Sermon of the Week:
God’s Confusing and Confounding Grace
World Communion Sunday
Keywords: Laborers in the Vineyard, God is God and We are Not, Jonah, Good Samaritan, Perspective. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
One of the most helpful things that the Bible does,
if we read it faithfully,
is confound us.
By that I mean
that it urges us
to adopt a bigger perspective than we ordinarily would,
to challenge our assumptions,
to shoulder some humility and accept that we don’t know everything,
we can’t know everything,
to affirm that, in theological terms,
God is God and we are not.
And if God is truly God, and not what we simply imagine God to be
or construct God to be,
then we’re going to learn a thing or two along the way, aren’t we.
Now, the Bible often comforts us, too,
by reminding us that we are beloved,
made in God’s very image,
in our diversity and our uniqueness.
The Bible often guides us,
helps us form communities
of faith and hope
order and ardor,
to love our neighbor, to authentically love ourself,
to put love at the center
and trust that God’s realm will prevail.
But throughout all of that
we also know that God is God and we are not,
and that reality means that often we are reminded of our limits,
of how we misread things,
how we make mistakes.
We see this all the time in the Bible.
For example, consider some of the stories we focused on
in the sermon series we just concluded last month.
When you look at the mess the Hebrews found themselves in, right,
and were honest about the social conditions that the book of Exodus opens with,
we might assume that the world’s superpower (that would be Egypt)
is going to freely take advantage of its enslaved people (that would be the Hebrews),
that they would be in this situation forever…
That the power of the Egyptians,
physical power, military power, police power,
would operate unchecked, because we tend to believe that coercive power wins. Sound familiar?
The Egyptians were given a chance.
They didn’t want to change, to let them go,
to free the Hebrews after so many years.
The Egyptians didn’t think anyone or anything could make them,
and, by implication, the reader agrees with them.
It is the way of the world.
The way things are.
But God has other plans. Amen.
And the Hebrews are set free.
And then jump forward just a bit,
when the Hebrews are out wandering, aimlessly, in the wilderness,
and they are hopeless.
I mean, they believed, for a hot minute,
when the plagues were falling and the sea was parted
and they saw the chariots of their tormentors broken and floating
but it wasn’t long before reality set in
that they were a long, long way to the promised land…
and we join them in struggling to see a future when things feel so bleak,
where there is no food or water or order or hope.
But somehow, God provides,
and makes a way out of nothing,
creates a new reality,
and leads the forward toward Canaan…
even if it takes a generation to get all the way there.
Stories like these challenge us,
confound us, are not what we, deep down, expect from God,
and in doing so,
we learn something ABOUT God,
and something about us…
the way we THINK God will act,
and then how different things often ARE.
You see this elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, too.
Take a look at Jeremiah, for instance,
prophet to a people in exile
to a people yearning to return home
to get back to the way it used to be…
Some were trying to sooth their anxiety
by telling them that it would be over in a flash,
and not to spend the time or the energy dealing with the reality in front of them.
Why do that, when we’ll be back home soon…
Jeremiah, on the other hand,
tells them to trust that God has plans for them,
but those plans are not the plans they expect.
God wants them to love the city where they find themselves
to build houses there and plant gardens and have families…
God wants them to live…but to live in a new way
a way that they didn’t expect or really quite know how to fulfill.
Or what about Abraham:
he laughed at the prospect of children.
The architects at Babel:
convinced that they could build a tower all the way to God.
Ruth and Naomi: they find a will and a way to survive, together,
against all odds in a patriarchal world.
Or take Jonah.
Jonah might be one of my favorite examples of this in the Hebrew Bible.
I was reminded of Jonah when one of you mentioned this week
that you were reading a great little book by Rob Bell called What is the Bible?
Rob Bell has a section in that book
exploring how the Bible challenges our assumptions
because we can often see ourselves in these larger than life characters
figures who engage God at these dramatic inflection points
in the story of God’s gracious activity…
and sometimes struggle with God in the process.
Jonah, you might remember, is the guy in the fish.
God goes to him, tells him to go to his enemies, the Assyrians,
and to call them to repentance by walking through the heart of their wicked city, Nineveh,
and warning them that God wasn’t all that happy with them.
Jonah didn’t want to do it, so he went the other way, toward the sea,
and got on a boat to get outta there…
and God wasn’t going to let that happen
so there’s a storm and big waves
and the sailors are nervous
and they toss him overboard, right.
