Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A , September 21, 2008

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 20

Year A

September 21, 2008

Resurrection Lutheran Church

Jonah 3:10—4:11 Psalm 145:1-8

Philippians 1:21-30 St. Matthew 20:1-16

Life can seem so unfair at times. Injustice seems to so often abound in the world. And even worse it seems that there is nothing we can do about it. It can leave one with a sense of helplessness at times.

We have some very firm ideas about fairness and justice in our world. Jonah also had some very specific ideas about fairness and thought that God was being rather unfair with him. After his objections God still sent him on a mission of doom and destruction. Once sent on this mission Jonah felt it was his right to see that doom and destruction he predicted come to fruition. Instead God disappoints Jonah and shows compassion to the great city of Nineveh.

It is way too easy to judge Jonah in the story and never see ourselves in the story. How do we feel when we don't think people are getting their just desserts from God? We miss the point of this story completely if we cannot see ourselves in it.

Now I suspect that most of us find it much easier to see ourselves in today's Gospel. It is all too easy to join in the chorus about the unfairness to some of the workers. What about a fair days pay for a fair days work? Where is the justice for the people who worked all day if those who only worked an hour got the same amount of pay? To us this seems manifestly unfair. Sure it is nice that the landowner is so generous but why not be generous to everyone and give those who labored hard all day, those who contributed most to his business a bit of an extra bonus as well?

I lived in Southern California for a few years in the Coast Guard and can remember passing by many of the gathering places for day laborers. They would hang out around coffee shops in particular locations and farmers and construction bosses would drive up and pick some out to work for the day for cash. It was a sad system. Most of the laborers were illegal immigrants and so had no other options. They worked under the table for whatever was agreed upon that day and received no other benefits. They were trapped in an unfair system.

And so when I read this lesson I can put a modern face on it. The landowner also goes to pick up a few day laborers and ends up making several runs throughout the course of the day. But still as Jesus tells the story the situation seems ever more unfair to me and I’m sure to the workers as well. At the end of the day, when those who work only an hour get paid the same as those who worked all day it seems so obviously unfair to anyone. And yes, Jesus is right that I should not be begrudging the generosity of a person, but why not be generous to everyone?

But I think that these lessons call us to struggle with this unfairness. What we see as unfair, Jesus taught as the truth of the kingdom of heaven.

I think part of the problem is that we live in an age of entitlement. And while that has produced many great results it can sometimes be spiritually harmful.

Justice is an important issue for Christians to advocate for. Christians throughout history have answered the call of God to this important ministry. And in to our ears this story sounds rather unjust. But we are called to struggle with the fact. Unfortunately in our minds, the kingdom of heaven is described in terms that seem rather unjust to us.

For me part of the struggle was realizing that while I’m called to work on the kingdom of heaven down here as best I can, it is not the kingdom of heaven. So when I hear parables explaining the kingdom of heaven I automatically apply them to this earthly realm and end up with the very struggle I’m faced with today. But the truth of the matter is I have to learn to be grateful for the injustice and unfairness of the kingdom of heaven. It is that very injustice and unfairness that provides the means for me to become a member of the kingdom of heaven. It is the same injustice that saved Nineveh. Our loving God, portrayed as the landowner, gives each and everyone of us, not what we deserve thanks be to God. Instead, we get what we don’t deserve. We get the gift of eternal life and adoption as children of a loving God.

It is a gift we could never earn, not by working a full day or by working an hour. We have to accept this as a gift freely offered by God. That is the difference between this earth and the kingdom of heaven. Here on earth we end up getting what we deserve. Called by many names, our just desserts, reaping what we sow, or karma. But no matter what you call it, it is not what we get in the kingdom of heaven.

So as I think about it I’m very grateful for, what in my opinion, seems to be the injustice of the kingdom of heaven. It is what assures me of my place there.