Sermon transcript for September 21, 2014
The Problem with God
Belmont UMC—September 21, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Let me begin today with a parable from my imagination. When I was a teenager I often worked for Mr. Ellis who managed my Uncle’s farm. Mr. Ellis was a small man, who always wore overalls and his face sported stubble of beard. He was rather quiet and usually had a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Working with him meant long quiet days of hard labor. He had called me in the heat of late summer and asked me to help pick up hay. I was 15 years old and he was paying $10 for the 6 days and for me at that time it seemed like a lot of money.
Early on Monday morning my Granddad drove me to farm. The mowers and bailers had been there. No one else showed up to help so Mr. Ellis and I worked all day. I would hoist the bales of hay up to Mr. Ellis on the wagon and he would stack them. It’s hard work and by the end of the day my hands were blistered and my neck was sunburned. That night I dropped in bed was quickly asleep.
The next day, couple of other people showed up, poor folks in old Chevy that clanged and smoked when they pulled into the farmyard. They were the kind of simple, country folks I grew up with—they worked hard and kept to themselves.
Two days later a immigrant family came by; the man and woman helped while one older child kept an eye on a toddler.
Another man who was somehow related to Mr. Ellis showed up on Friday. We were close to being finished, closer to payday, closer to my $60. We always ended work at noon on Saturday—famers went to town on Saturdays. About 11 AM that day a couple of guys showed up to work—too late. They worked the hour that was left anyway.
At noon we quit work. Mr. Ellis went in his house and came out on the porch with money. The people lined up. The guy who came on Friday, the new arrivals, and the immigrant family were in front of me, and I heard each exclaim, “Wow, $60, thanks.” I was excited. I must be getting a bonus. But then came my turn and Mr. Ellis counted out 6, ten dollar bills. “What’s this?”
“This is what we agreed on.”
“But those other people!”
“Do you begrudge my generosity? Those other people probably need the money more than you, boy.”
“It’s unfair!” (angry tears filled my eyes). I left with granddad and I did not speak on way home. At home I slammed the door of my room and threw the money on the floor. I did not go into town with friends. I pouted and sulked.” So this is just a parable, but it is a way of putting my self (ourselves) right into the story. How do we feel?
This sounds like Jesus’ parable about vineyard workers. Some worked 12 houis, some 9, some 6, some 3, and some 1 hour. All same wage—20 cents. The ones who worked all day grumbled and complained. The vineyard owner said, “Don’t I have a right to do what I want with what belongs to me?
Jesus taught in parables. Barbara Brown Taylor says that some parables are like cod liver oil. We suspect they are good for us, but they are still hard to swallow.
In this story we have a problem with God. We are bothered by God’s generosity, God’s unwillingness to play by our rules, God’s failure to follow the link between work done and rewards given. Why, it’s the American way!!
Jonah had a similar problem with God. He fled from God because God wanted him to go to preach to Ninevites. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, whose armies had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jonah ran because he had a sense that God would save the Assyrians if they repented. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish; for I knew that you were a gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah grumbled about the generosity of God.
The older brother in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son had a problem with his father. His younger brother had taken his inheritance and squandered it on reckless living, then he came home, to be greeted by an unreasonably generous father. He gave him a new robe, sandals, a ring, and he killed the fatted calf to throw a homecoming party for the younger son. The older brother came in from working in fields and asked, “What’s all the revelry?” He was so angry he would not even go in the house. He said, “I’ve been here working all these years and you never even gave me a goat that I might have a party with my friends.” That’s unfair. I deserve (I’ve earned) more.
Why is God so unfair, so generous with latecomers and sinners? The first people to hear this parable had known Jesus or had been followers of the Way from beginning, and these recent converts, mostly Gentiles, some former pagans, had come along to claim their place in the church.
The context of this parable is this: Peter had said to Jesus, “We’ve left home and livelihoods to follow you. What will we receive for our efforts?” This was followed by the Mother of James and John who asked that her sons be seated at the right and left of Jesus. Jesus offered Peter a place in his coming kingdom (the same offer he made to a thief hanging on the cross next to him—a definite latecomer), and then he told this parable. Is Jesus saying to the disciples and to us, “You will be rewarded, and so will everyone who follows.”
