03 November 2008


MATTHEW 20:1-16

About four weeks ago now I went to a house I'd never been to before for a visit. My new friend who I hadn't met yet had been diagnosed with cancer, and had told his daughter that he was running low on hope and wanted to talk with her pastor. This is what happened between that day and now ...

Thinking and praying about what I should share with my new friend I was led to a Jesus parable found in MATTHEW 20:1-16.

And as I drove down their long driveway, I realized why this was the part of God’s WORD I’d been led to share as a way to give offer hope about life, eternity, and about being in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Here’s the Jesus story I shared that day …

vv. 1-7 – For the kingdom of Heaven is like a
farmer going out early in the morning to
hire laborers for his vineyard. He agreed
with them on a wage of a silver coin a day
and sent them to work. About nine o'clock
he went and saw some others standing about
in the market place with nothing to do. “You
go to the vineyard too,” he said to them, “and
I will pay you a fair wage.” And off they went.

At about mid-day and again at about three
o'clock in the afternoon he went and did the same
thing. Then about five o'clock he went out and
found some others standing about. “Why are you
standing about here all day doing nothing?” he asked
them. “Because no one has employed us,” they
replied. “You go off into the vineyard as well, then,” he said.

vv. 8-12 - When evening came the owner of the
vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and
pay them their wages, beginning with the last and
ending with the first.” So those who were engaged
at five o'clock came up and each man received a silver coin.

But when the first to be employed came they
reckoned they would get more, but they also received
a silver coin a man. As they took their money they
grumbled at the farmer and said, “These last fellows
have only put in one hour's work and you've treated
them exactly the same as us who have gone
through all the hard work and heat of the day!”

vv. 13-16 – But he replied to one of them, “My
friend, I'm not being unjust to you. Wasn't our
agreement for a silver coin a day? Take your
money and go home. It is my wish to give the
latecomers as much as I give you. May I not do
what I like with what belongs to me? Must you be
jealous because I am generous? So, many who
are the last now will be the first then and the first last.”

God is the vineyard owner and you and I are the laborers. And the silver coin represents the gift of the abundant life with Jesus in the here and now –the hope we have when we know Jesus, and the eternal life God gives to everyone who respond to His invitation and come into a relationship with Him.

Some people come to God early in their lives, and others later in their lives. But no matter when we come to God, it’s never too late, and God loves us just the same. On the day I visited my new friend, after reading this Jesus parable to him and talking about it, he told me that he wanted to come into a relationship with Jesus. Hope came. Three weeks later, he died at home.

I have a friend named Brennan who lives outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Years ago Brennan sent me a story about something that had happened to a priest friend of his. And as I read Brennan’s words this past week I realized that while the story didn’t have anything to do with my new friend, that it actually had everything to do with him … and so here is the story Brennan sent me.

One day a woman named Ellie, whose family had a long-standing but seldom taken-advantage-of relationship with the Catholic church in her neighborhood came over to talk with the priest about her dad Tom … whom the doctors had just given days or weeks left to live.

After introducing herself to this priest, named Allen, Ellie said that her dad had asked her to ask him if he could come over and visit with him. Even though Allen had never met Ellie or Tom, he knew some of their extended family … and he told her that “yes, of course he could come over … and that he’d be there late that afternoon.”

And so around 4:00 p.m. Allen came over to sit with Tom … and to read Scripture with him and pray with him if he wanted him to. He’d kind of play it by ear.

When Allen arrived at the house, Ellie took him into Tom’s first-floor bedroom. She told Allen that because he was there to kind of keep an eye on her dad, that she’d run to the store, pick up a few things and be back in about 45 minutes.

Tom was about 55 years old, had Lou Gehrig’s disease and Allen could see that yes, indeed, he was very near the end of his life. Tom had been trapped in his bed for most of the past eleven months, except to get up and use the restroom. And during the past six months he hadn’t even been able to do that unassisted.

Tom was awake and looked uncomfortable. He was propped up on pillows at odd angles – trying to relive the pain of being in a bed too long. On his left side there was a little side-table with a pitcher of water, a CD player and a couple of different machines, beeping and chugging along … and on the right side of the bed sat an empty chair.

Allen walked over to the empty chair, but when he tried to sit down, Tom put out his hand to stop him, craned his neck to look out the bedroom door to see if his daughter had gone and said, “Thanks for coming over Father. If you don’t mind, can you pull up that other chair to sit on … the one over there by the desk?”

Allen didn’t know exactly why the chair next to the bed wasn’t available to him, but he obliged Tom’s request, grabbed the desk chair, pulled it up next to the bed and sat down. The room was filled with silence, but it was a peaceful silence, not an awkward one … the kind of silence that’s more relieving than irritating. Finally Tom said, “I guess you’re probably wondering about the chair?”

“Well, ya” Allen said, “I was a little curious about it.”

And then Tom told Father Allen this story …

“About 7 months ago an old childhood friend of mine named Nick came by to visit. We hadn’t seen one another for quite a few years. You know how it is … stuff just got in the way. But Nick had heard I was sick so he stopped by. I thought he would probably just visit one time, but he kept coming back … usually a couple times a week … in fact he’ll be here again Saturday.”

“One day while we were playing cards Nick asked me if I ever prayed. I told him that when we were kids I used to pray sometimes. But that mainly I’d ask God for things like that we’d have enough food to eat or that my dad would get a job … and then be able to keep a job … stuff like that. But that, no, I hadn’t prayed for a long time.

Nick told me that he hadn’t been much of a praying man either … and that in fact throughout most of his life he’d pretty much lived life as though God didn’t exist.

