1“For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into he vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So again they went. 5When he went out and found others standing around; he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ’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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silvered, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
499 years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg Germany. It was not a revolutionary act, it was a public notice of an academic debate concerning repentance and the role of the church in the life of individual christians.
The debate didn’t stay academic for long.
Riding on the back of a new technology called the “Printing Press,” the questions and challenges raised by that german monk spread throughout Europe and became known as the Protestant Reformation, one of several reformations to happen during that time period.
A French Lawyer named John Calvin read Luther’s work, and began asking his own questions, and eventually moved to Switzerland where he took his ideas about reverent worship, powerful preaching, and emphasis on the sovereignty of God with him.
Calvin and Luther, and the other reformers, men and women from all over the world, put theology back into the hands of the people. They taught and wrote prolifically, and their ideas spread around the globe. Belief was no longer handed down from high-ranking church people, instead it was drawn out of scripture and pushed out into the lives of the newly-emerging Protestant Christians.
As you may have guessed, I was never the kid who asked “When are we ever going to use this?” in history classes. I saved that question for math.
I’m the fourth out of five Joseph William Tabers, and I’m married to a historian. History is personal to me. The stories I see there help me understand who I am. They give me a picture of who this congregation is, and how our heritage will shape our response to the future God has provided us. Our heritage is a gift from God, who has chosen grace for us time and time again.
Christianity started off as a part of Judaism, and then grew to include gentile believers as well. That ended up being kind of a crunchy process. When Paul writes to the Romans, he's writing to a church that is divided, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are struggling with their different ways of being the Church.
For Jewish Christians, adherence to the covenant was still greatly important. And their long history as God's covenant people was a source of pride. They had the law and the prophets, which point to Christ. They had the heritage to point to. A celebration of all the great things that God had done for them in the past.
Gentile Christians on the other hand, had a different heritage. Their’s was just beginning to bloom. They came from all kinds of backgrounds, some of them were quite wealthy, but they were willing to challenge parts of the Old covenant. They didn’t feel beholden to all the ancient laws and customs, and were willing to let go of the traditions that had become stale and lifeless, instead focusing on the ways the Spirit was guiding the covenant community here and now. Rather than high priests and levites, they put the stories of Christ into the hands of the people, devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the reading of scripture, and to prayer.
Paul’s letter to the Romans doesn't let either group off the hook. The first chapter of Romans lays out the failures of the nations to recognize their creator, instead making idols for themselves. They worshipped creation, rather than the creator. Or they found ways to project themselves out into the heavens so that the gods were super-humans. The LORD was not impressed.
God's covenant people don't come off any better in the second chapter of Romans. Their heritage is carried by the law and the prophets, but their history is full of them ignoring both. They, of all people, should have known better. The Almighty was disappointed.
We have great moments in our heritage, but we’ve also go two millennia of unimpressive disappointment to our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s easy to keep the idea at arms length and then not change our hearts and lives to reflect what we say we believe. We profess faith, but we practice broken relationships.
We celebrate the Protestant Reformation, but we forget the 30 years war, where Christians rampaged across Europe killing everyone who was the “wrong” kind of Christian. “Whatever our ancestry…it has distinguished itself principally by its resolute sinfulness and rebellion against God.”
God has still chosen grace. None of our mess can overwrite God's sovereign freedom to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. God has chosen to be generous with us.
God has chosen to be generous with us. That's our heritage.
We can cite historical events. We can share fun stories about Sunday School classes gone by. We can recite theology that has withstood centuries of human experience.
But the center point of Presbyterian Heritage is that God has chosen grace.
We are vineyard workers who have slacked off all day, pretending to look for work, but ignoring the calls to go to the vineyard.
And yet when the day is done, we are still given the full day’s wage, as a gift. We have been given grace as a gift, not because of our earning or because of a special heritage, or because we said the magic prayer and now God is obligated to save us. We have been given grace simply because God has chosen to be generous with us.
Most of the time, we try and haggle our way into a transaction with God. “Dear God, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday and quit doing thus-and-such if you’ll just give me this one thing. Then I’ll never bother you again.”
“Dear God, I’ve tried my hardest, but I really need your help. I’ve carried it as far as I can, but now I need you to take it just the next little piece.”
“I go to church every Sunday, I give ten percent of everything to the poor. Surely I deserve…”
“I confess that I believe in Jesus. Now God, save me from punishment.”
Those are all transactions, the early workers vain attempts to gain the upper hand over the vineyard owner. They are our attempts to create God in our own image, with our imagined justice, ignoring the ways God has revealed himself to us over and over again. These transactions seek to write our own law, or to convince ourselves that we have kept the main parts of the law.
But in spite of all our transactional struggling, it’s not enough. “Even total fulfillment of the law would not have been sufficient. That is not the way to a restored relationship with the creator.”
We can’t earn it. We can bargain or badger our way into the gift of our generous God. God has chosen grace, and chosen us for it. And as Romans reminds us, there’s not distinction, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And yet God is more concerned with being generous than leaving us to what we deserve.
God has chosen to be generous to the undeserving, and to give all of us an equal share in the grace of God.
I wonder what would happen if we trusted our God to be generous. I wonder what would happen if we stopped stumbling over ourselves and were able to change our hearts and lives to reflect God’s generosity, rather than our desire for self-reliance.
I wonder what would happen if we saw God’s grace as a gift, instead of as a reward.
I think our heritage would propel us forward with a kind of grateful energy. I think we would engage with our community, both here in Lowell and Gaston County, and our sister churches around Western North Carolina.
Perhaps we would practice the faith we protest and let God’s generosity flow through us.
Because although our heritage includes a church split, it also includes reconciliation. Although our heritage includes division and struggle, it also includes growth in faith. Although our heritage includes getting it wrong, it also includes finding ways to make it right.
Our Presbyterian Heritage isn’t about costumes or sayings or famous people we can call part of our club. Our Presbyterian Heritage is that God has chosen grace as a gift, seen most clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose heritage includes a shameful death, but also a glorious resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, we’re going to go out into a world that needs healing. We’re going out into a world that is beaten down with bad news. Let’s put our heritage to good use and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s trust in the good news that God has chosen grace.