Year A Proper 20--Of Vending Machines, Mozart's Vienna, and Vineyards of Grace
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
Of Vending Machines, Mozart’s Vienna & Vineyards of Grace
One summer night on the road to Erfurt in 1505, a 21-year-old son of a copper miner got caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Wind whipped through the trees, boughs snapped, rain pelted down, and a bolt of lightning struck the ground a stone’s throw away. Terrified, the young man fell to his knees, and prayed to St. Anne (the Virgin Mary’s mother) promising that if his life were spared, he would devote himself to God and live the life of monk. By morning, the storm had passed. The birds were singing, the dawn sun rose over the battered wood, and the young man knew what he had to do. Within days he was knocking on the door of the Augustinian monastery just down the road begging entry of the Prior.
As a monk, the young man was clearly gifted. He was learned and displayed a sharp theological mind. He fasted and prayed and subjected himself to innumerable austerities—sleepless vigils, bone-chilling winter nights outside with barely a scrap of clothing, flagellating himself for his sins. He quickly caught the approving eye of his superiors who remarked upon his devotion, discipline, and peerless piety. There was only one problem—the poor monk didn’t feel any closer to God because of all these efforts. “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I,” he would later comment. Despite attending confession multiple times a day—often for hours at time while he chronicled in excruciating detail the most trivial of sins—the young man felt that there was nothing he could do to earn God’s love. No matter what he did, he always saw himself falling short of the Glory of God and was tortured by a gnawing sense of lack, of never being good enough, or perfect enough, for God.
The pious young monk, the stoic exemplar of monastic discipline and rigor in the threadbare habit, the one who contented himself with crumbs at meals and had callouses on his knees from doing penance, had a dark secret. Despite all outward appearances of a life devoted to loving God, Brother Martin hated God. He knew what the bible said—that he should love the lord with all his heart, all his soul and all his mind, but he couldn’t. He hated this Taskmaster God. He hated this Perfect God who demanded Perfection. He hated this Stingy God for not rewarding him despite the long list of ascetical feats. And this hate turned in on itself—Brother Martin hated himself for not being able to please the he God hated. The breakthrough, what is known as Martin Luther’s “tower experience” happened when the pious young monk who bargained his way through a thunderstorm and tried to earn God’s love through the pursuit of good works, realized that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. Grace is free gift, and not dependent upon on what we do, what we accomplish, or what we think we deserve.
Luther realized that what is essential is not what we can do for God, but what God has done for us in the gift of his Son. In Christ, the breach has been sealed. In Christ, the wall between us and God has been torn down. In Christ, God’s life has contaminated our life with holiness and the divine has gone viral. The source of all beauty, truth, and goodness is revealed not as some chilly curmudgeon whom we have to tip-toe around in a fearful effort to appease, but as a loving parent—our Abba, Papa, Daddy—closer to us than we are to ourselves and whose deepest desire is that we let ourselves be loved by Him that we might be that love in the world.
This is the truth our liturgy enacts for us each Sunday. We don’t participate in the Eucharist in order to keep God happy, or fulfill a duty, or check a box, but to simply and humbly receive God—abundance and fullness of life—placed in our open, upturned palms. That’s why we don’t take communion. That’s why we instruct the children that we don’t pinch the wafer between our fingers like a pair of kitchen thongs grabbing hot dogs out of boiling water. We receive the wafer. We open our hands, and ourselves, to the God who wants to give himself, all of himself, to us. We open and let God be God in us and live God’s life through us in the lineaments of our quirky, unrepeatable frame. “Tell us, what do we have to do for you God?” “Nothing, my child. Just receive what I freely give and live out its Kingdom consequences.”
Today’s parable, like all good parables, is highly counter-cultural. To those of us schooled in a meritocracy, it sounds like the Landowner (God) has completely lost his marbles. The parable turns our settled world of rewards and punishments, merits and graces on its head. Told in response to Peter’s earnest question (Matthew 19) about what “reward” the disciples are going to get for following Jesus, the upside-down world of the parable where the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind get the same as the first, the foremost, the fabulous, and the found shows us how the world actually looks through the eyes of grace. The parable reveals that it is our world of carrots and sticks, comparison, competition, expectation, and judgment that is upside down. The parable unmasks for us the bankruptcy of seeing our Christian journey into love in terms of reciprocal exchange—as if God were a cosmic vending machine. Good deeds in, grace out—the very thing that drove the scrupulous Luther to the edge of madness. Of course, this kind of bargaining with God has been characteristic of religion from the earliest times. Roman statues, you might recall, were inscribed on their bases with the words—“Do ut des…”—“I give in order that you might give.” This is the God of the tit for tat, the God of the vending machine, the God of “in order that.” This is the God of conditions, and contracts. This is the stingy, bargaining, bean-counter God with his banker’s visor and abacus.
