Late to the party

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 (the parable of the day labourers)

Time is precious. Time, indeed, is money. Or at least, this is what the day labourers in today’s parable think. Those who have worked from dawn to dusk complain when those hired at the 11th hour get the same wage.

I first preached on Jesus’ parable of the day labourers three years ago this Sunday in southern Saskatchewan. This was two days before a covenanting service with Borderlands Pastoral Charge into which I had been settled in July 2011 after ordination in Ontario in May of that year.

That service also marked another milestone in my life – the 10th anniversary of my return to church on Sept 16, 2001.

In the sermon from three years ago, I suggested that I was “late to the party” of church. I had been called to work in God’s vineyard at the 11th hour and I received the same benefits as those faithful servants who had been toiling for decades longer.

Now three more years have passed, and the parable of the day labourers has come around again. Many churches like ours follow a three-year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Every three years, it assigns the parable about day labourers to a Sunday in mid-September.

Not all churches follow the Lectionary. In fact, some people wonder why we always have to read from the Bible in church. This question was posed this past Wednesday evening at the Sharing Circle service.

By the way, I am enjoying the Wednesday evening Sharing Circle, and I hope that others will consider it. It is a quiet time of songs and prayers in which we express ideas, feelings and dreams on a different topic each week. Participants are not obligated to do anything other than listen. But all are encouraged to speak what is on our hearts and minds as the Spirit moves us. It happens each Wednesday here in the sanctuary at 7:30 pm.

But while I appreciate the sharing on Wednesdays, I still feel bound to our link to the Bible in worship. I also appreciate the Lectionary. It helps us to follow the seasons of the church year and to wrestle with parts of the Bible that we may find difficult or distasteful.

Each Sunday over three years, the Lectionary suggests four readings, although I often only choose one – usually the Gospel selection.

Sometimes, I complain about the tyranny of the calendar that is evident in annual routines like the church year and the Lectionary. Sometimes I worry that we are slaves to the 365 days it takes for the earth to transit around the sun.

Nevertheless, we are stuck with the length of the solar year and the way it shapes our lives, and I am one of those who mark anniversaries of all kinds. Here is yet another one: it was one year ago this past week that I first visited Mill Woods for a job interview. As it was on that beautiful late-summer evening, so it is today — I continue to feel blessed by your call.

I love the church, despite having drifted away from it as a teenager. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was a minister in the United Church. But by high school, I had decided like most of my friends that church was not for me. When I left home for university in Toronto, I gave up the habit.

I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto, and September 16 2001, was one of those Sundays.

In September 2001, my ex-wife and I had just moved into a house in the east end of Toronto a half a block away from Kingston Road United Church. Since this was the church attended by my younger brother, his wife and their two young sons, my parents and I decided to take the short walk to Kingston Road that day.

While I often enjoyed visits to church with my parents, I was not looking forward to church on that day. My anti-religious antennae were on high alert because this was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States,

But in the event, I loved the service. The sanctuary was packed. The atmosphere was tense. And the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.

The minister did not bash Islam or cheer-lead a militaristic response to 9/11. She called for openness in the midst of mourning, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.

The United Church had struggled with shifts in our culture during the years when I didn’t attend. Because of this, the church now seemed to me less mainstream and more open to the Way of Jesus. It felt like a place where people were trying to be salt, light and yeast in a suffering world; where they encouraged one another to struggle for justice; and where they often woke up to the pain and glory of the human condition.

On that Sunday on September 16, 2001, I liked the message, the community, and the minister. A space opened in my heart into which grief and hope would soon pour. And so I joined that church and its choir, and laid myself open to the effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which helped to transform me week after week.

I was somewhat surprised that church still existed after all my years away. It was a lot smaller, but it was still there. In the 13 years since, church has continued to shrink. 40% fewer people attend United Church services today than in 2001.

There are many reasons for the decline of church, and the War on Terror is probably one of them. The religious fanaticism of various terrorist groups has turned many people off all religion. As violent conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East continue to be cast in religious terms, more and more people now look to the secular realm for faith, hope and love.

So perhaps I am not just late to the party we call church. Perhaps the party is now over!

They heyday of the United Church was in the 1960s. Churches had two or three services each week and Sunday School classes burst at the seams. At Mill Woods United, the glory days are even more recent. Many of you remember the early days of this building 20 years ago when the youth groups were large and a lot more chairs were put out on a Sunday.

But numbers and influence are not the point. We proclaim the good news that all of us are saved regardless of how long we have attended church or how “successful” we are. Whether we have worked since dawn as faithful servants in God’s vineyard, or have woken up to God’s call only at the eleventh hour, the message is the same: God’s Grace is for everyone.

Nor is time in “the kingdom” measured in hours or years. God’s time is the eternal now of Love.

Last Wednesday evening, only four people came to the Sharing Circle, and I loved it. If 35 people come, I am sure that I would still love it. But even if no one comes to a church service, we remain confident that all are held within God’s eternity.

Not every moment in our lives feels like one within the realm of God. But if we have known the healing presence of Love even once, we trust that Love is our destiny.

That idea reminds me of the song “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It is from the Broadway musical “Hello Dolly.”

But beware of such moments of heart-breaking love! They might lead you to a life of service in the church that you had never imagined.

And what could be better than that?

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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