18 September 2011

Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost - L20A - "Unfairly Loved by an Unpredictable God"

Preaching Texts

            My friend Brittany and I had a funny little Twitter exchange this week.  First she said something about “another 14 hour work day” (she’s an English teacher and they’re in the midst of their first round of parent-teacher conferences).  I replied “you get summers off – kwitcherbitchin – sez the guy who works one hour per week.”  And just like that we were off to the races.  She told me I could do her conferences for her if I liked, and I told her if I did they’d be a lot shorter and to the point: “Your kid rocks/Your kid sucks.”  She said she didn’t know many pastors who’d be satisfied saying things in one sentence when an entire paragraph would do. 
It’s the kind of relationship where we can do this to each other because we respect each other deeply.  She knows I treasure the contributions teachers like her make to the lives of their students, and I know she respects the pastoral office – her former pastor is now a bishop in the ELCA, and he’s a good one, so she learned from the best what it means to be a pastor.  Brittany and her husband Aaron are both educators; two of the finest I know.  They see their work as a calling, a vocation, something they do for the sake of the world, not for the sake of the paycheck.  I feel the same way about my work as a pastor, and so does my wife Kristin in her work as a director of youth and family ministry. 
All the same, someone’s gotta pay the bills on time, so that paycheck does matter when you get right down to it.  All of us would love to say that we work for completely altruistic reasons, but that simply isn’t the case, is it?  We want fair wages for our work.  We need fair wages for our work  To be frank, I believe much of what we’re currently arguing about as a nation revolves around what’s fair and how much more fair it is to some than to others. 
So that’s why I want to be very clear about our readings today: God is completely, totally unfair to his people.  Without reservation.  Without explanation.  Unfair, and unpredictable to boot.  This parable is the latest in a series of teachings that Jesus gives to show, with overwhelming evidence, that God is a lousy bookkeeper, a willfully extravagant business owner, a ridiculously wastefulCEO who will fritter the merits of the church away on its last and least, while those who have paid their dues and put in their time watch in horror.
The prophet Jonah certainly watched in horror.  What we read today is the part of Jonah’s story most of us don’t know.  What DO you know about Jonah?  (ran away from God, spent 3 days in the belly of the whale, went where he was told).  Jonah was a prophet from north of Jerusalem, sent to Nineveh, which is on the Tigris River, far to the east, the home of the Assyrian empire, one-time conquerors of the Israelites and definitely the type of folks a faithful Jew like Jonah would want to avoid.  So he did.  Jonah left his home near Jerusalem and headed for Tarshish, a city on the coast of Spain.  It’s the equivalent of being told to go from Ames to Iowa City and heading for Omaha instead.  This wasn’t dissembling or delaying: it was an outright refusal of the word of God.  But when the part of the story you do know was done, Jona received a renewed commission to go to Nineveh. 
The rest of the story is not so well-known, but it is every bit as remarkable.  Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered this sermon:  “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!”  Seven words – and they worked.  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 their hearts and lives around.  God chose not to destroy the city.  Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Nineveh repented, God relented, Jonah vented.”
That’s right: Jonah vented.  Jonah deemed God’s mercy not only unfair, but utterly predictable.  “I KNEW you were going to have mercy!,” Jonah cried, “and I would rather die than 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.”  Jonah delivered this speech with all the outrage of a fourteen year-old who’s just discovering that the world isn’t theirs to run.  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, the parable of the workers in the vineyard and our story begin to run parallel.  We often confuse God being fair with God being right.  Fair is definitely a standard to uphold in our own business dealings, particularly where it guarantees a living wage to people for their work, but fair is not gracious, and fair is not always life-giving or life-changing.  Right is different than fair.  Right, as God applies it, appears to be determined by need, a standard of care for each individual, unaffected by what others may receive or ned.  Right is grace where grace is neded, mercy where mercy is needed, conviction where conviction is needed – all determined by our loving Creator who sets the standards and fulfills 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 given more than ‘us.’  And we tend to see the work of the day as a burden to be borne, just like the workers in the vineyard.  But this is not what an unfair, unpredictable God desires for us.  God desires for us to keep our eyes focused on what God has given to us without coveting what God gives to others.  God wants “they” to be one of “us.”  And God wants us to understand that each day, whatever it may bring, is a gift given by a gracious creator who has made us and everything that is out of sheer divine goodness and love, without our deserving or demanding. 
