Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Every once in a while, we meet people who are motivated, who have drive. These people seem to glow with an inner light. They have a positive vibe. They have a real zest for life. They attract people around them. Now this is not to say these people are perfect. They get exhausted and stressed, like everyone else. They make errors in judgement, like everyone else. But they live for something, and not for the satisfaction of their immediate desires. They’ve made an unshakable commitment to this something, whether it be family, a cause, a community, or faith. They know why they were put on this earth. And they derive a deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do. In short, these people are living their purpose.  

The scripture lessons appointed for this Lord’s Day provide us the occasion to ask about purpose. There are few things more basic to life than purpose. Once our basic needs are satisfied—the needs for food and drink, clothes and shelter—we are compelled to ask about our purpose. Why am I here? What do I have to accomplish in this brief span of life I have been given?

These questions are inescapable. They confront us already in our late teens, but they accompany us throughout our lives until the very end.

Now there are those who struggle to find their purpose. In fact, most, if not all of us, have to search for our purpose. Nor does this search necessarily cease, but has always to be renewed. Even if we have found our purpose, we have to check our inner compass periodically to see if we are still on course, still living out our purpose.

In our first lesson we meet again the people of Israel. You will remember that they were enslaved in Egypt, subject to cruel masters who oppressed them. They cried out to God, and God heard them. He sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand their release. After a series of plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh consented, but then changed his mind and pursued the fleeing Israelites to the Red Sea. There God scored for Israel a decisive victory. He drowned the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea, thereby rescuing Israel from her murderous pursuers.

So God freed the Israelites. But then he brings them into the desert. We need to see the desert as their training ground. There they are to learn about their God and about God’s ways. They are to learn how to live into their identity as God’s people. This is their purpose.

But if this is their purpose, they have a difficult time living into it. Indeed, they reject it. They begin to complain.

Parenthetically, is not complaining a characteristic of people who are not living their purpose? If they are passive, they tend to be people-pleasers. They have no boundaries. They say “yes” to whatever people ask them to do, because their lives are not defined by their purpose. But if we are living our purpose, we do have boundaries. Therefore, whenever people approach us with the request to do something, we will ask: “is this consistent with my purpose?” And if it isn’t, and we are committed to our purpose, we are not afraid to say “no” to them, or at least we shouldn’t be. But passive people without purpose have a hard time saying “no.” This leads to resentment. That is, they begin to resent the people for whom they are doing the favors. Then they complain—about these people and about their life generally—how no one appreciates them, how people walk all over them, even how people use and exploit them.

The aggressive complain no less than the passive. In the pursuit of their selfish desires, they encounter obstacles. They aggressively try to remove them. And they succeed some of the time. But the rest of the time they do not. They then grow frustrated, and complain. The world is unfair, people are ignorant, laws are unjust, everyone is against them. And they rehearse a long litany of complaints to anyone who is willing to listen.

So the people complain against Moses and Aaron for bringing them out into the desert. The desert is inhospitable to life. There are no provisions. The people are doomed to starve. What could have possessed these two leaders to bring them to this place? At least when the people were in Egypt there was plenty of meat to eat. The people forgot the misery they suffered there; they remembered only the food they had there.

Don’t we do the same? We set out for something better, and then when things get hard, we look back at what we left, and then wish we could go back.

It’s not as if once we find our purpose, life is smooth sailing. In fact, there will be resistances. There will be inner and outer obstacles. Life can become a desert for us, and we become weary there, just as the Israelites did. But if we are tempted to give up, abandon our purpose, and become preoccupied with our immediate needs, we should take to heart what God did for the people of Israel. Despite the fact that the people were really complaining against God, and not Moses and Aaron, God did not treat them as their faithlessness and ingratitude deserved. Rather, he had mercy on them. He heard their complaint, and met their need in the desert. He did this to show that he is a faithful provider. God’s people can depend on their God to meet their needs in the desert. He gives them the manna, the heavenly food, to strengthen them for the journey. (As we know, the manna prefigures the bread and the wine of the sacrament of Communion, with which God nourishes us to strengthen us for the journey.) God invites his people to trust him, to find their purpose in living into their identity as God’s own people, so that they can find their fulfillment in serving him.  

