Sunday, September 18, 2011

Late to the party

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 (fairness in God's vineyard)

This week we have been preparing for a special service on Tuesday evening at Wesley United in Rockglen. At that service, a covenant will be made between the three churches of Borderlands Pastoral Charge, myself as minister, and Chinook Presbytery. And so, I have been thinking a lot about ministry this week.

In looking forward to that service, I have also reflected on how recent my return to the church has been and how little church experience I have compared to some other people in our church.

This Sunday marks exactly 10 years since I returned to church. To my mind, 10 years does not seem like a very long time in which to turn one's life around, hear a call from God, and complete the four years of full-time training for ministry required by the United Church of Canada. And yet, just 10 years after first worshipping at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto, on Sept 16, 2001, I now serve as an ordained minister in three churches in southcentral Saskatchewan. I am enjoying ministry here and feel confident about the work that we are doing together. But there are some things about the life and work of church of which I remain unsure.

This is the personal background that I bring to Jesus' parable today about the labourers in the vineyard. Jesus begins by saying that "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers." Most interpreters see the landowner as a symbol for God and the labourers as church members. But beyond that, interpretations differ.

Some think that the labourers hired at dawn represent Israel and that the labourers hired at the 11th hour represent non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Some think the parable calls us to practice radical equality in church and society. And some think that the wage given to the labourers represents salvation. In the latter interpretation, the parable is reminding us that all of us are loved by God no matter how long we have been working to help bring about God's rule on earth.

It is this last interpretation that got me thinking about my own situation. Sometimes I feel like a latecomer to the church party. But despite this, I have sought a leadership role in the church. So when I hear of the resentment felt by labourers who started to work in God's vineyard at dawn towards those who did not start until the 11th hour, I wonder if some in the church might feel similar resentment toward people like me who have only recently returned to church and yet are now in leadership roles . . .

I drifted away from the church as a teenager. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was a minister in the United Church of Canada. But like a lot of my friends, by the time I had entered high school, I had decided that the Bible, God and especially the church were not for me. I continued to sing in the church choir while I lived with my parents. But as soon as I left home for university in Toronto, I gave up the church habit.

After that, I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto. And 10 years ago today was one of those times.

Usually when my parents and I went to church, we attended Bloor Street United in downtown Toronto. All three of us liked the music, the welcoming atmosphere, and the liberal theology there. But in September 2001, my ex-wife and I had just moved into a house in the east end of Toronto, which was four houses away from Kingston Road United Church. This was the church where my younger brother, Andrew, his wife and their two young sons worshipped. So that morning, my parents and I decided to walk the half block to Kingston Road instead of going downtown.

While I often enjoyed my infrequent visits to church with my parents, that day on September 16, 2001 I was not looking forward to it. My anti-religious antennae were on high alert because this was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But in the event, the service deeply touched me. The sanctuary was packed. The atmosphere seened tense. And the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.

The minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland, did not use her sermon to bash Islam or cheer-lead the militaristic response to 9/11 being planned by the United States. Instead, she used it to call for openness in the midst of mourning, hope in the midst of fear, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.

The United Church of Canada had struggled with big shifts in our culture during the years when I didn't attend. Because of this, the church now seemed less mainstream to me, perhaps more humble, and more open to the stark and difficult messages of Jesus as the Christ. It felt to me like a place where people were honestly trying to be salt, light and yeast in a suffering world; where they were trying to stand up against the powers that be; and where they sometimes woke up to the glory and pain of our human condition.

On that Sunday on September 16, 2001, I liked the message, I liked the community, and I liked the minister. I felt a space opening in my heart into which flooded grief and hope. And so I joined that church, joined its choir, and laid myself open week after week to the gracious effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which slowly, I believe, helped to transform me.

Since that Sunday 10 years ago, I have devoted a lot of time to work in the church, to study, to discussion, and to spiritual disciplines. Within the United Church and with God's Spirit, I believe that I have experienced a large measure of healing. And I believe that in many moments, I have at least briefly grasped the good news found in the difficult Way of the Cross of Christ.

And yet, I still feel like the prodigal son who has only recently returned home. And to be frank, now that I have "arrived" at ordination and my first full-time paid job in ministry, I often fear that I don't know what I am doing.

I have many unanswered questions. I wish that I knew the Bible better. I wish that I had more experience in administration. I don't really know how to fulfill our mission as congregations. I don't always feel confident in crafting worship services. I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of the physical and emotional pain experienced by members of our communities. And I often don't know what to do next. Nevertheless, here we are. And we are about to make a covenant with each other on Tuesday . . .

In Jesus' parable, God hears the resentment of the faithful labourers in his vineyard towards those who arrived late. They resent that everyone gets the same reward regardless of how much work they have done. God replies that those who have always been faithful receive the just reward promised to them from the beginning. Given this truth, why should they be resentful if God is generous to those who come later?

If we think of the wage paid in the parable as a payment for work done, I can understand the resentment. But if we think of the wage as a symbol for salvation, then it is easier for me to see that fairness does not apply.

Salvation is not a matter of quantity. Rather, salvation is a blessed state, and one in which we can participate in any moment. Regardless of whether we have been consciously trying to follow God's path of faith, hope and love for 90 years or for only a few days, there is only ever this moment in which to know God's grace. There is only ever this moment in which to feel God's touch. And there is only ever this moment in which to love one another.

Not every moment in our lives feels like one in God's kingdom. But by the same token, any moment can be such a moment of salvation. We do not know when we will again become aware of God's love. But having known such a connection once or a million times, we trust that such healing is our destiny and birthright as children of God.

And what about our long days of toil in God's vineyard? Do we undertake this work to win a reward? Well, sometimes that might be our motivation. But I believe that more often we undertake the work of ministry in gratitude for the healing we have already experienced, and because loving service is its own reward. We toil gratefully in God's vineyard knowing that whatever grace or healing we may experience in the future will come not from our own efforts, but will always be a free gift.

And those of us who have been toiling in the vineyard longer than others? Surely in ministry, as in any other part of life, years of experience are useful and should count for something?

And of course, we promote and appreciate long years of effort in church work. Those years can build wisdom and help keep a community healthy. But when those of us who are relatively new to work in Christ's church join hands with those who have sustained it over many years, Jesus' parable helps us to see this from God's point of view. The union of newcomers with elders is a moment of joy. And a newcomer, although inexperienced or unskilled in some ways, is just as likely to experience healing in worship, in service, in thanksgiving or in mourning as are those of us who have been here for many years.

When we hear a call to worship in, or serve with the church, we answer it not as a ploy to try to win God's healing or love. We answer it as a natural consequence of moments of joy spent in communion with God's Spirit. And these moments, while often fleeting this side of the grave, can sustain us for a whole life.

That notion reminds me of a love song from the Broadway musical "Hello Dolly" titled "It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long." But beware of such moments of love! You never know where they will take you. Perhaps in a few short years, they might lead you to a life of service in the church that you previously could never have imagined.

And what could be better than that?

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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