Come to the Table of Grace
I have no doubt you all are up to date on your 90s boy-band news, but just in case you haven’t heard, there’s talk that N’Sync is reuniting. They haven’t been a band for more than 20 years, but there’s reason to believe that is about to change. It’s public knowledge that they recorded a new single for the upcoming Trolls movie, but many of my contemporaries are very invested in if the band is going to make a new album and possibly tour. And so, this conversation has begun another conversation- what makes a “real fan”? Who is allowed to like N’Sync? If there was a tour, is it for new fans? Or is it really just for people who are approaching middle-age and reminiscing about their childhoods? Do the die-hard, ever faithful fans reign supreme? Which set of fans take precedence in the ticket-buying queue? Social media is abuzz.
I was never a huge fan of the boy bands, so I can’t weigh in on this particular conversation. But I actually have my own version of a similar story. This week I was in the car with my teenager when Luke Combs’ version of “Fast Car” came on the radio. The original version of this song came out in 1988 and helped win Tracy Chapman, the song’s writer and performer, a Grammy. It’s a great song, but something about that new version just rubs me the wrong way. So, the song came on the radio, and I said “NOPE!” opened Spotify, and started playing the old version. The obviously superior version and you can’t argue with me.
Music snobbery abounds. I admit I am a music snob and I take pride in my excellent and varied musical tastes. As a young adult, when someone would say “oh, you wouldn’t know this song, you’re too young,” it would irritate me so much. That kind of in-group out-group mentality is called “gatekeeping” and it happens about so many things- things far more important than music. It can happen any time we put ourselves in a position to judge who’s in or out, who is worthy, who is credible, who has earned their stripes, who has put the work in, who has enough skin in the game. Gatekeeping happens when I tell Zada she can’t wear a Nirvana shirt unless she can name three Nirvana songs. It happens when we believe other people aren’t worthy of something. It can happen at church when we think newcomers have to earn the right to ideas and opinions.
There are times gatekeeping is good and necessary, and times when it is mean spirited and exclusionary. Sometimes it happens for good reasons- we need people with experience, institutional memory, a deep perspective, expertise. But there’s one place that gatekeeping does not happen- the Kingdom of God.
Jesus gives us this parable from Matthew to tell us what the Kingdom of God is like, but most of us balk at this story. We imagine ourselves as those who have worked all day. We’re tired and frustrated at the injustice of this situation. You see, we live in a society that has taught us that there is a reward for hard work. We have come to believe that you get out what you put in, you reap what you sow. And if that is true, if that is what we have predicated our lives on, then it is really stinking unfair that these people can show up at the last possible moment and get the same reward as us.
Those among us who put ourselves in the place of the exhausted laborers are frustrated. We’ve been trying hard, being faithful, making good choices, donating money, volunteering for all the things, putting up with hateful people, and going to church for years. And Jesus is telling us that in the end, God’s grace is the same for everyone? It’s absurd. We should unionize. We want credit for this work, overtime pay for the hours we’ve put in. This is unfair, it is unjust… if we are living in that kind of quid pro quo, get what you give kind of world. But Jesus’ point is, that is not what God’s kingdom is like. As one commentary puts it, “The governing ethos of the “kingdom of heaven” isn’t work-and-reward, but rather gift-and-gratitude.”
One outspoken worker challenges the landowner: “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.” Note that he does not say “I deserve extra pay.” He says, “you have made them our equals.” This isn’t about fair compensation, at least not entirely. It’s about insiders and outsiders. Who is deserving and who is not. Who is on our level and who is not. The worker can’t stand that those he views as less deserving are being treated as his equal.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the landowner. And the question hangs in the air, inviting us to answer it in our own lives. This phrase is translated for our understanding. What it actually says in the Greek is, “is your eye evil?” Jesus uses this phrase one other time in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 6:22-23 we read, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (or evil), your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Jesus is saying that if we are looking out on others trying to decide who matters and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out, who is worthy of love and grace and who isn’t, then all of the light in us is gone. If we view others with scorn and judgment, we are outside of God’s will. “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” Jesus says. If you think you deserve first place, you’re in for a surprise.
But let’s place ourselves in the story as the workers no one wanted to hire. We’re just getting a handle on this Christ-following thing. We’re new. And yet, we need the work- we need the pay. So to be handed a day’s wage for an hour’s work is miraculous. This grace is miraculous. We didn’t earn it, it’s just there for the taking.
I read a story this week about a young, single man who was just starting to participate in a local church. They were having a covered dish luncheon one Sunday, and this was a church who knew how to do that right. You might say they go the whole hog. So this young guy was on his way to church, knowing there would be this great potluck afterward, and he’s feeling guilty. He has nothing to add to the table. So, he makes a tiny bit of effort and stops at the grocery store for a bag of chips. And he comes into church with his bag of chips in the grocery store bag, this paltry offering to be put out beside all the delicious foods that had been lovingly handcrafted all weekend by the church’s ladies.
Now there are two ways to think about this story. You might say this guy did the absolute bare minimum and he didn’t really deserve any of Estelle’s deviled eggs or Rhonda’s fried chicken. He certainly had not earned anything at the dessert table. That would be fair. Understandable, really.
But that’s not what happened. As he walked in with his sad little potato chips, one of the church ladies came right up, greeted him warmly, took the bag from him and walked back into the kitchen. She came back out with a beautiful cut glass bowl into which she poured his chips and placed them right beside all of the food that everyone else had spent hours preparing. And of course, when it came time to eat, he filled up his plate just as much as everyone else. Grace takes our sad little offerings and transforms it into precisely enough. And that grace transforms us as well.
The Benedictine Brother David Stiendl-Rast writes, “When you are grateful, you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and respectful to all people. The grateful world is a world of joyful people. Grateful people are joyful people. A grateful world is a happy world.”
So, imagine you’re at a concert by a band you’ve loved for years. Maybe it’s N’Sync, but it’s okay if it’s not. You saved money for months to buy this incredibly expensive ticket to insure you get a great seat, although of course you’re standing the whole time because you’re dancing and singing, clapping, whooping and hollering. A security guard comes down the aisle, and escorts someone to the seat right beside you. You get to talking and you find out that your neighbor here has never heard of the band before today. They don’t know any of the songs. And they didn’t buy a ticket for the show. And they just got this great seat because the security guard could give it to them.
Will you be mad? Accuse them of not deserving a seat this close? Do you think they owe you some money? Are you going to sit down and sulk for the rest of the concert? Or will you make a new friend? And dance and sing and celebrate? Will you teach them about the band and the songs (After all, what better way is there to learn to love a band?)? Will you enjoy and revel in this beautiful experience? It’s up to you. The music plays the same for everyone. The joy is there for the taking. Jesus invites you to join the dance. Grace abounds.
We are so very human and we struggle to be generous with grace. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But I ask you this- can we not at least learn to forgive God for being so graceful? May we not hope to sometimes live out just a glimpse of God’s grace, the grace we find at God’s table? The potluck table is full- whether you brought five delicious things or came empty handed, there is enough for you. Come to the table of grace. Amen.
Us vs. Them: SALT's Commentary for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (saltproject.org)  This story was shared by a participant in the Worship Design Studio community.