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THAT’S NOT FAIR!

These are my speaking notes from Sunday’s sermon (9/3/2017).

[Matthew 20:1-16] (New Living Translation)

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

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     When I was growing up in Potter County near a little town called Shinglehouse, we lived up a little valley where the ridge of a couple of the Allegheny Mountains came together called Blauvelt Hollow. It was a small dirt road where you had to pretty much get off the road if you met another car. And there was a pretty steep hill and a curve in the first quarter mile of that road. And I had a job as a kid… called SCHOOL WORK. My job was being a student.

In the winter time, the plows had priority roads that they cleared first and our road wasn’t always the priority, but even if it did get plowed, there were times that the school bus couldn’t get up the hollow to pick us kids up. And so it didn’t. School went on, but we were excused, because the bus couldn’t get to us to take us to do our school work. Sometimes it just got there later and we would get to school late, and weren’t penalized for having missed the beginning of the day’s school work.

[Unfortunately, my grandfather (who lived across the road from us) became township supervisor and road master within a few years and he always made sure that bus could make it up to get us.]

Now, why do I tell you that?

Because, like the later workers in the parable from Matthew 20 that we’ve just heard, my brother John Paul and I, even if we were late or missed school on those days, got credit for being there and doing the classwork just the same. But we hadn’t had to endure the same workload. And trust me, we were the envy of those others around us who had been there the whole day.

Except Jesus isn’t talking about school work, but harvest work. Specifically harvesting the grapes in the vineyard. And Jesus chooses to tell the story from the perspective of those workers who got there first doesn’t he?

At the very beginning of the day, 6:00 am I’m told is what the time would have been when the farmer first went out to hire some workers, he hires some workers. They clearly understand that they have to work all day and they clearly know what to expect for their paycheck. A day’s wage. They’ll agree to nothing less. And the farmer agrees to their price. So they start working.

Now, there were many others who were around but were not workers. They weren’t around when the farmer went early in the morning to hire workers. The farmer knows there are more that will be in town now, so he goes back and hires them too. And later, he goes back to hire those that weren’t there before to be hired. And the farmer keeps going back out for more workers. Not willing to give up. He needs workers and is willing to do what is needed to get the job done.

And when all is said and done, and the job’s completed, he gives them all their pay for the job. He can be generous with those that he hired throughout the day because they agreed to work without thought of how much they would make.

With those that came to work for a specific sum of money, he is faithful and pays them what they wanted and expected.

No problem right? Well, yes there is. You see, the farmer was so generous that he paid the newer workers the same thing as the first workers. And the first workers remembered how long and how hard they had worked, more than the newer workers had. And they cried out: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

And Jesus explains that the farmer had been faithful to what was agreed upon and had chosen to be generous to those who had thought nothing of the pay to be earned, and still worked.

Now there’s probably a whole lot that you can learn about God, and specifically Jesus, from this story and about how to be a Christian and lots of good stuff. But for right now, I just want to focus on a couple of things that I think can speak to us today, here in OUR situations.

Let’s suppose, shall we, that Jesus is the farmer and that WE are the workers (or the would be workers at least).

What if the call to work is when Christ calls us into his kingdom? Calls us to be a follower of Jesus, or worker in the kingdom of God? Just by the fact that we are not all the same age, would suggest that we all can’t come to know and expereince Jesus inviting us into relationship with him at the same time. We can’t all come to be a worker for the King at the same time because when the first ones were called, some of us weren’t around. We hadn’t even been born yet!

That happens doesn’t it? There are some in this congregation who accepted Jesus as Savior sixty and seventy years ago. And those dear saints have served their Lord, working in the kingdom of God, for decades before some of the rest of us were even born, let alone old enough to work for the kingdom.

Thank God, that he, like the farmer in the parable, keeps going back out to get more workers.

Some of us, have heard Christ call us to be his workers, yet have missed him, we’ve not responded when he called, or were busy doing something else and didn’t hear him. And Jesus still comes back time and again to call us to join his workforce.

There are some here today, who have heard Jesus calling you to relationship with him, to be one of his followers, his workers, and you have tried to turn a deaf ear in the past. You’ve not wanted to be a follower, not wanted to be a worker. Friends, Jesus is still looking for you, desiring you to come to him. And will. Will you answer today? Will you allow him to be your Lord, your Savior, your Master, your King? Say yes today. Invite him to become lord of your life and allow him to guide you and heal you and set you free.

If you do so, your reward is the same as those who’ve been Christians for decades. You’ll spend eternity with Christ, as a follower, a disciple, a friend of Jesus.

