A Sermon for Septuagesima, January 28, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 20:1-16
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The meaning of Pre-Lent
We arrive at church today to discover a change in the season. The green of the Epiphany season has given way to the violet of pre-Lent. Septuagesima reorients us. Epiphany season, which just ended, is a meditation on the Incarnation; it looks back at Christmas. Today, we turn our heads and begin to look forward to Easter and to the cross that necessarily precedes it. Pre-Lent is a tap on the shoulder that tells us that Lent is coming in two and a half weeks.
I remember a professor who wrote a commentary on Mark’s Gospel. He said that as Jesus is being revealed as the Son of God, there is a growing drumbeat of rejection that says, “He is going to die.” Pre-Lent has this effect on the life of prayer. Just as we are glorying in the revelation of the Son of God, in the ways we have come to know him, and in all the possibilities of faith, we remember that he is going to die, and we share his resurrection life by sharing in his death. Or, to put it in positive terms. Easter is coming, but there is this little thing called the cross that we must participate in first.
- We are not in Lent yet. Pre-Lent provides us with a runway. We are not fasting, but we begin to think about the ways we will, even as we enjoy some final pre-Lent celebrations!
- Laboring in the field and running the race
The lessons for Septuagesima, the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard, and a 1 Corinthians passage about the discipline necessary to win a race, both point forward to a goal. The laborer works for the denarius, which represents salvation. The runner strives for the crown, which represents eternal glory. Both point us towards Easter. We are striving for the crown of resurrection; we are laboring faithfully in time towards the end of eternal life.
However, there is a significant way that each analogy does not work—and that is part of the point. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hired laborers for his vineyard. Then he preceded to tell a parable that explains, precisely, how the kingdom of heaven is utterly unlike the standard labor arrangement. The man who worked an hour got the same as the man worked twelve. Try that at your business and see how it affects morale!
St. Paul says that all run in a race but only one receives the prize. However, his whole point is that every Christian can run in such a way as to receive the prize. To win, we must strive against the adversaries called the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we do not have to compete against each other. We can all win. So, the kingdom of God is not exactly like a race either.
One point made by both lessons is that the dynamics of grace don’t always fit into ordinary life examples. We get the point of both only when we understand the discordance; the way the kingdom of God is not like an ordinary race or a normal labor arrangement. This discordance reflects a foundational paradox of the Christian life. All is grace, but we must work very hard. Salvation is a gift that costs everything we have.
III. The Paradox of Grace and Labor
Reconciling this paradox is of no small importance. The division of the western church is founded upon it. On the one hand, there is the proclamation that salvation comes by faith and cannot be earned by our labors and merits. On the other hand, there is the truth that spiritual growth requires the practice of actual disciplines over extended periods of time.
Alexander Schmemman exposes the excesses on one side when he writes, “The fight of the new Adam against the old is a long and painful one, and what a naïve oversimplification it is to think, as some do, that the salvation they experience in revivals and “decisions for Christ” and which result in moral righteousness, soberness, and warm philanthropy, is the whole of salvation, is what God meant when he gave his Son for the life of the world” (For The Life of the World 78).
But it is also an error to think that performance of religious duties and good works somehow stores up merits that will earn us entry into the kingdom on the Day when our Lord comes to judge. For every worthy religious thing we do is deeply rooted in grace—is itself a gift from God. We must, indeed, establish disciplines of prayer and fasting. Yet, the very ability to pray requires the Holy Spirit, whom we received as a gift.
The primarily labor of the Christian life is repentance; the continued death of the old Adam through confession, and the continual purification of our motives and aims through the work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a gift, but we must open our hearts to receive it. Salvation does not mean freedom from labor. It means freedom from futility. In Christ, through the Spirit, our labor is fruitful.
- Lessons from our lessons
As we orient towards Easter, we can draw a lesson from each of our lessons. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard challenges our pride and our selfishness. If we are honest, we are sympathetic with the guy who worked all day and got the same as the man who worked only one hour. But this is about the kingdom of God, not about paying your employees. No matter when you come to faith, you will receive the reward of eternal life and resurrection.
The sin of the all-day laborer is the sin of self-righteous religious people who think they deserve more: “I’ve been in church all my life; then these new people come in and take my seat and get all the attention.” The longer you have been in the church as a believing and practicing follower of Jesus, the more you should know about the love of God and the more you should want to share it with others. Do you think you deserve more because of how good you’ve been for so long a time? Do you begrudge God’s goodness to newer believers whom you deem less worthy? Such attitudes reveal a need for self-examination and repentance as we move towards Easter.
The teaching of St. Paul about running a race reminds me of a scene from a high school cross country meet. One on my sons did a year of cross country, so it was new to me. The scene I remember was at the end of the race. Every runner had finished except one girl, who was finishing quite a bit behind the pack. But the whole team was at the finish line cheering on this one girl as she finished. However, the point was not merely charitable support for a girl who did not have natural gifts for running. They were cheering because this girl was running hard to achieve her personal best time, which, if memory serves, she achieved on this day. She wasn’t running against anyone else; she was running against her “old self” and trying to get better—and that is all that matters in the race we are running.
As we look towards Easter and contemplate the ways we want to grow, it is important not to look at other people and compare ourselves with them. God doesn’t care how we compare with anyone else. Comparisons are demonic in origin. They serve only to distract us from the real goal of the spiritual life. We are striving to grow beyond our own sins—not the sins of others; we are striving to grow into the image of Christ in the unique way God placed that image within each of us through the gift of the Spirit.