But then a couple of years ago his wife got sick with cancer and died … and that during that time Nick realized that when some really critical, important things in his life hadn’t turned out the way he thought they should, or hoped they would, he’d been majorly disappointed with God, and made the decision to shut God out of his life.

Then Nick went on to tell Tom that during his wife’s illness everything changed – and he came to discover God as his father and his friend, as his companion, his comforter, and his guide … and that ever since then he’d prayed quite a bit.

Tom asked Nick how he did it … how he prayed … did he bow or kneel? Did he close his eyes? Did he whisper, did he talk in a normal voice, did he yell, or did he just pray silently, with no words at all? And he said, that “yes, he prayed all those ways.”

But Nick told Tom that the way he liked to pray the most was to pull up an empty chair across from him … and then picturing Jesus sitting in the chair, he would just talk with Jesus, knee to knee.

Tom told Allen that when Nick told him the empty-chair-story he thought it was kind of strange, almost spooky … but that after Nick left, and the more he thought about it, the more he felt compelled to try it for himself. And so a few days later Tom asked Ellie to bring the chair into the room – the empty chair that now sat next to the bed.

He told her that he needed the chair to grab onto when he had to get up or change positions in bed. Then Tom told Allen that he didn’t dare tell Ellie why he really had her bring in the chair. No way. I mean she thought that her dad’s cheese had sled off his cracker a long time ago – even before he got sick – and that he didn’t need to give her any fresh ammunition to prove that her theory was right.

And then Tom said, “Father Allen, every day since Ellie brought that chair into my room, I’ve been praying 5-6 hours a day. I picture Jesus sitting in the chair and we just talk.

I can’t really sit up, across from the chair like Nick does, but I pull the chair around so that the chair seat is directly across from me and I just tell Jesus all my problems, all my frustrations, and also all the things I’m thankful for, and that I’m actually looking forward to being with Him face-to-face in heaven someday.

And then I wait and listen … and Jesus talks to me. Not with audible words, but in ways that soothe me, calm me and that make me realize that to not talk with Him … that to not listen to Him would be like not breathing. I’ve grown to love our times together. I’ve come to love Jesus. And maybe even more important than that, I’ve come to believe that Jesus loves me.

As Father Allen sat there listening to Tom, he was blessed and amazed. Tom was dying, but he was also living more fully than he had ever lived before. They talked a bit more, and Allen read to him out of some different passages in the Gospels and from the Psalms … and after about an hour, when Ellie got back from the store Allen told her and Tom that if they wanted him to … he’d be back in two days to visit again … and they assured him that they would.

The next afternoon Ellie came to the church to see Allen. She told him that when she went to give her father his breakfast that morning she found that he had died during the night. Allen was shocked that he’d been with Tom on his last day here on earth. But he also knew that Tom was ready to go home, and be with Jesus.

Allen told Ellie that he’d really enjoyed their time together the day before – that it had been an honor to meet her dad and hear him talk with him of his love for God.

He told her that if he could help with the funeral, to let him know – and that he just wanted to be there for them in whatever way they needed the most. Ellie told him that she’d be in touch the next day, and then as she turned to leave she stopped, turned back around and said, “You know, Father, it was kind of strange. This morning when I went into dad’s room he was almost halfway out of his bed.”

“You mean he’d fallen part-way out of bed during the night?” Father Allen asked.

“No,” Ellie replied. “It was the strangest thing. I’m not sure what happened. He hadn’t fallen. But he’d pulled that chair he kept next to the bed, up as close as it could get to the bed … and then he’d turned in his bed as much as he could, and he’d put his head over onto the arm of the chair. And that’s how I found him … with his head laying over against the arm of the chair. It was strange … but he also looked more peaceful than I’ve ever seen him.”

My new friend was a loving and faithful husband. He was a good father and friend. I know that he didn't have a chair like Tom’s next to his bed, but I know that three weeks ago he found the hope he was looking for, and he told God that when it was time to come home to Him, that because he’d found redemption, hope and eternity in Him … even though like the vineyard workers, it was at the end of the day, that he was ready. And for that, many people in his life are thankful.

You know, death has a way of putting life into perspective … it reminds us of our own mortality … it whispers in our ear a suggestion to get OUR house in order, to set OUR priorities straight, to see OURSELVES as people with a beginning and an end.

And that kind of perspective urges us to ask questions like “HOW can I move from today into tomorrow without regret over how I've lived?” “HOW can I make the most of my life, sometimes in the midst of hard circumstances, yes, sometimes even in the midst of death.”

Everybody here today has a different story – a different history – a different collection of victories and joys – different set of sorrows and pains. And our story and our history and our sorrows and our victories make us who we are. But you know what? None of us have to STAY who we are.

Author Clyde Reid once wrote, “Don’t wait, or you’ll end up waiting forever … jump into the now.” What wonderful words for us to hear and act on today. With God’s help you and I CAN change. We can take the leap of faith my new friend took three weeks ago when he came into a relationship with God.

In 1958 C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer and during the next months he reflected and wrote on his feelings in a little book entitled A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy’s absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

Each in our own way we can connect with Lewis’ words … and that the pain of losing someone we loved to death feels “like the sky, spread over everything" as the pain and grief we feel seems overwhelming, and/or numbing.

But in the days following the death of someone we love, and as we invite God to be our comforter and our counselor, a remarkable thing can begin to happen – and we’ll notice that for short periods the hurt will not be so great. And this will be the beginning of our healing. And so I encourage each of us in two directions …

FIRST don’t deny the pain we feel when someone we loves dies.

SECOND, don’t reject the healing God wants to
bring to us in the days and weeks after the death of someone we love.


1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

God is good. God can be trusted. God loves us. Small steps. Big God. Godspeed.



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