A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16 October 2011 by the Rev. Bud Carolle. The scripture reading that day was Matthew 20:1-16.
There is one word common to our recent Lectionary readings from Exodus and today’s reading from Matthew – complaining. Complaining. The Israelites complained to Moses about everything imaginable. The food, the wilderness, Moses and Aaron’s leadership; their list was longer than a dragon’s tail. In today’s story from Matthew, the farm workers who were hired first complained to the landowner about their wages. The ones who worked all day understandably believed, “first come, first more.” When they learned everyone got the same pay – regardless of hours worked, they cried out, “It’s not fair.” They seemed to believe length of loyalty and labor deserved more.
Let me ask you – “Where does Scripture ever say that to follow God is a matter of fairness?” When/where does God ever say, “Love and follow me and everything will be fair?” Never. Rather, throughout the Scriptures, God’s only promise is “I will not leave you.” Today’s Gospel lesson says it pretty clearly: “Stop looking for a fair God. Be thankful for the one you have.”
That brings us to the matter of “grace in the face of grumbling.” Or we could say, ”No reserved seating in God’s boat.” Do you know where you are sitting this morning? You’re in the nave – the Latin word for boat. You’re sitting in God’s boat. And only God can determine who will sit in God’s boat! Length and loyalty of service to the church; how much – or how little financial support we provide; how many committees we serve on; how frequently we join church activities, etc. Important? Of course! But they don’t equal the meaning of God’s grace. Remember the story of the man who died and wanted to enter Heaven. St. Peter told him, “Sorry, first tell me about your life on earth. You’ll need 100 points to enter Heaven.”
‘Well, I taught S.S. and sang in the choir.” “Great, ten points.” A little frustrated, the man continued, “I never cheated on my wife…”Great,” said St. Peter. “Ten points.” Now a bit angered, the man continued, “I led a Boy Scout troupe, served as church financial secretary and never stole a penny.” “OK,” replied St. Peter, “I’ll give you ten points for that.” Hmmm. Now, with only twenty points, the man shouted out, “Well, I guess the only way to get into Heaven is through God’s grace!” “Bingo”, said St. Peter. Welcome!”
Whatever ever else, today’s Gospel passage says to each of us, it says, “Quit your complaining, you cannot book reserved seats to enter God’s kingdom.” Now, stay with me as together we look a little closer at this thing about grace and grumbling.
Firstly: A grumbling or complaining spirit has little value or usefulness. A man joined a monastery where monks could only speak two words a year; and those to the abbot – the head monk. When the men had their annual evaluation/review. Normally they would be expected to say something like “Jesus loves” or “Praise God.” At the end of his first year the man’s two words were, “Hard bed.” The second year, “Bad Food.” Third year, “I quit.” Whereupon the head monk said, “I’m not surprised. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you came here.”
Some people complain before their day begins. They only seem happy when they’re unhappy. Frequently such people want special treatment; special favors; reserved seats in God’s love. Sorry! God’s love is open to all; the quick and the slow; the saint and the sinner; the early and the late; the oppressed and the oppressor, the mean and the sweet.
Secondly: God’s generosity invites our gratitude. Of course we get angry with God! And when our loved ones or we hurt, we ask special favors. We ask for physical healing when we probably should be asking for spiritual and physical strength to face both the hurts and happiness of life. We ask for work when we should probably be looking for work. We ask for help and forgiveness when we may be deliberately dishonest and deceitful. We’re upset when someone who has lived a sordid, sorry, sinful life seems to receive special treatment from God.
Well, one thing is for sure, God’s love shines upon the just and the unjust; and the ready and the unready. We can ask all day and night, “Lord why her and not me?” or “Lord, it just doesn’t seem fair.” But ours is not to ask “why?” or “Why not?” rather to be grateful. - to affirm and celebrate God’s faithfulness to us.
