Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 20 and Jonah

To Do or to Be That is the Question

One of the greatest spiritual theologians of the twentieth century Thomas Merton commented that “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.”

I was reminded of this quote as I read today’s lessons. I think the church often falls in this trap; looking at increased attendance as both a sign of faithfulness and assurance that we’re doing it right. And decreased attendance as an indication of unworthiness and lack of faith. . Never mind the fact that half of the churches in the ELCA worship fewer than a hundred and that small churches typically give more per member than bigger churches We talk about the churches that have embraced the moniker of “program church” as being vital because there is always something happening. Even though the father of mega churches Willow Creek has admitted to doing things wrong after a study showed their members do not maturie in their faith as disciples should. All these symptoms point to an institutional form of the human tendency to keep score. Today’s lessons remind us that we worship a God who does not keep score. A God who offers the same gift to all of us regardless to what we have done or what we have not done.

In the parable of the vineyard there is more in common between those who worked all day and those who were hired then we usually realize. But the big similarity that I want to bring your attention to is they all started out the day unemployed. The owner of the Vineyard offers them all a job. If we are to compare God with the Vineyard owner and ourselves with the workers; which is what Jesus does in his parables the first thing I want you to notice is that everybody needs what God offers; grace and relationship with him. There is no one who can be right with God without those things. There is nothing in today’s parable about the owner needing more workers but he hires them anyway.

This brings me to a second related point. We worship a God of abundance. The Vineyard owner hires the laborers even though they’re not needed because he has plenty of what they need. We live in a world that has a hard time understanding this reality. In a world where CEOs make so much more than those that work under them we fail to see the generosity that the Vineyard owner is showing the laborers by hiring them. In a world of limited resources we fail to see the hiring of workers at the end of a day and paying them a full days wage as generosity instead we see it as foolishness. But as we learned last week from Paul much of what God does looks foolish from our human perspective. And I don’t know about you but after looking around our world I am thankful that we belong to a God who doesn’t see things from a Human perspective.

Jesus when he is telling this parable finds it significant that the first group to be hired agrees to a daily wage. I think this is significant because it tells us that the issue isn’t about anybody being shorted what they had coming to them. In the end it isn’t at all about them but it’s about the generosity the landowner shows others. Occasionally we hear about professional athletes restructuring contracts to make room for their teammates. That isn’t what happened here. The landowner gave his workers what they had coming to them, and from what we know about this landlord it is safe to surmise that it wasn’t peanuts; but was probably way more than they earned or deserved.

This I think is important because the anger that we see from the workers isn’t even about them. Rather it is ultimately anger at the Landowner’s generosity towards others. I find this situation very similar to Jonah’s disdain that God would save even the Ninevites. I have a theory on this that I want you all to think about, for the full day workers or Jonah to see and acknowledge the generosity of the landowner or God for Jonah; they would have to acknowledge theat generosity toward themselves. In this is where Thomas Merton’s quote comes in.

We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.”

This describes not only how we value others but how we value ourselves. If the workers admit that the Landowner hiring them and paying them so they can provide for the family is a gift then in their own eyes they become less worthy. For Jonah to appreciate God’s gift to the Ninevites his own righteousness becomes unclear and his position as a fellow sinner comes into focus. “If even those Ninevites are worthy of God’s grace how am I so different?” Somehow if others become more worthy we become less worthy.

Worth from a human perspective is wrapped up in doing and having. Thank God that God doesn’t have a human perspective. In God’s eyes our worth isn’t about what we do or what we have. It is about who we are as children of God.God claims us in baptism not because of what we have done, or even what our parents have done. But because what God has done in Jesus Christ.
As hard as we try this is not easy to understand. Centuries of preachers and theologians telling the church “you are justified by grace! It is a gift from God, you don’t have to earn it, you can’t earn it” and we still need to keep score. We still need to find ways to be more righteous than the other guys. We still find worth in denying the value of others. God’s words to Jonah are God’s word to us.

Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

Or the landowner to the laborer

Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.

15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'

16 So the last will be first, and the first last."

The good news is this, the God of abundance and generosity that we worship doesn’t ever stand over us keeping score. We don’t always have to be as righteous as Jonah thought he was or as deserving as the laborers thought they were but in our 11th hour moments and our Ninevite days we’re found worthy by God; worthy enough to be recipients of this amazing gift of grace. Please pray with me

Lord God, we thank you for not keeping score. May we remember that our worth doesn’t come in any tangible ways but only because who we are in you. In Jesus’ name.

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