Labor

As many of you probably have heard by now, my stepfather passed away a couple of weeks ago. Our family gathered together on January 2nd, 2008 to celebrate the life and times of Dennis Neil Larson. I was honored with the privilege and responsibility of officiating the memorial service. My hope was to honor his requests while simultaneously creating an atmosphere where friends and family could best grieve. Considering that their loss was mine also – my thoughts and prayers were very much with all of them. I relied upon the encouragement of scripture – namely the promises of Psalm 145-18-19 in the NLT – which remind us, “God’s there – listening for all who pray. For all who pray and mean it. He does what’s best for those who fear him. He hears them call out and saves them.” My prayer was that this would be a gathering to remember and honor the precious life of my stepfather – an opportunity to say goodbye as well as to celebrate the life that he enjoyed here on earth. I am truly thankful for each and every precious moment and memory that I have shared with him. That the peace and presence of God will truly be with all of us during this difficult time.

What words would I use to describe Denny’s life? Why that particular language? Denny was many things . . . a gifted storyteller, clever jokester, talented singer, and snazzy dresser. Above all else . . . Denny was a hard worker. Whatever his role or responsibility – baseball player, military personal, PUD employee, small business owner, or school district custodian – he did his very best all of the time. He often pulled the weight of others. The family joke was that he did my mother’s work for her (he was always by her side as she managed apartments). We all often wondered when and if he would ever slow down and just rest. 

What can we learn from Denny’s laborious years on this planet? What was his request? Often the mistake at memorials is to make the deceased sound as if he or she was someone she really was not . . . perfect. Denny was not perfect. He was far from it. He would rather be remembered as he really was. A fighter. He spent much of his life battling the destructive habit of alcohol abuse. His last few months were filled with excruciating cancer which ravished his entirebody. Still . . . he fought. He worked. During those last few months I was able to shared two very incredible conversations with him concerning his final wishes. He definitely wanted relief from the painful symptoms at work in his body. However, his greatest concern was that he would be granted forgiveness. There was no doubt in my mind that his thoughts were filled with regret, remorse, and even repentance.

Here is the good news that I shared with him . . . grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve. The bible records an incredible story which reads, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16, NIV).

Jesus described his Kingdom to be like a landowner who hired employees. In his day the workday extended from sunup to sundown. Since the grape harvest ripened toward the end of September we can estimate that people were working from around 6am to 6pm each and every day. The landowner found some workers who agreed to be paid one day’s wage for one day’s work. The businessman then brought more personnel in about three hours later (we can relate to economic conditions being so poor that many were waiting around just looking for a place of employment). Again, the employees were promised a fair wage – whatever seemed just in the eyes of their employer. This process of hiring more workers was repeated at midday, 3pm and even with just one hour left in the workday. He was handing out jobs left and right . . . . He did ask the final hires, “Why have you spent an entire day idle?” There seemed to be a slight bit of scolding in that question. There only response (or excuse) was that no one had yet hired them. Some of are seeking a little more than others. 

The day ended with the landowner instructing the foreman to send for the laborers to come and receive their earnings. In Jesus’ day the employees were often paid at the end of the same day (so that the poor would not go hungry). The boss began with those who were hired last – and shockingly gave them a full day’s wage. I can only imagine what a surprise this was to the others – one would logically expect for the income to increase with the hours worked – which meant that many were then expecting a sizable check. However, everyone received the same. A full day’s wage. Immediately the workforce began to grumble and complain (I am shocked that a grape harvesters union was not formed immediatly). Why were they so upset? Didn’t’ they get what they deserved? What they supposedly earned? However, deep down inside they knew that they did not really deserve to be hired. The landlord was not unjust – he was far from it – they agreed on the acceptable wage and he more than came through. The salary was set at his own digression. It is his money to begin with. Jesus used this story to reveal the unmatched generosity of God – always giving what we do not deserve.

Anyone who knew Denny had to notice the drastic difference that took place in him during his final hours. I am convinced the transformation can be attributed to the fact that he stopped “working” for himself and began “working” for his Creator. Facing death in the face . . . he finally came to realize that he could not lead his own life . . . he finally asked for forgiveness from God for his rebellion. In fact, upon my last visit with him, I overheard him talking on the back porch . . . he began by reciting the Alcoholics Anonymous Prayer and continued on by sharing his deepest thoughts with Christ . . . he was sorry for much of what he did . . . and he understood that all he had left was today. He thus spent much of his final months asking forgiveness from those who he loved . . . even reconciling with his daughter who he had not talked to for nearly twenty years. Denny had truly admitted that he had sinned against God, he had come to believe that Christ offered him the life he had always been looking for, and thus committed to trust and obey him with what little time he had left. Is God’s grace big enough to forgive a man in thee last hour of the workday?

How can we best toil on behalf of Denny from this point forward? First, we must forgive him for any wrongs he has done towards us. Matthew 6:14-15 simply states, “If you forgive those who sin against you then your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others then your Father will not forgive your sins.” If God is willing to forgive us for all we have done . . . to hire us when we have nothing to offer . . . who are we to refuse imparting that forgiveness towards someone else? For many this means that we must first ask for forgiveness from God for what we have done wrong against him . . . we must take him at his offer. Denny would have been the first to admit that he wished he would have returned to Christ a whole lot earlier in life . . . so much would have been different . . . why wait (and who is to say that we will have the opportunity to)?

Some still have a difficult time believing that God’s grace is big enough . . . that they too can be reconnected to Christ in relationship. It just is not fair. You are right . . . it is not fair . . . it is just. God gave his one and only Son to pay the penalty for your rebellion and mine . . . so that we may know him once again. I offer you the hope found in Luke 23:43. The author records a conversation between Jesus and a thief . . . both being publicly crucified (Jesus did not deserve such punishment but the other man was getting exactly what he deserved from the Empire). The man came to the realization that Jesus was who he had claimed to be and thus asked for forgiveness . . . right there in his final moments . . . right there at the last hour of labor . . . and Christ replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. Grace is truly for today. Grace is truly amazing. “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost – but now am found. I was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. Precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. He ‘hath brought me safe thus far – grace will lead me home.” Grace has led Denny home . . . he did not deserve it . . . neither do I . . . and neither do you. He gives us the wages anyways.

Father, I thank you for Denny Larson – the lives he impacted and the memories he has left us with. Thank you for your forgiveness – and with it we now commit to love you and love others. Comfort all family and friends (especially his wife and daughter). Let’s live our lives laboring for the one who gave us this opportunity . . . . Amen.

Labor

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