Year A Proper 20, 20 September 2020
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Of Petty Prophets and the Abundance of God”
Collect: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
What is fair? Truly? What is fair?
Too often we say we want things to be fair. The other word we use is just. And I think that that is a good way for us to structure our interactions. It should be the least that we expect in our civil interactions. I like that I do not have to bribe officials at Town Hall to get something done. I like when I get pulled over it is probably because I have done something and not because of how I look. I like that there are prices on things at stores, and calorie counts on menus. Well sometimes I like calorie counts on menus. I also want that for all people. For two thousand years we have been on a long journey toward fullness of inclusion and freedom for all people, and I cannot help but see this in the liberating freedom of our faith.
But not everyone follows our faith, or interprets it the same way. A fair and just order in society is about as good as we can hope for, and as we have seen in recent months most vividly, we still have more to do. A lot more to do. Like many of you, the death of Justice Ginsberg was a hard blow. Love her or hate her, you cannot argue that she did not strive for full inclusion and full participation for all people. Just like the final vow in our Baptismal Covenant:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God's help.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in his tribute said of the Justice, “the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy once said, ‘While on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’” I pray for the privileges of our society for all people here, no matter what they look like or where they were born. We say we want things to be fair, but do we?
So often, too often, I hear fellow followers of Christ expressing opinions saying how they will lose something if someone else gets something. This is not a zero sum game. There is not a finite amount of resources. I remember once I was playing the game Monopoly. And people either love it or hate it, no middle ground on Monopoly. But during this game I decided that I would have the goal of having all the Hundred Dollar bills. There were only so many in the “bank” and I wanted them all. The game came to a standstill once I had most of them. People could not make change. People could not collect their $200 when they passed Go. It stopped being fun. That is a Zero Sum game. But life is not like that, real life is not like that.
I win when my sister wins. My sister wins when I win. We all are bound together, even more so when we are united in Christ. I have been heartbroken listening to Christian brothers and sisters claiming that there is not enough for all of us, there is not enough to help.
We have readings this morning which look at the Abundance of God and the pettiness of some prophets. We have options over the summer months in our our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. This summer we have been following Track II, which was our Jonah reading. In Track I, we see Moses dealing with the complaining Israelites.
When Moses led God’s people into the scarcity of the desert, it was an act of faith following the call of God. God provided manna from heaven and quail for meat. Even in the desert times, God is a god of Abundance. The people complained saying that God only sent them to the desert to suffer, but Moses was not that petty. “Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
When God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, he decided to run in the opposite direction. In his day and time, the whole world encircled the Mediterranean Sea. So Jonah decided to run all the way to Spain to Tarshish, the very end of the world as it was known, a city just past Gibraltar on the Atlantic. Jonah thought that he could get away from God. And we tell the story of the mighty fish who swallowed him and spat him up back across the Mediterranean near Nineveh. We usually do not tell the rest of the story once we get past the fish.
But Jonah did preach to Nineveh, and Nineveh repented, changed her ways, and started life in a renewed and blessed way. God got what God wanted, renewed hearts and minds in a massive city. God did not want to smite Nineveh. But Jonah, lovely Jonah, petty as always missed the fireworks. He was looking to the hellfire and brimstone that he had been envisioning and preaching about. He wanted the special effects of a summer blockbuster, not a love story with a happy ending.
And in his pity party, he sat down. And God sent him a parable. A plant providing shade came, springing up in one night. And, then a worm came and ate the plant in a day. God confronted Jonah’s pettiness.
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 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. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…
Jonah, you care about a plant, but not about 120,000 souls. That is very telling.
God help us if we ever get like that. We are not here to make things fair, or to maintain the status quo. That might be steps along the way, but we are about something bigger, something better. St. Paul in Philippians urges us to not rush to heaven when there is so much left to do here on earth!
Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation.
The Church of Christ is about the unfair, mind-spinning Grace of God. God is a God of Abundance. God sends manna and quail in the desert! God saves a city of 120,000 from self-destruction and debauchery. God pays the worker who worked all day the fair, agreed upon wage, but to the last minute, in-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth, only-worked-one-hour person the extravagant wage of a full day’s pay because God is a God of Abundance. And in that surety of Abundance we can face anything that opposes the Freedom in Christ and the Love of God. Viruses, Racism, Economic Turmoil, utter Hypocrisy beyond belief. None of that can halt or hinder us if we stay firm and resolute in Christ Jesus.
I have quoted this before, but the only time we should ever look into someone else’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. We do not look to make sure things are fair, unless we are the parent evening things out.
Life is not fair, in the negative sense. God is not fair, in the Abundant sense. You have been blessed to be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2) Friends, we are living in an age attempting to divide us. Our job is love everyone, the weak, the strong, the hungry, the oppressor. Standing with the Least of These will be called all kinds of names, but that is where you will always find Jesus. Our work is to establish and uphold systems of equality and justice, and change them when they are not that. When we falter, we call each other to our best selves, not by condemning or belittling, but recognizing and encouraging all to see the face of God in their sisters and brothers. I would rather to go to church with a bunch of messed-up people who were trying their best to love God and their neighbor, then to sit amongst a bunch of petty prophets and frozen chosen who cannot stand messed-up people. Jesus chose 12 “losers” and changed the world.
Who does God pick to be on God’s team? Everybody. God picks everybody. Somewhere along the way we took on the mistaken view that God is in the Church. When we are following Jesus, the Church finds itself in God who is out ahead, leading the way. Thanks be to God! Amen