18th Sep, 2005

The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass

Lections:
Exodus 16:2-15 the Lord sends Manna from heaven
Philippians 1:21-30 for me to live is Christ, to die is gain
St Matt parable of the generous employer

The Evangelical writer and thinker Frederick Buechner says

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There is nothing you have to do…There is only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
(Frederick Buechner, Listening To Your Life, page 289)

Today’s parable from, St Matthew’s Gospel, no matter how many times I read it or hear it in the Church’s liturgy, always, at first blush, raises my eyebrows and my blood pressure! It’s not so much that the Vineyard owner is kind, generous and big-hearted, the problem is more that we can be so downright mean, miserly and jealous and selfish.
In one of her short stories she called, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor wrote about the indiscriminate generosity of God. Mrs. Ruby Turpin lives in a little southern town in the 1950′s, a world she has very neatly divided into types and levels and classes of people. She is white and middle class herself. At the opening of the story, Mrs. Turpin is in a doctor’s waiting room. As she sits and waits, she passes the time by mentally dividing the people in the room into her classifications: ‘blacks’ – some, not all – are at the bottom of her scheme, then barely a level above come the ‘white trash’ as she calls them, then the homeowners, then the land-and-homeowners like herself, and at the top, above herself are the fine, respectable people with lots of money.
Her system of classifying people is grossly offensive, of course. But the honest reader of the story comes to recognize that each of us has some kind of classifying system like Mrs. Turpin. Ours may be more subtle and politically correct, but there is a shadow of Mrs. Turpin in the way we classify people.
Mrs. Turpin engages in conversation with some of the people in the waiting room, boasting about her clean pig-parlour, and thanking God for her sweet disposition while she deplores the people who are ungrateful. “If it’s one thing I am,” she says, “it’s grateful…Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you.”
That does it. A that point a teenage girl named Mary Grace decides that she has had all she can take of Mrs. Turpin’s self-righteousness, and she throws a book at her. After this, Mrs. Turpin goes back home. Her revelation comes on the last page of the story.
Mrs. Turpin is fuming that somebody from a class of people a rung below her on the ladder has insulted her. She talks to herself indignantly while feeding her pigs. “It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone everyday working.”
Her rage finally burns itself into a strange vision; there is finally a great mystical revelation on the evening horizon. O’Connor writes:

She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of (black people) in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people, who like herself and (her husband) Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.

She could see in her vision “that even their virtues were being burned away.”
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” said Jesus. We commonly mistake this to be an inversion of the conventional order of things. But in the context of Jesus’ parable it is really about how God gives everyone the same, the same boundless grace and the same love, regardless. God blesses the responsible and hard workers who get up early and get the job done [who come to the 8am Daily Mass] God also blesses those who show up quite late in the day at the field. God blesses the whole mixed company of souls rumbling toward heaven. God’s grace is there for everyone in the same measure.
There’s a telling and difficult scene in the recent movie “Crash.” From the very beginning we see a Middle Eastern man succumbing to fear and going out to buy a gun to protect his property. You’re just praying all the way through the movie that he won’t have to use it. As the plot develops the terrifying reality begins to dawn on you: he moves inexorably nearer and nearer to the horror of shooting someone. And then he does- and it’s heart breaking, with every sinew you yearn for him to stop, to not go through with his terrible crime. With all your heart you cry out at the horror of violence, at the tragedy of the gross stupidity of our human fears, prejudices and selfishness. And then there is grace, then there is a miracle: I won’t tell you what the miracle is, you must see the recently released DVD for yourself- but you will understand how grace can win, how grace is given in even the most remote, extreme and utterly hopeless of places. In this instance God’s grace comes in the still, small voice of a child.
God give us grace and courage and gratitude to see his gift, generosity and patience at work, Amen.

 

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