 

In our gospel lesson, the theme of purpose is central. Jesus tells a parable about a landowner and laborers. The landowner goes out early in the morning to find laborers to work in his vineyard. The first to be hired stand for those who find their purpose early in life. They agree to the terms set by the landowner, and go into the vineyard to work. But there is still need for more laborers. Therefore, the landowner goes back into the marketplace, and finds more who are waiting to be hired. He hires them, and sends them out too. These stand for those who also find their purpose, although theirs was a longer search. But they gratefully go into the vineyard and take their place alongside those who began earlier.

But the landowner is not done. He still is in need of more workers to finish the job. He finds several standing in the marketplace. Amazed, he asks them: why are you still standing around here? Their answer is honest and straightforward: “because no one has hired us.”

We mentioned those who struggle to find their purpose. Perhaps only after many years did they find the kind work for which they are really cut out. Perhaps they wasted those years not even looking. But the landowner does not scold them. He doesn’t give them a lecture. He does not find fault with them for their apparent lack of a good work ethic. Rather he is gracious to them. He gives to them the same opportunity he gave to those whom he hired before them. He sends them too out into the vineyard, and even though it is late in the day, they too take their place alongside those who began earlier.

In this parable we see that Jesus lingers longest on those who are hired last. Indeed, it’s in the fact the landowner rewards them the same as he does those whom he hired at the beginning of the day that the lesson of the parable consists. Those who bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day complain against the landowner. Shouldn’t he have paid them more?

The parable is an ingenious teaching device, because it usually leaves us with uncomfortable questions like this one. At any rate, it is the case that the parable has at least two classes of people in view, two classes that it wants to address. And I want to conclude by focusing on them.  

Let us return to those who waste their lives. Let us consider, for example, those who struggle with addiction to substances, about whom our special guest speaker Miranda Tase spoke to us last time. They say: “I am too far gone. I’ve left a trail of human wreckage behind me. I am worthless.

To that one addicted to substances, however, the landowner calls, even at the last hour. You too come to work in my vineyard. Then that one discovers that his last hour was his very best one. All the hours that preceded it fade into insignificance. He has new purpose. He is doing that for which God created him. He is no longer wandering lost.

To this one, then, the parable offers hope. It is never too late for God. The landowner does not give up on those who belong to this class, but rather goes in search of them at the last hour. Through Jesus Christ, God wants to show them the same grace, he wants to do the same good, as he has already done to those who preceded them. Miranda challenged us by relating that too often the church shuns these people, excluding them from their fellowship. But have we really heard Jesus when he says: “the last will be first, and the first will be lass”?   

But then there are those at the end of the day. This is the second class of people I want us to consider.  They’ve already worked for many hours already, and dusk is falling. They may be tempted to believe that for them there is no longer purpose. They may think they can coast now that the majority of their time lie behind them. But let them look at the landowner! He is not done. The very fact that he is hiring people at the very last hour shows that there is still work to be done! There is no cessation of work as long as there is daylight left. Those who have been hired earlier in the day, those who found their purpose earlier in life, cannot for that reason cease from their work, from fulfilling our purpose as long as there is still light.  

 

But let us be honest. It is frankly difficult for many of us to live our purpose today. We are living in a reality that is determined by Covid-19. We are still contending with disrupted routines, limited social activity, and worries about disease risk. We may have been once motivated by our purpose. But in this post- Covid-19 world, it is hard, because it no longer gives us a wide arena in which to live out our purpose. There are no easy answers here. What we do observe, however, in our gospel that the workers are waiting before they are working. Does this parable have a word here too that it wants to address to us in this regard? Is God calling us to wait in the marketplace today, watching patiently for the landowner to appear? We may have to wait a long time, but when the landowner comes, we can trust that he will give us direction. Let us then be people who live into our identity as God’s people, so that we can find our fulfillment in serving him. Amen.

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