Saturday, September 17, 2011

"It's Not Fair!": Sermon, September 18, 2011

I'm a little hesitant about posting this sermon. Part of it comes from adapting a sermon I preached in 2008, the last time these readings came up in our lectionary cycle, and in the rush of student ministry at that time (and changing computers in the pre-Dropbox era) I didn't keep good notes on any sources I may have cited in the original. So I apologize if parts of the sermon seem too close to someone else's work.

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

It’s not fair! When you hear this expression, you can almost see a child stamping a foot and reacting to some perceived injustice.

My sister thought it was very unfair that she and I had to share the back seat of the car – even though, of course, as this was the 1970s, car back seats were much wider than they are now. Since we didn’t wear seat belts, we could roam around, though.

So my parents got to hear “it’s not fair!” quite often, along with “he’s looking at me! Tell him to stop looking at me!” And my parents had all the usual parental responses: “If you don’t stop that, your face will stay that way” and “so help me, I’ll turn this car around.”

And when we hear today’s reading from the good news according to Matthew, most of us say, “it’s not fair!” Jesus tells a story about a farm estate, a vineyard, where the landowner pays all the workers the same wage, although some had been working since dawn and others had only started at five o’clock that afternoon.

Now this sounds pretty good if you place yourself in the position of the workers hired last. A full day’s pay for doing the least amount of work! But from the perspective of the workers who had laboured all day, it seems like an injustice, one that prompts cries of “It’s not fair!”

We have been raised in a society that is always ranking people and rewarding those who come out ahead, or punishing those who fail to meet a certain standard. And we buy into it. We see life as a contest for wealth, power, approval, fame. We’re always competing. Even when we’re relaxing we watch shows about other people competing and being ranked, on Survivor and The Apprentice and America’s Got Talent. It’s so much a part of our normal way of thinking and doing things that we take it for granted and don’t give it a second thought. Much of our image of ourselves involves how we compare ourselves to others.

And that is true of all of us, even though we pray the prayer of Jesus, “your kingdom come.” We’re in good company; James and John, the followers of Jesus, were competing to sit at the right and left hand side of Jesus in heaven.

We are used to the world treating and rewarding us based on our ranking. Those who work the hardest – or who work the hardest at getting the credit – receive the promotions, the plaques, and the paycheques. When the world does not function that way, we say “It’s not fair!” We’re always on the alert for unfair situations.

And sometimes we do have a point, when we say that it’s not fair that women are not paid the same as men.
We have a point when we say that it’s not fair that people are not hired or promoted for reasons based on gender or race or faith or age or ability or sexual orientation.
We have a point when we recognize that the international economic system plays a role in keeping countries and people poor in Latin America and Asia and Africa.

But Jesus was not talking about a real landowner he knew. The story isn’t really about workers and bosses. He was telling one of his stories about what the kingdom of God is like. The owner of the vineyard is God, and the workers shouting that their pay is unfair are, well, us.

Jesus tells the story to show explain that the rule of God is not like the world of rewards and punishments and rankings. God practices economics in this story that we, using the world’s standards, see as unfair.

And it was just as surprising and challenging to those listening to Jesus. Jesus contradicted contemporary thinking and action. He shocked people. In his time this story, told to peasants exploited by absentee landlords, was downright dangerous and subversive.

In this story God doesn’t seem to be committed to equality, as some are getting more than others. But God, as the landowner, says in the story, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” And Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God doesn’t share our ideas about treating people based on rankings. God isn’t bound by systems of merit and awards. God isn’t interested in our status and privileges. God may not even be a big fan of The Apprentice.

We want the people we see as less dedicated and conscientious than us to receive less than us; but that’s not the way it is in God’s kingdom. Everyone in the realm of God will be welcomed with open arms and will be equally rewarded. In the rule of love it doesn’t matter at what hour you begin or who produces most. All will be treated as God’s children, as children of equal worth. We can’t earn God’s favour. The faithful churchgoer will be equal to the prostitute and to the drug addict and to the convict.

And we think, that’s not fair! When the landowner asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” our answer is yes, that’s exactly why we’re envious. We’re like the people Jesus talked about, who prized their rank in society and its rewards so highly. We ask, How can this be? What is up with that? What kind of God would treat everyone as being of equal value? Where’s the justice? Where’s the good news we keep talking about?

This is not the only reading today about complaints of unfairness; in the story from the book of Exodus the people of Israel, who in last week’s reading escaped from slavery in Egypt, say, “It’s not fair!” They grumble and whine that they were better off as slaves than wandering hungry in the desert, forgetting how unfair they found their old lives. Yet God sends bread and flocks of quails to feed them. Despite their ingratitude, despite their complaints – and ours – our loving God provides what they need for life. Fortunately for them, and us, God does not wait for us to earn it.

