"Why It's Never Too Late"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 22, 2002

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

     There are a number of classical themes to the drama of humanity that are thousands of years old.  One of them is that it is never too late for us to find love coming our way. This pattern has materialized in every society, in every variety of literature in every age. While understanding how life works can be a struggle for us, underneath the various shifting currents and mini-dramas, the people who never give up are those who know that being loved is out there awaiting discovery. This is the invisible fuel that drives people who never lose hope.

     This theme has been portrayed in dozens of movies featuring romantic adventures. One story-line appears like this:  A couple meets and they have a whirlwind romance.  To test the quality of their love, they decide to detach for a period of time. They make a pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building at midnight on New Year's Eve.  If one chooses not to honor the appointment, the other will know that their experience had been more like a mutual infatuation than a relationship of substance. 

     The magical day arrives and both are racing to get to the Empire State Building at the appointed moment, each hoping beyond hope that the other will be there.  In a moment of carelessness while crossing the street the woman is struck by a car. While her injuries are not serious, they are enough for her to be rushed to the hospital by an ambulance. 

     High atop the observation deck he waits and waits.  Eventually his heart sinks as he imagines his worst fear -- she is not coming. The movie devotes itself to playing with the emotions of the audience with the obvious tension the drama has created. There is no closure to the relationship so they both seek endlessly for the completion of a love which circumstances prevented.

     This theme also appears in the Gospels numerous times.  The form, however, is vastly different. The best example is the story of the Prodigal Son. Here the romance is of another kind. A son who has everything one could possibly want decides that it is not enough.  He approaches his father and wants the share of his inheritance immediately.  He wants to experience life with greater meaning and fullness.

     As this story unfolds, we learn that his father never gives up on the love he holds for his son.  We imagine every night before he goes to bed, he looks out of his window still hoping to catch a glimpse of his son coming home.  We may picture him doing chores around the farm, always looking in the direction of the road.

     Meanwhile the son is being consumed by his passions for the shadowy, illusionary side of the physical world.  He was engaging in every kind of unsavory activity imaginable.  Dr. Luke leaves little to the imagination when he wrote this account.  Then Luke wrote, "He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with compassion.  He ran, threw his arms around his son and kissed him."  A magnificent reunion occurs.  For that father and his son, it was never too late.  Neither could rest until their relationship was restored.

     Whether this idea finds expression in the story of Job or during the tests of faith that came to Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross, it is the same theme. Do they walk away from the unfolding drama in front of them, feeling forsaken by everything in which they had hoped, or do they cling to the impossible dream that says, "Regardless of what I am experiencing, it will never cause me to give up hope."?

     Many years ago, Lois and I took our children to see Cinderella at the old Glen Echo Park in the District of Columbia.  There was a time when the Park offered live, outdoor dramas for children in a small amphitheater.  Cinderella made a comment that has stayed with me through the years. She said, "I believe God gives everyone the ability to dream about wonderful things just so those of us who will never experience them may never be without them."  Of course, the children assembled that morning were thrilled when the glass slipper fit and the prince took Cinderella back to his castle to become his bride. 

     When we cling to possibilities even in the midst of seemingly impossible circumstances, we finally personalize the message of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.  For God, it is never too late for any of us regardless of how dark the night appears.  When we think otherwise, our god is too small.

     In this morning's Gospel lesson, there is a marvelous example of this understanding.  The theme we have been discussing comes in yet another form.  In fact, this version can evoke disappointment and frustration even among the faithful.

     Let us quickly review the story.  A vineyard owner hired some workers early in the morning.  He hired more people at 9:00 a.m., at 12:00 noon, at 3:00 p.m. and at 5:00 p.m.  At the end of the day, he told his foreman to pay each their wage beginning with those who were hired last.  Each received a silver coin, the going wage for a full day's work. 

     Naturally there was considerable grumbling among many of the workers who felt slighted.  The owner said to them, "I have not cheated any of you.  Did you not all agree to work for a silver coin? If I wish to pay the men I hired last the same wage as the rest of you, is this not my right?  Or, are you jealous because I am generous?"

     Jesus is very skillful with this story.  He added the financial element knowing that everyone understands thoroughly the meaning of economic rewards for what they do.  Jesus went right to the heart of what people value.  That is why they listened. To a large extent we still reverence economic wealth above many other elements of life that are far more substantive.   

     Jesus' message was not about equal pay for unequal work; it was about the nature of God's love. There is no timetable for God.  It is never too late for anyone to receive their total inheritance even for those of us who feel we have remained outside the fold of the faithful for most of our lives.  Is Divine Justice really this generous?  Is this really what Jesus meant to communicate?

