This past Sunday I got to preach at the 8:45 communion service at my church, Fourth Ave UMC. I was planning to either reproduce the sermon here or blog about the experience of climbing behind a pulpit for only the third time since I resigned my pastorate and left professional ministry. But since I'm not an "either/or" or a "both/and" kind of guy, I've decided to skate a fine line between the two.
Part of that is due to the nature of my sermons. They are almost impossible to reproduce, because so much happens in the room but not on the page. I'm not a particularly dramatic preacher in the conventional sense. I don't jump up and down, I don't alternate between screaming and whispering, I don't make grand gestures with my hands. But, when I preach, it is dramatic in the since that, much like an actor, I communicate with much more than just the plain meaning of words.
As such, so much of the sermon never makes it to the page. In recognition of this, after I'd given a few sermons I stopped writing them down. Instead I would just write down a line or two, a brief sketch of the sort of thing that I'd want to say. Then I would sketch an outline of the main points, and how they lead to each other. And that's it.
No sermon on the page. Just notes which make since only to me. If I gave you the notes I wouldn't give you the sermon, since the sermon exists only in my head.
Because of this my sermons are/were fluid. I've given the same sermon at several different congregations, but it was never really the same sermon. In fact I've given the same sermon more than once on the same day in the same room, but it wasn't really the same sermon.
My sermon on Sunday was titled "What Can Migrant Workers Teach Us About Salvation?" The text for it comes from Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The first time I preached from that text I was the youth minister at Epiphany UMC in Louisville, KY. I filled in for the pastor every time he went on vacation, which meant I got to preach there at least 3 or 4 times per year.
The sermon changed considerably when I took my ill-fated appointment to pastor Mt. Zion UMC, near Willisburg, KY (you know you are in the middle of nowhere when you have to say "near Willisburg," as I'm sure that many of my readers haven't even heard of Willisburg!). There it was part of a series I gave on parables as "teaching stories." Each sermon began with the line "I love stories," (the church, in fact, joked with me that they would change the bulletin to say "Story of the Day" instead of "Message") and then I would explain:
a.) what it was about stories that I loved so much, and
b.) what it was about this story that spoke to me.
Seems kind of cheesy, looking back at it, but it was one of the few things that I did there that really worked.
That's because I really do love stories, and I'm not alone in that. In fact, I think that everyone loves stories, which is one of the reasons Jesus taught with them so often. A good story can bridge the distance between opposing points of view. A good story can cross a cultural divide. A good story can even, as a kind of shared experience, bring mortal enemies together for a moment. Stories have a kind of almost magical power.
The Bible is full of stories, and as we grow those stories grow with us. My treatment of the story found in Matthew 20:1-16 - even though the text of that story remains of course the same - changed a great deal as I preached on it in different environments. The sermon I gave at Mt. Zion was very different from the sermon I gave at Epiphany (for one, I didn't use the awkward phrase "existentially meaningful concept of salvation at Mt. Zion). The sermon I gave this past Sunday at Fourth Ave. was very different from the one I gave at Mt. Zion. I have grown, and my understanding of the story has grown with me.
The great thing about a story is that - if it is a good story - while it has meaning, it doesn't have a meaning. A story, in other words, doesn't mean "this" as opposed to "that." It can't be reduced to a single interpretation, a single perspective, a single message, a single meaning. Rather it is the meaning that it contains. But it also teaches us something, and so communicates meanings, messages, perspectives and interpretations to us.
A story invites us in to the story-teller's point of view, and in doing so helps us to see things that we could not have seen otherwise. By showing us how one sees instead of just what one sees, the story communicates a great deal more than the lesson. This may be one of the many reasons why Jesus so often (if the Synoptic Gospels are to be trusted) taught in stories. I know that many times we wish that Jesus would have just come out and said whatever it was that he meant, but he used these great stories for a reason. They expand our understanding to the point that we can no longer reduce his teachings to "this" or "that."
The story found in Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard and the subject of my sermon on Sunday, is an illustration of Jesus' point that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew 19:30 and 20:16). But along with that it is also a view of the nature of salvation. Jesus begins his story with "the Kingdom of heaven is like..." and then tells this story. So in this story we see the nature of salvation rather than merely a theological description of salvation.
So the question is, what does this story teach us about salvation? Or, as I put it in the title of my sermon, what do migrant workers (and this story about them) teach us about salvation?
