21 September 2008

Sermon for 21 September 2008 - "God on a String"

“Testimonial” by Harry Newman, Jr.

You are cordially invited
To attend, at $100 a plate
A testimonial to those
Who have devoted their lives
To the humanitarian purpose
Of making money

No sacrifice too great
No relationship too dear
To accumulate enough
To afford the luxury

Of giving it away
In some worthy cause
Or other.

Just listen to that applause
From the thousand or more
Gathered here in tribute,
Black tied, bejeweled,
Pledging their allegiance
To the honorees and
To the secret hope

That one such memorable night
They too might step
Into the blue white shaft
And receive their plaque.

We are a people dedicated to “getting what’s coming to you.” You don’t need to look far for evidence. The contract negotiations of professional athletes can throw entire teams into turmoil. Airline labor strikes and airline executives selling stock options before filing for bankruptcy dominated the news in Minnesota a few summers ago. One would hope that the church could remain above the fray, but of course, that hope would be misplaced. The Prayer of Jabez hoodwinked thousands into praying for increase a few years ago. Televangelists exploit the gullible and cry “Foul!” when their exploitation is investigated by the federal government. The church, as usual, is as scarlet as the society in which she lives.
In our gospel reading today, we meet a group of workers who might understand the concept of rewards. They are, after all, waiting for what is theirs by right. They agreed to work for wages, and when the hour of payment comes, they expect to receive in accordance with their work. But here is where the story gets twisted, and we discover that God’s ways are indeed not our ways – and God has a great gap of definition between what’s “fair” and what’s “right.”
There is always a temptation to have a god on a string – a puppet who dances as I expect God to dance. I don’t know much about marionette puppeteers, but I have always been fascinated by their work. They manipulate their puppets so well – it shows years of work and years of patiently practicing until there are no unexpected movements, nothing except the lifelike dance of a puppet on a string.
I find a lot of similarity between our spiritual expectations and the manipulations of a master puppeteer. It is so easy for us to boil the Christian faith down to a set of weights, slide rules and calculations. I do good works, God rewards me with love. I try to be a good husband, God rewards me with a loving wife. I faithfully teach and preach in accordance with the Scriptures, God rewards me with a faithful and peaceful congregation. I live according to God’s laws, God rewards me with an untroubled, successful life. To suggest otherwise seems unfair: after all, I’m keeping MY end of the bargain, aren’t I?
Along with our Gospel reading today we have Jonah, which my Old Testament professor always told us was both “a story about a whale – and a whale of a story.” Jonah was a prophet from north of Jerusalem, sent to Nineveh, on the Tigris River. Nineveh was the home of the Assyrians, one-time conquerors of the Israelites and definitely the type of folks a faithful Jew of Jonah’s time would avoid.
Jonah, being unwilling to preach a harsh word to his enemies, set out instead to Tarshish, a port on the cost of Spain. You can’t go any farther away, in a more opposite direction than the route Jonah took after God first called him. This was not dissembling or delaying: it was an outright refusal of the call. During a terrible storm at sea, at which time even the lots cast by the sailors indicted Jonah as the cause of the storm, Jonah found himself volunteering to be cast into the sea rather than allowing innocent sailors to suffer for his disobedience, and upon being swallowed by a whale (remember this, and remember other4 characters who wind up in the belly of a wale), Jonah prayed for mercy and received it – but Jonah also received a renewed commission to go to Nineveh.
We remember this part of Jonah’s story – it is embedded in the vernacular memory of our Western civilization. But the rest of the story, while not so well-known, is every bit as remarkable. Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered one sentence of prophecy: “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” In spite of the brevity of this prophecy, Jonah was one of the few successful prophets of the Old Testament. Nineveh, that great destroyer of God’s people, heard the prophecy and turned from their ways, and God chose not to destroy the city. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Nineveh repents. God relents. Jonah vents.”
