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The Kingdom is Like...

Reverend Philip Stringer

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Matthew 20:1-16

LET US PRAY: Lord, you have the words of eternal life. Feed us with your word, speaking to our hearts and stirring us to faith, for the sake of your kingdom. AMEN

It’s Paw Paw season! That means I’m out in the woods each day checking for fruit that has fallen. The trouble with Paw Paws is that they need to ripen on the tree for the best flavor, so you have to wait for them to drop. But the fruit is very fragrant... and since deer have a sense of smell that is anywhere from 500 - 1000 times stronger than humans, there’s no time to waste! The fruit is sort of yellowish green and brown, so it blends right in to the forest floor. It’s easy to miss it — and if you’re not looking for it, it’s almost certain you won’t notice it. This sweet and wonderful fruit could be right there in front of you and you wouldn’t even know it. That’s what happened in the parable. It is like a forest of details — with a wonderful treasure hidden right there in the open, but it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.

In today’s parable, Jesus teaches us that grace is at the heart of the kingdom of God. Most of the parable is spent describing how the workers are gathered. Some are called early in the day, others late. Jesus teaches that whether they are called early or late, they shouldn’t worry about measuring themselves against one another -- they should just be happy that they’ve been called to work in the vineyard. Before they were called, they were standing idle -- contributing and receiving nothing of value. Now that they are called, they have the opportunity for both. Jesus’ parable teaches us that in the kingdom, people have purpose. But deeper than this, the parable teaches us that the kingdom of God is about relationship. And all of it is centered in the grace of the owner.

Did you know that you are living in the vineyard of God? It is the grace of God that makes that such wonderful news -- because it is the grace of God that gives us purpose and belonging.

The kingdom of God is not like a vineyard. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like the OWNER of a vineyard who calls people. Does the vineyard represent heaven? I suppose it could. But this isn’t a parable about heaven. This is a parable about the kingdom of God, and it would be a mistake to limit our understanding of the kingdom to a place of comfort and safety after we have died. Jesus isn’t teaching about heaven in the parable. He doesn’t tell us anything about the condition of the vineyard -- whether or not it is beautiful or big. Jesus doesn’t say anything about what the harvest was like -- whether it is large or meager or whether the grapes are sweet or sour. What is special is not the vineyard, but the owner of the vineyard who gathers workers.

Neither is this a parable teaching us about who gets into heaven or who doesn’t. We can’t look at the workers and learn what to do in order to get into heaven. We don’t even know what work they did during the day. Whether they harvested or pruned, or planted -- he doesn’t say, because this isn’t a parable about what to do. The work, really, isn’t important.

Jesus doesn’t tell us much about the quality of the workers, either. He doesn’t say that they were the best workers the owner ever hired because they picked twice as many grapes, or they picked only the best ones, or they didn’t eat a lot of them as they went. All we know is that they were idle, then they were hired, and then they were paid. Some were aggravated, and some weren’t, but they all got paid regardless.

Jesus doesn’t tell us much about the vineyard; he doesn’t tell us about the work they did, and he doesn’t tell us much about the workers, because this is not a parable about any of these things. This IS a parable about the kingdom of God, and it IS a parable about right now.

Do you know that you are in the vineyard of God? This world and your life are both the vineyard of God. But do you see that the grace of God is calling you to a life of purpose and meaning in this vineyard? That is the question before us today.

Have you ever gone berry picking? I’ve never been in a vineyard -- but I’ve been blueberry picking. Here’s what’s great about it: You CAN eat as you go. You CAN choose only the best berries. You CAN pick a LOT of berries, and the price is pretty good compared to the store. But if you go to the blueberry farm because you’re stingy and don’t want to pay store prices for berries -- then going to the blueberry farm is a bother -- another chore to be done.

But if you go to the blueberry farm for the RIGHT reason, here’s what you’ll find:

• A beautiful day to let go of all of the other things in your life that are bothering you.

• The smell of fresh country air, the feel of the warm sun on your back.

