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Sermon: Going to Graceland

Going to Graceland

Matthew 20:1-16

(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 9-24-2017)

I’m going to Graceland. Don’t know when; can’t tell you what it’s going to look like exactly, but I’m going to Graceland. And, when I arrive, look out! I’m gonna sing, gonna laugh, gonna act like some wild-eyed fool who has just won the lottery. Someday, somehow, I’m going to Graceland.

An old Lerner and Loewe musical from the 1950s was called Brigadoon. In it, a couple of young Americans go on a hunting trip in the hills of Scotland. While there, they stumble upon a charming village not found on any map, the village of Brigadoon. This quaint town appears only once every century or on rare occasions to those who have a heart to find it.

In one way, Graceland is like the village of Brigadoon; you won’t find it on any map. Songwriter Paul Simon sings, “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.” But, that is not the Graceland to which I’m going. I am not heading to a tourist trap for a dead American icon. I am heading to the real Graceland that cannot be located by any GPS. Even so, there is no more treasured place to find and no place that I know of that is harder to find.

Surprisingly, it is especially hard for God-fearing people to find Graceland. That is mainly because we tend to think that we have already got squatter’s rights to that precious land. The title is stored in our safety deposit box or in the drawer of important papers at home, and it is only a matter of time before we step foot on land that is rightfully ours.

Jesus tells a lot of stories about Graceland, stories that the Gospel writers call parables. Each parable is a bit like entering Alice’s Wonderland or boarding the train at Platform 9 ¾ or walking through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In these parables, things look normal at first, but on closer look, the people and events and actions in the parables are all out of proportion to the ordinary world that you and I trod. Even so, these parables are the best guide I know to lead us to the border of Graceland.

The most mind teasing and maddening Graceland parable is one Jesus tells toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel. It is about a landowner who goes looking for workers to harvest his grapes. He gets up early; negotiates a fair wage with the day laborers standing on the street corner, and off to work they go. The early birds get the worm, or in this case, a job. The landowner gets what he needs. Everyone is happy. No surprises yet.

Three hours later, the owner finds that he needs more workers. So, he heads to the unemployment corner again and hires another group of workers, but this time there is no fixed wage negotiated. He tells them that he will pay them what is fair and off to work they go. Everyone is happy. The owner has more workers, the workers have a job; soon the grapes will be harvested and stomped into a delicious Cab Franc. No real surprises yet.

The story takes its first odd twist as the owner goes out at noon and then again at 3 p.m. to hire even more day laborers and tells them nothing more than he will pay them fairly. The story does not explain why he did not hire enough laborers at dawn or at 9 a.m., why he had to go out for more workers at noon and then again at 3 p.m. The owner seems a little scattered or inefficient or just a little bit strange. That perception does not change when the owner heads back to the labor corner one hour before quitting time and hires yet more workers.

At pay time, the parable starts to unravel. The closing horn blows and the laborers line up for their day’s pay. The owner has them paid in order from the least time worked to the most. What we learn is that the 5 p.m. bunch get the same wage as the 3 p.m. workers who get as much as those who went to work at noon who earn the same as those who started picking grapes at 9 a.m. who earn exactly what the early birds agreed to receive. In other words, they all get the same pay.

Now, it is one thing for the owner in this parable to be a bit eccentric or scattered; it is quite another thing to mess around with people’s money. As you might imagine, the early birds go ballistic: “Wait a minute! How can you pay as much to those `no good idlers` who were fast asleep when we were shaved and dressed and already in the fields?” You have got to admit. They have a point. The owner answers them, “I’ve paid you fairly. Am I not free to do what I choose with what I own?” That is where Jesus ends this Graceland story to which Matthew adds this tag line: “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

As an early riser and hard worker, I feel a certain affinity with the reaction of the early birds. If I were in their place, I would also argue that it is only fair that I get more or that the latecomers get less. I can just imagine my temper rising at this owner who is trying to rip me off. I doubt if I would pay much attention to the owner’s enigmatic question that he asks us early birds: “Am I not free to do what I choose with what I own?”

That, though, is the question that this parable begs us to answer. You and I will never get within a hundred miles of Graceland if we think God’s hands are tied to our petty definition of fairness or that we, in any way, deserve our little acre of glory in Graceland because we have put in our time in church. We have worshiped. We have sung in the choir. We have hauled the kids to Sunday School. We have taught the family to say their prayers. We have written our regular check to the church. We have missed days to paid work to go on church Mission trips. We have marched against racism and we have spoken out against the death penalty. And, we have done all this not in a short burst of religious enthusiasm; we have been doing it for years. We got up early to do this. Get our room ready, God. Graceland Express, here we come.

While many of us get steamed about how the story ends or scratch our heads over the owner’s question, it is easy to miss the first scene of the parable. It is easy to miss the fact that it is the owner who takes the initiative. He goes looking for workers and when he finds them he offers them something more promising than standing on the corner tossing dice or playing cards or heaving empty bottles against the curb or singing the blues. Not one of them would be picking a grape at any hour of the day if the owner had not sought them out and given them a purpose, if only for that day.

As long as we who think of ourselves as the early birds get steamed about being paid the same as the last to be hired, we cannot celebrate that we were called to work, just like the last ones were called to work, that over the course of the day, the owner called everyone on the corner to work and dealt with them fairly and abundantly.

What sense do the ethics of Graceland make in our affluence-seeking, achievement-based culture anyway? How do we make sense of the fact that none of us deserves the faith we have been given by God and so none of us can lay claim on the grace we have received. Not one of us has a final say on who belongs within the boundaries of Graceland, who has enough, who has served long enough, who has lived well enough.

In today’s parable, God calls the responsible and timely, the hard workers who like the elder brother in another parable stay at home and do their job, but God does not call them alone. God calls those who forget to set the alarm clock or do not even own one, those who are probably looking for anything but work on that corner, and those who stumble to the corner because they have no place left to go.

I’m going to Graceland. Don’t know when, don’t know how, but I’m going to Graceland, not because I have reserved admission waiting at Will Call, but because admission has been reserved for me and for you and for those we love and for those standing on the corner who we would just as soon remain standing there and for those who we think have no business treading on the holy turf of God’s glory in Graceland at all.

How can I be so sure that you and I are headed to Graceland? Because that is the destination that God staked out for each of us one Friday afternoon when the sky went black and the buzzards circled a cross just waiting to swoop down and on one dark Sunday morning, just as the sun was about to pierce the darkness. We’re going to Graceland because the cross could not finally destroy life and the grave could not finally contain life. Couldn’t then. Can’t now. When the women got there, he had already gone to Graceland and from what he says about it, there is plenty of rooms still available.

Now you and I can spend our short time in life, fretting and moaning about what’s fair, who is most deserving, who belongs in and who’s on the out, who’s precious in God’s sight and who is scandalous. Or we can rejoice in every living moment that God sees beyond our often petty purity and looks beyond all the inconsequential things we think of great consequence and somehow, someway finds even us and by some inexplicable and just plain wonderful act of mercy, invites us home to Graceland.


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