The “Unfairness” of God’s Generosity Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matt. 20:1-16 9-24-17
When the word of the lord came to Jonah, he lit out for the coast like a cat with a tin can tied to its tail, bought a one-way ticket on the 1st scow to Spain, trembled down below decks & sat there behind a barrel of kippered herring, shivering & chewing his nails. Because he knew what would happen. Jonah knew. And when he was bludgeoned, battered & badgered into doing what he had tried like fury to avoid, he said in today’s reading: “I knew it! I knew this was going to happen! I knew you were sheer grace & mercy, not easily angered and rich in love. So, in the course of just one day – in a city that takes 3 days to cross – in just one day I preached one whale of a sermon & all the people repented & you, O God, took it all back & I’m out of a job, mucking around in a pile of posters & tracts with a humongous printing bill!”
But he couldn’t escape God, Jonah couldn’t. God hurled a wind, shivered the timbers like Moby Dick shook the ship, Pequod, threw the crew into a horror, got Jonah tossed into the drink, used him like a wriggling worm for bait, plunged him into the belly of the dark pit, where Jonah yelled, “How will I ever see your holy temple again?” Had him vomited up on the shore, all slimy like a newborn babe fresh from the womb and said, “Get up, go to Nineveh!”
Now, another God wouldn’t have bothered. But this God would rather not be without that beloved Nineveh, the enemy of the Jews . . . Nineveh, which in truth was a symbol for the most awesome & godless enemy one could imagine, a city without a soul, giving encouragement & existence to all there is to fear & offend. Ninevah, the main city of the dreaded Assyrian empire, that crushed and obliterated Isreal, wiping them from the face of the earth. And this God would rather not be without this precious Nineveh. God would rather not be if there weren’t someone to love and love God back. God would rather dry up or evaporate or disappear, cease to exist, if there were no one for whom to be like a loving parent, no one for whom to be intimate with, like a spouse, no crying little one to soothe – you know, those images the prophets painted of God in God’s relationships with God’s people.
And Jonah? Well, Jonah had made himself a victim, a casualty of that unrelenting, unchangeable sovereign love. That’s what this little 4 chapter book of Jonah is all about – not a story about a fish with indigestion; not even a hard & graphic lesson on obeying God or else. No, but on God’s love, love in hot pursuit of a mouth to tell it, like Jonah’s . . . and ours! . . . love putting the screws to a person like Jonah, who wouldn’t make that love known, who objected to God’s mercy; who couldn’t imagine his dreaded enemy being a recipient of God’s grace & mercy; a relentless & stubborn love, looking for a whole city to flood with light & joy!!
Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: the Ninevites were not the only ones pursued by God’s mercy. God stays with Jonah, the bitter and unforgiving prophet, extending mercy to the merciless and compassion to the one whose heart is set on wrath.
If there’s a message for you & me in this ancient little piece, it’s that the concern, the spotlight, the focus is on those communities, neighborhoods out there . . . More specifically, this U District community with the homeless & indigent as well as the changing, burgeoning, cultural demographics.
Whatever in the world we’re doing here, it’s all for those whom God’s eyes, heart & mind are on. The book of Jonah pushes us to see how God often works with us in spite of ourselves!
Which brings us to our gospel reading & Jesus’ story about God’s sense of fairness that would cause heart attacks among union members or $15/hour fair wage advocates, because what is being described as fair is out of whack with the world’s sense of justice & fairness. I heard about some of my fellow Safeco workers, complaining over the fact that some “rookie” ushers were getting the same $15/hour wage as they were, who’ve been there for the same time as me – 13 years!!
When I was told about this, I said, “Hey, there’s a parable about this somewhere!” Jonah, the disciples & the church in every age & place are confronted with the absolute openness of God to all manner of people. Martin Luther said it in another way: “The church exists for those who aren’t in it.” For God’s a lover, & not in the business for raising up prophets to “trouble Israel” & there’s an end to it.
God’s more interested in loving & saving people than having the prophets & the church look good. God’s in a hot sweat for the whole world to embrace, aching to warm it like some giant celestial hen would warm her brood under her wings. God’s in an anguish & yearning to give it life & set it free!
This is the fundamental problem humans have with God: not that God is cruel or vengeful, but that God is gracious. It is not so much God’s treatment of us that grates, but God’s generosity toward others – especially others we don’t like! What bugged Jonah was that not only did he not like the Ninevites – he hated them – but that God’s mind was changed about them. He couldn’t imagine God’s love & pity extending to that slime.