That's right. While this story is about the kingdom of heaven, it is also about migrant workers. It is about a group of people who gather in the marketplace hoping against hope to get some work. So, to understand what this story has to say about salvation we have to be able to step inside the experience of the workers in the story, and then understand that their experience is our experience.
The traditional understanding of the story is that it is a kind of allegory (and it is always dangerous to deal with stories as allegories, since in an allegory everything must directly correspond to something else, which creates a whole set of interpretive problems that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, with JRR Tolkien - who was accused of allegory himself - "I detest allegory wherever I smell it."). In this treatment, we are the workers, God is the landowner, the work in the vineyard is our work for God, and the day's wages is the eternal life which is our reward.
This is not a bad or wrong understanding of the story, but it is an incomplete one, which contains a few problems. If salvation is primarily seen merely as access to heaven after you die, and if the work you do for God is seen primarily as a labor not of love but for a wage, then a few things may follow which we would not want to follow.
1. Life here and now, if it is merely preparation for or a test for enterance to a new life, is meaningless. If our concept of salvation sucks the meaning out of life in the here and now, then it doesn't help us very much, does it?
2. If the work which we do for God is labor for a wage rather than a labor of love, God is more like an employer than a lover or a parent.
3. If all receive the same wage from our employer God, regardless of their work, then our employer God is unjust, even if it is within his (as the male landowner in the story) rights to do what he wants with his property.
So while it is helpful to understand that at the end of the day there is a reward for our faithful labor, if our concept of salvation stops here it is incomplete at best, empty and meaningless at worst.
In my sermon I told stories of people I know who's lives were not aided by this concept of salvation as merely a reward in the afterlife. I will spare you those stories, because they are so context dependent. The point I draw out of those stories, however, is this:
To understand salvation we have to understand that it is a solution to a problem. If you save me from drowning after I fall into a lake, then the salvation which you offer me is a solution to that problem. When we talk of God saving us we also talk of salvation as the solution to a problem. That problem is sin
Whatever else sin is, it is the obstacle between you and God. And the problem with the concept of salvation as merely access to heaven and eternal life is that it does not truly solve the problem of sin. This is because with sin there are ultimately two problems:
1. The penalty of sin, which the Bible tells us is death.
2. The presence of the sin itself, which stands between us and God, keeping us from God, and so from our own true nature.
Salvation as access to eternal life in heaven solves the first problem. It removes the penalty of our sin, and so (ultimately) removes the fear of death. Salvation seen like this rescues us from the threat of hell, and that is no small thing. But it does not yet make us creatures fit for heaven. This is because while the penalty of sin is removed, the sin itself, if salvation is understood merely in the terms we've used thus far to describe it, remains. Salvation, because it has not yet offered us anything in the here and now, has not yet given us power over our sinful nature.
To understand salvation, and our experience of salvation, better, let us look at the story (Matthew 20:1-16) from the perspective of one of the migrant workers:
At the crack of dawn you get up, but you've almost forgotten why you bother. You haven't had work in months, and you're starting to lose hope. You're not as young as you used to be. Your knees and back ache, and you start to wonder whether or not you can still do the work you used to do in the fields before the landowners starting looking past you to all of the younger, more able bodied workers. This culture can be unforgiving on the aging and the weak, and so you try your best to deny that you are both.
You head to the marketplace, wondering if perhaps this will be the day your luck turns around. But as you enter the marketplace you see all of the other people fighting for the same few spots as you. Each has the same aim. To be chosen. To be selected. To be wanted.
The landowners, the wealthy men who run the farms and vineyards that might need you help for the day, come into the marketplace looking for a few hands to fill out their work force. They immediately go after the young, the strong, the handsome, the able-bodied. Those chosen few have the chance to get picked up for more than a day. You're just hoping to con some poor rich soul into one day's work.
Perhaps, as the rich landowners look over the throng of potential workers, you try some subtle or not-so-subtle tricks to get noticed. Inside you are almost doing jumping jacks, yelling as loud as you can, "PICK ME! PICK ME!" Of course you wouldn't really do that, because such a reckless action would betray your desperation, and nothing could sabotage your hope of being chosen like the stench of desperation.
The morning plays out just like it did yesterday, the day before, the day before, and the day before, for as far back as you can remember, it seems. The landowners have made their morning rounds and selected the best and most promising workers from among the ranks of the unemployed. Its time to find something else to do with your day, again. But what? What could you do? As you start to wonder what your options are, as the other workers start to gather themselves and leave, one landowner comes back to survey the crowd again.
