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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What Is It?

Matthew 20:1-16
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
September 18, 2005

I wonder if God arranged it so this scripture would show up on “Volunteer Sunday.” Volunteer Sunday, when the church is asking you how you’d like to serve in the coming year. Would you like to dream up and lead new ministries for our church? Tell us what they are. Would you like to skip the meetings and just “Git-R-done”? Check a box. We really do need you to volunteer. We’ve even compressed it into one simple brochure with a handy tear-off page. Jesus should have had it so easy. Let’s see, Matthew, tax collector, “Stewardship Committee.” Check.

Florida weekend in East Tennessee. Is there really any better time to be a volunteer? Because it’s great… to be… a Tennessee Vol. We’re all about that volunteer stuff. It’s in our blood. From Sam Houston and John Sevier all the way to Rick Clausen. The Volunteer State is named for people who would rather fight against unbeatable odds than sit on the bench, waiting.

So, when I read the parable of the workers in this beautiful corner of God’s green earth, I know which of the workers the Tennesseans would be. Up before dawn, ready to get on the truck and head out to the worksite. I know which of the workers you’d be. Here at our little Tennessee church, all you have to do is ask, and pretty much whatever it is, it’ll get done. Sometimes it even gets done before we ask. You people are amazing. Your work ethic, your volunteer spirit, show in how much we can do, despite being a bit smaller than the mega-churches with fourteen Sunday services. God is well-served by your accomplishments.

But what if we had a church where nothing happened? What if on Sunday mornings only two or three walked in the doors, creaking closed behind them, with shoes echoing clip… clop… on their way to the back pew, where they sat in silence, until the ushers woke them up and told them it was time to go home? What if? Would God be well-served by that accomplishment?

God’s kingdom on earth needs workers. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Jesus needs volunteers. But the parable today isn’t about this earthly kingdom. It’s about God’s heavenly kingdom, a place even more beautiful than East Tennessee. And it makes us ask the question, does it matter in the heavenly kingdom, whether you work your tail off for Jesus… or not? Can lazy people get the same reward as the volunteers? What do we say when God isn’t fair?


The Old Testament lesson today is an oldie but a goodie. It features two great Hebrew words – “loon” and “manna”. “Loon” is the Hebrew word for “murmur,” and it really sounds like what it means. Have you ever been in a big crowd of people who are murmuring against someone? Maybe at, I don’t know, a football game? What do you say when someone on the field irritates you? “Booooooo!” You call him a loon. Maybe something stronger, but that’s not murmuring. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the people of God, the Chosen People, the people delivered from Pharaoh, the people who saw the Red Sea parted – yes, those people – are murmuring. They look to heaven and say, “Boooooo.” “You should have left us in Egypt, Lord. At least we had three daily pots of gruel.” They look at Moses, their commander-in-chief, and say, “Loon.” Moses and his slick-talking brother, Aaron, say, “It’s not our fault! We were just doing what we were told.” They’re dodging bullets and passing the buck. Even Moses is murmuring against God.

Now, you would think people with that kind of history wouldn’t murmur. You might think they’d be grateful for all God has “volunteered” to do for them. Well, they are. But what has God done for them, lately, you know? God hears the complaints. Instead of smiting the Israelites, God says, OK, you’ve got a point. The menu has been a little lean. They’ll have meat – quail – at night, and in the morning they’ll have… they’ll have… some sort of… bread? Some say it tastes like chicken. This… this daily bread that God provides: the Israelites see it and ask the question every obnoxious kid asks when mom’s been cooking for hours on something new she saw on the Food TV Network. “What’s this stuff?” Which proves there is such a thing as a stupid question. “Well, you want to know what it is? Really? Just for you, we’ll call it… “What’s This Stuff.” “What Is It.” “Manna.” That’s literally what the Hebrew means. “And you Israelites, you’re gonna be eating What’s This Stuff every morning for a very long time, so you’d better get used to it.”

Manna is God’s daily bread for God’s chosen people. Even way back then, God’s mercy was confusing. Is it good news or is it bad news? Is mercy fair? Is mercy tasty? What is it?


The parable of the workers is smack in the middle of a bunch of stories about arrogance. Everyone wants to be #1 in the polls, even the disciples. So Jesus sits the disciples down and tells them this story, about a kingdom where, like the manna, everyone gets exactly the same daily bread.

There’s a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire workers at the going daily rate. But he needs more workers, so he goes back to market square about 9:00 and hires some more. Apparently the landowner’s not the best at gauging his workforce, so he goes back again to get more workers at noon. And again at 3. And again at 5:00.

But here’s the punch line. And it’s sure to offend any orange-blooded volunteer. When the owner’s handing out the paychecks, he gives a certain amount to the lazy people who started at 5PM… and the same amount to the not-quite-so-lazy people who started at 3PM… and the same amount to the pretty-good workers who started at noon… and the same amount to the above-average workers who started at 9… and the same amount to the rise-n-shine, git-r-done volunteers who started work before the sun came up.

And the early-morning workers must have known something about manna, because they look over the 5:00 workers’ shoulders at their checks, then they look at their own checks for the same amount, and they say, “What is this?”

And the owner looks at the 5:00 workers and says, “It’s grace.”


In the kingdom of this world, we’re volunteers. We are workers. We are doers. We are people who know how to get things done. But in the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom we can’t even see, much less understand, who’s to say we aren’t the 5:00 workers?

The point of this parable is not so much that God rewards everyone equally. The point is that God doesn’t do rewards. God does something else. What is it, that God does? Precisely. God does What Is It.

God fed the Israelites on What Is It when they were lost, tired and murmuring. God fed the disciples on What Is It when they walked behind Jesus – and when they ran away from him. God feeds us on What Is It when a miracle comes that we can’t explain, that we couldn’t expect, and that we could never on our own make happen. God goes beyond what’s fair and what’s not. God goes beyond what’s fair and what’s not fair – God goes to what’s merciful. And if God wants to share mercy with whomever… who are we, to question God?

When we think about all the things we’ve done, and all the things we haven’t done…
when we think about all the people we’ve helped, and all the people we haven’t helped…
when we think about what we deserve, and what we don’t…
who are we to judge what’s fair? And what’s not?

In a kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we’re just lucky – we’re just blessed to have a place at all. And if God wants to give mercy, by any name, in any form, to someone we might think is less deserving – that’s God’s business.


There is SO much for the church to do. There’s so much each of us can do. There’s so much we can do for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And there’s so much we can do right here, in our own church and community, too. There’s so much work to do, it’s hard to know where to start.

Start here. Instead of murmuring about what isn’t being done, or what all you’ve had to do, or what all everyone else has put on your to-do list, start your day with God’s daily bread of mercy. Set your mind and your heart NOT on what you can or can’t do. Set your mind and your heart NOT on what other people have left undone. Instead, set your mind and your heart on what God already HAS done.

I can’t guarantee that’ll make you peaceful and happy and take away your stress. I doubt stress relief is that simple. Setting your heart and mind on what God already HAS done won’t take meetings off your earthly schedule. But your heavenly schedule – that’s a different matter.

When we compare ourselves to other people, other situations, mercy might taste bitter. But then, when God gives so much more than we deserve, that same mercy tastes delectable. How God’s daily bread of mercy tastes depends on the position of your tongue. Is yours a tongue that murmurs? Or is yours a tongue that says, “Thank you”? What is it?