Saturday, September 23, 2017

Year A, Proper 20, Jonah 3.10-4.11, Matthew 20.1-16 “Offensive Grace”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T'was blind but now I see…

We sing that song, but often we live to another tune:

Offensive Grace, how hard to take,
That saved a wretch like them.
For we did good, and they did not
How can they fair the same?

Grace seems so unfair.
It is simply not right, or just.  And it runs counter to everything we believe in.
One of my seminary professors related an experience that he had while he served in the parish.
One day, while he was visiting a parishioner in the hospital, a man in the room across the hall called him in.
Jim knew this man, he was the husband of a prominent member of the Baptist church in town.  But unlike his wife, who was extremely devout and faithful throughout her life, this man had never darkened the door of the church.
But now he was dying.
Over the course of his conversations with Jim, one thing led to another and before it all was over he had confessed his sins, asked Jim to baptize him, which Jim did, and then he subsequently died.
His wife was livid.
She had tried throughout her life to get her husband to go to church, but he had refused.
All the while she was living her life, faithfully, doing all that Christians should do, her husband just did his own thing.
When Jim forgave him, when Jim baptized him,  it just seemed totally unfair to her. 
Her husband had merely repented on his death bed, and was saved. 
It just didn’t seem fair or just.

I had a similar experience.
Alison was a 15 year old girl who was severely injured in an automobile accident.
I had baptized her in the emergency room before she died, and during her funeral preached about how, though she didn’t wake up to the alarm that went off in her room the next morning, she did wake up to the bright light of heaven.
The next week we had a youth group meeting and her classmates had a lot of questions.
“Did she even know you baptized her?”
“How do you know she went to heaven?”
And most telling of all: “If you don’t have to do anything to be saved, why are we in confirmation and going to church, and all that stuff?”
As much they cared about Alison, they too felt this matter of grace was a bit unfair. 
The grace of God is offensive.
God’s good favor should be reserved for those who deserve it, should it not?
Why would God reward those who are not obedient?
Why would God be merciful to those who have not lived faithful and upright lives?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
Early in the morning he hired workers.
And then throughout the day he returned to the market place, and whenever he found workers standing idle because they had not found work, he sent them to his vineyard.  This continued from dawn until sundown.
At the end of the day, when the workers were paid, each received a day’s wage, from the first hired until the last.
Those who had worked the longest, and had received the normal day’s wage, were outraged that those who had been hired at the end of the day received the same.
Grace is offensive.
The thing about this parable, and what it points out, is that God’s grace provides for each according to their need, not according to their labor.
Each worker, needed a day’s wage to feed his/her family, and so that is what they received. 
All sorts of questions could be posed.
Such grace is not sustainable.  Imagine what would happen if workers realized that if they waited to show up until late in the day, they would still receive the same pay.  Wouldn’t everyone wait?
I mean, really, why get up at dawn to work through the day, if you can work the last hour of the day, and still get paid?
“Are you envious because I am generous?” God asks.
Well, yes we are.
God’s grace provides what we need, not what we deserve.

Sometimes life is that way.
I have four children.  Part of me wanted from the beginning to treat them all the same.  But it didn’t always work out that way.
Cars, for example, buying them cars.
One of my sons was an avid golfer, and after taking him to and from the golf course every day, for quite a while, I decided to buy him a car, an older used vehicle, but a car.
And when he went off to New Mexico State, it just made life that much easier for all of us.
My oldest daughter needed a car when she started student teaching.  And so I bought one for her.
But my youngest two went to the University of Idaho, and their studies did not require them to drive anywhere, so they didn’t get a car.  I did provide Jens with a car for a while, but Brita never needed a car. 
Was I unjust to my kids?  Or was I gracious in providing for each as they had a need?
God’s grace provides what we need, not what we deserve.
Sent by God to warn the people of Israel’s archenemy Nineveh of the judgment that was to come.
He didn’t want to go. 
He wanted God to destroy the Ninevites.
So we went the other way, setting sail for Spain.
But God wouldn’t have it.  And we have the whole story of how God caused Jonah to be thrown overboard, sent a large fish to swallow him up and take him back to Israel, and then once again God sent Jonah to Nineveh. 
So this time Jonah went, warned the Ninevites, they repented, and God saved them.  And Jonah was pissed.
“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.”
God responds:
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jonah undoubtedly would have like to sing a song like “God Bless America”,
And a second one, which basically would be “And may God damn our enemies.”
And for Jonah, nothing was more angering than the fact that God would show grace and mercy toward Israel’s enemies.
“And should I not be concerned about North Korea, that great country, in which there are more than twenty five million persons, and also many animals?”
Should God be gracious to our enemies?
God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
Does that apply to North Korea?
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,”
Those are the words of Donald Trump at the United Nations the other day.
They represent a common human sentiment.
Many a nation has sought to destroy, even ‘totally destroy’, their enemies.
Yet God’s grace is offensive.
“And should I not be concerned about North Korea, that great country, in which there are more than twenty five million persons, and also many animals?”

This is the thing.
North Korea may not deserve God’s grace and mercy, but God’s grace and mercy has never been about what we, or they, deserve. 
Actually, that is a good thing, because if we are totally honest, we do not deserve God’s grace and mercy any more than anyone else.
It’s easy to look at others and conclude that they, and the lifestyle they have lived, do not deserve any reward whatsoever from God.
It’s human nature to believe that salvation is a reward for the righteous.
But to fully understand God’s grace and mercy, we have to first be honest about ourselves.
And if I’m honest, I have to say that “I don’t deserve it.”
For me, this never became clearer than when I was forced to face the reality of my alcoholism.
At the end of my drinking I was consuming, on average, ten fluid ounces of Scotch a night.  That was the average.  And depending on how you count it, that’s 7 to 10 “drinks” a night, though if you had asked me, I would have claimed to be having “only a couple of drinks”.
It had become more important to me than anything else.  More important than my wife, my children, and yes, my ministry.
And it nearly cost me my life, let alone, the disgrace I experienced. 
It was then, that I discovered the grace of God like I had never discovered it before.
It was then that I experienced God as a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
God responded to my sins, not by punishing me, but by showing grace and mercy in so many ways.
It is good to remember that, whenever I think that others do not deserve what the Lord offers.
It is good to remember that when I think of ‘totally destroying’ our enemies.
It is good to remember that when I look at my neighbor and conclude that they have received far more than they deserve.
Martin Luther’s last words are reported to have been,
“We are beggars, this is true!”
And yes, indeed we are.
We are all beggars.

And God is gracious and merciful to each according to their need.

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