And if we stop for a moment and think about it, the story Jesus tells is good news, great news. If we can get out of our life-long habit of needing to be recognized as more worthy than others, then this is unbelievably good news.

For I know – and I think you know, too – that on any scale of worthiness, I’m not at the top. None of us are. As Paul writes to the Romans, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

What Jesus offers is not a system of scales and measurements, but the opportunity of a new start.
What Jesus is telling us is that we are going to be treated far better than we should.
He is telling us that we don’t get what we deserve: we get what God is so generously willing to give us.
He is telling us that there is no hierarchy in the rule of God. He is telling us that the rule of God is not a zero sum game; all of God’s infinite love and mercy is poured out on everyone, and all of it is available to everyone.

He is telling us that, no matter whether we are one hour or two or four or full day workers, we will be received by our gracious and loving God with all the blessings of the kingdom. Think of the most saintly, the most deserving person you know – God will treat you the same way. There is no contest in the rule of God, “fair” isn’t even a word in the vocabulary, because each and every one of us is treated as God’s beloved child.

All of us as followers of Christ are equal in God’s eyes.
All of us are counted as God’s people.
All of us are dependent on God’s grace and mercy, just as the people of Israel in the desert were dependent on God for food.
All of us are loved equally.
It doesn’t matter how or when we came to faith; what matters is God’s call to us, and our response with the gifts God gives to us. That is good news. It’s wonderful news.

And, if this is the kind of kingdom we pray for, when we pray “your kingdom come,” then it is up to us to let God work in us and make it happen, right here, right now.
What would happen if we stopped worrying about whether we are getting our fair share, and instead recognized each of our neighbours as a child of God?
What would happen if we stopped worrying about whether or not our brothers and sisters deserve God’s love, and instead made ourselves instruments of that love to them, loving them like God loves us?
What would happen if we really forgave others, knowing how God forgives us?
What would happen if we acted in the way Paul describes to the Philippians, living lives worthy of the good news, following his words that to live is Christ and while we are alive there is good work to do?
What would happen if we prayed that God would show us how God wants to use us, and would listen, and would act? You know what?
That is what the kingdom of God is like.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Not One of Them Remained: Sermon, September 11, 2011

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:1-13

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Our story today is the one that is the climax of the movies about this book of the Bible, Exodus. The book goes on for 26 more chapters, but this is the big moment in The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, and Prince of Egypt and others: the people of Israel are fleeing slavery in Egypt, and come to the sea, where it seems the Egyptian army chasing after them has them trapped. But the power of God is with them. Moses stretches out his hand over the sea – this is the big scene in the movies – and a wind divides the waters, and the Israelites cross the sea on the dry land between the two walls of water.

This is a good news story: God intervenes on behalf of powerless people. God makes a way out of no way. This story has been tremendously meaningful for oppressed people everywhere who have taken it as their story. And it is our story; God comes in Jesus Christ to liberate us from the oppression of sin in all forms. In our baptisms we re-enact this story, salvation through the water.

Good news. Except for the Egyptians. They are still coming in their chariots after the Israelites, and they too start crossing the sea on the dry land. But the cloud of God’s power frightens them, the chariot wheels get stuck, and the Egyptians panic and start to turn back. Then Moses stretches out his hand again over the sea, and the water covers the Egyptian army, drowning the chariot drivers and the horses. The Exodus story says, ‘Not one of them remained. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.’

Dead on the shore. This morning I can’t help but think of another story. Ten years ago today I went to work in an office building in downtown Ottawa. The woman in the cubicle next to mine heard on her radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York City. We assumed that it was an accident, but we went and turned on the TV in the office kitchen, and then we saw another object streak across the screen and explode in the second World Trade Centre tower. It wasn’t an accident. We watched as the towers burned, and word came of a third plane hitting the Pentagon, and then another one apparently crashed in Pennsylvania, and then the towers collapsed, a shocking sight as clouds of dust and ash billowed over lower Manhattan. Later we were told by a friend that her cousin was late for work in the World Trade Centre that morning, and lived because she missed the plane’s impact. And someone else - a consultant at work - told me how he cancelled his meeting in one of the towers that day; everyone on that floor was killed.

Our reading for September 11th: Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Our memory of September 11th: we saw thousands of people die as we watched the explosions and fires and the towers fall. Now, there seems to be a big difference between these two stories. In our 9/11 story, the people who died are innocent, victims of a terrible act of terror carried out by fanatics, and the firefighters and police officers who rushed bravely into the burning buildings, many of whom died, are the good guys. In Exodus the Egyptians who die are the bad guys, and the Israelites are the good guys. The Egyptian bad guys being drowned is a good thing. Isn’t it? Moses and the Israelites sing that it is, the song we read together, the Song of the Sea, celebrating that God has triumphed gloriously: Horse and rider are thrown into the sea, they went down into the depths like a stone, they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

There’s another story, a Jewish one that explains and expands the Exodus story, called a midrash. In this midrash the angels sing a hymn to God as the water covers the Egyptian army. And God tells the angels to stop celebrating, saying, “While my creatures are drowning in the sea you would sing a hymn?”

