Wouldn't it be awesome… if life came with an instruction manual? It would simply be amazing, wouldn't it - if every morning, we could get out of bed and immediately reach for our handy instruction manual, perhaps the one entitled:
“Instructions on how to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy!” Which might go something like this:
Step 1, breathe.
Step 2, greet the day, smile and say: "Good Morning, East Windsor!"
Skipping ahead, Step 9, eat a complete breakfast with all the special people in your life.
Obey all traffic signs and regulations. Enjoy popular music. Drop off dry cleaning before noon, read the headlines, don't forget to smile. Always root for the local sports team. Go, sports team!
And my personal favorite, drink overpriced coffee!
I of course am quoting from the LEGO movie, which I watched for the first time with our youth group two weeks ago. In this LEGO world, there are indeed instruction manuals for everything. Everyone obeys the rules of the seemingly benevolent leader President Business; no one is out of line or acts out of the ordinary; and so, this happy society is rewarded for obeying all the instructions by being part of a safe, homogeneous, and predictable, existence.
Kids see this world as fun because of all the LEGOs, but adults might look on this world with just a little bit of envy. This seems like a really good deal, doesn't it? Until we realize that President Business is not a nice guy looking out for the common good. It seems pretty awesome, until we realize that we have our own President Businesses right here in the real world.
We all live under some sort of authority, whether we are aware of it or not. Some kinds are pretty obvious – traffic laws, taxes, phone contracts, TSA travel regulations, just to name a few.
Some of the authorities we live under are less noticeable – sports and school schedules, the desire to be liked or to be successful, the dream of “having it all,” the drive for bigger and better. But, much like the LEGO people, we have been very well trained. We all know how to navigate the rules of the kingdoms of this world, both consciously and unconsciously. We know what scripts to recite and what patterns to follow. Our education has come to us for free from the voices calling to us from every corner: from TV commercials and online ads, from newspaper fliers, from the billboards we see every day on the turnpike or the train, from what we see from our neighbors and classmates, from the conversations and interactions we have with our family and friends.
And for some of us, following the rules WORKS. Because we were born the right color or the right gender or in the right country to the right family, we have everything going for us. Following the rules of the world comes much easier for us than for many others. But one wrong move, one misstep in following the instructions, and we will find ourselves with those people, on the outside looking in. In the “Instructions on how to fit, have everybody like you, and always be happy” there is no room for failure. There is no rule about grace.
But, rules are rules, I guess. And when they DO work for us, it can be hard to change them. According to the instruction manual the world has ingrained in us, those people are those people for a reason. We who have done everything right, who have worked in the vineyard from dawn until dusk, we DESERVE to be first in the kingdom of this world, and perhaps also in the Kingdom of God.
And so when someone comes along and upsets those rules, who hangs out with the wrong people and heals the blind,who rides into town on a donkey in an impromptu parade like he’s all that and a bag of skittles and kicks the money changers out of the temple, when this guy name Jesus comes to town and does all that, those of us who are good rule-followers might get a little uncomfortable.
We may even start asking ourselves, who does this guy think he is? Such a person is, at best, a crack pot, or at worst, very, very dangerous. Because this person reminds us that the rules of the world are harsh taskmasters. He reminds us that we follow all the rules in the instruction manual to a tee and still be feel alone and unhappy.
He reminds us that we are as broken and hopeless as the tax collectors and prostitutes, as single welfare moms and corrupt politicians. And yet, even for all that, there is a place for all of us to be loved and to be an essential part of a loving community.
There is another kingdom that we are citizens of, a kingdom with another kind of authority. This kind of authority is the complete opposite of what authority means in this world. This kind of authority does not fill itself up with power, but instead empties itself. This kind of authority does not build itself up or use its power for exploitation, but instead humbles itself. This kind of authority does not command obedience on pain of death, but instead is the essence of true obedience, even to the point of self-sacrificial death, even death on an instrument of torture.
This is the authority of God, shown to us in Jesus.
This week I saw a quote floating around on Facebook: “Jesus is God’s Selfie.” Way back in the day, before selfies and cell phones and before photography even, this preacher named Paul wanted to capture in a nutshell who and what Jesus was. So he quoted a hymn his contemporaries sang, which could have been the first century version of Amazing Grace or for us Lutherans, A Mighty Fortress. He quoted this hymn because it gets to the heart in two verses who Jesus is and what he has done for us - because this is the kind of stuff that is really hard for us to wrap our minds around. It just doesn't make sense to us: Power in humility? Authority in self-emptying? Divinity in the form of a slave? Say whaaaaaat?
And if Jesus is the kind of ruler in this kind of kingdom, what it looks like to live under this kind of authority REALLY makes no sense to the world. And yet, it is a beauty, wondrous, holy, and yes, awesome thing. This is not a kingdom where rules completely go out the window. This, however, IS a kingdom where the rule of the realm is love, condensed and concentrated into the living, dying, and rising of Jesus.
Instead of pleading for his life or arguing or trying to prove his claims of divinity to the religious authorities, Jesus set his face toward the cross and fulfilled the will of his father.
And later, Instead of scolding his disciples for abandoning him at the cross, Jesus give them a great charge: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
And in this text for today, instead of arguing with the smarty pantses (like us) of his day, Jesus told them a story instead – about a man with two sons and two different responses to his charge for them to “Go and work in the vineyard today.”
Our vineyard, where Jesus commands us to go and work, could be far away among those “all nations.” More likely, though, our vineyard is much closer: at the school we attend, the team we play on, our place of work, the highways we drive and the places we shop and the coffee shops and restaurants we frequent. Sometimes our vineyard is right in our own homes with our own families.
And the work that we do there is not always easy to figure out. God has not left us with a book of easy-to-follow instructions on “how to successfully make disciples of all nations 100% of the time.” In fact, we may not want to go into the vineyard at all! It’s so hard, and I’m not very good at it, and what can I even do, anyway? And what if people think I’m weird?
Well, too bad for us, that when we turn our yeses into noes, we are under the authority of a God who all too often turns our noes into yeses, who turns our bad news into God’s good news. For, as Paul says, even when we are reluctant, or full of fear and trembling, it is God who is at work in us, enabling us to both will and to work for God’s good pleasure for the sake of the world.
And whether today is a yes day or a no day, at the end of the day we are still God’s sons and daughters, loved and awesome in God’s sight. And thank God for that. AMEN.