Sunday, September 24, 2017

Unfair Grace: Matthew 20:1-16 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)
Autumn vineyard by Yair Aronshtam.  Creative commons image on flickr

Unless you were an only child raised by wolves in the forest, you learned about fairness at a very young age.  You learned when you were denied an unfair advantage over your siblings or peers.  You accused your parents and teachers of unfairness anytime someone had it better than you, in spite of their best efforts to be fair in all circumstances.

I remember my elementary school talent show: both my sister and I “competed.”  I played the piano; she and her friend performed a dance routine.  Both of us came home with little plastic trophies inscribed with the words Talent Show Winner—along with everyone who participated. 

Looking back, I assume parents still accused the principal of being unfair—arguing that their children were clearly more talented and worked much harder than the others.

Today’s parable takes unfairness to a whole other dimension, where the stakes are much higher…

It begins in the marketplace, at the break of day, when a landowner hires some laborers to work in his vineyard.  They agree to work for the standard daily wage: one denarius.  And while they’re off in the vineyard toiling in the heat, the landowner keeps going out and hiring more workers—at 9:00 a.m., at noon, at 3:00 p.m., and even at 5:00 p.m.

At the end of the workday, the landowner pays his most recent hires one denarius.  The first hires are quick to cry foul when they are paid no more than those who worked just one hour.  But this isn’t the only instance of unfairness in this situation.

It’s unfair that, for all human history, the supply of workers has always exceeded the number of employers looking to hire.  It’s unfair that so many hard workers would’ve been left behind, because of their physical size or age.

It’s unfair that the daily wage was barely enough for a laborer to feed his family for even one day.  It’s unfair that the rich got richer off the sweat of their brow and the ache of their back. It’s unfair that there was no upward mobility in this economic system.  Those who work the land will never own land. The system is rigged against them.

There is only one way in which all the day laborers were equal: they were all at the mercy of the landowners for their work, their wages, and their survival.

While we see so much unfairness in this parable, there is a different kind of unfairness at work here: the unfairness we call grace.

The landowner paid his workers not based on what they deserved but what they needed.  The landowner wanted the workers and their families to be fed, even though they hadn’t put in a full day’s work. 

Fact is, we live in an unfair world—and though it pains me to say it, God can be unfair.  Good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people.  God’s unfairness is painfully on display in children’s hospitals; nursing homes; orphanages; prisons; war zones; or the lands and peoples ravaged by hurricanes and earthquakes over the last month. 

Worse yet, we who were created by God are extremely unfair to each other.  All of our society’s battles over immigration, affirmative action, healthcare, education, are all fought over competing ideals of what is truly fair.  Like the laborers in the vineyard, we are quick to cry foul when the less fortunate are treated in accordance with what they need rather than what we think they deserve. 

This parable is a picture of how God works—and what God’s kingdom is like.  Rest assured, God’s ways are not our ways.  God may not be fair, but God is gracious. 

If God operated by our human standards of fairness, we’d all be in trouble!  All we could count on from God would be punishment!

Today, Jesus is inviting you into a new reality that operates on generosity, rather than greed, ambition, scarcity, and competition.  There will always be unfairness.  People are going to get what they don’t deserve and be denied of what they do.  But you will not have peace in your life if you’re constantly fighting for what’s fair and unfair by you.  Everything changes when you stop fighting for fairness, and start trusting in God’s grace.  You will have peace and hope as you see God’s grace happening in the world, and practice grace in your own life.

This begins with a question: has God been unfairly gracious to you?

I ask because these are your opportunities to do what the landowner does and practice grace.  God’s salvation comes in even the simplest acts of grace and generosity to someone in need.  God’s justice happens when one person’s generosity raises up the disadvantaged other.  When you choose grace over fairness, life is better for all!

On the other hand, when God seems unfair—or God seems harshly fair because it feels like you’re being punished for doing wrong—remember the cross.  Jesus’ cross is the greatest unfairness in the history of the world.  But out of that unfairness comes your forgiveness and the redemption of the world.  The cross is the assurance that Jesus is present in your situation, that he knows your need, and that his grace will be sufficient.

Regardless of who you are or what you’re going through right now, we all arise in the morning and wait for the graciousness of God.  Some will wait longer than others; some will appear to have an unfair advantage.  But when it seems like all hope is lost, God’s will grace will happen and you will be saved.  God will leave no one behind, but welcome all into the life of the kingdom.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness and Freedom: Matthew 18:21-35 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (NRSV)
photo by author

A congregation in a small Pennsylvania city was preparing to celebrate its 200th anniversary.  I’m going to call it White Church, for its large, white-painted brick building.

