(Matthew 20: 1-16)
As many of you know, Steve and I are in the middle of our Fall Stewardship Sermon series based on the book by Robert Schnase – Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. These five practices are: Intentional Faith Development, Radical Hospitality, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, Passionate Worship, and this week, Extravagant Generosity.
This week our scriptures center around the theme of generosity – the passage Steve just read from 2 Corinthians tells of the extravagant and abounding generosity of the people at the church in Corinth. The scripture we are about to read from Matthew tells a parable of generosity, tells of the extravagantly radical generosity of the God we serve. Our passage comes from Matthew 20: 1-16, it immediately follows the disciple Peter’s remark, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” The parable that follows is the response to Peter’s question about how much more he can possibly give without reward, listen now for God’s word to us from Matthew 20:1-16:
Will you pray with me? God of extravagance, God of generosity, God of abounding love and presence – move your Spirit with us now, sit with us as we seek you. Help us hear your words of good news with gratitude and with action. And now Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This is not fair! This passage is simply not fair. The scene is one any day laborer in desperate need of work and wages today or biblical age would be familiar with, waiting for work, hoping to get the nod to come forward for a day of grueling labor. Some are chosen, some are not. Some will be paid for the day, some will return home empty handed. But where this passage begins to change from the typical day laborer scene is when the landowner comes back at noon, and brings more laborers into the vineyard, and then again at 3, more laborers, and then again at 5, more laborers. Never because he says the work is too much or because the other workers are slow or lazy, no, rather, the landowner sees the workers standing by idly in need of work and the wages it brings and so he calls on them to come and to work.
And then the really unfair part happens: dolling out wages, the manager gives the ones who were dripping with and dirt and sweat the same wage he gives the ones whose brows have only just begun to sweat.
No fair! I worked harder, I worked longer, I deserve this more. No fair!
New Testament scholar Tom Long writes of this passage in Matthew: “Everybody in the parable is tendered with the wealth of the kingdom; the deep river of providence flows through everybody’s life… A deluge of grace descends on all; torrents of joy and blessing fall everywhere. And there these first-hour workers stand, drenched in God’s mercy…, clutching their little contracts and whining that they deserve more…”
But this passage isn’t about being fair, it’s about something much more wonderful than fair, something much less logical than fair. This passage is about the extravagant abounding generosity of God.
What this passage tells us is that God is generous. This passage is about what Tom Long writes – “a deluge of grace, torrents of joy and blessing.” This passage tells us of an extraordinarily generous God who pours out blessings, who does not keep score or record but gives according to what is needed, not according to what is earned.
This passage lays out the difference between fair and generous.
Fair- Each is given what they earned.
Generous- Each is given.
The workers in the vineyard seek fairness – pay according to what they have done. The landowner gives generously instead.
So I ask this question: Which would we choose? Which do we choose? Fair or generous? Fair or gracious? Fair or loving? In all acts of our lives, which do we choose?
Which do we choose when thinking about forgiveness? Do we calculate the number of wrongs our partner or friend or colleague has committed compared to our wrongs? Do we compare our goodness and righteousness to the difficulties and frustrations we see in another? Or will we respond generously – with grace and understanding that abound in illogical ways?
Which do we choose when we look at others? The fair response – I’ve worked especially hard for what I’ve earned, they probably haven’t worked as hard. Or, I have gotten here because I deserve this, I worked hard, I sacrificed time and happiness, they didn’t make the same kind of sacrifices I did. Or, do we choose to live generously in the way we think of others – compassionate and understanding to their experiences, their lives, their work? Do we choose fair or do we choose generous?
Which do we choose when calculating our stewardship pledges? Fair, the one that equates about what we think we can skim off the top? Or about the money we think we cost the church each year? Or about how much money we think others are giving? Or do we choose to give generously – giving out of our abundance sacrificially – giving up subscriptions or nights out or certain comforts? Do we choose fair or do we choose generous?
Which will we choose?
The world will call us over and over to compare and to seek what is fair. The world moves in us a need or a desire to be valued by what we have, how much more we have than another. Our self worth has become tied up in what we can provide, what we can prove to others, how we can be better or richer than our neighbors.
But we serve a God who calls us to reject these ways, who invites us into a new life, a richer, more full life. A life lived without comparisons of one to another, free from worth that is tied up in possession. Our God values us and gives each of us worth not because of what we have but because of who we are – children of God. We serve a God who calls us to let go of comparisons, of seeking what is fair, and instead to practice extravagant generosity, generosity that doesn’t make sense but is so abounding in love that the only name for it is gospel love.
God invites us to step out generously, and as we give generously – financially, spiritually, emotionally, as we give generously, our lives take shape centered around something new. Centered around not what is fair, or comparisons, but rather centered around a generously loving and giving God.
It matters which we choose, it changes the way we live our lives and experience joy – giving generously in our pledges, forgiving abundantly, understanding compassionately, it contributes to our lives of joy. It matters which one we choose, but what matters most, and what we ought to remember, is that when the question is posed to God- God always always chooses generosity, love, grace. We may choose what we choose, but God has chosen to be gracious, loving, and generous with each of us when we very least deserve it. God has chosen to not be fair and give what is deserving, but rather God has chosen to be extravagantly generous with love and gifts and mercy. God is a God who always chooses generosity.
We simply can never replicate the kind of generosity that God gives us, an abounding, unfathomable, illogical kind of generosity. We likely will never fully understand this generosity, certainly won’t be able to explain it and we likely will not ever be able to replicate it. But that is not our job, our job is to respond to this generosity. To give out of the knowledge and trust and deep sense of love of God.
Our stewardship season is here now and next week is our dedication Sunday, the day we invite the church to come forward with their financial pledges for the coming year. And while we will take the pledges you make and calculate them and determine a budget for the coming year of ministry, that is not why we ask you to give. That is not why stewardship exists, stewardship and the church budget are related, yes, but our financial stewardship is not about the budget.
Our stewardship is a response to God’s generosity, it is an act of walking faithfully with God, a calling to live our lives more deeply in discipleship and more committed to Christ.
“Generosity, according to John Wesley is rooted in grace, an emptying of oneself for others, an expression of love of God and of neighbor.”
Robert Schnase writes in the book we are reading on extravagant generosity, he says: “Giving is central to Jewish and Christian practice because people perceive God as extravagantly generous, the giver of every good gift, the source of life and love. People give because they serve a giving God.”
There is a devotion written by Luther Seminary that puts out the following words, I think these are appropriate for us as we remember to live generously. The words are:
Look around right now;
See all that you possess,
All that is yours.
Now remind yourself
That it all belongs to God;
It is in your hands
For just a moment.
Live your life today
For the abundance
Of grace that is yours
To give away.
So go forth and live life with generosity. Be generous, be extraordinarily generous. Live in the light of a God who has poured abundantly upon our lives, with love and grace and mercy and hope. Live life not calculating what is right or what is fair, live life following a savior who gave life for those who betrayed him, who became poor so that we may become rich in the knowledge and love of God. Live generously, extravagantly generously. Live responding always to God’s gracious generosity.
In the name of an extravagantly generous God our Creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer. Amen.