One of the earliest jokes I remember from my childhood was one my dad told, and then I heard again years later in scouts from Mr. Blackmon. Both thought it was hilarious. Now, of course, I do too. There was a man building a house. When he was finished, he had just one brick left over. Guess what he did with it, they said.
…He threw it away!
They laughed and laughed. I didn't get it. Like the parable we heard today, I tried hard to capture the meaning or a lesson, or anything. Nothing. Not being amused by this joke, my dad sensed my frustration. So he told me another.
A man riding on a train was eating a ginormous pickle. A woman next to him with her small toy poodle said, "Sir, your chomping that pickle is disturbing my poodle. Will you please throw it out?" "No," he said. "I paid a nickel for this pickle, and I'm going to eat it." This repeated several more times. His chomping, her request, his refusal, her indignation. Finally, she lost it, grabbed the pickle and tossed it out the window of the train. In his fury, he grabbed her poodle and tossed IT out the window of the train.
When they got to the next train station, however, the poodle came running up. In his mouth was... The brick.
We never saw it coming. That was the point. How often does God do that in scripture? Thought you were a fugitive in the desert? You will save your whole nation. Thought you were going to drown in a storm? Here's a giant fish to give you a ride to Ninevah. Think the whole city will burn for their wickedness, Jonah? Even the animals are gonna put on sackcloth and everyone will repent. Thought your messiah was going to be born in a palace and come into Jerusalem on a white horse, leading an army? Here's a humble carpenter, born in a feedbox, riding on a donkey, leading a band of misfits. Every time... a story with a surprise ending... of LOVE.
How often does Jesus do this with his parables? His audience is hunkered in. They're in the know. They get it. Everyone else better catch up. They are the flock, the chosen, the found, the insiders, the workers of the vineyard from day one. Then he tells them the story of the lost coin... aka... the story of the searching persistent widow... and the story of the lost sheep... aka... the story of the good Shepherd... and the story of the prodigal son... aka... the story of the loving father... and the story of the workers in the vineyard... aka.. the story of the caring master of the house. You see, these stories aren't about being lost. They're about being found. They aren't about the people or the sheep or the coin. They're about God. They're about who God is.
The endings are a surprise because it's not how the world works. Wayward son needs to come back and earn back the trust. Workers get paid for the work. We Presbyterians believe in work ethic, the American dream!
Every time we are surprised by the grace of God, in scripture, in a story, in the world we live, when someone offers forgiveness or hope or an unexpected act of undeserved, unearned mercy... that surprise is a product of us believing the lies of this world. God's kingdom is not built on the rules of this world.
If you’ve ever read Les Miserables or seen one of its many film adaptations, you know the story of Jean Valjean, a criminal who is sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread while starving. When he is released, he makes his way through the countryside in driving rain, finding nowhere to sleep, until the priest at a small abbey lets him in. He feeds him a warm meal and gives him a place to stay for the night. Not having ever known kindness, Valjean doesn’t know how to respond. He steals the silverware and makes off into the night. He’s caught by soldiers who bring him back to the priest. “He claims to be your friend, Father,” they scoff. “He claims you gave him the silverware.”
“Of course, I did,” says the priest. He turns to Valjean, the only one more surprised than the soldiers, and says, “But I’m very disappointed in you, Valjean. You forgot to take… the candlesticks.” Drawing him in close, he whispers fiercely, “Valjean, with these candlesticks, I have purchased your soul. You no longer belong to this world. You belong to God.” A surprise ending… of love. Unearned, undeserved. And it changes his entire life. And the lives of all those he encounters.
In last week’s parable, the older son begrudges the prodigal son. He didn't stay! He didn't work! He wasn't faithful to the father! He squandered! He partied! He strayed! He doesn't deserve the fatted calf, the ring, the robe, the love of the father! And he's right! ........ And neither do... we. ..... Those workers in the vineyard, those latecomers! Those lazy hangers-on! They didn't work as long and hard. They don't deserve the full pay! And neither do we. Our parable today isn't God's business plan. It's a terrible way to run a business or country even. But it's how the Kingdom works. It's who God is.
It goes against everything the world has taught us and pounded into our heads and hearts. But that's why God has sent us his prophets, his teachers, his one and only son. God doesn't surprise us because he gets a kick out of it. Though I am sure he does. God surprises us because we expect fairness.
We expect God to hand out the paychecks on Friday and we all get what we put in, that we earned God's love, God's grace. We earned all we have in our lives, rather than all we have and are is a gift from God. We expect the father to be waiting in his study to hear his son's words of how he screwed up and how he will make it up to him. But no. We have a God who sees on the road, headed home to him, and goes RUNNING out to us. Interrupting our carefully rehearsed speech, our best laid plans. God is the one who seeks us out and finds us, no matter how far we've wandered, no matter how little we have labored, and loves us because we are his. Nothing more.
Ad God yearns for all to be found. The son of man came to seek and to save the lost. His recruitment didn't end with his Disciples. His message didn't end with, aren't you glad God loves you? Now go and be happy. His message ended with, "therefore, as you go, make disciples." So when you leave this place, find the people in your life that you know need to be surprised by that un-earned, un-deserved love of God. Show them that Good News in the love you share. Because no one ever sees that coming. Amen.