Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sermon for Proper 20

Trinity, Mt Vernon--Matthew 20:1-16, Jonah 3:10-4:11

The scenario is pretty familiar from books, movies, and television. The last surviving member of the oldest generation in a family passes on. After the funeral, the surviving children and grown grandchildren gather—perhaps in a lawyer’s office, perhaps around the dining room table of the old homestead. There are hugs and smiles and tears and expressions of goodwill all around. But in the back of everybody’s mind are some very material, very practical questions: Who’s going to get what? How soon? Am I going to be shortchanged? Will anybody cause trouble? It’s a matter of simple logic. If cousin Jane gets the antique armoire, then that means I can’t have it. If I get the silver tea service, then my sister can’t have it. There’s only so much to go around; the supply of goodies is not unlimited. Whatever anyone else gets, there’s that much less available for me.

Now, this way of thinking is bad enough within family relationships. But when we start projecting it on to our relationship with God—which I think we often do—we’ve got a serious problem. It’s pretty easy for us to get the feeling that if God seems to pour out His blessings on my neighbor, then those same blessings are no longer available to me, and I might end up deprived. We’re used to hearing about limited resources—limited natural resources, limited human resources, limited financial resources. Everything seems like a zero-sum game. For every winner, there has to be a corresponding loser. For every victory, there has to be a commensurate defeat. So we get anxious. We get jealous. We don’t want to be left out, to be left holding the bag.

Look at this Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah that we hear today. To us, Jonah looks pretty pathetic and petty. But if we try to imagine ourselves in his situation—well, it might be less implausible than we think. Jonah had been minding his own business when he was recruited by God for a special mission: Go tell the people of Nineveh that they had been really wicked, and God is very angry, and they’re about to really get it.

Well, Jonah didn’t want any part of such a job, for understandable reasons. So he ran the other way, and as we recall from our Sunday School days, he ended up in the belly of a fish for three days before he agreed to accept God’s job offer. So he goes to Nineveh: He does his job, he wanders around the city breaking the news, and then camps out on the outskirts to watch the show. Will it be a single lightning bolt? A ball of fire? Legions of marauding angels? How is God going to do it? For all his work, at least there would be the satisfaction of seeing the words that God spoke through him come to pass. At least he would know that God was in his corner, and maybe there would be a reward for his efforts, a little extra something in the payroll envelope.

But it didn’t happen that way. It didn’t happen that way at all. The people of Nineveh actually listened to Jonah’s message. They repented. They put on sackcloth and ashes and told God how sorry they were for the way they had behaved and begged Him for another chance. And God listened. His heart was moved, and He changed His mind. There would be no light show, no fireworks, nothing for Jonah to watch and take satisfaction in.

The Lord was, in fact, pouring out His blessings on the people of Nineveh, turning Jonah into a liar and making him feel like an absolute fool. Tens of thousands of lives are saved, and people are reconciled with God, but what does Jonah do? He pouts. He curls up and sulks. Poor me—what do I get out of this? I do what God tells me, and do I get a blessing? No! Who gets the blessing? Those evil Ninevites. What’s fair about this? Where’s my blessing?

A similar attitude is expressed by some of the casual day laborers described in our Lord’s parable from St Matthew’s gospel. A farmer needs help tending to his crop, so he goes to the town square early in the morning and hires several workers at the standard rate for a day’s work. Mid-morning, he realized he needs even more help, so he goes back and hires more workers. The same thing happens at noon, at three PM, and even at five o’clock, just an hour or so before quitting time.

Then, when all the field hands line up to be paid, the ones who started work the latest get paid first, and they are paid just as if they had worked a full day. Those who had indeed worked a full day saw this, and were starting to do the math in their heads, anticipating a great windfall. But when their turn comes, they are given the exact same amount as the other workers, which was, in fact, the same amount they had contracted for at the beginning of the day. They are furious, and raise a big stink. They haven’t been cheated; yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. It’s almost as if the farmer, who clearly represents God in this parable, was running out of resources, running low on the raw material that a blessing is made of. So they grouse and complain, and are pretty ugly about it, and we don’t feel too terribly sorry for them.

Yet, as unattractively infantile as they sound, and as pathetic as Jonah sounds, I’m not sure they’re all that different from you and me. They make the same leap that’s so easy for us to make, and that is the leap into thinking that God’s supply of generosity is limited, finite, that there’s only so much to go around, and whatever somebody else gets represents that much less for us. But in doing so, we get it wrong. We get it exactly wrong, because God’s supply of generosity, God’s capacity for bestowing blessing on all of His creatures, is, in fact, infinite, without limit. It never runs out.

It was the late arrivals in Jesus’ parable who found this out. They assumed that since they only worked an hour, or three hours, or whatever it was, that they would only be paid for the hours they worked. It would have been completely fair, and exactly what they were expecting. After all, the farmer’s resources are limited. He can’t stay in business if he pays for a bunch of work that doesn’t get done. But he does. He does. He is generous to an extreme, and in that generosity, we see that God’s capacity to bless extravagantly is abundant, beyond our most outlandish dreams. No matter how much He blesses others, there’s more than enough for us. In God’s family, all the children have first pick of the family heirlooms! The blessings we receive do not come at the expense of anyone else. No one’s wealth comes at the cost of another’s poverty. No one’s joy need be at the cost of another’s sorrow. No one’s victory is paid for by another’s defeat.

So we don’t have to be jealous at anyone else’s good fortune, fearing that we may be somehow deprived as a result. We won’t be. With the God we serve, there’s plenty for everybody, and then some. We do not serve a God of limited resources, but a God of overflowing, bursting-at-the-seams capacity, a God who wants to bless us with more than we can probably stand. With our American Puritan work ethic, you and I probably naturally want to identify with the workers hired at dawn, and who understandably feel a little bit cheated. But in truth, this parable calls us to identify with the workers who started just an hour before quitting time. That’s who we really are. We’re the ones who benefit from God’s overflowing generosity. And knowing this, we are then freed to be generous ourselves. We need not live in fear of scarcity.

Of course, at some, point, there's a cross involved, so please don't confuse me with Joel Osteen! But II believe this truth applies in our personal lives—and I might add, I think we probably only learn it when we start to tithe, when we start to take ten percent of our income and allow the kingdom of God to prosper through the ministry of the local church. But this realization applies most thoroughly in our life together as the local church. What God calls us to, He will provide the resources for—whether those resources be human, material, or financial. We dare not let fear of scarcity cripple our ministry and mission. Keeping a large nest egg for a rainy day is not much of a virtue for a church. That’s not how the economy of the kingdom of God operates.

A few years ago, there was a designer label that was popular among young people in our society. It was called “No Fear.” That should in fact be our slogan in the church, and in our personal and family lives. Our God is a big God. We need have no fear. He wants to let the river of blessing flow our way. But we are not to build a reservoir. If we try to dam up the river, the inflow will stop. God’s abundant generosity gives us the courage to let it flow. Let it flow.

Amen.

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