The people of another church, what I’ll call Brown Brick Church, asked about being part of the celebration—because until the mid-19th century, they had been one church.

Their hometown was located on the Underground Railroad, and as a result, many freed and runaway African-American slaves had settled there, and they began to attend White Church. 

But as the number of African-American worshippers increased, the white congregants began to worry and complain.  So, the elders built a balcony, and required all African-Americans to worship from there.  But the balcony was much too small, forcing many to sit in the nave below.  When the elders demanded that they sit in the balcony or leave, they decided they would build their own church: Brown Brick Church.

Initially, the anniversary planning committee at White Church welcomed the people of Brown Brick Church—until one of Brown Brick’s members asked about making a public statement of forgiveness to White Church for having excluded and expelled them because of their race over 150 years ago.

The people of White Church felt that accepting that forgiveness would mean owning guilt for something done by people who’d been dead for over a century.  Ultimately, both churches returned to their buildings—segregated and unreconciled.

If this story says anything about forgiveness, it is that forgiveness is one of the hardest actions of the Christian faith.  Forgiving somebody once is hard enough—but in today’s Gospel, Jesus commands you to forgive not just one time or even seven times, but seventy-seven times.  In other words, forgive to the point that you aren’t keeping count. 

Only problem is, forgiveness really isn’t in our nature as human beings and it certainly is not in our 21st century American vocabulary.  If someone commits a crime, we throw them in prison and brand them criminals for life.  [I should also note that our country incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.]  If someone sins against you but not in a criminal way, you file a lawsuit.  If a lawsuit doesn’t work, you take to social media or find a way to publicly shame that person or organization.  Whatever it takes, you fight back hard, every time.  If you forgive, you’re letting them off too easy!

Unless you’re a murderer, thief, predator, or drug addict, you’re not a sinner in need of forgiveness.  If you do wrong, you learn from your mistake and do better next time.  If, however, you believe in your heart that you’re doing what’s right—but other people get hurt—then that’s their problem and not yours.

While many flat-out refuse to forgive or ask forgiveness for themselves, they expect others to forgive.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve known someone who’s been the victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or a systemic injustice like racism or sexism—and people say things like “get over it” and “stop living in the past.” 

At the end of the day, a world without forgiveness is world at war.  A life without forgiveness is spent in a never-ending a battle to assert your rightness in everything and get even against everyone and everything that’s done you wrong.  Without forgiveness, there are no possibilities for love, peace, or healing. 

This is why God commands forgiveness: not as a prerequisite for God’s forgiveness, but because forgiveness is tied to the promise of Jesus’ cross… 

Jesus committed no sin, yet we condemned him to die.  But now, as far as the East is from the west, so far as he removed your transgressions from you.  Jesus reconciles you and the world to God by the forgiveness of your sins.  Jesus destroys death and evil by the forgiveness of your sins.  Through communal confession and forgiveness, we are joining with Jesus in disarming all the forces of evil that tear this world apart. 

By forgiving, you’re giving up the right to remind someone of what they did.  You’re saying “you can’t hurt me anymore” and “you cannot run nor ruin my life.”

By asking forgiveness, you are owning your sinfulness—and the fact that your sin impacts your neighbor, even if you didn’t set out to hurt them intentionally.  You’re owning your interrelatedness to your neighbor.  You’re owning the fact that you sin against people by participating in systems that privilege your group or tribe over others. 

The current membership of White Church did not segregate and expel their fellow Christians for the color of their skin, but for generations they failed to right this wrong. 

In seeking forgiveness, you’re affirming to that person that they matter as much to you as your own self. 
If only the churches of this nation would practice this mutuality of confession and forgiveness, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

Forgiveness is divine—and as such, it is impossible for human beings, but not impossible with God.  Forgiveness is God’s will, and God will help you to do it—so that life, love, and peace can be possible. 

So practice forgiveness.  Start by forgiving the people who get under your skin: the driver who cuts you off in traffic; the fast food worker who forgets to give you your French fries; the customer service rep at the cable company when your service goes out.  Say “I forgive you” out loud.  If you see someone at school or work whom you can’t stand and you feel fear or disgust towards them, whisper those words to yourself.  Say “forgive me” as often as you can, even if you’ve done nothing wrong—if you can be at peace.

But if you’re finding it hard to forgive someone for the terrible things they’ve done (including yourself); if your mistake or someone else’s evil has wrecked your life, take it to the cross.  What is impossible for human beings is not impossible for God.  Jesus can make you live and love again.  He can take the shame away. 

Forgiveness is freedom—a dying and rising with Christ.  Forgiveness is a promise Jesus will help you to keep.