We are here because of the extravagant grace of God. God’s grace is extended to all of us, whether we’ve been here for 30 years or 30 minutes. While some of us might think it only fair to create a special place for latecomers, that we should be rewarded for our years of service, there should be some hierarchy or points system in the kingdom. God chooses to be equally generous to all.
The economy of God’s grace is not the same as our economy. God is extravagant with grace. Everyone is the recipient of God’s unreasonable generosity. This is not based on a trickle down economy or hierarchical divisions.
This may be a matter of where we are standing in the line or in the order of things.
Those at the front of the line feel favored, entitled. We hurry to get in line and we don’t like to have anyone break in front of us. When I was a child, I went to a day camp where we enjoyed swimming, crafts, games, and the canteen. We’d run to the canteen to get our popsicle snack. We’d run and we would push to be first in line. I liked being at the front. One day our counselor handed out the popsicles from the back of the line and we yelled, “Hey, that’s not fair!” “I’m not trying to be fair; I’m trying to hand out popsicles!”
I stood in line at the Big Box store one day, and the lady in front me turned to me and said, “You are supposed to get in front of me.”
“No, that’s fine, I’m not in a hurry (I felt uncomfortable with her offer of kindness.)
She said, “Look, I’m committed to doing acts of kindness, and you are my first act of kindness today—work with me here.”
As I was leaving, I turned to her and said, “What a great way to begin my day; may God bless you for your kindness.”
In those times of my life, when I’ve been in the back of the line or been the last to show up in the vineyard—meaning I have done nothing to earn or expect the love of God and God has said, “Hey, come up here to the front.” I don’t gloat, “Hey, look at me.” I feel deep humility and profound gratitude.
The truth is, that is all the time and everyday. We will never earn or deserve the incredible grace of God. It is a gift from God. Like those latecomers, and all of us (including reckless younger brothers and Ninevites), God gifts us with love and grace we will never deserve. God is always saying, “Move to the front of the line.”
Could this parable be about radical hospitality? Was Jesus saying to the disciples, “Go out to the marketplace and invite laborers to join you, and say to them, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done, or how late you arrive, God will reward you with more than you could ever earn or deserve. Come and join us as we labor in God’s vineyard.’”
This parable is not about us, but it is about God, who offers us the unreasonable and extravagant gift of love. So we can fold our arms and pout and throw our money on the floor and yell that God is not fair. Or we can throw a party and celebrate in the presence of one who loves all of us extravagantly, generously, even unreasonably.
Sermon transcript for September 14, 2014
Belmont UMC—September 14, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was a bright sunny day in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when a Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 persons. Among them was Julie Welch. Julie’s father, Bud, was devastated and he was angry. He said, “At first, I wanted Timothy McVeigh not even to have a trial, but just to die. But then I saw that I would only contribute to the circle of violence that helped produce Timothy McVeigh.” And so Bud began a journey toward forgiveness.
It’s hard to imagine forgiving such a horrific act. I recall being in a church service not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and hearing a clergy friend offer prayers of forgiveness for the attackers. I knew that this was theologically correct and it was what Jesus would have wanted us to do, but my heart was not there yet.
Bud Welch had friends who encouraged him on his path toward forgiveness. It was process within him that had begun in hatred but ended in forgiveness. He found Timothy McVeigh’s father and visited him. He saw Timothy McVeigh’s graduation photo on the mantel. He looked at the picture and he cried, realizing that here was another father on the verge of losing a child, a father with whom he had a kinship through grief. Sympathy and compassion were evoked in him. At first revenge and payback seemed the normal response but at last forgiveness became possible. (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 3, Year A, pp. 47-48)
The text today is about forgiveness and it ends a section in the Gospel of Matthew that focuses on relationships in the community, and through this section we hear a call to be in right relationship with each other and to do all we can to foster the bonds of love.
The disciple, Peter, has been listening to Jesus and he wants Jesus to be a little more specific. So he asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive 7 times?” (v. 21)
There ought to be a limit to how many wrongs must be forgiven. Right? And in a world in which we are taught over and over again to get even, to settle the score, Jesus gives us a story about forgiveness. He is telling us today that the church, that Belmont and other churches like us, are to be communities that embrace and model the spiritual practice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not easy and it is often elusive. I have to confess that it’s easier for me to preach about forgiveness than to actually practice it.
