Glimpses of Grace

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(Matthew 20:1-16)

In A Grit and Grace Collection, Becky Johnson writes: “We are all living stories. We are stories with lessons of do this and don’t do that; of love and pain and hope and grit and grace. We have [challenging chapters that have twisted and changed us].  And glorious, holy ones that created in us a new creation.  Love is knit through all our stories, yours and mine.  No matter how dark.  No matter which side of the … tracks we come from.  Our story is knit with love.  Grace finds us when we’ve stacked our story on the stairs.  There we are collecting dust, promising to get to it one day.  Grace finds us.  Grace blows its holy breath and saves us.  That’s when we have our a-ha moment:  Grace is writing our story.  Grace is our story.”

Grace is our story.  Anne LaMott can testify to the truth of this statement.  Anne LaMott is an author and a single mother and real life Christian.  One of the things I love best about Anne is that she tells it how it is.  And so, in her book, Grace Eventually, Anne tells the story about how messy and complicated her life is … and how she finds grace in the midst of it.

In one of her stories, she explains, that she had just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of her sobriety the day before an event known as the Faith Fair at her church.  The Faith Fair is a big party thrown by the church to celebrate the children of the community.  Anne had been in charge of this fair for six years.  On an afternoon in early summer, she would help rent huge jumping houses and to decorate the church courtyard with balloons and streamers.

It took a couple weeks to pull off.  Anne had to get all of the equipment, some toys and art supplies.   Anne charged the two big-ticket items on her credit card – the jump house and the balloon bouquets – and she wrote checks for the rest.

The Faith Fair for this year came and went.  The weather was beautiful and the children ran around painted like princess and jaguars.

After a long day of setup and clean up, Anne arrives home and emails her bills to the people on the fair committee. In early sobriety, she had heard that if you have an idea after ten it’s probably not a good one.  But that was before email.  And still, her event had been under budget.  At around eleven, Anne hears from one person – everything looks fine.  Then, at eleven fifteen she hears from a man who says he was sorry but there was a new accounting system.  This year they needed all the receipts – the visa bill and the canceled checks.

Anne is indignant that after all her hard work, more would be required of her.  A small voice inside of Anne says, “Let this go until tomorrow.”   But the arrogant, wounded part is astounded.  It said, “excuuuuse me?”  Anne is exhausted and it may just be that the word system is not her favorite word.    In any case, she stares at the second email like someone needing the Hemlich maneauver.  And then she decides to rat the man out – She emails everyone one on the committee and the pastor so they could see how unjustly she was being treated.  She writes, “Clearly I do not have what it takes to be a Presbyterian.” Which means to be a petty bureaucrat.  She adds, “I simply cannot spend one more second on this matter.”  She hits send.  After feeling powerful and righteous for several minutes, Anne then starts to feel bad.  She is a snitch.  Why had she sent the email in the first place?  It only reveals her own childish nature.  And so Anne sat there. Counting her faults and frustrations.

How often do we find ourselves like Anne keeping score of all our mistakes?  It seems so easy for some of us to list our shortcomings and all the ways that we are not good enough.  Our own sense of unworthiness or embarrassment can just pile up on us at times.   This messiness can make us wonder at times what it actually means to experience the love and grace of God. Because at times, God’s love and grace feel so far from where we are actually standing. For others of us, it comes easy to list the shortcomings of others – keeping track of the mistakes that they make, and how they are generally loud or stupid or inadequate they are.  As human beings we love to keep score.

The laborers in today’s story like to keep score too.  And they have good reason. Today, it is tough to be a day laborers but in those days it was even tougher.  With no regular employment, they had to stand in the town square, hoping a land owner might need extra work.  In those days there was no unemployment or food pantry or soup kitchen.  If workers were lucky, they would work 12 hours, receive a day’s wage and be able to provide food for their family for the next day. If they were unlucky, they would return home hungry.

So we find these workers milling about in the square at the beginning of today’s story.  A land owner comes in the morning, hiring the early workers for a set daily wage.  Yet, the land owner can’t stay out of the market place, he goes back again and again, hiring all he encounters at the village square.

At the end of the day, the land-owner pays all his workers the same daily wage; he pays those who had busted their humps working from sun-up to sundown the same as the lazy scoundrels who showed up only an hour before quitting time.

The laborers, dripping with sweat, who had worked the full day were furious at this equal treatment.  Feeling particularly cranky and self-righteous, they begin to complain.

