Preached September 20, 2008 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, SC
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16 Philippians 1:27-30
Excuse me sir what did you say When you shout so loud it’s hard to tell You say that I must change my ways For I am surely bound to hell Well I know you’d damn me if you could But my friend, that’s simply not your call If God is great and God is good Why is your heaven so small? –Heaven So Small by Susan Werner
We all love stories. As children we ask to be read stories all the time usually the same story over and over again. As adults, that love of stories continues. We go to movies, we watch soap operas, we read gossip magazines, we tell gossip about our friends and our enemies. When we meet a new person, we ask for a story whenever we say, “So, what do you do?” When they answer, we say, “That’s fascinating. How did you get into that line of work?” And they tell us a story.
We get to know one another – and our world – through stories. Newspapers are filled with stories. Newscasters tell us stories all the time – some factual, some not. We love stories so much that, in fact, our most sacred book is one filled with stories – about creation, about boys slaying giants, about people getting swallowed by whales, about somebody building a great big boat and gathering two of every species on the planet before a big flood comes, and about somebody who came in love to save us all. What great stories!
We love stories so much, we even tell them to ourselves. Have you ever had something happen and you sigh and say, “It’s the story of my life.” We all do because we all have stories we tell ourselves, and they’re usually not happy stories. More often we tell stories to ourselves about how unfair the world is, or how crappy life has always treated us, or how we’ll never find the perfect mate or how love just never seems to find your doorstep. These are the kinds of stories we tell ourselves every single day – stories of our failings, our shortcomings and our growing waists (wait, maybe that’s just my story).
Stories are powerful. They don’t even have to be factual to be true because stories inspire us – they motivate us to do something or be something, or do something else and be something else. Stories make us stop and think. Stories move us in ways that just the facts never will. Stories make us laugh and cry – and sometimes they make us angry.
Jesus understood the power of a good story. Whenever he opened his mouth in front of a crowd, he was telling stories – or what we call parables. The story he told in today’s passage does everything I’ve described – it makes you stop and think, moves us, makes us laugh and cry and most of all makes us angry.
He tells a story about some workers in a vineyard. Some show up at the beginning of the day, others in the middle of the day, still others when the day was nearly over. At the end of the day, they all got paid the same wage whether they had worked 8 hours or one hour. The guys who had worked all day were a little miffed over this – well, I guess it’s better to say they were ticked off. They felt they had not been treated fairly. If this story had happened today, you’d bet there’d be a lawsuit filed.
The manager tells them, “You agreed to the deal and so did they. Are you envious because I’m generous?”
And the answer is the same now as it was then – yes, we’re envious. We’re envious because our stories about fairness say that those who work more should get more – those who do more should earn a greater reward. But, Jesus tells us we worship a generous God. This God rewards everyone the same whether they’ve been walking in God’s light since infancy or whether they’re too sick to walk in God’s light and come to God on their deathbed with moments left to live.
But, we’re offended by a story like this – we want to rewrite it so the hard workers make more than those late comers. But, what Jesus is inviting us to do is change our story.
You say you know you say you’ve read That holy bible up on the shelf Do you recall when Jesus said – Judge not lest ye be judged yourself For I know you’d damn me if you could But my friend that’s simply not your call
If God is great and God is good Why is your heaven so small?
Those protestors at pride – they have their stories. They tell themselves stories about who gets in to heaven and who is banished to hell for all eternity. They write their stories on their signs – stories in crude words like sodomy, fag and hate. They say they base their story on the greatest stories of all – those found in the Bible. Stories like Sodom and Gomorrah – a story of paranoid city dwellers whose fear of anyone different led to their destruction. It wasn’t homosexuality that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It was their story of a small heaven that led to their demise.
We have our stories about those protestors – how they got the way they are. We say, “If those kinds of people are in heaven – thank God I’m not going there.” What our stories about them and their stories about us have in common is that there is an “us” and a “them.”
Pastor and author Brian McLaren says we have many variations on this “us” and “them” story that we constantly tell ourselves – and in the telling we reinforce our feelings of superiority. We reinforce our idea that “we” are better than “them.”
Here are some of the stories McLaren says we tell ourselves:
Stories of domination. This is the story of “us” over “them.” The battle cry of this story is, “if only we were in charge.” If only we were in charge we could create the world we wanted – a world of justice, peace and mercy. Or, perhaps some people really do want to create a world of greed, hatred and injustice. They seem to be doing it right now.
There are stories of revolution. This is a story of “us” versus “them.” This is where the out group cries, “If only they weren’t in control.” They are the one’s messing things up. This revolutionary cry of “throw the bums out,” can soon lead to a story of domination – dreaming of how we could treat them as they treated us if only we were in control.
There are stories of purification. This is what we hear from the protestors along the street: “If only those people would change or disappear!” The world would be a purer, holier place if all the infidels and other horrible people would stop being so horrible or just disappear.
Here’s my favorite example of a purification story:
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
But, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes, He stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos.