This parable is not about running a vineyard.  This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and the grace of God – gifts God bestows on the world, not wages we earn, citizenship we accomplish or a commodity we purchase.  Before you finished that homework assignment, before you made that skinny venti no-foam latte with a shot of hazelnut, before you even rose from sleep this morning, God gave you the kingdom of heaven and everything that goes with it, not because you deserved it, not because you needed it, but only because God wanted you to come to know the joy of living and working in the kingdom of heaven.  It’s totally unfair – I know.  God gave me the same gift, and I have the same hard time accepting it most of the time.  I want to earn it.  I want to work for it.  I want my years of service to mean something.  It’s the worst kind of trap: we fall upward into sin as we try to earn and claim the gift God gives to us each and every day.  We are given everything when God invites us into the kingdom that is all around us.  That’s it.  Everything that comes after is how we say, “Thank you.”  Totally unfair. 
            You know what’s also unfair?  The first who are now last get in, too.  Jesus didn’t say, “The first will be left behind.”  Jesus didn’t say, “The first will be excluded.”  Jesus didn’t say, “The first will be abandoned.”  Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  No matter who we think is Nineveh, God’s unpredictable love for them is as unfair as it is for you.  Because the truth is, we’re all somebody’s Nineveh.  Someone, right now, is looking at you and thinking “he’s only been here an hour – why is he getting paid so well?”  Someone thought about you today, and that thought was “If she was on fire I wouldn’t spit on her to put it out.” 
            The best way I can put it comes from the end of Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation.  In it we find Mrs. Turpin, an upstanding church member who is sitting in a doctor’s office.  Mrs. Turpin “sometimes…occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.  On the bottom of the heap were most colored people…next to them…were the white trash…then above them were the homeowners, and above them the home-and-land owners…Above she and [her husband] were peole with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.  As Mrs. Turpin discusses these kind of “virtues” with her neighbor, the neighbor’s daughter gets more and more angry, until she hurls her book at Mrs. Turpin and screams, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”  Mrs. Turpin, rocked to her core, goes home and has a heart-to heart with God while she’s watering down the hogs on her farm.  At the end of her heart to heart with God, Mrs. Turpin hollers, “JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!?!?!?!?”  It is at this moment that she receives a vision, a revelation of the saints walking toward heaven.  At the front are all the people she’s looked down on for all her life, singing and laughing and clapping and dancing.  At the end are her people, the good folks:
They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were [singing] on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…what she heard were the voices of the souls climing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.[2]
            God doesn’t care what others think about you.  God doesn’t care what Mrs. Turpin or Pastor Scott or your parents or that stranger who flipped you off the other day thinks about you.  God has marked you as a member of the family:  you’re God’s Jonah, God’s Nineveh, God’s all-day worker, God’s last-hour worker.  You are, in this moment, swept up into God’s kingdom, regardless of where you’re coming from or what you were doing.  Upset because God’s being merciful to someone you can’t stand?  You still belong to God.  Repenting after a lifetime of bad choices and idolatry?  You still belong to God.  Been working in the kingdom from the moment the sun came up?  You still belong to God.  Just got a sweat worked up when the boss said to call it a day?  You still belong to God.  You are unfairly loved by an unpredictable God.  You have been swept into “the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God,” and the one thing you can count on in all that will come is that reckless, raging, furious love.  It will be unpredictable.  It will be unfair.  It will be magnificent, heart-breaking, beyond your comprehension, and, in the end, it will be your salvation.  Thanks be to our unfair, unpredictable God.  Amen.

[1] Smith, Robert.  The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament:  Matthew. © 1990 by Augsburg Fortress.
[2] O’Connor, Flannery.  Revelation

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