The parable has at least one other meaning to it though. You see, if you look in the chapter right before this one, you see the context of what was going on when Jesus decided to tell the parable. Peter has, in his own bumbling, foot in the mouth kind of way, he has just pointed out to Jesus how he and the other eleven had given up everything in order to follow Jesus. And Peter asks, in Matthew 19:27, “See, we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?”  He’s asking ‘What’s our reward?’ or as we would say today, ‘What’s in it for me?’

And then Jesus responds with this parable.

How many times do we, like those first hired workers, not agree to go and do the task until we know what’s in it for us first? We may hear God calling us to do something, but we see no personal advantage so we are unwilling to answer the call.

Why should I be a Christian?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I help out with the evangelism team?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give my money to that mission trip, since I’m not going to get to go with them?

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I spend my time as a chaperone with that rowdy youth group or teach that Sunday School class, I don’t have kids,

          What’s in it for me?

Why should I give up my security and safety and comfortable job in order to go into ministry?

          What’s in it for me?

Folks, I believe that a very large message for us in this parable is that approaching Christ with a list of expectations and an attitude of ‘What’s in it for me?’ is NOT a good thing.

The farmer explains, almost angrily it sounds like to me, that he has been just, “Friend, I have done you no wrong” and that he has been faithful, “Did you not agree to work for that amount?”

My question today is two fold: depending on who you are…

  • If you are not yet a follower, a worker for Jesus, will you answer the call? Today?
  • If you have already accepted Christ and are one of his workers, are you a worker that will obey his callings to do whatever needs to be done, as he decides? Or will you be hesitating with the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’

The danger here is not for those who answer later, but for those who want to deny the master farmer Jesus, the chance to be generous to others.

Those times the bus had gotten me to school late (or even the next day) and yet I didn’t lose credit for missing the work, those kids who had been there the whole time were even more responsible for what had been covered in those classes. SO too with us as we join the work field for Christ. We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, but for his callings and requests of us…. And we can trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

This past week, in the aftermath of all the raining and all the flooding in the Houston area, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz with what a megachurch pastor in the Houston did or did not do. And I saw Christians posting their own opinions (and forwarding other people’s opinions & posts) about how wrong Joel Osteen was and what he should have done.

Then I saw a sign that simply said…

I just talked with God and he didn’t ask me anything about Joel Osteen…

He asked me about what I had done and what I was doing.

Just like those workers in the farmer’s field, we are workers for God in HIS fields… And We’re responsible, not for what the master does with someone else, or how they respond to the Master, but rather we are responsible for his callings and requests of us… and OUR response to Him!!! And we can ALWAYS trust him to be fair and just and faithful.

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While Joseph Waited

At Olmsted Manor earlier this month, our new superintendent walked a group of us pastors through Genesis 39 – 45 with Joseph. Before this passage starts, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers while they told his father that some wild animal had killed him. Joseph meanwhile ends up as a slave in Egypt at the age of 17. And these next few chapters see him from age 17 to age 30 or so.

I found myself challenged several times. Over the next few days, I’ll share a few of my observations and challenges of that retreat.

First, at both the beginning and the end of Genesis 39, Scripture goes out of its way to highlight that God was WITH Joseph.

Joseph endured, time after time, unjust circumstances and unfair accusations. At one point, in chapter 39, he is invited to betray his master by the master’s wife, and he does the right thing. And yet ends up removed from his position and imprisoned unjustly. Later on, in chapter 40, he is promised that someone will plead his case and seek justice for him. Yet it doesn’t happen. Joseph is literally forgotten by the one whom he had thought would stand up for him. Yet we are reminded over and over again that God was still with him.

Not only was God with him, but whether it was in Poitiphar’s household, in the prison, or in Pharaoh’s service, God “gave him success” no matter what it was Joseph attempted next.

There have been times when I have felt unfairly treated or misunderstood. I can’t even say that I was as pristine and pure as Joseph, always choosing to avoid whatever temptations came my way nor choosing to sinless before God. And yet, in each situation, I have tried to allow whatever happened to draw me closer to my Lord and to my family. And God has gone out of His way to make sure we knew He was with us every step of the way, whether we knew exactly where we were going or not or what might possibly be our next step. As we allowed situations to draw us closer to Him and to each other, we have had a peace that God was in control, even when it looked like we were in a freefall.

Secondly, again, at both the beginning and the end of Genesis 39, Scripture goes out of its way to highlight that God gave Joseph success in whatever he did in the midst of those unfair and unjust times.

As I allow the down times, when I feel like I’m forgotten and seem to have been derailed from what I thought God was doing in my life, I can remember how Joseph, in those same circumstances, simply did the next right thing. He couldn’t see any way out of his situation (on his own), but he still chose to find the right thing to do in that moment, and to do that right thing. And rather than being forgotten, Joseph was being watched by the One who was with him, and that One was watching out for him.

