I’m sure that all of you here this morning have heard of LaGuardia airport in New York. Well, you may not know it is named after a New York city Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia from the 30’s.

A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of World War II, was called by many New Yorkers “the Little Flower” because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New Your City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward in the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.

Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, effused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” The man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or den days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his hat saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Here is my question for you. Did the elderly lady in the story get what she deserved? Clearly the answer is, of course not. She had stolen a loaf of bread. Yes, she may have had good reason, but stealing is stealing and regardless of the reason, punishment would seem to be the order of the day. What we see in the story is called grace. Grace is when one in superior power shows kindness or mercy to one in a lesser position. Mayor LaGuardia, rather than demanding punishment of the woman herself, paid the fine and then further helped her cause with the collection of the fifty-cent fines and gave them to her. It was more than she deserved. It was grace.

That is what our lesson this morning is all about too as we look at the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. In this parable Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner that went out and hired workers for his vineyard. Some he hired early in the day, telling them that he would pay them the usual daily wage. He went back at various times of the day and found more workers waiting to be hired. Each time he hired those that were there, telling them that he would pay them what was right. We are not told why some had not found work or if they had shown up at the marketplace late or any other details.

At the end of the day came to pay the workers. He began with the ones most recently hired and he paid them the usual daily wage. That excited the ones who had been there all day. They thought that surely if he paid the late ones that much he obviously would pay them even more for all their hard work. Their excitement was short lived. In fact, they were pretty upset when they got the same pay working all day as what people got who only worked an hour.

When the landowner heard them grumbling, he tried to explain that he wasn’t unfair at all. He gave them what they had agreed upon, but it was his money and he could be generous if that is what he chose to do. We aren’t told how the workers responded to that.

It is very apparent that the landowner didn’t live in our time. It also would seem that the landowner didn’t know much about business. Next time he went out to hire help none would probably go until the last hour of the day.

What the landowner did know about, however, is grace. The workers that came at the end of the day didn’t get what they deserved they got mercy. That is grace.

Of course in the parable the landowner is God, the workers are us, and the pay is the kingdom of heaven. And, as we study this parable, we can quickly see, it’s about grace.

First of all, the parable says that grace is to be received, not deserved. For all of us who are people of faith, we know that we do not deserve God’s grace. Nothing that we can do will put us in a position of deserving God’s grace. All we can do is receive the gift that God offers to us.

David Seamands ends his book Healing Grace with this story. For more than six hundred years the Hapsburgs exercised political power in Europe. When Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died in 1916, his was the last of the extravagant imperial funerals. A processional of dignitaries and elegantly dressed court personages escorted the casket, draped in the black and gold imperial colors. To the accompaniment of a military band’s somber dirges and by the light of torches, the somber group descended the stairs of the Capuchin Monastery in Vienna. At the bottom was a great iron door leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna. The officer in charge followed the prescribed ceremony, established centuries before. “Open!” he cried. “Who goes there?” responded the Cardinal. “We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the faith…” the officer continued to list the Emperor’s thirty-seven titles.

“We know him not,” replied the Cardinal. “Who goes there?” The officer spoke again, this time using a much abbreviated and less ostentatious title reserved for times of expediency. “We know him not,” the Cardinal said again. “Who goes there?” The officer tried a third time, stripping the emperor of all but the humblest of titles: “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all!” At that the doors swung open, and Franz-Josef was admitted.

No matter who we are, what titles we have, or how much we have, none of it can open the way to God’s grace. Grace is given freely, what is left for us is to openly receive that grace.

Second, God’s grace is about mercy, not about fairness. What would have been fair would be to pay the later workers less that the daily wage or pay those who had worked all day more than the daily wage. That would be fair. When we talk about grace, however, it is about something different than fairness. It is about mercy. God loves us and mercifully gives us more than we deserve.

Christian financial consultant and author Larry Burkett tells in Business by the Book about going the extra mile, going beyond fairness. In 1984 he leased an office in a building that proved to be a nightmare. The foundation had not been properly constructed, and the office building was literally sinking several inches a year into the ground. After more than three years of putting up with assorted problems, including power failures and several weeks without water, Burkett moved his business to another location.

Two months later Burkett received a call from his former landlord who demanded that Burkett remodel and repaint his former office space. Burkett said no, feeling he had already been more than fair with the landlord, but the former landlord continued to call with his demands. Burkett consulted an attorney who agreed that Burkett had fulfilled his responsibility and should not do anything further.

Burkett went on to say that his son offered him some different counsel. The son reminded Burkett that the landlord and his wife had lost their only child a few years earlier and still suffered from that tragedy. Burkett had often commented that he would like to help them. The son suggested that this might be an opportunity to do just that by not doing what was fair, but what was merciful. Burkett said he considered that and had to agree with the conclusion. He decided to commit several thousand dollars to restore a virtually non-usable building.

That is going beyond fair, to merciful. It is exactly what God’s grace is all about.

Third, God’s grace is for the last as well as the first. It is easy for us to say that we deserve more because we are the people who have been faithful. God doesn’t work that way. Today and everyday God wants a relationship with everyone, from those hired first thing in the morning to those that only managed to put in an hour at the end of the day. That is what Grace is all about.

I read a story this past week that I think illustrates this point well. A woman told how her father sexually abused her as a small child. She grew up, overcame the emotional damage that had been done, became a Christian, and eventually married. Years later, after her children were fully grown, she received a letter from her father telling her he had become a Christian and had asked God for forgiveness. He also realized that he had sinned against her and was writing asking for her forgiveness. Feelings she didn’t know were there suddenly surfaced. It wasn’t fair! He should pay for what he had done, she thought bitterly. It was all too easy. And now he was going to be part of the family of God! She was sure her home church was busy killing the fatted calf for father and that she would be invited to the party! She was angry. She was hurt. She was resentful.

Then she had a dream. She saw her father standing on an empty stage. Above him appeared the hands of God holding a white robe. She recognized it at once, because she was wearing one just like it. As the robe began to descend toward her father, she woke up crying out, “No! It isn’t fair! What about me?” The only way she could get past it all was to realize that her earthly father was now the same as she. They were the same in God’s sight. God’s grace was for him just like it was for her. Realizing that, she was finally able to forgive her father.

God’s grace is a free gift that is available to all of us. It is a free gift that we receive but it isn’t what we deserve. It is about mercy, not fairness. And, it is for the last as well as the first. Thankfully, what we can all say is, It’s about grace.

Let us pray: