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.

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