This landowner, it seems, did not pick up quite enough workers the first time around. The crowd has thinned some because of the workers who gave up hope, but there are more than enough able bodied workers, and you doubt that you can compete even with the ones that are left. How many jobs could this man have, anyway?
The landowner picks some more workers, and heads back out. Once again you've wasted a whole morning, waiting for nothing to happen. But just as you are ready to give up, that same landowner, the crazy one with too much work, comes back. Wanting to cast off all your remaining dignity and jump up and down, begging to be noticed, you start to approach the landowner. But how will that look? Won't that betray your desperation. Once again you force down that impulse, and try as subtly as you can to look like you would be a good worker.
But again you are disappointed. Again you are passed over. Again others are chosen, others are selected, others are employed, but not you. Another disappointment in a long line of disappointments. Another chance to see first hand just how worthless you are. Another chance to relive each of your past failures, as you contemplate how you got here. How could you be here? How could you be so unemployed, unemployable? How could you have squandered so many chances to be somebody, to do something with your life?
Despair sets in. You start to wonder why you bother to get up in the morning, why you bother to breath in and out each day, why you bother to continually go through the motions of a meaningless life. You have nothing better to do, nowhere else to be, so you lean against the wall in the marketplace and take a swig from the flask that numbs your pain and gets you through your days.
Society has lots of names for someone like you, but it seems to have forgotten your name. Do you even have a name anymore? You take another swig, which burns all the way down your throat. Then you throw your flask in disgust, put your head down, and go to sleep.
Someone taps you on the shoulder. It's the crazy landowner, and he wants to know what you're doing, just standing around the marketplace. Don't you want to work? Of course you want to work! Well, come on. You've finally been chosen, finally been selected. So you set of to work for the landowner, because he chose you. He gave you something to do, some way to fill your time, some kind of purpose and meaning.
If we see the story from this perspective we understand that, no matter what the text says, all of the workers did not receive the same reward. Sure they may have received the same wage at the end of the day, but their days were spent very differently. In fact, the worker who spent the whole day waiting to be selected may be in the best position to understand that the work is the reward.
This is what salvation is like. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Salvation is not just what happens to us after we die, it's what fills our life with meaning in the here and now. Understood this way salvation is a life changing experience, which empowers us.
This understanding of salvation is consistent with the Wesleyan understand of the grace of God, which while understanding God's grace as one thing, divides it up into three categories:
1. Prevenient grace
2. Justifying grace
3. Sanctifying grace
Prevenient grace is the grace of God active in your life before you are aware of God. It orders your life in such a way that it brings you to a place where you can enter into a relationship with God. In our story it was prevenient grace which brought the worker to the marketplace and set up the eventual encounter with the landowner.
Justifying grace is the grace of God which removes the penalty of our sins. It is found in the traditional understanding of our story. Justifying grace brings us out of the pits of hell and makes it possible for us to experience heaven. But by itself it does not bring us into heaven.
Sanctifying grace is the grace of God which transforms us and makes us into a new creation. It removes our sinful nature and replaces it with the nature of Christ. Sanctifying grace makes us creatures fir for heaven. Sanctifying grace is found in the work.
This gives us a fuller picture of the story, and helps us see the power of stories. In stories we have not a single point but many points, many perspectives. Each of these perspectives helps drive us closer to the God who is more than just our idea of God, but who exists independently of our ideas.
I could here get into why I think that it is beneficial for us to see salvation in the way presented here. I could tell more stories about how seeing salvation in this way, as bringing meaning into our lives in the here and now and giving us power over our sinful natures, has been helpful to me and to many others. But I won;t because I've already written too much for one post, and because I am interested in discussion.
This is not my sermon. I can't recapture my sermon for this blog, and even if I could it would not be appropriate. This is instead a sketch of the sort of thing I said, and why I said it. I have here added things that I did not make as clear on Sunday and subtracted things which might clarify some unclear points here. But my hope is that all of that will come out in discussion.
I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are not persuaded by the Wesleyan/Methodist approach to "Christian perfection." I've outlined some strength, but there are weaknesses that I hope someone will offer for me so that we can discuss them and, in doing so, see why becoming too attached to any idea about God or anything else is dangerous.
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