The office was small and cramped.
A desk took up most of the room, but there was a couch. White, if I remember correctly. I was sitting on it, talking to this church planter, this pastor. As he faced me, we discussed this thing I was doing. Maybe it was a church plant; perhaps it was just an alternative kind of service. Either way, my pastor had commissioned me to do this undertaking under the eye of about five local ministry leaders, including Tom, who’s office I was sitting in.
When I left that office, I was angry and hurt. I was beyond frustrated. I was emotionally bloody and wanted to fight. All because of one phrase.
“I had trouble accepting you as a Christian, and now I have to accept you as a Christian leader?”
That was it. I wasn’t acceptable to this pastor. My life was checkered and motley at times. I wasn’t exactly a Christian poster boy. For all my growing up in the pews, I had ended up with one foot in the bars and coffee shops, in many ways more comfortable with humanists, atheists, Buddhists, and the non-religious than I was on teaching on Sunday mornings.
I think that is why my pastor wanted to see my start this church-plant/alternative service. He knew that I cared about the outcast, the stranger, the hurt, and the disenfranchised. I cared about them because, in many ways, I was them.
But Tom saw things differently. In Tom’s eyes, my blemishes, my dissatisfaction, my sins left me in questionable standing with god.
Look, I’m not gonna lie, I always got physical with the girls I dated. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. Purity culture never taught me how to date well. It taught me to “abstain,” not learn how to navigate hormones and biological urges. So, I was tainted in Tom’s eyes because I wasn’t “sexually pure,” even though I had never had sex at this point in my life.
So, Tom had a hard time reconciling that I was a Christian, living among the pagans, with a chronic “sin problem.”
I wasn’t acceptable.
I wasn’t clean.
I wasn’t good enough to receive god’s grace, let alone do the Lord’s work of leading, pastoring, and teaching.
No one wants to be unacceptable.
We all want a place, and embrace, somewhere we belong. We want to be chosen. We want to be accepted.
It’s hard to feel like you are outside looking in, like the last one picked for dodgeball. To be sidelined in this way is a blow to our self-worth. There must be something wrong with us, we think. There must be some defect, some flaw that others see in us. We are somehow, for some reason, unacceptable.
The judgment inflicted on us by others comes second only to the judgment we inflict upon ourselves. When we are rejected, made to feel unworthy, said to be unacceptable, we beat ourselves up, wondering what we did wrong, what is wrong with us, and how we can fix it so that we never feel this way again.
Maybe we get angry and the injustice of the situation. We know our worth, our gifts, what we have to offer, and they didn’t see it, they belittled it, they rejected it and us. Be can become bitter towards the situation, feeling scorned and dejected; our anger can burn in us and make us cynical, hardened, determined to prove them wrong, and never let this happen again.
When I left Tom’s office, I was angry and hurt. I was determined to never let him be right, to succeed and to prove him wrong. Despite my failings, I was a Christian leader, and I deserved respect.
Then my experiment failed. I had one service, sparsely attended. After that, I knew that I couldn’t do it all by myself as I just had. It was too much. Planning and performing music, sermon, structure, form, and content was overwhelming. I needed other people.
But I couldn’t get anyone else to catch my vision. I couldn’t find people willing to help see this thing through. So, it fizzled out, disappeared into the recesses of a life that has been filled with half starts and full stops.
I sometimes wonder if Tom was right to question me as a Christian leader. After all, I was young and brash, self-sure, and a bit cocky when it came to Christian things. I was sure I had answers. But I lacked the life experience that brings about wisdom. Eventually, I cut loose from the whole situation, and when no one came to find me, I knew the truth: I was expendable. I ultimately wasn’t chosen.
Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who hires workers to work in his fields. He goes out all throughout the day and employs people who are waiting for work. Finally, in the eleventh hour, the vineyard owner goes out one last time and finds a group of workers still waiting.
“Why are you standing around?” the owner asks. “Because no one has hired us,” they answer.
See, they were there all day, waiting, hoping. They were wanting to work, wanting to earn money for their families, wanting to be chosen. But they were rejected time and time again. All the people who came out to hire workers for their fields rejected this group of workers.
Maybe they weren’t the cream of the crop. Maybe they were weak, small. Maybe they were disabled. Maybe they were visibly poor. Maybe they had a reputation that people wanted to stay away from. Maybe they were ex-convicts. Maybe they had different colored skin. Maybe they were foreigners.
Whatever the reason, they weren’t chosen. They were rejected, picked over time and time again until this, the last hour of the day in which they still waited, still hoped.
