Exodus 16:2–15; Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45; Matthew 20:1–16

After a week like this last one, I don’t know about you, but it feels
like a good thing to come to church for a little calm and quiet.
Massive American companies have been sinking—Lehman Brothers, Fannie
Mae, even that revered old Merrill Lynch, for Pete’s sake. The market
has been on a roller coaster ride, as we realize that our whole system
is built on faith and trust. “Full faith and credit” is the language in
the air, and there hasn’t been much of that this week. The natural
desire to own a home, and the unconstrained urge to make huge profits
have brought us what the news has called a Category 4 storm.

And we’ve been seeing some strange things. Some of the smartest people
in the country have been creating these complex investment strategies
that are now unraveling. People have been talking about this housing
bubble and the problems in the mortgage industry for years. But all
these talented people have ended up simply watching these events unfold.

Well, whatever we make of what’s happening, it’s good to be in this
beautiful space after an exhausting week and to rest under these
graceful arches and to hear some good clear teaching. Unfortunately,
along comes a story like the one we’ve just heard, that sounds as out of
kilter in its own way as what we’ve been living through all week.

Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes out to hire workers
first thing in the morning and then at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 5:00.
Those day laborers, the equivalent of migrant workers today, depended
for even their day’s food on getting work, so it’s a great gift to them
just to be given the chance to go to the fields. But then a normal day
takes a peculiar turn as the owner pays all of them exactly the same
wage, the ones who worked an hour or two and those who worked all day.
And of course the workers who put in the most time start grumbling at
the unfairness of it all. What do you make of that?

What is the inspiring motivational message I am supposed to draw from
this—that employers should be calling all the shots and paying what
they darn well please? I doubt it. What’s going on here?

As usual, the Scriptures are more interested in giving us a new way
of seeing than in giving us a list of things to do. And so this morning
Jesus wants us to glimpse a world we too easily miss—the strange new
world of grace.

Grace is an odd word. It turns up a good bit when Christians talk,
but it’s hard to pin down. “Grace and peace,” St. Paul would write in
a letter. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,” he would
say. We Christians “say grace” before meals. We speak of being
“grateful,” of being “gratified,” of visiting “gracious” friends. If we
like the server in the restaurant we leave a “gratuity.” And a musical
score may have “grace” notes in it, which aren’t essential to the melody
but are extra notes that make the melody sound richer.

I once heard someone say he had learned the meaning of grace when he
sat down for the first time in a roadside cafe below the Mason-Dixon
line, ordered a breakfast of bacon and eggs, and found that when his
plate was brought to him it also contained a mound of a strange,
gluey-looking white substance. “What is that?” the man asked. “Why,” the
waitress answered, “that’s grits.”

“But I didn’t ask for grits,” the irritated man said.

“You don’t understand,” the waitress replied. “You don’t have to ask
for it. You just get it.”

That’s what grace is. It’s something you don’t ask for, you don’t
deserve. It is our Christian word for the fact that we live in a world
where a generous, mysterious God is bent on blessing us in
unpredictable, uncontrollable ways that we probably will only rarely
notice.

This notion of grace, though, is a hard one for all of us who live in
a graceless world. Think of the words of wisdom most of us learned at
our parents’ knees:

The early bird gets the worm.

No pain, no gain.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Demand your rights.

It’s up to you to make something of yourself.

I work for what I earn.

The journalist Studs Terkel said that the typical American attitude
is, “I’ve got it made because I deserve it. And if you don’t have it
made, you don’t deserve it.” It’s all up to you.

Just about every institution in our lives runs on “ungrace,” on our
having to earn our way and prove ourselves. Sports players are only as
good as their last season. Corporations rank everyone on the basis of
performance and productivity. Ford Motor Company, for example, has some
twenty-seven levels with specific benefits and perks for each one.
Increasingly our kids compete even from grade school on to get into the
right schools and the right colleges—by building their resumes,
holding up under the pressure, doing better on their scores and grades
than their classmates. We are subtly telling them that they are what
they achieve. Hard to find much grace there.

Part of what has been so striking watching events of the past week
has been that a world that had been driven by the ungrace of
competition, the race for the largest profit, for who could be
cleverest, at the end of the day had to be rescued. The government
decided to step in with something very close to grace—stopping the
unraveling of the financial institutions on which people in this country
and around the world depend. That may or may not have been a
financially wise move. What is clear, though, is that no one at the end
of the day really wants to live in a world of ungrace. Even the
financial barons who often seem to rule the world were begging at the
end for mercy.