     If we return to the story of the Prodigal Son, we find frustration within the landowner's other son who had remained faithful.  He found himself in the same category as the laborers who had worked all day in the hot sun only to receive the same wage as the newcomers who were hired at 5:00 p.m.  He was so angry at his father that he said,

          All these years I have worked for you like a slave. I have never disobeyed anything that you asked me to do.  What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends!  But this son of yours wasted your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him.  How am I to understand this, Dad?  What about me?  Dad, do you love me the same as you love him?

     In the same spirit as the vineyard owner who hired people at various times during the day, the farm owner said, "We have to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found."  In a much kinder, gentler manner, the father had just said,  "Do I not have the right to love as I wish?  How is it that you do not understand the nature of my love?  My son, I would have done the same for you had you been the one in trouble."          

     One of my favorite stories is about a Roman Catholic priest who visited a woman who was dying of AIDS.  She was confessing her sins while lamenting tearfully about the mess she had made of her life.  She talked about what she would do differently if she could live her life over again.  She regretted so many of her choices.  She was just like the Prodigal Son who, once he squandered his wealth, found himself eating the same food that was being fed to pigs. 

     In an attempt to stop her spiraling cycle of despair and self-hatred, the priest noticed the picture of a lovely young girl on her dresser.  He said, "Who is looking at you from within that picture frame?"  She said, "Oh Father, that is the love of my life.  That is the one good thing I have done.  She is my daughter.  She is now married and has a wonderful family."  The priest said, "Would you ever abandon her because of the mistakes she has made?"  She said, "Oh, no.  I could never do that."

     Before the priest had his prayer with her, he took hold of her hands, bent over and kissed her frail, thinning face.  He said, "I happen to know that God has a picture of you sitting on His dresser."  His words produced a stream of tears from her eyes and she said, "Really?"  He said, "Yes!  God is here now wanting you to know that your mistakes can never damage the depth of His love for you."

     Because of God's nature, it is never too late for anyone.  Of course, we all have our thoughts about this. There will always be people who ask, "But suppose someone dies never believing in anything sacred?  What about the terrorists who flew our aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon?  What about all those who died before Jesus was born?  What is to become of those who do not profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior?" 

     So many people believe they have an iron-clad insight into how God "is suppose to love."  Their understanding of God's love very often reflects a god who has been created in the image of man.  There is but one answer to all such questions.  That answer is this:  Let such details up to God.  We will consistently fail each time we try to fathom the depth and breadth of the love that created all possibilities for all people.  When we judge anything, we are only revealing ourselves. 

     God knows how many hairs we have on our head, the exact number of grains of sand on the earth and the number of stars in the sky.  From our lesson today, the Spirit of God could say these words to each of us:

     While you cannot understand me on the depth that you would like, I want you to know that it will never be too late for you to open your eyes.  I have never left your side, not even once.  I know every one of you, even those of you who believe you have lost your way. 

     While this may surprise some of you, I always have and always will be successful in reaching the mind and heart of each of you. I am not as inept at doing this as some of you suppose.  Nor do I rely only on you to do my will. 

     Pay attention to how you order your days and let the details concerning the lives of other people remain in my care.  I love all of you.  Not in your time, but in my time will each of you understand this.  Be at peace and trust me with the details of how creation unfolds.


     We thank you, O God, that Jesus consistently walked the high road as he scattered his seeds of wisdom.  We are grateful that many of those seeds found their way into our gardens.  In the midst of such an abundance of treasure and truth, our fragilities are still present.  Our hurts cause us to respond with defense.  Our insecurities point out how much we are unloved and unappreciated.  Our minds often form perceptions which easily blind us to productive possibilities.  Encourage us to leave behind what produces isolation.  Entice us to become involved with life so that our lives radiate the values we hold sacred.  May we learn that, while the hour is late, your spirit never tires of waiting for our "yes" to discipleship.  Amen.


     Loving God, help us choose everyday to live together peacefully in this world you gave us.  We are thankful that you created us with the ability to have visions, to dream and to have the courage to walk toward those visions and dreams. 

     As we worship, our nation once again appears to be preparing to enter the space of people we have labeled, "a rogue nation."  We agonize over the uncertainty of using confrontation  as a means of resolving differences.  O God, we admit that many of our national and international leaders struggle with how to decide.  When is it right to intervene for the safety of the world, and when is it right to allow the world to evolve on its own?   

     While the world's people may be in pain and indecisive, move us to invest our energy in communities that share peace, kindness and creativity.  May what we radiate become so powerful that swords will be molded into plows, and that resources used to manufacturer weapons of mass destruction may be converted into what will produce more food to feed the hungry.  May the world of many nations learn that we are one and only by serving one another will we truly be free from the fears that inspire war.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .