The call for each of us to live lives of goodness cannot be taken lightly. In just 10 weeks we will come to the end of the Church Year and during these weeks will focus on the end times and judgment. It should give us great comfort though that the final Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the Good Shepherd—of one who will leave the 99 and go in search of the lost one gives us a huge clue into the heart and mind of our loving God—of, in fact, the way we will be treated—our God will always come searching for us, no matter how far away we may have strayed.
The call to each of us during these final weeks of the Church year will be to seriously look at how we can grow closer to our God who loves us beyond all imagining. We will see in the upcoming weeks, beginning today, that people in privileged positions seem to be passed over in favor of those who appear to be “undeserving.” The workers in our Gospel message, who were hired at the end of the day, seem to have acquired the first place. In truth, they were probably the workers who weren’t as capable for whatever reason—and had been standing there all day waiting to be hired but were not chosen—kind of like choosing up sides for the ball team; the smallest, seemingly less competent players are always chosen last.
This is a good time for each of us to ask ourselves whether our love is only extended to the people that we like and who are good to us, or do we have place in our hearts for those who are different, who are difficult, who may in fact live in fear of what life will do to them, thus they put on a “hard, unfriendly face” to the world. Last week, one of you, mentioned POTUS, the President of the United States, without actually mentioning his name. The gist of the comment was that you found him, hard to love. You aren’t alone in that and perhaps we need to spend some time understanding where he came from, and while not accepting many of his unpresidential ways, trying to find a place in our hearts for what is unfinished in him and at least pray that he will grow into the position.
Isaiah definitely does not take lightly his duty to call the Israelites and ultimately, us, to conversion. His whole message is to give up our unloving ways and return to God. The Israelites have this wonderful history of being in covenant with God—which, as we recall, means that God has promised to be their God and they will be, God’s people. They, in other words, are the chosen of God and should be faithful as God is faithful. And just so we can understand Isaiah’s task here, he isn’t speaking to the people because of random failings, but about a clear pattern of turning away from God and living less than good lives. Isaiah is challenging them to make an “about face”—to begin again to live humble and good lives. Do we hear his call today to do the same?
This challenge to return to God is laced throughout the readings today. Also, within the challenge of returning to God is the warning about not being smug in our “apparent” goodness. We recall the words of the Pharisee from the Gospel, “Thank God I’m not like the rest of these people!”
Some of you may be watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick film, The Vietnam War that began this past week. It was perhaps smugness and righteousness on our parts as Americans that allowed us to become so entrenched in this South Asian country. We reacted to a long-held fear of Communism, making many ill-conceived decisions that were so detrimental to our country and to Viet Nam, a nation that had struggled for many years before we arrived, to simply be free of foreign interference. Viet Nam was fighting a civil war and we missed that most important fact. Like our own civil war, it was for them to fight to become the country they needed to be.
There is clearly more of this “smugness” going on in the Gospel reading today, but for now, let’s focus on God’s eternal response to this covenanted people and to us. We need to remember that to make a covenant with someone was a solemn promise—something not to be taken lightly. So for this people to turn their backs on God was really an act of betrayal. But even in the face of this betrayal, God is forgiving and merciful and pardons their sins once again.
The psalmist then offers praise and blessing all his days because God’s goodness is unfathomable, even beyond human understanding. We get a sense of this in our Gospel reading today. It’s a reading that most of us on a purely human level find hard to get our heads around—giving the person who worked only one hour the same pay as the one who sweated and labored in the heat of the day. Really, the only way to understand it is through our hearts.
If our faith goes no deeper than what is just and fair and right on a human level, we will never understand Jesus and his mission on this earth. A bit of “going to the heart” would have aided us greatly in our conflict in Viet Nam. Jesus, in all the Scriptures of the New Testament is about telling us that we are loved mightily by our God—a God who will never be out-done in generosity, love or mercy.
This loving God wants to share goodness with all and could it be that those who find it easier to maneuver in this world are being passed over for those who seemingly have so much less? For all the times that these workers stood the entire day waiting to be hired and were passed over, could it be that the owner (God) is telling us that all the debts will be settled or perhaps evened-up one day? This was the thinking behind the old Negro Spirituals—that one day, there would be justice. Could it be that for those of us who smugly bask in our goodness; God might be instructing us to bring everyone into the fold—to remember that divine goodness is extended to all—clearly demonstrated in this Gospel reading, today.
When I think of this reading and its message, that indeed God’s goodness is meant for all—no exceptions, I find it hard to believe that any church ministers of any kind or denomination would even dare to exclude anyone from the table of communion—for any reason, if that person wants to receive. Communion means, in its best sense, “unity” and that it would ever be used as a power play to control the People of God, is nothing less than, sin. The Winona Interfaith Council, of which Dick Dahl and I are members, operates out of this message—that all are welcome and acceptable.
So, again, perhaps more questions than answers, but keeping our eyes on Jesus will always show us the way—I remind us of this often, but it is so true. Our way of doing things is always lacking, because most of us are never without some selfishness. I am presently reading Joan Chittister’s book, Called to Question, a small volume that addresses some of the smugness that the rule-keepers among us live under. It is convenient to have all the answers to all the questions—questions that many times, we as church denominations have asked and answered without any input from God. What happens when questions arise that don’t fit the neat, little answers? Chittister, in her book challenges us all to ask such questions and to see that the answers respond to the needs of all in our present world.
Most of us have to work quite hard to keep ourselves out of the equation, of whom God loves and why. But our God is always about extending justice to all—to everyone who asks and God’s justice, unlike ours, is grounded in mercy. Isaiah prophesies today—“My ways are so far above yours!” And that is why this parable today is so perfect—by human standards, it makes no sense, but by divine standards—it is so completely of God—for God’s love is insurmountable! Amen? Amen!