The Grinch knew he had to stop Christmas from coming so those hated Whos would have to change or disappear – if they didn’t have Christmas they wouldn’t make all the noise with their toys or carve the roast beast or sing those horrible songs. The Grinch told himself a story of purification – a story of “us” verses “some of them.”
There are stories of victimization – or “us” in spite of “them.” This has most often been the story of the LGBT community: “If only our oppressors would be brought to justice,” we cry. We long to see the day when the religious right is neutered and can no longer harm us by telling lies about us or working to pass legislation denying us equal rights in all areas of life.
There are stories of isolation. This is “us” away from “them.” We also tend to do this in our community – setting up organizations and churches that are just for us. “If only we could be left along to be ourselves by ourselves,” we think, “then the world would be a great place.”
Finally, there are stories of accumulation. This is “us” competing with “them.” In this story we think, “If only we could buy, enjoy and stockpile what we desire.” This story’s slogan is: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
For I know you’d damn me if you could But my friend that’s simply not your call If God is great and God is good Why is your heaven so small?
What all these stories have in common is size. They are stories about a small heaven. They all condemn someone. They all leave someone out of heaven.
Jesus reminds us that God is generous and when it comes to heaven – size matters. When it comes to God’s grace – size matters. When it comes to God’s forgiveness – size matters. When it comes to God’s community here on earth – size matters.
We are called to be radically generous like the landowner. Jesus calls us to abandon all of our small heaven stories that pit us against others or separate us from others. Instead, we’re called to understand that size matters and we’re called to tell big heaven stories. It’s a story McLaren calls “some of us for all of us.” In this story no one is left behind – everyone comes into relationship with each other and with the living, still speaking God. In this story, even those who are telling small heaven stories are including in Jesus’ big heaven story.
This is the story Jesus told while he was here. He contended with people who told small heaven stories – those Scribes and Pharisees – but he knew his mission and he gathered some disciples – a remnant – who understood it’s some of us for all of us.
Paul, too, tells big heaven stories. In his letter to the Philippians, he urges them to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.” Later in Philippians 2:4 he articulates the “some of us for all of us” story in this way: “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.”
Both Jesus and Paul are telling us to put away our stories of “us” against “them,” or “us” over “them,” or “us” away from “them,” or “us” in spite of “them.” When it comes to the stories we tell – size matters. Our stories must be big and inclusive. They must include the friend, the enemy, the member of our community and the protestor with the hateful sign. We must stop being offended by God’s generosity and instead learn to extend it to everyone – even those hated Whos down in Whoville.
With your fists that shake and your eyes that burn What makes you do these things you do? I would not be surprised to learn Someone somewhere excluded you But my friend imagine it if you would A love much mightier than us all If God is great and God is good Why is your heaven so small?
How big is your heaven? Are you caught in a small heaven story of domination, revolution, purification, victimization, isolation or accumulation? Are we envious because our God is a generous God who welcomes all – making the last first and first last? Has your exclusion from society and most mainline churches caused you to exclude others like those who exclude us and protest at Pride parades?
It’s time for our community to change its story. We can no longer afford to tell small heaven stories of “us over them” or “us in spite of them” or “us away from them.” Jesus welcomes each of us into the big heaven of God’s grace and mercy. If we have truly heard Jesus’ call, then we realize that the only story worth telling is it’s “some of us for all of us.” We are called to be the reconcilers of the world. We are called to forgive, to love, to heal, to uplift, to be there for everyone – even those who would exclude us or wish we would disappear. God’s radical generosity extends even to them. They are included in God’s enormous heaven because God loves and accepts them just as much as God loves and accepts us. That may be offensive to some – but this is what radical generosity looks like.
And yes, we want to see repentance by those who have hurt us – and when they come into God’s grace and mercy, the good news is, there will be repentance. When you realize size matters and your heaven finally expands to one size fits all, you can’t help but ask forgiveness for your previously small heaven ways.
“Pooh-Pooh to the Whos! He was Grinch-ish-ly humming. “They’re finding out now that no Christmas is coming! “They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do! “Their mouths will hang open a minute or two “Then the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO! “That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “That I simply must hear!
So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear. And he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low. Then it started to grow But the sound wasn’t sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn’t be so! But, it was merry! Very!
He stared at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise! Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all! He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! It came! Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day! And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he he himself The Grinch carved the roast beast!
Both Jesus and Paul are showing us how to be Whos in Who-ville. The small heaven story of the Grinch didn’t stop the Whos from telling the story they always told – a story of some of us for all of us. That’s the only way to explain how they welcomed the Grinch that day and gave him the honor of carving the roast beast. The Whos knew – size matters – and their vision of heaven included even mean old Grinches who tell small heaven stories and try to steal our joy.
Don’t despair about the small heaven stories around us. The Whos knew that if they kept telling the story of some of us for all of us – those with small heaven stories could have their eyes opened. They could come to a place where they realize size matters and their heaven is far too small. May we be like the Whos – always telling big heaven stories that include everyone in radical generosity. May God grant us the miracle of the Grinch and grow our small hearts three sizes this day.
But my friend imagine it if you would A love much mightier than us all If God is great and God is good Why is your heaven so small?
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.