But, we could say, wasn’t it necessary that the Egyptians die so that the Israelites could survive? Isn’t the destruction of the enemy part of God’s plan for God’s people? Well, maybe. But this summer, during our vacation, I stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During three days in July 1863 9800 men were killed there, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. I stood at the grove of trees called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, the furthest point reached by the Confederate attack on the third day of the battle, Pickett’s Charge, when 12,500 Southern troops marched out of the woods to assault the Northern line, and only half came back. After that the Southern states were never able to take the initiative again. And a lot of people said that all this death was the price to pay to end slavery and preserve the United States. Northerners were sure that God was on their side. They were like the Israelites and the slaveholding Confederates like the Egyptians. The Union sang, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on.” But Abraham Lincoln, who was President during that war, pointed out that both sides, North and South, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and each called on God for help against the other.

Sisters and brothers, we can’t always understand God’s reasons. Lincoln said the Almighty has his own purposes. Neither North nor South could know if the Civil War was necessary to abolish slavery. It seems that in our imperfect world, where human efforts always fall short of true peace, we cannot get away from violence no matter how hard we try; nations will turn to war as the way to make peace. We can’t agree on whether this is God’s will, or how we should respond as God’s people. But while we cannot know God’s purpose in each event in our world, we do know the themes revealed to us in the stories of Israel and the life and resurrection of Jesus – that God is loving and wise and just, that life will triumph over death, that, as the prophet Ezekiel says, God does not delight in the death of the wicked. As God tells the angels in that old Jewish story, don’t celebrate while my creatures, no matter what side they’re on, are dying.

We only read the Exodus story this morning. But, as on every other Sunday, in our cycle of readings there are two more. The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, "Why do you judge your brother or sister? Why do you look down on your brother or sister? We will all be judged by God." And in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus, "How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?" And Jesus tells him, "Not just seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times."

Don’t delight in the death of the wicked. Don’t judge. Forgive as many times as it takes. Love your enemy. All this sounds nice in the abstract, or applied to conflicts safely in the past, in the Exodus 1500 years ago or the Civil War 150 years ago. But when we think of September 11, 10 years ago, it’s hard. For some of us it will be impossible. Don’t judge the hijackers? Don’t assume that our side is in the right, when Canadians died in New York City, when innocent people were slaughtered? Forgive, when the trauma is still with us after 10 years, when we still feel vulnerable? Love our enemy when terrorists are still threatening us?

God knows that this is difficult. We are not asked to forget what was done. We are not asked to stop remembering the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. We are not asked to ignore ongoing suffering, of families who lost loved ones, of people who still have physical and mental wounds from that day, of firefighters and others who are now ill from breathing the toxic air, of the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and wounded and uprooted in wars and terror attacks since.

But we are called to recognize that terrorism attacks us not just physically, but psychologically. Terrorism doesn’t just create fear; it infects us with the same poison as the terrorists, leading us astray to embrace hate and violence as they do. Since 9/11 we have struggled against the emotions the attacks stirred up in us. One church leader has said that too often we have reached for the flag rather than the cross. During this long, sad decade people of faith have turned from God’s way to seek revenge, justify torture, demonize Muslims, and restrict religious freedom, in the name of national security and even in the name of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we have been called, in that moment of crisis 10 Septembers ago and in the years since, to stand and be God’s instruments of love and justice, to follow the God of love and forgiveness, the God who does not delight in death, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ who forgave his enemies from the cross. And we have tried, hard as it is, to live that call: to pray and work for peace, to create dialogue and partnerships with our sisters and brothers of other faiths, to turn away from fear and hatred, to overcome evil with good. And that does not stop after 10 years; it continues. It must continue. The Prime Minister has designated September 11 as a national day of service, so that a legacy of acts of compassion will be part of this day.

Where is God in these stories of destruction and death? As I said, we cannot know God’s purposes. But we do know this: God was with the people of Israel, struggling to freedom across the sea, and God was weeping with the mothers and wives of the Egyptians who lay dead on the shore. God was crying, looking over the Gettysburg battlefield and the thousands of dead and wounded from both sides lying there. And God’s tears flowed on September 11th, for the dead and suffering, for the twisted beliefs of the hijackers that led them to this mass murder. God was with the people who comforted and healed wounds and welcomed strangers. God was with people of faith who responded in faith. And God is with us, in the valley of the shadow of death, with us to strengthen us to move forward from this anniversary in love, trusting in God, seeking peace and justice and resisting evil, and always holding to the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ rising from death, that terror and violence can never have the victory over life and love. That is our God, the God of all people.