September 24, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
What a week this has been for this parish – three funerals in the last eight days – two of them for women only 58 years old. What strikes me most about this is just how fragile this temporal existence of ours really is – and how eternal our next life will be. How we live here matters, and by that I mean not our material gains, but rather, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians that we heard this morning, to “live [a] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Well, that’s all well and good, but what exactly does that mean?
Well, if you look at the gospel, we get a hint. Jesus is telling a parable about a landowner and the laborers he hires to work his fields. This landowner goes out several times during the day, finding laborers, who he then sends to work in his vineyard. In the morning he hires some, then again at noon he finds workers, and also at around 3pm, and finally, at about 5pm, even more – sending those last ones into the fields as he had the first ones. When it was time to pay them, they all got the same wages. Those hired first were angry – not with the other laborers – but with the landowner. They told him that it wasn’t fair that these latecomers got the same wage.
Now, I have to admit, until I started studying scriptures, I never liked this story, and felt some affinity for those early workers. Perhaps you all feel the same way. I mean, after all, they were out there, as they said, in the hot sun a lot longer than those hired later. Why shouldn’t they get more?
Perhaps in our own lives, we can think of folks who work at the same place we do, but don’t do nearly as much work. Yet, they get more money. Women in the workplace will tell you that happens all the time. Then there is the inequity of pay that defies even our imagination, right? The NFL football player who makes millions while teachers can barely scrape by, or the corporate CEO who draws a salary far beyond the work they do, while they in turn lay off thousands. So yeah…what is up with this parable anyway?
But that is thinking in human terms. To be clear, Jesus isn’t saying that we should allow corporate greed to run amuck, or reward athletes more than those who educate our children, or pay women less for the same work, and be fine with all of that. Not at all. What he IS saying is that the way our society works, and the way God works, are not in alignment with one another. And if we really pay attention, really listen to the parable, we will find out that it wasn’t about the money at all.
If we go back and look at the complaint of those earliest of laborers, we find the crux of why they were angry. They said to the landowner “…you have made them equal to us…” Ahhh, now we see what is really going on here. And the landowner responds “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you…Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
Now, park all of that for a moment, because this is another of those Sundays when the lectionary folks really do a nice pairing of readings, and if we are to get at the crux of what this all means to us today, we need to look as well at the text from the book of Jonah.
To understand what is going on, we need a quick recap about Jonah. So, here goes… “Previously, on “Jonah’s Big Adventure,” the prophet was tootling along, about to go on a vacation, when God said “Hey, Jonah” “What?” “I want you to go to Ninevah and preach to them to repent for all they have done.” “You want what? Those people persecuted and killed my ancestors – I ain’t goin’” “Seriously Jonah, I need you to do this.” “I’m not listening’ [covering his ears] “lalalalala”
So, Jonah decides to hop a boat instead to go shopping over at the big mall in Tarshish. God, as you might imagine, is not pleased. Now you all know the whale story, right – God creates a mighty storm, the sailors toss Jonah overboard, he’s about to die, and a big fish swallows him up and then spits him out on the shore a few days later. Jonah had learned his lesson, and when God told him to go to Ninevah (after he had dried off), Jonah was like “yeah, God – I’m right with you – I’m your guy!”
So, Jonah, whose heart really wasn’t in this whole “redeem the people of Ninvah” project of God’s, trotted off to preach what was likely the worst sermon ever. Jonah then goes and hangs out by a tree. Yet, despite his lack of passion, they heard God’s call in his words, to change their hearts – and they did. God forgave them for all they had done. Good, right?
Jonah was NOT happy, as we hear today. You see, he felt is was not right that these people, who had done horrible things, should be allowed to be forgiven. He wanted them punished. And in one of the funniest moments of the story says “Dang it, I just KNEW you’d be gracious God. That’s why I didn’t want to go in the first place.” Before we get all judgemental ourselves about poor Jonah, imagine if people had oppressed our ancestors, taken their homes, imprisoned them, sent them out of their own country…we might be hard pressed to ever forgive them, if we are truly honest with ourselves.
Or, to put it in today’s terms – think of the Jew who is asked to forgive the repentant Nazi. The descendant of a slave who is asked to forgive the descendants of the repentant former slave owner, the Native American asked to forgive the repentant descendants of the European settlers in our country… See, when put in that context, it is easy to see Jonah’s point of view, isn’t it.
And that is the entire point of both the gospel and the Jonah story – these are meant to shake our expectations about how things should work – to say to us that God doesn’t live by our rules. Quite the opposite, really. We are to live God’s world here on earth, not live according to the expectations of humanity but of God, and that isn’t generally how we have come to view the world, and that can really blow our minds.
I am reminded of one of my favorite Broadway shows, based upon the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Aside from the fabulous music, the reason it is so compelling is, I believe, the story itself. There is a man, Jean Valjean, who is caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, and spends the next nineteen years in prison – talk about an injustice. When he is released, he cannot find shelter or work, because he is marked as a convict, and bitterness creeps into his heart. The local bishop takes him in, but in the middle of the night, Valjean grabs the silver from the bishop’s home and flees. When he is caught, the bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean, and then, taking two silver candlesticks, hands them to him imploring him not to forget these as well. Jean Valjean is spared by this overwhelming act of generosity. He commits another robbery out of desperation, and immediately feels the pang of what he has done in the face of the bishop’s grace and love. He discards his old identity, turns his life around, and becomes successful, generous, and full of compassion.
