On this 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24th, 2017, our worship service at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa included a special presentation by Chris Caswell, director of philanthropy at Lutheran Services in Iowa. LSI is the social ministry wing of our church here in Iowa.
This sermon leads directly into his presentation. Today’s texts are Matthew 20:1-16, Philippians 1:21-30, and (at the 8:30 service, which had the longer version of the sermon reproduced below) Jonah 3:10-4:11.
Grace and peace from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
When you think about words that describe God’s character, what comes to mind? God is…what? Loving, just, almighty, faithful, graceful, great, powerful, all-knowing. There are lots of positive words we can use to describe God.
One word you can’t use is “fair.” If you’ve ever wondered if God was fair, this parable has the answer: No, God is not fair.
In this story, some of the workers start right away early in the morning and work through the heat of the day. Others, for whatever reason, don’t start until an hour or two before closing time.
At the end of the day, the landowner goes to pay them their wages, and their payment has nothing to do with how hard or how long they worked.
Not surprisingly, the people who worked the longest are unhappy with this arrangement. I wouldn’t be either. Everything we’re taught by the world says that if you work hard, you deserve to be rewarded. The harder you work, the more you get. It doesn’t always happen, but most of us understand as an ideal that that’s the way the world works.
In fact, the Bible even has advice about it. Proverbs 14:23 says, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
But according to Jesus, that’s not the way the kingdom of heaven works. That’s not the way God works. God gives even the latecomers, even the lazy ones who just show up at the very end the same reward that the hardest workers get.
Next Sunday, the Luther League students are going to be walking the ditch for trash pickup, then having pizza at the bowling alley. The pizza is a reward for doing the work. If someone skips the work but shows up for the free food, I imagine the others who’ve been there doing the work might have an issue with that, right?
Jonah is another perfect example. Jonah is sent to call the people of Ninevah to repentance, but when they listen to him and repent and God forgives them, Jonah is furious.
He says to God, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
I hear that, and I think, yes, that’s who God is, and that’s good! We praise God for being gracious and merciful, ready to relent from punishing. But for Jonah, that’s not a good thing. After all, the Ninevites deserve their punishment. Jonah gets so upset at God that he’s angry enough to die, and so God gives him this object lesson with the shade bush.
It’s easy for us to be happy about God forgiving us, but it’s harder to think about God forgiving others, especially our enemies. Could God forgive someone like Hitler? Or the North Koreans? It wouldn’t be fair!
I saw a modern paraphrase of this parable this week: The kingdom of heaven is like little league softball. One team won every single game they played. Another team won most games, but lost a few. Yet another team lost most of their games, but did win a couple. Still another team lost every single game they played. And at the end of the season, the league commissioner gave them all participation trophies.
And those who had won their games, and their parents, grumbled because they had won their games and surely deserved more. But the commissioner said to them, “What does it matter to you if I give everyone the trophy? Are the trophies not mine to distribute to whom I will?”
For those of us who’ve grown up in church, or who’ve made the decision to be here today, for those of us who try to do our best to live the way God calls us to, who try to do the right thing, this parable might not seem like good news. Don’t we want God to be fair, to give us what we deserve?
No. No, we don’t. I’m so glad God is unfair, because anyone else would have given up on us. It’s a really good thing I don’t get to decide who goes to heaven, or who’s worthy of God’s love, because it’s not that hard to make me upset.
I’m much better at judging than at forgiving. I try not to, but I can be influenced by things like who gives more, or who makes what I care about a priority. I’m really good at comparing people and deciding who’s better. Fortunately, God’s generosity is not tied to our ideas of fairness.
Whenever God is unfair, it’s always in people’s favor.
All of us are sinful. None of us deserve God’s grace. We can’t do enough to earn it. Even if you were here volunteering for all of Country Time last week doing way more than your fair share, even if you give thousands and thousands of dollars to the elevator fund, even if you’re in worship every single week, that’s still not enough to earn God’s love.
In the reading from Philippians, Paul says to live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. None of us can live well enough, selflessly enough, to make ourselves worthy.
And yet, you are worthy of God’s grace, because God says so. We don’t deserve it, but God makes us worthy. God gives us love and grace and forgiveness anyway. If God weren’t unfair, none of us would have a chance!
Part of the joy of being a Christian and knowing God’s forgiveness and love is that we get to share it with others. We get to follow God’s example and give rewards to people the world says don’t deserve it. We get to look at people the world ignores from another perspective and see them as sisters and brothers in Christ, who are just as deserving or undeserving as we are.
As part of this church, you get all kinds of opportunities to give. Part of my job is to encourage you to live generously, to share God’s love by giving of yourselves.
I believe in presenting a whole menu of options for you to give to. I don’t expect any one of you to give to everything our church supports.
There are causes you’re passionate about and other causes that aren’t your thing. That’s ok. For all of the opportunities you have to give, pray about it, and give as God calls you.
One of the ways we respond to God’s unfair, undeserved love is through the work of Lutheran Services in Iowa. LSI is part of our church, working our behalf, doing work we can’t do directly. Here today to share more about LSI’s work is Chris Caswell, LSI’s director of philanthropy. [His presentation included this video about LSI’s work:]