I can trust the God who is with me, to continue to lead and guide me even in the down times of despair and discouragement. And I have but to “do the next right thing” to be considered successful. It may, or may not, lead to promotions. It may, or may not, lead to recognition or prestige or fame. But in the final tally, it is being considered successful in God’s eyes that matters most, isn’t it?

I don’t know if you have times when you feel unjustly and unfairly treated by friends, family, employers, or whomever, but the account of Joseph reminds us that if, in the midst of the “stuff” we face in life, God IS with us, and as we draw closer to him and choose to do the next right thing, we can still be considered “successful” by the One that matters most.

 

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Life Changes… As You Experience More!

Recent conversations about missions, have reminded me that while in seminary, I was required to participate in a “transcultural” experience. Because of timing (and expense) I chose to participate in an already scheduled group transcultural of two weeks in Haiti. Since I was enrolled in United Theological Seminary’s “in-context” program, I wrote my report at the end as a public piece which the local newspaper, the Union City (PA) Times-Leader, printed in the Spring of 1998 as a three part series.

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Northwest Pennsylvania’s January with its snow-belt weather or January in the tropics? What a choice! Sure, the tropical port of destination was Port-au-Prince, the capital of the island nation of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but it was still better than snow and ice, right?

You see, as a seminary student at United Theological Seminary’s Buffalo campus, I am required to spend two weeks outside of my culture before I can graduate with my Masters of Divinity degree. So I chose to take my two weeks in Haiti, from January 8-21, 1998.

I carried images with me of palm trees, tropical weather, voodoo, dictators, sweat, bananas, and poverty as I left for Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 8th. Most of my impressions were right, but yet I found there was so much more to Haiti and the Haitian people than I expected.

My senses were bombarded in Haiti. I was assaulted by the stark differences between my comfortable American life and the realities that confronted me every day in this tiny land just a few hundred miles away from the United States. Even more shocking to me was how unprepared I was for the lessons Haiti had for this smug American who thought he was going to help those poor Haitians. Lessons and realities of poverty, hunger, tolerance, justice, liberty, racism, and persecution were awaiting me.

My perception of the poverty the Haitian people face wasn’t even close to the truth. In the lifestyle of rural Pennsylvania, close to a major city like Erie, poverty is often thought of as having to shop at a discount store or having an antennae for my television instead of cable… and our government tells us that the “poverty level” is for a single person to make less than $13,000 or so. Yet in Haiti there are mud floors, open sewers that children play around, and an average income of less than $300.00 for a whole year… $5.00 or so a week. How many American children spend more than that in a week on games and candy? When I have considered myself poor, I have been mistaken… for I have now seen what poverty looks like and it most certainly is not me or anyone I know.

My perception of hunger has changed as well. Here in the states, we often have chances to go to restaurants and fast food places. We have so many choices and so often we eat so much that we need medicines to help our digestion… and more often than not, we leave food untouched or uneaten. In Haiti, I helped serve lunch to children and babies at a clinic and orphanage run by the nuns from Sister Theresa’s order, the Sisters of Charity. We were given a bowl of plain rice mixed with ground up beans to feed to the children who couldn’t feed themselves. I watched as they eagerly tried to be one of the first ones fed, and then eating quickly as if they feared that we would take their bowl away.

How many times as a kid did I turn up my nose at some meal that was offered because I didn’t like it? Perhaps if I had known hunger like those Haitian children, I would have been more thankful for whatever I was served.

My sense of justice was also altered and changed by this trip into Haiti. Whereas I have looked at justice as being a matter of deciding who is right and wrong by a judge, the Haitian sense of justice is not the same. I got to experience this first hand one day while trying to ride a “tap-tap,” the Haitian version of a mass transportation system. Most tap-taps are small trucks which carry as many people as they can in the back of the truck for about 20 to 40 cents each. When you want off, you tap-tap on the side of the truck-bed.

While trying to get a tap-tap one day, we encountered a man who hadn’t paid his money after riding the tap-tap. The driver apparently had said he would not let the man ride again and the man was increasingly getting more agitated every moment. The tensions rose, the voices got louder, and finally the driver got out. Yet, in that act he didn’t launch into a knock-down drag-out fight like two irate Americans might do. Nor did the driver look for a cop. The driver appealed to the crowd around them, who had seen the encounter from the beginning. The group listened, the group decided who was right and who was wrong, and the man had to pay up.

