Freeloaders

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
September 18, 2011 - Ordinary (26A)
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Freeloaders - now that’s a term I don’t hear very often in this age of political correctness, and for good reason, too! It’s a term that assumes a certain defective quality in a particular group of people. Come to think of it, calling a group of people “freeloaders” is a pretty polarizing term. It is “us vs. them” language that puts the user in the driver seat and assumes that “they” are to blame for the problem, because their is no “we.”

Although it’s a term that has been around for a while, it has always had an interesting relationship with commerce and free trade. The term actually originates from the shipping industry. A captain would contract laborers, promising payment for when the ship was full. Then he would sail away without paying - leaving them no way to catch him.

In the 1950’s and early 60’s the term “freeloader” was given a new life through the Red Skelton character, Freddie the Freeloader. Freddie was a hobo clown who seemed to be the eternal optimist, and though he was quite opposed to working, he was always willing to share what he had. Freddy the Freeloader was a person of abundance, and things always seemed to work out for him.

In some ways, I think Freddie illustrates the core issue of the scriptures today. These scriptures are filled with complaints and unfair results. They are filled with bizarre expectations and promises to particular people who are not like us in any way, shape, or form - and that makes it hard to receive any of it as something that means something to me and to you.

Yet here we are, the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, Miriam, Paul, and Lydia - all men and women of faith! Here we are as a people of God trying to find our way through the wilderness of life and sometimes we cannot help but wish for the glory days of the past.

No matter how bad it was, we can always point to the good and say that is how it was done! That is how it ought to be done.

But Moses reframes the discussion and says, “Look - if you want to complain, don’t talk to me. Talk to God.” Then God does indeed speak, and God does indeed test them.

God tests them. I don’t like that. I don’t like to think of God as the Divine Schoolmarm waiting for me to fail. The Hebrew text here literally translated says, “That I may prove them, whether they will walk in my way or not.”

God was proving, testing, determining the will of the people by offering abundance. There are two things that I think are interesting in the part that follows. The first is that the quail were delivered, but they weren’t served up on a plate. The other is that the Mana was not even recognized.

So often I am concerned over things that feel like life and death until I realize that God’s grace is all around and ever present. So often I am concerned over what is fair or right or just until I am confronted with the fact that I am giving answers to the wrong questions.

Yesterday I was confronted in this way during Sam’s first soccer game. After finding that our team had no coach I agreed to step into the breach. We only had one practice before our first game, and most of these kids have never played before. Our opponents, on the other hand, had three practices prior to the game and half of them had played together before.

So, we were shut out. It was a fair game, by the rules - but it was not fair by the matching of teams. At the end of the game, parents and siblings from both teams formed a London-bridges style “Spirit Tunnel” for all of the kids to run through. Seeing the children move through the tunnel I realized that it wasn’t about how fair the game was. It was about the opportunity to play.

Of course it is easy to say that about a child’s game, but what about real problems? What about the fact that resources are limited and we live in a world that is concerned with winning and survival?

Jesus has the answer for us in this maddening parable about laborers in the vineyard - some working all day, some working most of the day, and some only a few hours. Then each is paid the same, starting with the ones who did the least work! And when the ones who did the most work complained, the Landowner said, “The way I spend my money is not up to you!” And that’s the Kingdom of God, right?

The Kingdom of God is simply not fair. It is not about being fair. It is about grace. It is about grace and the opportunity to respond. Still, it’s hard to get around our beliefs about merit - about earning your keep. The problem with focusing on what we think should be done is that it doesn’t just place us in the shoes of the grumbling laborers; it becomes an attempt to take the role of the Landowner.

The Kingdom of God is like a Landowner. And this Landowner is more concerned about invitation than equity. This Landowner comes to me and to you and says, “I don’t care what you have been doing, but you are welcome here. I have a job for you.” This Landowner is seeking you and me out every day from sun up to sundown, offering us the chance to work and be fulfilled. This Landlord is seeking you and me out and saying, “There is enough.” And when we become concerned over what is fair and what we should give and what we should withhold, this Landlord is saying, “Whose stuff do you think all of this is to begin with?”

Now some would push this parable to say that Jesus wants us to behave one way or another. Some would say it meets with one political agenda or another. I would say that Jesus was not concerned with politics or even with ethics. Jesus was concerned with faithfulness. Jesus was concerned with our ability to trust in God’s providence. Jesus was concerned with our ability help others see the abundance of God’s grace and to find ways to respond to it together!

Jesus knew that the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that exists far away like Never, Never Land. Jesus knew that the Kingdom of Heaven is experienced here and now in the difficulty of life together, and because of that, we are all a little bit of a Freeloader. None of us deserves God’s love. None of us can earn God’s invitation. All of us are given the opportunity to receive, and none of us are expected to pay.

You know, Red Skelton was known to say this:

I get asked all the time; Where did you get the idea for Freddie the Freeloader, and who is Freddie really?

Well, I guess you might say that Freddie the Freeloader is a little bit of you, and a little bit of me, a little bit of all of us, you know.

He’s found out what love means. He knows the value of time. He knows that time is a glutton. We say we don’t have time to do this or do that. There’s plenty of time. The trick is to apply it. The greatest disease in the world today is procrastination.

And Freddie knows about all these things. And so do you.

[Freddie’s] nice to everybody because he was taught that [people are] made in God’s image. He’s never met God in person and the next fella just might be him.

I would say that Freddie is a little bit of all of us.”

And all of us are simply invited to respond to God’s grace, and we are simply expecting Christ to be exalted in our lives. May it be so with me. May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen!
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