• butterflies gently tumbling through the air.

• You will find time as you pick to reflect upon life: it’s meaning, and your place within it.

• You will find time for communion with God.

• And if you are doing it REALLY RIGHT -- you will not have come alone. You will have a friend to talk with about these things -- and to share this experience with.

Maybe you won’t spend every moment together. You might wander off to your own patch of bushes for a while. But you know that your friend is not far off, and before long you will be talking again, and you or they will say, “hey! Look at this berry I found -- it’s huge!” And you’ll both “ooo” and “ahhh” over it -- and one of you will probably eat it. THAT’S what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom of God is not a blueberry farm. The blueberry farm is the setting where the kingdom unfolds.

When I was a child, I remember Mom taking us to Moore’s Blueberry Farm in the country outside of Fort Wayne. Mrs. Moore was so nice to us. We had the run of the farm while Mom went picking. There was a pond we were welcome to fish in -- a large flower garden filled with butterflies, and plenty of room to run. And when we got around to it -- of course, blueberries to eat.

Even if Mom didn’t bring a friend to pick with, we had a friend at the farm -- it was Mrs. Moore herself. And at the end of the day, one thing was certain: We would meet Mrs. Moore again to tell her about the day.

• Mom would tell her how much she had picked,

• and we would tell her how much we had eaten!

• Mom would thank her for her kindness and hospitality --

• we would thank her for her beautiful farm.

And do you know what she would say? “You are welcome here

anytime-- even just to play. Bring the children and let them play.”

THAT’S what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom of God is NOT like a vineyard. It’s like Mrs. Moore. And what happens on her farm is beautiful, because she is beautiful and full of kindness and hospitality. She gives us a place for sharing.

This world and your life are the vineyard of God. But the grace of God is like Mrs. Moore, calling you to live and play within it, to the glory of God.

Live and play to the glory of God.

At the center of our relationship to each other is Christ -- the owner who calls us. We have a foretaste of paradise breaking forth among us because of our relationship in Christ, who loved us and called us and rooted us in relationship with one another.

It doesn’t matter what length of time any of us has known each other. It doesn’t matter whether you and I have “worked” on this or that committee together. We have a relationship in Christ, and it is a FULL relationship that is not diminished by time, works . . .or by space.

After you leave here today, we all remain workers with one another in the kingdom of God. In the vineyard of your life -- whether it takes you a thousand miles from here or just across the street -- in your families, in your places of work and play and study -- alone or with others, we are workers together in the vineyard of God. Like going berry picking, we may each wander off to our “own” patch of bushes for a while. But even then, in our hearts we know we are sharing the experience with a friend -- and before too long, we will come together again. And then we can share what we have discovered with one other, and we can “ooo” and “aahhh” about it together -- and we will be fed.

It is good to be here at St. Michael, because the kingdom of God is here. Some of you have been here for a long, long time. Others of you are new. Still more will be moving on to another place. So will we all. Someday, new people and a new pastor will be working this vineyard. How long that will be and how much time we have together none of us knows. But whatever the time, that will be OK. Our hope is not in each other but in the one who gathers us graciously into his vineyard. Longevity has nothing to do with purpose, value and meaning in the kingdom of God. Purpose, value and meaning come by God’s grace. Whether you have been here four weeks or forty years -- or even if you are here only for today -- we are gathered by God’s grace so that we may have this time together to the glory of God.

The kingdom of God is like the owner of a vineyard who gathered people together, and by grace gave their lives substance and calling and purpose. He has given us to one another that we may love one another and share the journey. That’s the work. And as we share it, we give and we receive. We have communion with each other, all within the vineyard of God.

The kingdom of God is like Mrs. Moore gathering us for a day of blueberry picking at her farm. We will not spend every moment together. Sooner or later each of us will wander off to pick berries in another patch. I look forward to seeing what you discover about the kingdom as you work in your separate patches -- and as you bring back what you have found, we will “ooo” and “aahhh” together -- and we will be fed in the vineyard of God, thanks to the one who has called us.


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