And that works.
Jonah, down deep in the dark ocean below.
But he’s ok.
God causes that fish to swallow him
and gives him a few days to think about all of this
and then deposits him back on the shore.
Jonah, apparently, gets the point,
and he goes to Nineveh and does as he was asked to do,
and to his deep chagrin, they repent.
The Assyrians repent.
They mourn their failings.
They seek forgiveness.
And the promised punishment of God never comes.
And there’s this moment at the end of Jonah
where he goes up on a hilltop and he sulks for a while
and God goes to see what’s up
and Jonah tells God “See. I knew you wouldn’t do it.
I knew you were slow to anger and gracious and merciful.”
It is quite a scene.
And Rob Bell points out that this text is so hard for us
because it gets at the deep struggle we have, in our hearts,
with God’s broad grace,
that God would go to the Assyrians,
who were like a “huge, gaping, open wound for the Israelites”
and would even offer them a way out, offer them redemption, and wholeness, and a change of heart.
And they would take it.
And Jonah is sitting there, broken,
because his prayers have been for their destruction. For vengeance.
There’s a word for that. Imprecatory prayers.
They’re often honest prayer, born of heartache and hurt and genuine evil done in the world…
and that was the Assyrians,
these people who did such evil to him and his people…
and they did. They were awful.
But the book of Jonah ends with a question, which God asks him:
“Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city”
and the 120,000 people who live there?
And as you watch this unfold,
you see Jonah unable to accept God’s openness to their redemption, to their repentance,
and the Assyrians, on the other hand, they are indeed ready to repent and change their ways.
Or, as Bell puts it:
“The story is extremely subversive because it insists that
your enemy may be more open
to God’s redeeming love than you are.”
Yeah, that’s a hard lesson for me, too.
And that sort of challenge to our conventional wisdom,
to the way we think things ought to be,
isn’t just something we encounter from time to time in the Hebrew Scriptures,
it continues throughout the New Testament, too,
maybe because all of this
is really something about what it means to be human,
to be finite creatures,
ultimately dependent on God’s grace
to give us strength to do better
ultimately dependent on God
to be the one to do what we cannot:
to save us, to forgive us, and to help us do the right.
What’s going on in this parable of the workers in the vineyard?
Jesus tells us the story of five groups of laborers
who come to the vineyard at different hours of the day.
When they gather to be paid,
all receive the same wage,
regardless of the time they clocked in,
regardless of how much effort and work and sweat and toil they contributed.
This upsets those who have been working all day long,
who are maybe weary, backs hurting a bit from everything
when they see those guys who just barely broke a sweat
got the same as they did.
So they complain,
and the owner would have none of it
“Are you envious because I am generous?” he asks.
And we say:
You bet we are!
Here’s the thing: If we aren’t a bit envious, we’re not hearing the parable.
It is meant to rub us the wrong way.
Here, visions of fairness and equality chafe,
and because we carry around notions of what is fair and what is not,
this story offends most of them.
I mean, sure, we might give the vineyard owner enough credit
to agree that he can run his business any old way he pleases
so long as he doesn’t mistreat the workers, and there’s no claim of that here.
But we cannot rest comfortably with his choices.
We can agree: it was good that they all got to work.
Everyone has to eat. The grapes wont pick themselves.
But if the master wants to be generous,
is determined to be generous,
Why not give those who worked all day a bonus? A little bit more?
That would also be fair, would it not?
In other words,
the way generosity gets passed around in this story
challenges our sense of justice.
So in a way, the story is designed to have us take our place
with those who were hired first, paid last,
and who now complain.
And so we join the chorus of grumbling
at the back of the line.
We have a good view from back here.
We see everything that is happening.
We see the others being paid.
The owner’s generosity to the others whom we think aren’t quite deserving.
And as we begin to consider what it is like, here, at the back of the line
we begin to see that the issue is greater than just a question of hours worked and equal pay.
We see that it is not quite equality
not quite fairness that we’re after,
but something else we want:
if the owner is going to play favorites,
we want to be the favored ones.
If the owner is going to be ridiculously generous,
we would like some of that ridiculous generosity, thank you very much.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” asks the vineyard owner.
You bet we are!
And they protest: why is God not that good to me?
Why does God not love me that much?
As they sit there stewing in bitterness due to a generosity that others receive.
