Matt 21:28-32,Vineyard and Laborers
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Sunday, September 28th, 2008 Maybe you've heard the story about the duck who wanders into the corner store and asks the man behind the counter if he has any chapstick. The man says: "No, we don't have any chapstick." So the duck waddles out. The next day, the duck walks in again. He goes up to the counter and again the duck asks: "Do you have any chapstick?" The man gets annoyed and says: "I told you yesterday, we don't have any chapstick. Now go away." So the duck leaves. The next day he comes back. The same thing. "Do you have any chapstick?" This time the guy is really mad and he says: "Look. I told you we don't have any chapstick. If you come back again asking for chapstick, I'll nail your little webbed foot to the floor. Now go away!"
The next day, the duck comes back. He walks up to the counter. The man peers over at him getting ready to pounce. And the duck asks him: "Do you have any nails?' The man says: "No." So the duck asks: "Then do you have any chapstick?"
It's a story about persistence. And the gospel is about persistence. Our half-hearted attempts never get the job done. But we shouldn't give up too easily, the gospel tells us. Persistence is rewarded.
We can relate to this gospel. Who hasn't promised to go to the gym three times a week or go on a diet or learn a language or play an instrument? And what about the times we say to ourselves, tomorrow is the day we are going to call Aunt Sue who is just home from the hospital with hip replacement or bring dinner to the lady across the street who has cancer? Despite good intentions, too often we let our promises slide.
And what about the times we have said "no way" and then were glad we had a second chance? I'm thinking especially of the times we back ourselves into a corner over a slight or disagreement and eventually realize that the relationship is more important than being right.
My husband Pat says he thought he would never be ready for a serious relationship and is glad he changed his mind. Actually, I think I was the one who decided he was ready for a serious relationship. Luckily, he agreed.
Some of us jump in and think later, others are more circumspect and take their time. In either case we all learn to make choices that require compromise and sacrifice. It's part of life.
This morning's gospel passage is holding our feet to the fire of this kind of indecision and weakness. It is telling us that it's time to make a choice. We can expect that compromise and sacrifice will be involved.
I think it's easy to be put off by the strong language of the gospel. It brings up images of self-denial and complete makeovers of who we are. It reminds me of a definition of Puritanism that came from a man named H.L. Mencken about 100 years ago. He called it: "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy."
But the gospel is not asking for this. It is, above all, a call to happiness—the happiness that comes when we live well and open ourselves to others. It is not a threat. It is a promise.
The people in the gospel who always get the message are the ones who know they need help and aren't afraid to ask. They want back into the good graces of the community and are ready to do their part. They know something is missing from their lives and maybe aren't even sure what it is. The others are the sticklers, the ones who "aren't having fun yet." They want to play by their rules and are not only blind to their own needs, but to the needs of others, as well.
At times we all fall into one or the other of these groups and each one of us knows when we need an attitude adjustment. Coming into the Vineyard is the equivalent of coming to the party. It's something we all want. Sometimes we need encouragement in order to get there.
But the antidote to resistance is not self-denial. It is loving more and laughing more—including laughing at ourselves. It is enjoying the warmth of the sun on our backs or the sound of rain on the roof. It is offering a kind word and a generous hand. And it is meeting life in whatever form it comes to us with an open heart.
There is a novel called, Mariette in Ecstasy. It is about a nun who has an intense and mystifying relationship with God. Her experience leaves her confused and ashamed. Eventually, she is forced to leave the convent and is considered a failure. But she never loses her faith. In the end she says:
"We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me."
We don't control life and sometimes it takes a while to find our niche. But we can learn from these stories. We can keep trying. We can pray for humility and the freedom to say "Yes." Yes to a life that will leave us feeling good about our days and allow us to sleep well at night. The rest is up to God.