When we let this picture of God rule our lives, it is almost inevitable that, like Martin Luther, we end up hating God. Indeed, the only proper response to this caricature of God is atheism. Imprisoned by the “I do this, you do that” picture of God, we get disillusioned very quickly when our health fails, we lose our job, or we ding up the brand-new car we bought just last week. If we sow seeds of the conditional love of God, we reap heartache, sorrow, isolation, and bitterness. We compare ourselves to others, and compete with them for scarce and dwindling resources. Like the Prodigal Son’s older, dutiful, rule-abiding brother, we think there is only so much love to go around and what love there is rightly belongs to us for keeping to the straight and narrow. No matter what actual words come out of our mouths, our lives utter the grinding complaint of the Israelites pining after their Egyptian flesh-pots or the first-hired who mutter and grumble at the landowner’s generosity. And the landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” cuts us to the quick.
Yes, in fact, we often are envious. We’ve been scrupulously keeping score, updating the spreadsheet, working hard, doing all the right things, and this just isn’t fair. Our carefully cultivated virtue turns quickly to cold-hearted condemnation of those whose performance isn’t quite up to snuff. And lo and behold, we have that same word from last week—πονηρός—used to describe this stingy, miserly, way of seeing the world. The literal translation is, “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” We might ask ourselves—through what lens are we seeing the world? Do we see the world through the narrow lens of merits and graces, winners and losers, constant comparison, looming scarcity, and exacting judgment? Do we think that through our hard work and earnest efforts we are more deserving of God’s love and grace than those lackadaisical Johnny-come-latelies? Or, do we trust that God gives us “whatever is right,” that God’s grace is sufficient unto us (2 Corinthians 12:9) and step into the upside-down world of the Vineyard of Grace?
Somewhere in his sprawling novel Don Quixote, Cervantes writes, “Comparisons are odious.” And indeed they are. When the gifts that shine forth in the lives of our brothers and sisters are seen as diminishments of my own sense of self, there is no end to the humiliations my poor little ego has to endure. However, if I take the perspective of the Landowner, if I look at the gifts of my brothers and sisters through the eyes of grace, then their talents and accomplishments are ways to celebrate the wondrous things God is doing through them. All good things flow from the goodness of God, so I can celebrate in another what I lack in myself as a reminder of the richness, splendor, and the manifold, variegated beauty of what love looks like when it catches fire in our hearts and our lives.
I recently saw the movie Amadeus for the first time in thirty years and I was struck by its poignant portrayal of what life looks like when lived as one of the foot-stomping first-hired. The composer Salieri narrates from an insane asylum after a suicide attempt and tells the story of how he made a deal with God to be a great composer and musician. Sure enough he was. But then comes along this childish, churlish, impudent, philandering, squanderous ne’er-do-well the swooning palace maids affectionately call “Wolfie.” Salieri’s carefully planned, and predictable world tumbles down. Salieri’s calculus of good deeds in and graces out falls apart as this child pours forth the most beautiful music Salieri has ever heard with effortless nonchalance. Amadeus embodies sheer grace. Pure gift. His name literally means “beloved of God.” So trapped is Salieri in the graceless world of the competitive, comparative first-hired that he is driven to poison Amadeus, attempts to take his own life, and spends the rest of his days locked away tormented by ghostly whispers—“Salieri…. Salieri….” Salieri kills God’s beloved because the very sight of Amadeus reminds Salieri of what he is not and what he doesn’t have. To the eyes of grace, Mozart glorifies the extravagance of an extravagant God. To the eyes of the first-hired, Mozart is a threat, competition, someone to outmaneuver. Live from lack and you poison God’s beloved, you block grace from entering your life, and the lives of others around you.
When we let go of comparison, when we see through the myth that there is only so much love to go around, when we trust that God gives us whatever we need in any situation, and when we drop all our frantic efforts to earn God’s favor through whatever set of pious contortions we’ve devised for ourselves to make ourselves worthy in God’s eyes, we discover something truly miraculous. We’ve become poor in spirit and the pearl of great price we’ve been searching for reveals itself as having been in our pocket all along. We’re not standing in line waiting for our wages. We lack for nothing. And we’re not in competition with others for anything because we have all we need—the love of God that’s been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The gift’s been given. Fullness and abundance of life, the true liberty of the Christian are already ours. We are standing already in the Vineyard of Grace. Do you see it? Where will you take your stand?