If I can’t have it, no one should…
Someone reminded me that this sounds an awful lot
like the older brother, in the story of the Prodigal son,
the one upset when the father killed the fatted calf for the party,
the one who was set for life, still having his half of the inheritance all squared away,
but so very angry that the fatted calf was slaughtered for this ingrate brother of his…
The issue there isn’t so much the calf, is it,
as it is the hurt of seeing someone who doesn’t seem worthy, maybe isn’t worthy,
being flooded with grace.
Maybe there’s something there to ponder
as we let these sorts of parables challenge our presumptions
and teach us something about how God is God and we are not.
Back to our story for the day:
Those workers, at the back, the ones working all day.
Why do they think that God is NOT generous to them?
Why do they not see all that God has done for them?
What is it about their holding on so tightly to their sense of what they’re due
that they can’t see that all of this, all of it, comes from God
and that if they stepped back
they’d see how crazy wonderfully generous God has been to them the whole time.
Patrick Willson makes a good point about this parable:
Jesus didn’t need to tell the story this way.
Jesus could have told the story differently,
with those hired first paid first, avoiding conflict later.
But Jesus did not tell the parable that way.
Why? Because for those hired first
for those who now wait at the back of the line,
there is something more for them to see.
Here’s how Willson puts it:[i]
“We are [sometimes] too close to ourselves,
too wrapped in our own skins
too bundled in our own terrible deeds, to see truly what God gives us.
What God, in goodness and generosity, gives us
we are likely to assume is our due,
something we have earned,
a goodness we have fabricated for ourselves.
[But] we see other people more clearly than ourselves.
Thus when we see God’s goodness to others—
to people we love,
to friends, to colleagues,
but most especially to those people we do not think deserve such generosity—
then we can see the goodness of God for the wondrous miracle it is
[if our eyes are open enough to see it].
If we can look at this world
through the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,
we will discover the vast truth of the master’s generosity:
all of us are beloved of God.
The first and the last…
those at the front and those at the back of the line.”
This is a really interesting parable
because the Vineyard owner is committed to make sure everyone standing around idle
has a chance to work to earn what they need to survive,
and does a bit extra for those who are particularly worried about that
toward the end of the work day
how they’re going to provide for their family,
how they’re going to put food on the table.
“Why are you idle,” the owner asks.
“No one would hire us” the response.
And the owner, graciously, sends them to work, and pays them in full.
God gives to people what they need so they can survive and thrive,
and critiques any community where people go hungry and can’t provide for their basic needs.
And to the rest, to the others, particularly those already with jobs lined up
who have comfort that they’ll be able to pay the bills today,
how easy it is for them to forget that THEY
could just as well be the ones waiting to see if they would work today
wondering if opportunity might come today.
It is so easy to forget this,
which is why we do what we need to do to remember.
To remind each other.
To allow ourselves to be confounded when we encounter God in these stories
so we can open up our perspective just a bit wider.
Last month Landon reminded us about the importance of the Passover celebration
as a key ritual for our Jewish brothers and sisters
to help them remember all God did to help lead them out of servitude in Egypt.
In much the same way,
we remember the one
who teaches us about the amazing, sometimes confounding,
always overflowing grace of our God
when we are called to the table
and given the gifts of bread and cup.
This is world communion Sunday,
where rich people and poor people,
Black and White, indigenous and settlers,
privileged and oppressed, all turn to this table,
and remind ourselves that God is God, and we are not,
and that it is God’s saving grace that makes all of us siblings,
that gives each of us a room in God’s amazing house,
that gives us all a purpose and a mission here on earth
to work for God’s justice and peace and reconciliation.
If we can open our eyes and watch what God is doing in our world,
we might just see something beyond our presumption of what is fair and right and just
and instead see God working to mend and renew and provide
food for the hungry
clean water for the thirsty
perspective and understanding for the comfortable
hope for the hopeless
and a place at the table for us all.
So for us, on this Lord’s day
may we grasp that vision and run with it,
as we work to reject a life of grievance
and adopt instead the perspective of God’s gracious generosity,
because THERE we will find healing for what divides us,
possibility for what hurts us
justice for the injustice that haunts us
welcome for what alienates us
in short, there we will find the realm of God.
May it be so.
[i] “Homiletical Perspective” for Matthew 20:1-16. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28. Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson Editors. (Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press. 2013.) 123-127
Image: Red Vineyard at Arles, Vincent Van Gogh