But grace invites us into an entirely different way of being in the
world. It says that in spite of what my life seems like sometimes, I get
far more than I know or deserve.

That’s what happens in Jesus’s parable of the Laborers in the
Vineyard. There is a point in the story when everyone is happy—when
the last workers are hired at five o’clock. The generous landowner has
given each of them a chance to make their way through another day. They
did not have to be hired but all had experienced the grace of being
called into work and being given the sustenance they need. But then
things go sour as all the laborers from the last to the first are given
the same pay.

Now let’s be clear. No one has been paid less than a fair wage. What
destroys this world of grace is the ungrace of comparison and envy.

The landowner’s response to the complainer is, “Friend, am I not
allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious
because I am generous?”

Of course our lives come out unevenly. Some go well, many do not. And
the natural human response is envy, keeping track, looking with what the
ancients call “the evil eye” at those who are more fortunate than we
are. There are two recipes for interpreting the particulars of our lives—our situation in life, our finances, our jobs, our bodies, our
families. If you want to be miserable you can compare what you have to
what others have, because you will always find many who seem better off
than you.

But the only hopeful way for us to interpret the particulars of our
lives is the way of grace, of realizing that none of this had to be,
that this life is something that we have been given, that we have been
called out of nothing into being for this. We may need to rage and
struggle and fight against unfairness and injustice around us, but we do
it in a world where grace—God’s strength and energy—are for us.

As writer Philip Yancey has put it, “Grace means there is nothing we
can do to make God love us more…and there is nothing we can do to
make God love us less.” Of course God cares deeply about what we do and
the kind of person we become. In fact we are called, as St. Paul says,
to live Christ-like lives. But nothing can stop God’s loving us. That
means that all our labors to pull off a perfect performance are a waste
of energy. It’s a game we can never win. In fact, it often takes our
getting into a crisis in our lives, a loss or terrible mistake, to
discover that God’s grace and mercy have been there all the time.

In the parable today there is no implication that some of the workers
were lazier or more worthy than the others. The story gives us no
lesson about how we should make the world a better place. It’s a story
plain and simple about a generous God who gives in uneven and surprising
ways. The problem for us, though, is that when you receive grace, I
grumble. When I receive it, I assume that I have earned it. Either
way, grace is always out of my control.

The love and energy of God are everywhere, these lessons are saying.
Grace is what enables us to forgive and be forgiven. Grace is what gives
us the strength to get to the first AA meeting. Grace is what gives us
the courage to speak up when we need to, and to help out someone whose
life is collapsing.

There it is, a breeze blowing in from the strange new world of grace.
The owner gives because it is his nature to give. A world of hard work
and endless hours turns into a world of grace.

Our world can seem like a prison of ungrace. But we need grace to
show us how much we depend on God and each other, how even in a world
where capitalism has run unconstrained, we still need the values of
compassion, mutual responsibility, and community to care for us.

And this grace has implications. Grace and gratitude will insist
that every person in this country deserves health care. Grace will
insist that we who relish this earth will take the serious, demanding
steps to care for it for the next generation. Grace will insist that
human rights be honored for even the most vulnerable—the global poor,
the sick, the criminal, even the accused terrorist.

When Sister Joan Chittister was here for the Forum in June, she spoke
of how frightened, selfish, and unjust so much of our world is in how
people treat each other and the earth. “How can that change?” I asked
her. “The way it always has,” she said. By having at the heart of every
city a group of people who want to live whole, generous, grace-filled
lives. It was the patchwork of monasteries at the heart of villages and
cities that kept holding out a life of grace and hope through the
centuries of the Dark Ages.

And then she pointed out to the crowd gathered here in this space and
said—“Look what you have here! This is all you need! There are enough
people right here to change the world.” You can form a community of the
heart here and make sure you invite the city in, and make sure that
downtown hears from this community. Be a lighthouse, she said, a
signpost in the dark. Be a place of grace, especially in hard times
such as this.

That’s why we are here today. To launch a new year of grace, of
learning the ways of this strange, new world, where losers somehow
become winners, and success is measured in how we give.

The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “I know nothing, except what everyone
knows—if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” Grace is going to
be dancing here this year. I hope you’ll dance too.

*This sermon was shaped by Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing
About Grace?