The land owner replies back, I did not cheat you.  I paid you exactly what I promised.  Why should you be jealous if I want to be generous to the newcomers?

When we look closer at this story, we see that the workers were so busy keeping score that they had missed the fact that each and every worker had been paid enough to go home and buy their daily bread.  When we look at the story through the eyes of abundance, we see that each worker got the sustenance they needed for the day.

At its heart, this story is about God’s grace.  In the story, God comes and gets us from the market place – grouchy as we are, as lonely as we are, as stubborn as we are.  God insists on coming into the market place time after time, interrupting our lives, tapping us on the shoulder.   No matter who we are or how broken we are.  God comes to get each of us, inviting us to experience God’s love and be made new, time and time again.

It is like the author of A Grace and Grit Collection says, “Grace finds us when we’ve stacked our story on the stairs.  There we are collecting dust, promising to get to it one day.  Grace finds us.  That’s when we have our a-ha moment:  Grace is writing our story.” My friends, the Kingdom of God is being birthed right here in our midst, in the midst of our messy broken lives. In the midst of our insecurity and failings. In the midst of our self-righteousness and anger.

And so we come back to the story of Anne.  Anne, as you remember, had just told off one her friends because money was a tough subject for her.  As soon as she did it, she began to feel bad about what she had done.  She called a friend.  She ate some food and dug up the courage to write an email saying she was sorry, ignore her earlier email.  Please forgive me, Anne wrote, I know you already do.   And in the morning, the man whose comments had started the incident wrote back to Anne saying, “We are here with only love for you Annie.”

“We are here with only love for you Annie.”  This is the grace of God in the midst of our neurotic lives.

Grace teaches us that our brokenness is not the final word.  Our failings hurt us and others and even the planet and God’s grace is that our mistakes are not the final word.  God makes beautiful things even out of our own messy lives.

Pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz Weber writes, “Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace–like saying ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'” 

Sometimes we expect the grace of God to work in big dramatic ways but often times it works in small quiet ways which, in the words of Anne LaMott, seem like they can’t possibly be enough, but then they are.  These small acts of grace give us this day our daily bread.

I am reminded of a story of small act of grace that I once heard preached by a Pastor I served with, named Tiffany.  The summer Tiffany left for college, she found herself struggling with brokenness in many forms. She was on the brink of moving from adolescence to adulthood as she left her family home in Ohio and moved 1000 miles away to Massachusetts. In the midst of all of these transitions, losses and change, she prayed for things to get better. But they didn’t. No matter how diligently Tiffany prayed, nothing changed. The hurt, the fear, the uncertainty and grief were all still there.

It was during a United Methodist Youth Fellowship retreat that she found a measure of grace to get her through. They had celebrated communion late at night, in the darkened cavernous sanctuary. Passing the bread and cup as they knelt in front of the hard wooden communion rail, she began to pray. She prayed and prayed, begging God for forgiveness and deliverance. She confessed any and all possible sins she thought she could have committed and literally threw herself at God’s mercy. Tears streamed down er face as she confronted her own pain and sorrow, feeling so very unworthy at the table. “Maybe I just didn’t belong,” she thought, “Maybe I am not good enough for God to heal my wounds.”

As she wept in prayer, Jerry came and sat beside her. Jerry was chronologically the oldest member of the youth fellowship at 45 years of age. But his severe form of autism rendered him emotionally the youngest among us. He put his arm around Tiffany’s shoulder and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?”  As much as she appreciated his concern, Tiffany knew only God could help her now.  Then her youth pastor came and sat beside me and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” Tiffany couldn’t bring myself to confess my sense of unworthiness and so again, she sent her away.  Finally, Tiffany’s best friend came and sat with her and said, “What’s wrong? Can I help you?” Tiffany didn’t have words for how she felt or even know at that moment what she needed.  But in her embrace, Tiffany felt something subtly shift and her tears subsided.  “What I found in that moment,” said Tiffany, “was a small measure of grace to get me through.  It would be over the next several years that I would begin to piece together the meaning of that night and begin to make sense out what happened.   What I experience was not a miraculous healing … but a measure of grace from my community of friends through Christ.”

Let us pray today: Our Father which art in heaven, Give us this day our daily bread.  That we might no longer be jealous of what our neighbors have, that we might no longer be focused on what we ourselves lack, that we may receive your love and grace and know that, for today, it is enough.

Amen.

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