What would happen in the U.S.A. if we were concerned with the rights of our fellow citizens enough that we would help our neighbors and even strangers achieve justice? It would mean that we would have to stop trying to drag each other into court for alleged offenses, and begin looking out for each other in order to make sure that each person is treated fairly and with respect. We could wipe out many of the inhumane injustices that continue to plague our nation with that kind of commitment and that dedication to the truth.

Another area that screamed of culture-shock throughout my trip was racism. In a land of black-skinned people, I was noticeably different. I was “blanc” (the Creole word for white, and the nickname given white people). Having lived my whole life in Caucasian circles, this was a new and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me. Almost everyone in my world of rural America is white-skinned. The people in my churches, my schools, places where I’ve worked, places I go for fun, the friends I have hung out with… all have been predominately white.

For two weeks, I got to be the person with skin of a different color. There may have been rude comments, but the language barrier prevented me from understanding the comments that were made. I saw the looks though. I heard the giggles. I saw the pointed fingers of children saying “He’s different”. I felt the stares. If that wasn’t enough, we were faced with a double standard that would try to charge us ‘blancs’ double the fare on certain tap-taps, assuming we were blancs and would never know.

As uncomfortable as that was for me, I have to wonder how many times do we Americans treat someone different from us in that same way? Using the “stranger” or “foreigner” as the butt of our jokes and rude comments? And of course, that doesn’t even begin to address the way the whites of America have dealt with other races throughout not only our history, but throughout our current lives in the newspapers every day of the week.

Another lesson awaited me on this trip; a lesson of freedom and civic duty. While visiting a hospital for the sick and dying called Sans Fil, we encountered a man who was bedridden who, through an interpreter, told us of his persecution by the military when the army had overthrown President Aristide in 1991. He reached into the stand next to his cot for his wallet and showed us the reason for his being singled out and targeted: a voter’s registration card. The man was hunted, and on a list to be killed if they had found him, simply because he was a registered voter that belonged to the same party as the deposed leader.

I cannot begin to imagine that kind of political persecution… just for registering to vote. Yet in this “land of the free” called America, we have the right to vote and most of us could care less. Has liberty become too cheap?

As shocking as the areas of poverty and hunger were for me, I was surprised none the less to find myself labeled as a member of a “cult” while in Haiti. As a United Methodist, I am part of a pretty major religious group here in the U.S., and considered to be pretty mainline and traditional. Yet in Haiti, where the Roman Catholic Church is the official national church, I am considered an outsider… a cult member. Being judged by my religious beliefs was one of the harsher realities that confronted me.

With that in mind, I was forced to ask myself whether I too get judgmental in my church and my beliefs that I fail to look for the genuine spiritual experiences in other people’s religious traditions.

The idea of religious persecution became even more real for me when I met the Rev. Roger DeSir, a retired Episcopal priest who met with us one evening. Although French has been the official language of Haiti, only about five percent of the people could read, write, or speak French. The vast majority of Haitians spoke Haitian Creole, a native language that combines words and phrases from French, English, and large amounts of African terms and dialects. In the face of this, DeSir had single-handedly taken on the challenge of translating the Bible into the language of the people. I was amazed to find that he too was singled out and targeted by the military regime as a dangerous enemy of the state following Aristide’s overthrow. DeSir went into hiding and only completed translating the full Bible into Creole in 1992.

I find myself perplexed that any government would be so afraid of a book, let alone the Bible. I was forced to examine the number of times that we Americans, even those of us who consider ourselves Christians, fail to even open the Bible.
It has been almost two months since I returned from Haiti. I have settled back into my American way of life, driving almost everywhere while my Haitian friends walk, and enjoying long hot showers while my friends face water shortages and must use a bucket and a cup to “shower” each day. Yet I sense that God has begun to change me, make me more aware of the world outside of my own little world.
I look forward to returning to Haiti again. I will never completely be the same again…. and I’m glad.
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In fact, one of the more lasting lessons of this trip was hearing Bob Walker, the leader of our trip from the seminary, in his first impromptu meeting, remind us that we were there to “be” not necessarily “do.” His phrase was “we are human be-ings, not human do-ings.” So often I remind myself of that as I look at a situation, even back here in the states, when everything within me wants to do something to alleviate the inner hurt and turmoil someone is experiencing. It’s good to remember that it is OK to be and not necessarily always do. That’s a change in perspective I needed to be able to experience and incorporate into my own life.
I have indeed been changed because of the transcultural. My life, my family, my ministry have all been impacted because of the lessons learned on that trip. In fact, later that year, 13 of us from the two churches I was pastoring, Spartansburg & Parade Street UMC’s, (including my wife and both of my girls) went on a short term mission work trip to help begin the building of a medical clinic.

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