That’s right: Jonah vents. Jonah deemed God’s mercy not only unfair, but predictably unpredictable. “I KNEW you were going to have mercy!,” cried Jonah, “and I would rather die that see the Assyrians receive mercy! You, Lord, are simply unreliable. You have mercy where it suits you and you punish where it suits you, and it just isn’t fair.” This delivered with all the piquancy and outrage of an adolescent with a bad case of I-don’t-rule-the-world-itis. Jonah displayed that “It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God’s strange calculus of grace as applied to themselves but fear and resent seeing it applied to others.” [1]
Here is where Jonah’s story and our story become parallel. We often confuse God being fair with God being right. Fair is equal pay for equal work. Fair is definitely a standard to uphold in our dealings with one another, but fair is not gracious, and fair is not always life-giving, or life-changing. Right is different than fair. Right is determined by the basic needs of those around us. Right is a standard of care for each individual case, independent of what others may receive or need. Right is grace where grace is needed, mercy where mercy is needed, and conviction where conviction is needed – all determined by the Creator who sets the standards and makes divine promises regardless of what we may think of them.
There are a number of problems for us here. We compare what we receive to what those around us receive. We become angry when ‘they’ are made equal to ‘us.’ And we tend to see the work of the day as a burden to be borne, just as the workers in the vineyard once did. With God on our string, dancing according to what we think is fair, life would be good, we think, but this is an illusion – a worldview that hasn’t ever been accurate and hasn’t ever been what God intends for us.
It is time to stop calculating. God never has been, and never will be, a puppet to dance on our strings. “It isn’t fair,” we say, and the answer is heard: “You’re right: the fair is in August, down at the county fairgrounds.” Fair is not the issue: right is the issue. What’s right in today’s gospel reading is the landowner keeping promises individually. The landowner pays what was promised to each individual worker – and the landowner sets the wage in each case, giving exactly what was promised.
This parable is NOT about running a vineyard. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is a gift God bestows upon us, not a wage we earn or a commodity which we purchase. The price of this righteousness is non-negotiable and non-refundable; all that you and I can do is enjoy the freedom God gives to us when our sins are forgiven and God’s righteousness is bestowed upon us. The gift God gives is right – in the mercy of Jesus Christ we become aligned with God, “what Adam and Eve were meant to be, only better,” as Martin Luther once said.
When God fulfills God’s promises and makes us right, it is fair, but a different kind of fair. This is “Beautiful Savior” fairness: fair to the eye and to the life being restored through the power of the Spirit. This fairness is beautiful because it is undeserved, and all the more striking because it is unlikely. This fairness of God is a rose growing in an abandoned parking lot; heartfelt, soul-cleansing laughter at a funeral; it is beauty in places we never expected to see it. We cannot protest the coming of such fairness – we can only receive it with gladness and thanksgiving.
Maybe you were the first to be invited into the vineyard that is the work of the church. Maybe you’re one of the ones who came in midday. Maybe you’re one of those who right here, today, is being brought into the vineyard. Regardless of when you were brought in, I want to invite you to look around you and realize that this is the promise that God makes to you through the power of God’s abundant grace. Instead of God on a string, we were the puppets, bound and dancing at the desire of our sin, death and the power of Satan. But in God’s rich, undeserved mercy, we are being changed, like Pinocchio, into real people. No more dancing, no more pulling strings, no more time spent in the belly of the whale, no more calculating and no more worries about what we’ve got coming to us. Today we are gathered into the vineyard by our gracious Creator, who promises freedom, daily bread and the chance to take part intending all that God has created. You have been given everything you were promised, and that includes the ties that bind us together here, fellow workers in the vineyard of the Lord, ready for another day’s labor and the reward of life together, now and forever. And this, friends, is both powerfully right and wondrously fair. Amen.
[1] Smith, Robert. The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. © 1990 by Augsburg Fortress.

1 comment:

  1. This is the third sermon I've heard/read on this text. I can't get the Veggie Tales song out of my head: Jonah was a prophet - ooh, ooh; but he never really got it - sad but true . . .

    Anyway, good words to chew on for the week. Thanks!