When is it too late?
When do we give up hope?
It’s been 17 years since my conversation with Tom and my failed church thing. I’m 40 now, and although I am considered middle-aged, the question in my mind remains: is it too late to pursue a calling have all but given up on? They say it’s never too late, but the truth is when the first hour comes and passes you by, then the second, third, sixth, ninth all come and go, and no one picks you, no one chooses you, no one believes in you enough to invest in you and your hopes and dreams, you begin to wonder if the day has passed you by and you will never be able to do the work you set out to find.
With god, it is never too late, and let me tell you I am here for it.
In the eleventh hour, the vineyard owner shows up and hires those who have been neglected and rejected. Not only are they chosen, but when the time comes to get paid for the work they did, although they only worked an hour or so, they are paid the wages for a full day.
For me, this means that I still have the chance to respond to the hopes and dreams the Spirit has burned into my bones. I’m going to school for religious studies to see what paths open up to help me achieve what it means for me to work in the vineyard. I am still chosen. I am not left out. And I am promised that the reward for my work will not be any less than it would be if I had done this in my twenties.
The grace of the vineyard owner abounds. Not only does he choose the unchosen, but he also rewards them for their work according to his generosity, not their circumstances.
Jesus wants you.
Jesus needs you to come, to work in his vineyard, preparing the wine and the bread, the body and the blood. Jesus is ready to pay you a full day’s wages no matter what time of day it is, no matter where you find yourself or who has passed you over.
No matter your skin color, Jesus wants you.
Your bank account may be in the negative. Doesn’t matter; Jesus wants you.
English may not be your first language. Jesus wants you.
Other people may say your gender or sexuality is a sin. Jesus wants you.
You may be in America undocumented, trying to better your circumstances. Jesus wants you.
Your history may be filled with prejudice and pride, privilege that you are just now coming to terms with. Jesus wants you.
Every creed, nationality, tongue, and tribe: Jesus wants us all.
He is standing in the marketplace, asking, “Why are you standing around idle?” not to judge, but in surprise that no one has accepted us yet. We answer, “Because no one has hired us. No one has chosen us. No one will care for us, pay us what we’re worth, allow us to prove we are faithful workers.” Jesus replies, “Come, work in my vineyard. I will pay you more than you think you’re worth; I will pay you what I know your worth.”
Jesus wants workers. It’s not that Jesus is indiscriminate, grabbing every riffraff, not caring, just throwing bodies at some work. No. Jesus wants all of us as workers because he knows that we have a role to play, a part that only we can fill, talents and skills that would go to waste if we weren’t hired.
Jesus wants us to come and live lives filled with goodness, justice, and mercy. Jesus wants us to love our neighbors as only we can. Jesus wants us to think deeply, love richly, share openly. Jesus wants us to do what he did while he was here:
Bring good news to the poor.
Proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
Let the oppressed go free.
Proclaim the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is the vineyard work, embodying the Eucharist’s message: all are welcomed, and no one needs to go hungry. There is enough for us all. We have been loved with a magnificent, extravagant love so that we may love with extravagant magnificence.
People like Tom would have us all believe that you have to earn the right to serve god. People like Tom would tell you that Jesus needs you to clean up before he lets you work his vineyard. People like Tom will try to convince you of your worthlessness.
It’s all a lie.
As you are, who you are, everything you are, your pain and joy, your sorrow and laughter, your wounds and strengths, your fuckups and triumphs, all of it is wanted by Jesus because it is all of you.
There is nothing that can separate you from the love of Jesus. Full stop. End of sentence. Nothing to add. Jesus’ love is what drives him to choose you, to accept you, to embrace you. Jesus wants you.
In the first letter to Corinthians, Paul says, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But god chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of god.”
God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the blessed Trinity chooses what is foolish and chooses the low, the weak, the despised. God’s not into the powerful and the strong, those who the world systems seek out and worship. God is into those who are unchosen, looked over, rejected. The marginalized and oppressed are the people Jesus is interested in.
If you find yourself rejected, wounded, unchosen, take heart. Jesus wants you to work for him as you are, with everything you are.
From now on, you are chosen. No longer will you stand idle in the marketplace, hoping and dreaming of acceptance. No, you will get your hands stained with wine, and your fingers will toughen up from working the vine. You are necessary for the harvest.
No one is unacceptable. There is room for all of us in the vineyard and at the table.
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Originally published at https://culturalsavage.com on October 24, 2020.