July 26, 2020
Rev. Al Trachsel
Nampa First UMC
THE AMAZING, GENEROUS GRACE OF GOD
Hi, I feel like I need to introduce myself. I am Rev. Al Trachsel. I am a retired Elder in the Oregon/Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
My friends call me TORA. “TORA” in Japanese means Tiger. But my friends don’t mean Tiger. They think of TORA as more of an acronym. About a third of my friends think TORA stands for The Other Reverend Al, not to be confused with the Reverend Al Sharpton.
Another third of my friends think that TORA stand for The Oregonian Rev. Al. Yup! I was born in Tillamook and raised near Salem. I’m an Oregonian through and through.
The final third of my friends believe that TORA stand for The Oracle Rev. Al. What is an oracle, you may be asking yourself? Well, at the risk of over-simplifying, an oracle is usually a person who seems to possess special insight about matters spiritual in nature.
There are two ways to become an oracle. The first is to be gifted with a mystical, intuitive insight. The second is more common in that special insight is achieved through experience and education. Let me give you an Example:
When I was growing up in the Willamette Valley, I had a job that required practically no intelligence at all. It required physical strength and a lot of stamina … but next to no intelligence. The job was weeding strawberry patches.
It was a job that no one here will ever have to do. Be thankful. On the other hand, perhaps some of you here have done that work. You don’t want to do it again, do you? Nowadays, I suspect most of that kind of labor is pretty much done by machine.
You kind of have to live in the Willamette Valley to weed strawberries, because that’s where it rains enough to grow them in large scale. You have to be very poor, or very young, or very dumb, or desperately in need of something to do. Bingo! Jack Pot! I was pretty much all four of these things.
The first time I tried weeding strawberries, I got fired. You work with a hoe. You thin the weeds out between the rows of strawberries. You are supposed to take out the weeds. On my first job I started down the row with confidence. I was like a powerful machine moving through the field … dirt and Bermuda and Johnson grass flying. My problem, I learned later, was that I couldn’t tell the difference between grass and young strawberry plants.
You guessed it. I cut down the man’s strawberries and left a beautiful stand of weeds. About mid-morning, I saw a man running across the field. He was waving his arms. He looked like a wild man. Finally, I could hear him … he was yelling, “Stop! Stop! You are cutting down all my strawberries! You left the weeds! Stop! I don’t want your help! You are fired!”
I knew very early that a career in farming might not be God’s plan for my life. However, I did try one more time and it did last a little longer.
I had known Leonard Van Fleck through church and family friends. He was a berry farmer. He wore faded blue bib-overalls and faded shirts. He wore an old straw hat and usually looked like he had forgotten to take the wrapper off his razor blades. He chewed tobacco and spit a lot.
He had over fifty acres of strawberries down in the rich bottom land by the Lil’ Puddin River. It had been a rainy Spring … too wet to plow much; and the grass had gotten ahead of Leonard Van Fleck Inc. The grass was choking out the good strawberries. I needed a job. He needed help. I told him that I was an experienced strawberry patch weeder … which was kind of an optimistic way of viewing that first experience … and so he hired me. We agreed on the wage. It was thirty cents an hour … or $3.00 for a ten hour day. That would come to 5 days times $3.00 which would be $15.00 … plus $1.50 for a half day on Saturday. That would be $16.50 for the whole week, which was far more money than I had ever had before.
Monday morning, I was up by 4:30 a.m. I rode my bicycle out to Leonard’s farm and was ready to go by a quarter to six. My hoe was sharp, and I was ready to kill Bermuda and Johnson grass.
Mr. Van Fleck was right about one thing … the weeds had gotten a head start. I chopped and chopped and got down and pulled roots. At first it was fun. I was yelling, “Die weeds! Gotcha!” I inflicted deadly blows with my gleaming sword. I imagined myself killing snakes and dragons and all sorts of strange creatures who lived in the strawberry patch. And then it started to get hot. Now, friends, hot in the Willamette Valley HOT is hotter than hot in a lot of other places. Hot on the West side of the Cascade Mountains means humidity, stickiness, sultry, breezeless heat.
I was soon aching all over. I had blisters on my hands which were beginning to bleed. It was then that a long, lean shadow crossed in front of my work. I looked up and saw my best buddy, Tom Brantner. “How’s it going, Al?” he asked. “Oh, just great,” I said. “Nothing to it. It’s a snap.” We worked together that afternoon, and it was great having someone to talk with.
The next morning there were a couple of other people who showed up to work.” They were obviously from the South and spoke with funny accents. Tom and I agreed that they were probably hillbillies. They talked a lot about squirrel and possum hunting.
A couple of days later a black family climbed out of an old car. The whole family worked … except for a little child that watched the baby who stayed in the car. It felt good to have all that help, because you could see the progress we were making. On Friday morning a couple with brown skin and strange Spanish accents joined us.
We were getting closer to pay day and I was getting excited. I could hardly wait to get paid and get into Salem on Saturday night. Saturday night … down town with money in my pockets. Saturday night … standing on the corner … watching the girls go by. I would have enough money for an endless supply of milk shakes, hamburgers, Cokes, movies, gasoline. I would be rich.
At eleven o’clock on Saturday morning I was surprised to see yet another couple of fellows with hoes over their shoulders, walking down the rows toward us. “Where do we start?” they asked. “I don’t know. Check with Mr. Van Fleck. We’re just working til noon.” They chopped weeds for an hour … hardly enough time to work up a good sweat … then they quit. We all quit. It was pay day.
Leonard had a little table set up under the shade tree behind his house. He had a pile of change and a stack of bills. I remember that somehow I ended up in the back of the line. The two fellas who came last were up in the front. Leonard counted out their money and gave it to them. I could hear a gasp of astonishment in the line in front of me. Those two fellas came by me holding a hand full of money. They were saying, “Wow! Wow!” They were smiling. No! They were beaming. “Sixteen dollars and fifty cents!” one of them whispered.
The next couple of people … the folks with the brown skin and strange accents also seemed quite happy. They, too, were holding a hand full of money. “Sixteen dollars and fifty cents,” one of them said.
I was getting excited. I figured I would get a bonus. I could get a double portion. I might get $32.00. Mr. Van Fleck seemed to just be throwing his money away.
It was my turn. “Hello Mr. Van Fleck,” I said. “I’ve been working for you all week. I hope you’ve been satisfied with my work.” “You did really good, Al. Your rows were clean. You killed a lot of weeds.” And he counted out $16.50.
I didn’t understand that. I mean I was mad! I felt cheated. Can’t you understand how I felt? “Mr. Van Fleck, this just isn’t fair. You paid those fellas who came an hour before quittin’ time the same as you paid me. You paid those folks who came on Friday the same as you are paying me! Anybody will tell you, this just isn’t fair. You aren’t supposed to do it that way! I been out here in the hot sun …”
Mr. Van Fleck looked at me in such a way as to cut off my objections. He looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Al, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for thirty cents an hour? $3.00 a day? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to the last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? And his last words were the ones that stabbed me, for he looked right into my soul and asked, “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
If I had said what I was feeling, I would have said, “Yes, I do begrudge your generosity! It isn’t fair!”
That night I didn’t go to town. I didn’t buy a chocolate milkshake. I didn’t buy a hamburger. I didn’t stand on the corner and watch all the girls go by. I didn’t go to the dance or call up a friend.
I just stayed home and got depressed and picked on my calluses and threw my money across my bedroom.
Now what is this really all about, anyway? You know that what I have been sharing with you is a story from my life based on a parable that Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-15. When Jesus told the parable, he ended it with that very question: “Or, do you begrudge my generosity?”
Now the question to ask of a parable is not, “Say, was that a true story? Really, Jesus, you are just making that up? Jesus taught in parables … stories … that were set in the everyday world of his hearers. The question isn’t, “Did it happen? But what does it mean?”
Often we hear a message in church today and we say, “Well, I agree with that” or “I didn’t agree with that at all.” If we don’t agree, we usually wait until we get to the parking lot so as not to be too obvious. Jesus told parables to make people wrestle with some great truth about God.
Jesus told stories. He didn’t teach like the Scribes and the Pharisees. His stories bothered people, encouraged them, changed their lives.
To understand the stories of Jesus I have to get inside them and see them from within. That is, for me, I have to take a real experience like chopping weeds in the strawberry patch for Mr. Van Fleck … and allow the parable to bring me to the conclusion.
Suddenly, I am face to face with something that troubles me about God! I am bothered by his generosity … his unwillingness to play the game according to the rules … to follow the direct relationship between work given and rewards received. This is what bothers me.
I am not bothered by God’s lack of generosity toward me. God has been more than generous toward my life. It is God’s generosity toward those who have showed up at eleven on Saturday, when quitting time is at noon.
I can begin to understand why some Christians have placed so much emphasis on Hell. There seems to be some satisfaction in the knowledge of the punishment of the sinner. God isn’t fair … because of his generosity toward others … the latecomers … those sinners!
This parable exposes what bothers us about God. With God. Now, here is where I become an oracle. Are you ready for my special incite? Here it is: There are no SECOND CLASS CHRISTIANS! No matter how long you have worked in the field, you still get the full grace of God!!
Now, my friends, the matter is before us today. Some of us have been working in the Lord’s Strawberry Patch for 30 or 40 or more years. Some of us just showed up last Sunday or maybe even today. Now is the person who has been living selfishly, apart from God, who just became a Christian the same in God’s sight as the person who has labored, served, given, for a lifetime?
Can you understand the feeling? Don’t you sense how a church can really begin to feel toward newcomers and sinners? It’s hard to let God be God. It’s hard to really let Jesus be the Savior of all. It’s hard to let the Spirit be available to other kinds of folks.
Now, beloved, I am convinced that God’s plan is the only way. OTHERWISE WE MISS THE PARTY!! There are no chocolate milk shakes with our friends. There is no delicious hamburger to bite into. There is no laughter. There is no music. There is no dancing. There is just the rejected Grace of God wadded up and hurled across the bedroom like crumpled dollar bills.
The great question God may be asking me … and you … may not be, “Are you saved?” but “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
That is the one question that requires a “NO” answer to get in. Smile, say, “No!” and walk in.
Come to the table where the joy is found, where the party is going on, where people are smiling/ No, Beaming/ and feasting … because they still can’t get over the fact … that all their lives they have been waiting … or looking for something. Now they have found it! And they, like the thief on the cross next to Jesus, are very happy with the full Grace of God.
Come. Come to the place of joy and let us celebrate the generosity of God.