Sunday, September 20, 2020
Will you eat your grits?
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Parable of the Vineyard Workers
September 20, 2020
I remember the last time this passage came up we talked about it in the Thursday noon bible study at my previous parish. One of the matriarchs of the parish looked at me over her glasses and said in her gentile Virginia accent, “I know I should love the bible, but this story bothers me. In fact I hate it, it is so unfair why do we have to read it?” She is far from alone in this view of this parable. I cannot think of another parable that people dislike more and there is the challenge, for I suspect that those listening to the parable in Jesus’ time would have been in agreement with Sue. Yet this is one of my favorite parables. Let me tell you why.
The previous passage ends with the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Then today’s passage has a parable that ends with the exact same pronouncement. That tells us we are working with a set of parables. Matthew has many parables several are unique to his gospel and this is one of them. Last week was forgiveness and a parable of the Kingdom. This week is different type of parable.
A vineyard is often a metaphor for the people of Israel and the vineyard owner is a metaphor for God. Some equate those called at different times to different tribes of Israel and the last as the Gentiles who have joined Matthew’s community. We know from the Book of Acts that the inclusion of Gentiles was the very first controversy of the early church and I suspect there was still a certain amount of we were here first from the Jewish members of the congregation. There were older members of Matthew’s community that might have known Jesus personally. Maybe some Gentiles had been given prominent positions, who knows, but the friction was obviously there. At the least if you are going to look at metaphorical symbols, then the Gentiles might be the workers hired at 5:00.
Now while all this may be interesting the important point is that this is a parable of Grace. Let me begin with a reminder of the definition of grace from our Prayer Book. “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our mind, stirs our hearts and strengthens our wills.” Grace is something our world really does not seem to understand, because by its very nature it isn’t fair.
I got to know a priest in Virginia who had been the interim before me at St. Aidan’s. She was a wise woman. She told me a story that is appropriate for this morning’s gospel. A salesman from the north was down in Georgia calling on prospective clients. He stopped at a little roadside restaurant across from his motel for breakfast. The waitress came over and asked him for his order. He said, “I’ll take 2 eggs scrambled, hash browns, toast and sausages.” She told him she’d be right back as she filled his coffee cup. A few minutes later she came back with his order and placed a bowl of grits next to the plate with his order. He pointed to them and said, “What are these?” She replied, “Why those are grits.” Puzzled he said, “Grits, I didn’t order grits.” She looked at him and said, “Honey everybody gets grits with breakfast down here. Now whether you eat them or not is your choice.” Then Jo looked at me and said, “Mark, grace is like grits. You get it whether you want it or not. What you do with them is up to you.”
God’s grace is given to everybody. Whether we accept it or not is our choice. The challenge in today’s parable is that God’s economy of grace doesn’t work the same as those systems we see in the world. Thank God for God’s economy! I’m really quite happy that I don’t get exactly what I deserve when I consider my entire life..
The reason I like this parable so much is because I’m probably one of those 3:00 hires to the vineyard. I didn’t have much use for church and to be honest for God until my mid 30s. You see I drifted along on the surface, yes I took my boys to church but to be honest I wasn’t buying what that minister was selling. It wasn’t until a real crisis that I found myself at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that I finally had my conversion moment. That was back in 1991 and I was baptized at age 37 during the Easter Vigil in 1992. So I for one am grateful that those later workers got “what was right.”
Nobody is beyond redemption and for me that is what this parable is about. This is an image of God who never gives up on anyone. The parable of the Prodigal Son is another along this same line. That again is a parable of grace and forgiveness.
I can think of several people who would qualify as someone hired later in the day. On this Sunday when we re-gather in person we are also acknowledging the 62nd birthday of St. Paul’s Katy. Now Paul, there’s another afternoon hire if you will. He spent the first half of his life studying to be a Pharisee, a scholar of the Torah. He was an enforcer against the early church who had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus where he was headed to arrest followers of the way as they were known. The second half of his life was totally different so maybe he was a noon hire. Yet God used his gifts and his flaws to spread the gospel to the Gentile world.
You may not know this but parishes tend to take on the qualities of their name. I know that while we have quite a few cradle Episcopalians in our parish, we have an even larger number of people who have come to us for a different tradition or no tradition. Many of you like me were hired at some point later in the day, yet we are all one church, we all are equally blessed to be here and that is worth celebrating. That is also the message we have to take out into the world. All are welcome.
There is a person I would like to offer up as another example. John Newton is the composer of the poem Amazing Grace that became the famous hymn. John learned about grace the hard way. John’s father was a captain of a merchant ship and John sailed with him several times as a boy until he was impressed into service by the Royal Navy. Deserting because of the conditions, he was captured and eventually ended up working on a slave ship. After a series of rather brutal adventures both on and off the sea he became the captain of a slave ship.
John had no real religious upbringing from his mother who died when he was a child. One voyage he was steering the ship through a violent storm when he had what he called a great deliverance. While he continued in the slave trade for three additional voyages he did strive to make sure the slaves under his care were taken care of.
After a stroke ended his sailing career he began to study and met renowned preacher George Whitefield. If you want to read some real fire and brimstone sermons check out George Whitefield. Inspired by Whitefield he sought ordination in the Church of England and became an Anglican priest. It was during this time that he became active in the abolitionist movement in England and lived to see the end of the slave trade. He was the spiritual advisor to William Wilberforce one of those politicians credited with ending the slave trade in England. Newton was a very popular preacher and his church was often packed to overflowing. He also wrote “Glorious things of thee are spoken” among many other hymns. Amazing Grace is his story and we will close our service today with the choir singing that hymn.
John Newton was one of those middle of the day hires and in the words of the hymn you can see his thankfulness and his response to the grace that he accepted. Now this wasn’t the sudden complete conversion that some seem to tell about, but a slow and growing awareness of God at work in him. The point is that he responded to God’s grace. Even though he didn’t order the grits, he did eat them. He answered the call to go and work in the vineyard.
If God’s grace can soften the heart of a person like John Newton or St. Paul, then God is certainly at work in all of ours. The question my friends is how is God working in your heart and how will you respond? I end with a question for you to ponder. I ask you, will you eat your grits or not?