Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We're More Than Equally Created

In the National Archives Building, the two hundred and thirty year old Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights have been painstakingly preserved. I'm told that it took more than two years for engineers and scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and NASA to complete their work on new gold-plated, titanium-framed encasements for the documents. The parchments inside the cases rest on cellulose paper, set beneath ballistically tested glass and plastic laminate, in a bath of inert Argon gas. An optical system in the encasement base detects infiltrations of water or oxygen. When I had the honor of viewing The Declaration of Independence several years ago, we were warned not to touch the display case as the slightest disturbance would cause the enshrined document to descend into an underground vault capable of withstanding a nuclear blast! The words of that document are well known (and well worth protecting); words that begin with the declaration that “All men are created equal.” But as Jesus’ much older story of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-16) teaches us, this is only the first way in which we are equal before God……

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

We are equally in need of purpose and direction… “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…” (1).  Notice that in Jesus' story, the master goes out to hire workers early in the morning, but returns to the marketplace again and again to find more workers. Why?  Obviously there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. Jesus is describing a familiar scene in ancient Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and then soon after came the rains. If the harvest was not gathered before the rains came, the grapes would be ruined. So it was a race against time, and any worker was welcome -- even if he could only give an hour to the work. It was a huge task…that required many workers. 

Within each of us there is a desire to make a contribution: to live with purpose, and direction. George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “This is the true joy in life, to be used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” There are many noble goals in this life: getting a good education, raising a family, finding a successful job, traveling the world. These are all well and good…but they will leave us empty if they are done apart from God and his work.  The original signers of The Declaration of Independence firmly believed that what they were doing was not merely a human enterprise, but one directed by God. The Declaration ends with these words, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Each of us longs to be part of something “great” – and though we may not be called to the kind of political greatness that is represented by the signatures of the Declaration….we can pray that our lives might be guided with the same purposefulness…and the same Providence that guided theirs.  Because the greatest cause we can be involved in is to know God and to make him known; living the eternal kind of life as apprentices and followers of his Son.

There is another important way in which the Bible says we are equal before God: we are equally responsible to heed Christ’s call…  The parable continues: “And about five o’clock [the master]went out and found others standing around and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day? They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “you also go out into the vineyard” (6-7).  Notice that the landowner does not force anyone to work in his vineyard as he goes out again and again to find more workers! They seem to have the freedom to accept his invitation or to reject it. They are not slaves. I firmly believe that every man, woman, and child on this earth will have the opportunity to hear the call of Christ upon their lives; but with that opportunity will come the responsibility to join him in his work…now or in God’s eternal kingdom. Opportunity and responsibility always go hand in hand. This is the land of opportunity; a land that protects the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…but with that opportunity and those rights come responsibility. 

We have the right to life, and our laws protect us from having our lives taken away from us; but think about what it would be like to live in Darfur, or North Korea. We should be grateful for the opportunity to live in this country. But if this life means anything to us, don’t we have a responsibility to do something with it? 

We have the right to liberty…but liberty to do what? When U.S. adults were asked in a USA Today poll to define their idea of the American Dream, 68% said “The freedom to say and do what I want.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what would happen if we all did what we felt like. Liberty without love, freedom without decency and concern for others is just slavery to our own selfish desires & obsessions. “Without God,” Dostoevsky said, anything is justifiable.” That’s why John Adams (our 2nd US President) said: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other" (1798).

We have the right to pursue happiness. A Gallup Poll revealed that the most committed 13% of believers in America are the happiest, most charitable, tolerant, ethical and are the most concerned for a better society (LA Times, Sat. March 14, 1992). In other words, the way to pursue happiness is to live life meaningfully, responsibly, sacrificially. We’re happy when we’re investing in our families & friendships. We’re happy when we’re serving others, not just ourselves. We’re happy when we’re joining God in what he is doing…in every arena of life. We’re happy not because we’re doing what comes easy or makes us feel comfortable, but because what we’re doing is meaningful …and ultimately, because it is a response to the Master who calls us into this world, his vineyard, and invites us to take responsibility with him for its health and fruitfulness.

There's one more way that Jesus' parable reminds us of our equality before God, and it's the most important way, because we will be equally blessed with the gift of God’s grace as we trust in him. The turning point in Jesus’ story is when the landowner begins to pay the workers, and we are surprised to learn that he pays the eleventh hour workers exactly what he pays those who have worked all day. The first hour workers are incensed: “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (12). “How could you pay these latecomers exactly what you paid us? That’s not fair!” The master answers, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair…I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my money? Or are you upset that I am generous" (E. Peterson, The Message)?  This is a beautiful picture of God’s grace which, by definition, is really not fair, because grace means getting infinitely more than I really deserve.  Grace is the gift of God’s mercy and an indestructible life. 

God has decided to make the person next to you, in back of you, behind you, or in front of you, older than you or younger than you, to the political left or right of you, darker than you or lighter than you ----- absolutely equal to you. You may define yourself by your last name, the name of your country or your alma mater, by the size of your paycheck, your political leanings, or your sexual ‘preferences’ …. but Christ says, “I know who you really are! You are my lost yet beloved child. Receive the grace and forgiveness which I purchased with my own blood… and then come, follow me….”

More than half a century before anyone had heard of Jefferson, Franklin, or Adams, Isaac Watts conceived one of the most beloved hymns in the English language... "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Watts was born in 1674, at the dawn of the spiritual revival that spread from Great Britain to New England known as The Great Awakening. His music was the heart song of that powerful movement...an electrifying spiritual revival that forged among the 13 colonies a sense of national identity a full three decades before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That revival reminded the colonists what James Madison wrote years later…that “Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the governor of the universe.”  As we mark the two hundred and thirty fourth birthday of our nation this month, we come to declare more than national pride or the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We declare, rather, our highest allegiance to the Governor of the Universe…revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son that we might know our true purpose, answer his eternal call, and receive the grace to live for God and love others as he has loved us. “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on Our Father’s protection and providence, let us pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Gracious Father, we thank you that “all men are created equal,” that before you every man and woman, boy and girl, is valued and beloved. We acknowledge that as flawed and sinful human beings, each of us is in need of direction and guidance from You, and that apart from you “we can do nothing.” Forgive us for our pride and the denial of our need! As you have made known to us through Y'shua (Jesus) your love for us and your desire that we follow you, we admit our equal responsibility to heed your call, and to accept your invitation to the life that is abundant and eternal. As we come before you today, we trust you to overcome every power that would hurt or divide us, making us truly one with each other in the power of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.