9/18/2011, Invitation to the Kingdom of Life

Isaiah 55:6-9, Philippians 1:20-24, Matthew 20:1-16

Previously I have told this community the story of our son Matthew, a boy whom we adopted from Viet Nam when he was 2 years old.  Throughout his life, Matthew carried the emotional scars from his early days in the wartorn city of Saigon where he was born, and from the experience of having been abandoned by three early caretakers before he came to our family.  Even though Matt was offered the same loving environment and opportunities to develop his talents as the other five children in our family, he could not trust the possibilities of such goodness. Instead he chose to reject the opportunities for personal growth and spiritual peace that were held out to him.  He became alienated from our family up until the very week before his death when he had an amazing encounter with “The Light” that completely changed his character and brought him to a place of joyful connection with God. 

I was the only member of our family privileged to accompany Matthew through this experience of being led out of his spiritual darkness into the presence of God.  Matt died of an autoimmune disease 10 days after accepting God’s invitation to choose light over darkness.  Because I had shared the joy of his transformation, I returned to our family from his bedside in SanFrancisco with a light heart.  As time passed and I talked this loss through with his siblings, however, it became apparent that the sense of joy was not shared so easily by them.  You see, they had been the five good children who played by the family rules and went to church and believed in God all those years.  They had also been in numerous ways the victims of their brother’s lies and stealing.  Some of them had even been subjected to the physical violence of his anger.  Their resentments stemmed from not being able to understand why he should be so happily welcomed into eternal reward when they had been working hard at goodness for years already and had many more years of being faithful workers ahead of them. God’s grace has allowed these teenage children to grow into adulthood with freedom. They have been able to move beyond these resentments and judgments and simply celebrate the fact that their brother is free of his emotional pain and in the presence of God.

Why do I tell this story again?  It came back to me forcefully as I considered the scriptures that are given us for reflection today, for it demonstrates well how we humans are so attached to a system of work and reward that reflects our thoughts rather than God’s. 

The passage from Isaiah also touched my heart, because it speaks so beautifully of the longing in the human heart to find its true home in the presence of God.  Our lectionary reading gives us only 3 verses from this passage, which in its entirety is a beautiful invitation from God to experience an abundant life.  Let me read the larger context to you.

 

Isaiah 55:1-13 (NRSV) 

1. Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

2.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor ffor that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

3.  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live.

6.  Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;

7.  let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;  let them return to the Lord that me may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

8.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

9.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11.  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;  the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;  instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;  and it shall be the the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.


This prophetic passage addresses scattered Jews who have been taken off to exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC.  Their longing is for “home”, for Jerusalem, but they think that they must accommodate themselves to the Babylonian ways of life and worship if they are to survive as humans. This passage assures them that if they keep turning their hearts faithfully towards God, their hope for freedom will be realized.   Their challenge is to remember that the way they are thinking is not God’s way.  They must hold fast to God’s promises for the future. 

How do you suppose this prophetic passage is connected to the parable that Jesus tells his disciples about the laborers in the landowner’s vineyard?  That’s where I was reminded of the how my children had responded to their brother’s spiritual transformation.  Our American capitalistic culture is so ingrained in us that we think it must be God’s way too.  We are hard workers who pride ourselves on earning everything we get.  We are responsible people who believe that everyone should take care of himself.  We are individualists who believe everyone should be treated fairly.  And so, we find it hard to justify the actions of this manager who pays all workers the same regardless of the work they did.  As American Christians, we also suppose our God to be a just God who gives each person his or her just due at the end of the day.  It’s hard for us to imagine a God who treats slackers as generously as those who are dutiful laborers.  We don’t do justice the way God does!

Scripture does teach us about sin and law and judgment and justice, but its overarching grand purpose is to tell the story of God’s love for humankind.  The Bible tells about the divine intention to draw all people, deserving or undeserving, back into God’s loving embrace.  Our human inclination to want to earn our reward can cause us to make the mistake of missing the big love story.  We get lost in the subplots that talk about sin and law and judgment.  For humans, who do not think as God thinks, it is easier to fall back on a system of justice than it is to be loving and merciful. 

But don’t you agree that deep down, most humans long to be in the arms of God’s loving embrace?  And perhaps that is what Jesus is alluding to in the story about the laborers and the vineyard.   Perhaps our sense of injustice at the payout- you get what you work for- misses the point completely.  What if the vineyard represents the Kingdom of God?  God goes out throughout the day- 9 o’clock, noon, 3 pm, 5 o’clock- continually inviting others to come in and join the work of the Kingdom, telling them they’ll be rewarded at the end of the day.  Maybe those who respond early reap the greater blessing of having been longer in the presence of this generous landlord.  The reward then is not so much about what happens at the end as about where they have spent the day.  So when I think of my son Matt, I am happy that he found the reward of peace at the end of his life as he responded to God’s invitation.  The sadness is that his life of resistance to living in God’s presence put him in the everyday place of suffering anger and alienation and a host of other legal and relational consequences. 

Our hearts are hungry and thirsty for that which only God can fulfill completely: loving acceptance that brings us peace and deep joy that has nothing to do with a reward we have earned, but only with the sense of having come home to the Kingdom of God. Today’s scriptures, the prayers we offer, the songs we sing, and the meal we share are all invitations for us to receive that for which we long: simply to be in the presence of God.  

By Sandra DeMaster