Bad things should happen to bad people & good things should happen to good people. Although mercy disgusted him, Jonah knew his ways were not God’s ways. In a classical slip of the tongue, Jonah “knew” what he couldn’t force himself to believe about God: not easily angered, rich in love always kind, and whose mind is always ready to change & not punish. And Jonah concluded, “So God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
Who among us has not been offended by a gracious God who pays full day wages to one hour workers, you know, the ones standing outside Home Depot; who pays them first so the angered workers could see what kind of vineyard this really is, hoping they would experience radical generosity, surrender their envy & join the party; & who risks being accused of making these last minute workers equal to the ones who bore the brunt of the heat of the day; who is kind to the ungrateful & selfish, who sends rain & sun on the just & the unjust, who gives parties for the younger sons who have debauched & frittered everything away?
When we respond to Jesus’ call to follow, we are called to lay down some of our most valuable possessions: our understanding of the world, our view of right & wrong, our assumptions about whom God favors & whom God despises, our ways & thoughts. God’s offer of a new time destroys our sense of righteousness, but fulfills God’s own. That offer of newness not only convicts us in our own narrowness but also delivers us from it.
The vineyard owner asks the grumblers a question: “Are you going to get envious because I am generous?” Which, in the original Greek, literally means, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” We best ponder that question for ourselves.
To bring these stories from Jonah and Jesus up to date, the deep-seated, systemic, institutional reality of privilege, especially white-privilege, and more especially white-male-privilege, continues to reek havoc upon the basic principles of freedom and justice for all. But even more so these days, it has allowed for another type of “America first” continuation of the kingdom of heaven with nary a graceful blessing in sight. I told you before that I live with a handicap: 6’2”, white and a male from Brooklyn. That’s my lense through which I see everything. I don’t see the world through a Person of Color’s eyes, nor a Female’s eyes, nor the eyes of an LGBTQ or Trans person, nor the eyes of a non-Christian religious person, nor the eyes of an immigrant or undocumented person.
And as long as we white males fail to confess this handicap & repent, turn around, we perpetuate this out of whack notion of what the kingdom of heaven is like, much to the dismay of Jesus and the parable he is telling.
And if you don’t believe me, turn from Jonah to the gospels and watch the most amazing reversal of roles in all the world, signaled in that cryptic word of Jesus: “This generation seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” He turned Jonah, Jesus did. He turned Jonah – all knowing, all powerful, holy, turned ignorance weakness, sin & a nobody, got himself hurled & tossed, sunk in deep darkness & spat out – in Jesus, Jonah from Nazareth.
That’s the good news – this wonderful realization that God’s love and mercy are far greater than we expect them to be.
That’s what is to be believed. That’s what is to be told. That’s the sum of these 100+ years in the U District and the years to come, turning a new page in this entrusted ministry with a soon-to-be-new-pastor, despite the recent hiccup, namely the challenge to find new ways to keep on telling the “Old, old story of Jesus & his love” to this community that is primarily unchurched.
Let’s not forget that University Lutheran Church exists for this U District community that isn’t a part of it, to borrow Luther’s comment.
Both Jesus’ & Jonah’s stories end with a question, with nary a word about the prophet or the response from the angry workers. Did Jonah stay there under the withered plant & die of his Jewish integrity because he cared for that plant more than a people he hated? Or did he give in, consent to that remorseless, unpitying love he always knew was there & dared to believe but ran from, then live to sing it? Did the grumbling workers have a change of heart & see what kind of vineyard they were a part of? We’ll never know.
We are left wrestling with the goodness of God, a goodness that is not a respecter of persons or animals. We’ll wrestle with the goodness of God that demands that we be God’s grace to our enemies, and to the innocent in their midst.
Dear friends, we who were made for that love & have mouths & lives to tell it & live it, will we let that love of God shape & fashion the harness or fishnet of our brand of spoken truth, from us piece by piece till naked, stripped from all defenses we await god’s final stroke? Will we let this goodness hound us, follow us into the belly of the boat and the beast, into every place where we try to escape our calling, and call us out to speak the saving truth of grace and mercy for all of God’s creatures, especially those we don’t like?
We are about to turn a page in this congregation’s mission. We need finish our own story. But one thing has to be known. We’ll never see, never hear, never taste another love like this. By the hand & eye & tongue & heart of God we’ll never know another love like this come down at last turned Jonah in Jesus from Nazareth.
We are struck by the message we are called to share: this “Unfairness” of God’s generosity. Through us, as through Jonah & the disciples, the workers in the vineyard, God’s good word does its work. Believe it! Tell it! It’s good news for all of us!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-24-17” name of the sermon.