – to us.
 After starting to write this sermon, I discovered that Schnase has a whole new series applying the five practices to individual spiritual journeys, in a program called “Five Practices of Fruitful Living.”