Over the years we have watched what happens when people are unable to forgive another. There was an older man in one our churches who was angry all the time about something that happened, or he perceived it to have happened, several decades earlier. He did not leave the church. He stayed on to allow his angry persona to punish others. Over the years, the church members simply ignored him. Sadly, he had allowed his life to be defined by unforgiveness and it had taken a toll on his physical and emotional health.
When Kathryn and I first married we became a very young parsonage couple, serving two small churches in Montgomery County. We had some interesting neighbors, an eclectic mix of folks who had moved out our way, to the country, for extra land and for peace and quiet.
We enjoyed the neighborhood children and it wasn’t unusual for them to knock on our door for a visit. We especially adored the little girl next door named Gabi. Gabi had befriended the little girl who moved in next to their house. One day they got into a spat over something minor and they each ran home to tell their mothers. Within the hour the children were ready to apologize and get on with the business of playing together. But the mothers had called each other and exchanged some angry words. The little girls were not allowed to play together and the families remained divided the rest of our time there. We encouraged reconciliation but no one was ready. Children are better at forgiveness than adults.
Jesus tells Peter that he is to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times, meaning, “Peter, quit trying to keep count.” And Jesus answers Peter’s question with a story about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. One servant who is brought before him owes an enormous sum, 10,000 talents--equal to about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s money. There is no way the servant can pay this amount so the king forgives or releases the servant from the debt.
But the servant learns little from this generous act of forgiveness. The servant finds one of his fellow servants who owed him a small sum and he threatens him, violently grabbing him by the throat and has him thrown into prison.
From this parable I am reminded that I have learned to forgive by being on the receiving end of forgiveness. I suspect if you have spent time being my friend, my parent, my spouse, my child, my sibling, or my co-worker, you have probably had to forgive me at some point along the way. I fail, I forget, I falter, I change my mind, and I make many mistakes.
I am keenly aware of how many times I’ve been forgiven. I am keenly aware of the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness in my life. If I am able to forgive another person, that forgiveness is deeply rooted in profound gratitude for the forgiveness of God and of others. And I must never take that for granted.
And in a few moments, we will pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus modeled this forgiveness. He offered it unilaterally to almost everyone he encountered. He did not wait for an apology or for pleading and begging. He said, “You are forgiven.” And from the cross he offered the greatest model of forgiveness, forgiving those who would put him to death.
And if I am able to forgive, forgiveness is a gift from God. I may not find the strength in myself to do so, but God can give me strength and set me on the journey toward forgiveness.
Our friend, Bishop Rueben Job, grows weaker these days and he is unable to stand here and address us but his words will continue to teach us and make live more like Christ.
Hear these words Rueben has given us: “Forgiveness is a life-and-death matter because forgiveness lies at the very heart of Christian belief and practice. To remove forgiveness from our theology and practice is to tear the heart out of any hope of faithful Christian discipleship, and to drive a stake through the heart of Christian community. . . .
Forgiveness is not only a preposterous gift; it is unbelievably difficult and costly. To offer forgiveness to our national enemy today will most likely be branded as unpatriotic and to extend forgiveness to another is often branded as being soft and unrealistic. But the forgiveness Jesus taught is neither soft nor unpatriotic. But it is extremely costly and laden with a mother load of grace for those who practice it.” (When You Pray, pp.189-191)
The parable reminds us that the root meaning of the word “forgive” is a word that means “release” or “let go.” The king released the servant from his debt. It suggests letting go of something we have held onto for a long time. What is it that we hold so tightly but we need to release? We have all been wounded, abandoned, abused, and betrayed. We all need God’s grace.
I want to invite us to join in a spiritual practice this morning. I invite us to close our eyes, if we will. Clench our fists as tightly as we can. Imagine that in our clinched hands we hold onto something we have refused to let go. What is it? See it. Is it a broken relationship, anger, hatred, a deep woundedness, resentment? Let’s spend a moment being honest about our lives and what we hold so tightly.
Let’s now ask God to help us be on the journey toward forgiveness. Let’s ask God to help us let go of that which we hold so tightly. Slowly begin to open your hands as you pray and visualize releasing what is held in your hand.
This exercise does allow us to instantly experience forgiveness, but it sets us on a journey, a slow journey sometimes, a costly journey sometimes, but one that allows us to experience, in the words of Rueben Job, “the mother load of grace.”