Sunday, September 21, 2008

John Wayne

Matthew 20: 1-21
Phillipians 1: 21-26

John Wayne was once the greatest star in American Movies. He was one of the greatest action heroes, starring in western and war movies, and rarely if ever deviating into romance and comedies. He was a star along the lines of Bruce Willis or Chuck Norris, though Norris has never really broken into the movies. His reputation for toughness, however, does parallel John Wayne's. There really is no comparison, because so many actors now cross genres, and the western, John Wayne's bread and butter, has evolved beyond what it was when he was making them.

He died in 1979, and there are two things I remember about that. First, it came out that John Wayne was his acting name, or "stage" name, and his real name was Marion Morrison. I was 11, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of man named Marion. It seemed weird against his image of the tough guy.

Second, I remember that when he was baptized as was dying. The biography says he was a baptized Christian for about two days. Now, I was about 15 years from becoming a Christian, myself, so really didn't have a dog in that hunt, but it seemed to me to me to not be fair play, that someone could live whatever kind of life they wanted, and then just before they die, they can become a Christian and all of their sins are forgiven. That just didn’t seem fair.

Today's Matthew passage causes a lot of stress for a lot of people, because it says that deathbed baptisms are perfectly fine, because grace is freely given. God is the one who gives the wages for us all, and he has chosen to give not on merit, not based on a lifetime of good works kept a record of in a little book somewhere, but to everyone. And that doesn't seem fair to those who have lived good, stable, quiet lives. Here's an extreme example--How does someone who is at the church every time it is open, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't cuss, gives to charity and to support the church, serves of committees and sings in the choir, get the same heavenly wage as the person who comes into the church only for weddings and funerals, cheats on their taxes, kicks dogs, wears fur, has overdue library books, never drives the speed limit and doesn’t wear a helmet when riding their custom glass-pack muffler Harley?

Well, it's not our concern, our responsibility. As Jesus ends his parable, the vineyard owner is allowed to do what he wants with what is his, and we are jealous because he is generous. God's grace is available to all, and our displeasure that as his people we must take his grace to places we aren't comfortable with, to people with whom we disagree, is irrelevant.
Paul writes in Philippians that he isn't sure whether he wants more to die and to be with Christ, or to stay on earth and make the message of the Good News available to the world. Personally, he'd love to go he says, but he knows that that may not be God's plan. He's come early to the vineyard, he's worked pretty hard, but he knows that he's got no say in how the wages are paid, and he also knows that it's his job to go get more workers all the time, because the owner wants them. Even the ones who come to the vineyard late are OK with him, because his work isn't judging by merit, or by the clock. His job is getting workers. The better he does this, the more he is working out God's plan. The judging bit is, to use a recent phrase from the presidential campaign, "above his pay grade". He takes enjoyment in being with the people he has led to Christ, hearing their stories of growth and trials along the Christian way, but deep in his heart of hearts, he tells us that He'd rather be in heaven, with Christ.

So, of course, the question is; "Why should we take showers, get dressed, and show up here, on Sunday mornings, sing songs and listen to some guy talk? Why can't I stay home, and watch Howie, Terry and Deion, and then when I am getting ready to die, have the pulpit guy come and baptize me? What is this need I have to be here? If it works for John Wayne, why can't it work for me?"

Well, frankly, Grace is such that you certainly can make that choice. But I would suggest that the reason why you are here, the reason why you come back, week after week, is to do more than satisfy guilt. There's something here that attracts you, that fills you up, way deep down inside, in a way that no 10 hours of football on TV can. I think it is that there is a camaraderie among vineyard workers. Paul felt it, which is why he was torn between dying with Christ and living and being fruitful for Christ. We gather to praise God, and to celebrate our living with him. We gather to thank god for the work that we have been called to do, to make God's grace available to others, and to get more people on the vineyard payroll. It's almost a recruiting tool; you don’t have to have gotten in at the beginning, but at the end you'll get the same wage I'll get. And you get to hang out with some pretty good people. People who aren't perfect, but have the need to get better.

It turns out that John Wayne wasn't new to Christianity--he was a member of some Catholic organizations for a long time before he died. His journey wasn't about baptism and new birth and growth. He probably would not have used the terms born again for that event. But his story is not one that highlights the unfairness of Jesus' teachings; a judgment of unfairness is something we generate, and we've got no right to do so. Instead, we celebrate that there is God that gives grace so freely that everyone has a chance. Everyone, no matter what the path is. The vineyard is always open, the payroll is always available.

Thanks be to God.

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