A real story of redemption out of love. But there is more to this story… the police inspector, Javert, a former guard of the prison, has been looking for Valjean – to bring him back to prison for the crime he committed. Finally, when Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but shows mercy instead – even while knowing it means Javert will continue to pursue him, Javert begins to drown in the paradox that has become his life – he cannot reconcile what has happened with the way he thinks the world works. For Javert, there are good people and bad people – and nothing in between – that is the hierarchy of his worldview. And, you cannot be one thing, and then another. Valjean, the former prisoner, could never be Inspector Javert’s equal – never. As he struggles to escape the prison of his own expectations, the incongruity of it all torments him so much that he takes his own life, rather than accept living in a world where goodness can be found in those he deems as bad.
As he says in the musical in those final moments “And my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years. My heart is stone and still it trembles. The world I have known is lost in shadow. Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know, that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so?”
And so here we are today, in a world torn apart fighting over country boundaries, or who is really deserving of citizenship, or if everyone is deserving of healthcare, of clean water, of education, of food and safe shelter. We point to those who entered our country in a way differently than we did and shout “they don’t deserve what we have!” all while continuing to abuse the people and lands of the Native Americans – the only ones with any right to say such a thing – yet they do not. We have become like the early workers in the vineyard.
We live in a country where the idea of compassion, grace, forgiveness, love, and generosity, is considered toxic in the halls of our government, and in public discourse. It’s as though we see the world as a big competition, in which there are winners and losers, and if you help someone over the finish line, you are weak. If another disagrees with you, especially on politics or religion, they are the scum of the earth. If everyone has healthcare, provided an education, or lifted up in a time of need, it isn’t fair somehow. Or, if we forgive, than justice is not done. We have become like Jonah.
Here’s the thing.
As we have seen so poignantly this past week – life is short – sometimes shorter than it should be – the ultimate unfairness of our human existence. We can live this life as though it is some sort of board game like monopoly, where there are winners and losers, and hierarchies of those categories too. Or, we can live this life in the reality of God’s love, mercy, and goodness – where there is no such thing as anyone being unworthy, unwanted, or undeserving of any of it. We can live the gospel of Christ, or, we can wrestle with the goodness of God, and complain that it isn’t fair that God loves everyone equally and without measure.
We can remember that those workers in the gospel who were hired in the morning did not have to spend the day living in the tension of the possibility of having no food to put on the table that night like the others who were not hired until later in the day. And we can keep that in mind when we see the immigrants – documented or not – standing for hours on end on our street corners today in the hope of being picked up in a truck and allowed to work – work many of us would never dream of doing – the very work of the gospel – out in the hot fields picking produce – the produce we later buy in our grocery store. Remember them – the ones lucky enough to get work…and those who go away empty, worrying how they will ever feed their family. Or, we can go to our local grocery store, buy what we need, and never give a thought to how it got there, all the while shouting “send those immigrants home – build that wall.”
We can remember that while there is evil in this world, there is no one that cannot be ultimately redeemed. Or we can hold on to our hurt and pain, allowing it to poison our own souls, rather than give release to our hearts through the act of forgiveness – which, we should always remember is never about the one being forgiven, or saying that what happened is okay, but about setting our own selves free from the bondage of anger, hurt, and pain.
Now to be sure, very few of us are capable of the level of forgiveness and love of God. There are some things we may need to leave to God, yet we still must try. I can think of one example…When a shooter killed 10 young school girls in an Amish community back in 2007 and then killed himself, we were all shocked. But perhaps even more shocking was the response of the Amish themselves, who forgave this man, a man who was not a member of their faith, and donated money to support his family. That is living according to God’s ways, not ours, and yet it is difficult to imagine for many of us.
Folks, if we get nothing else from the parable, or the Jonah story, one thing is clear…whenever we enter into a game of comparison over or against anyone else, we enter into a zero sum game that destroys our very souls. As Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Life is not a competition, but a gift – a chance to do the work of God.
And to God, we are all the same – no matter where you are born, how much money you have, who you love, or what gender you are – we are all equally loved beyond measure. And yes, that also means – no matter what you have done, good or bad. That is the crazy world of God! And it is the life we are born to – the life Jesus calls us to remember to live.
We are being asked by Jesus to overturn the structures of our society that seek to keep the last – last – and create distinctions of worthiness between groups of people – equating some people, or the work they do, as being more valuable than others.
We are being asked by Jesus to go in search of others who need to experience God’s goodness and grace – who are left standing and waiting – slowly losing hope on the street corners of our neglect.
We are being asked by God to seek out even those we might consider unworthy, those we have cast aside, those in need of our forgiveness, and by our lives, be a reflection of the goodness and mercy of God – remembering that there is no such thing as unworthiness in God’s eyes.
Because if we can do that, we free ourselves to live according to God’s ways, and that, THAT, will change the world. It will free us from the need to be first, or our nation to be “first” (whatever the heck that means). It will free us to break other’s chains, and lift them up so they are on an equal footing with us in the world. It will free us from the bonds of judging others, which imprison our hearts, and condemn our own souls.
Then, perhaps we will end our lives in the knowledge that we have indeed “live[d] [a] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
In the final scene of Les Miserables, as Jean Valjean is dying in the arms of his adopted daughter, he says,
“Take my hand, and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Let us see the face of God every day we live, in the way in which we love and forgive one another with overwhelming generosity, that in our death, that face will be so very familiar to us.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
September 24, 2017
Pentecost 16 – Track 2
1st Reading – Jonah 3:10-4:11
2nd Reading – Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel – Matthew 20:1-16