Two Catholic priests were going to Hawaii on vacation and decided that they would make this a real vacation by not wearing anything that would identify them as clergy. As soon as the plane landed, they headed to the store and bought some really outrageous shorts, shirts, sandals, sunglasses etc. The next morning, they went to the beach, dressed in their “tourist” garb and were sitting on beach chairs, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery when a beautiful young woman in a tiny bikini came walking straight towards them. They tried not stare and as the woman passed she smiled and said, “Good morning Father, good morning Father,” nodding and addressing each of them individually as she walked by. Of course they were both stunned. How in the world did this young lady recognize them as priests? The next day they went back to the store and bought even more outrageous outfits sure that this time their identities were safely protected. Again they returned to the beach and again the same lovely young woman came walking by. As she passed she once more greeted them individually, Good morning Father, good morning father,” and started to walk away. One of the priests said, “Just a minute young lady. Yes, we are priests and very proud of it, but I have to know, how in the world could you tell?” As the young woman smiled she said, “Father its me, Sister Angelica!”
Image and identity, they are often two different things. Our images of people often don’t match up with who those people really are. We carry with us many preconceived and often unconscious notions about people and professions and those notions can completely skew our encounter with a person. Our ideas get in the way of what is really true. If you have not experienced this yourself then come with me sometime to Green Top Sporting Goods when I am wearing my collar and watch the looks I get as I buy a case of shotgun shells and renew my hunting license.
While we all know this about human life, it is also true of the Divine life. Many of us carry around images of God that profoundly affect our ability to develop any kind of spiritual life. These images are often formed in our childhood and they limit us in our search for God. How many of us see God as the Anglo-Saxon old man sitting on his throne in the clouds surrounded by angels. As we imagine this God, probably first shown to us in Sunday School, how many of us see him smiling? Is he gentle and kind or stern and severe?
Jesus wanted us to know something about the nature of God. In his ministry he tried over and over again to reveal that the God of the Ten Commandments was also more essentially the God of love. The God who destroyed the enemies of Israel in the Old Testament was also the God who cared deeply about the outcast and the sinful. The God who demanded obedience from David and Saul was also the God who was willing to die on the cross. In parables like the Prodigal Son and our gospel for today – the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – Jesus tells his disciples that the God they think they know is far more extravagant then they could ever imagine. He tells them that the God Jesus knows is a God who closely resembles the father of the prodigal son who waits every day for the opportunity not to punish his wayward child but for the opportunity to love, embrace and celebrate that child’s homecoming. The God Jesus wants us to know is a God who gives to all those who work in the vineyard of faith whether they have been there their entire lives or only arrived yesterday. Like the owner of the vineyard, God’s love and salvation are not based on the good work we have done but rather they are gifts based purely on the fact that we have shown up at all. Jesus wants us to know that God’s love is all encompassing and God’s mercy is boundless.
There is a wonderful little book called Good Goats, Healing our Image of God, that illustrates two different perceptions of God. The first image is described by Gerard Hughes in a section entitled, “Good Old Uncle George.” Hughes writes, “God was (seen) as a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George.’ He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. . . . . At the end of the visit Uncle George addressed us. ‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. . . . We see a vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those . . . . who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in the way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, this is most certainly where you will go,’ says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to see Mum and Dad. As we go home . . . . Mum leans over and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And (terrified) we say, ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else (might mean) we had to join the line at the furnace.”
In a satirical way, Hughes points out what is, or at least was, for many in the Western world the dominant image of God. God was an all powerful figure whose only interest was to demand certain behaviors from us. If we failed to live up to those behaviors, then God would condemn us to a place of eternal darkness and pain. This God was two faced, as he promised to love us at the same time as he threatened us with damnation. With this God there is salvation but it is a very tricky thing to gain. With this God salvation is not a gift but the payoff of doing what we are told. We are loved, but we better live in such a way that we deserve that love or we will be cast aside.
The second image of God comes from a story about a woman named Hilda also taken from the book Good Goats. The author writes, “One day Hilda came to me crying because her son tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s ‘big sins’ with, ‘What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he ends his life without repenting?’” The author continues, “Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought, ‘God will probably send your son to hell.’ But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my years of theological training had taught me what to do when I don’t know how to answer a difficult question: ask the other person, ‘What do you think?’ ‘Well,’ Hilda responded, ‘I think when you die, you appear before the judgement seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell. Since my son lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.’” The author continues “. . . . . I was again glad for my theological training which taught me a second strategy: when you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, then let God solve it. So I said to Hilda, ‘Close you eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgement seat of God. Imagine also that your son died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgement seat of God.’ Then I asked her, ‘Hilda, how does your son feel?’ Hilda answered, ‘My son feels so lonely and empty.’ I asked Hilda what she would like to do. She said, ‘I want to throw my arms around my son.’ She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly. Finally, when she stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from his throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son and God, cried together and held one another.”
This is the image of God I want to hold onto. This is the image of the God I want to worship – the God who comes down from his throne to embrace us, to comfort us, to love us and show us his mercy. This is the God I believe is revealed by Jesus. We are all sinful creatures. We all fall far short of the glory of God. Not one of us has lived a life worthy of salvation. None of us have worked hard enough in the vineyard to deserve our pay. But our extravagant God pays us anyway. We don’t deserve to come home, but our God kills the fatted calf and welcomes us home in spite of ourselves.
Sometime ago, I read about a service that was held in a local church on a day that new members were welcomed. They had a special liturgy with vows and gestures of welcome. At the end of the service the minister looked at the new members and said: “In case we have not been clear about this in our preparation for membership, let me now be very clear. You are being received in the this congregation on the basis of the same membership standards which our Lord used for his own disciples. Are you sure that among you there are found adulterers, thieves, gossips, misers and rogues? If not, you need not apply here. For the Bible is clear that our Lord came only to seek and save the lost, he came only to call sinners to new life in his kingdom. That’s who the church is for. Those are the ones for whom he died. Welcome to the church.” (Willimon) Yes, thanks be to God, welcome to the church. Amen.