One Sunday a little girl was asked to pray in Sunday School. She really didn’t know what to say, but then she remembered her family’s mealtime prayer. So she prayed, “God is great, God is good; let us thank God for our food.” Appropriate? What better or more appropriate prayer could she have prayed? God is great; God is good; God is ever so generous and gracious. So let us thank God for food. The food of understanding and gratitude; the food of forgiveness and hope; the nourishment of God’s love. Freely available for all – both early arrivals and latecomers.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they ordered two precious ancient Buddhist statues to be destroyed - for Centuries seen and admired by traders along the Silk Road from and to the Middle East and China. They were symbols of Buddhist belief that everyone can achieve spiritual enlightenment and strength. Christianly also has its symbol - not majestic, rather – a rough-hewn cross standing on a hill – in full view of scornful soldiers, mocking crowds and devoted disciples – the cross of Christ. We sang today, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” Written by John Bowring, the third Governor of HK. Some think he wrote this after seeing the façade of St. Paul’s cathedral in Macao. Actually, he wrote it before coming to Hong Kong. Never mind, the important thing is that cross stills sends its powerful message – “towering o’er the wrecks of time…” that everyone, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the just and the unjust, the corrupt and the clean – we are all welcomed into God’s everlasting grace.
We can complain from sun up to sun down, but there are no reserved seats in God’s kingdom. But if you really want to enjoy God’s generosity and grace- there are still plenty of good seats! Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2 October 2011 by the Rev. John LeMond. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14 amd Matthew 21:33-46.
Have you ever heard someone tell about the sin of another person?
We all have.
But have you ever enjoyed hearing about the sin of another person?
Most people do enjoy hearing
That someone…someone else
Has been caught doing something wrong
It gives us something to talk about.
And it makes us feel a bit superior to those involved in the sin.
“Did you hear about Mr. “Smith?”
“He was caught taking money from his employer.”
“He had been doing it for several years without being caught.”
And we shake our heads and click our tongues…
And ask for more information.
“Did you hear about Maria?”
“It’s so sad.”
“What…what about Maria?!”
“Oh, nothing…I probably shouldn’t say anything.”
“No, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone else. What did she do?”
“Well, she had an affair with her neighbor…”
“Yes, every day when her children were at school.”
We shake our head, and click our tongue.
We do enjoy hearing about the sin of others…
We even wanted to know about Maria when I just mentioned her…
Even though we knew she didn’t exist!
“How could he do that?”
“How could she do that?”
We like to gossip
But there are other times
When the sin of others calls forth far deeper feelings
For instance, when the sin of the person
Is against us
Then our feeling toward that person is not so gentle.
“Did you hear about Mr. Smith?”
“He has been stealing money from you.”
Then there is no head shaking or tongue clicking.
There is only anger and a desire to seek revenge.
“Have you heard about Maria, your wife?”
“She has been having an affair with your next door neighbor.”
“Yes, every day when the children are in school.”
There are places in the world where this would result in the death of Maria…
And the death of the next door neighbor.
No head shaking or tongue clicking.
Just swift and final violence.
Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who rents out his vineyard to others
It’s an interesting story of injustice and sin
When the owner asks for his share of the harvest
The renters kill his slaves
So finally, he sends his son to them,
Expecting them to respect him.
But they kill the son as well.
The listeners pay attention to every word of Jesus
Because they know exactly what should happen, legally.
They know the law.
They know that the land owner deserves part of the harvest,
And the renters must in law provide it to him.
They know that if someone kills your slave,
That the person will suffer greatly
And a great deal of money must be paid.
But to kill a son.
That was the worst that could possibly happen.
Jesus builds the story step by step.
And at the death of a son: the listeners are extremely angry.
Oh, how could these terrible people do such a thing?!
And so Jesus asks them: “When the owner comes, what should he do to those renters?”
What he is really asking them is, “What would you do to such people?”
And the answer comes immediately,
“Not only kill them, but do it in a way in which they suffer.”
“Because they have not only sinned against our law…”
“They have sinned against God…”
There is great anger and great self-assurance among the listeners.
And then Jesus tells them what they didn’t expect to hear.
You are the unrighteous renters.
You are not the one sinned against…
You are the sinner.
And you are right.
What you deserve death.
And it is death that God will give you.
Your inheritance in the kingdom of God will be taken away from you.
And given to strangers!
Now everything has changed.
This is not what they expected to hear.
This is not what they wanted to hear.
They thought they would hear about the sin of others
But it was their own sin that Jesus revealed.
“Have you heard about Mr. Smith?”
“He just discovered that you have been stealing money from him?”
“Have you heard about Maria?”
“She knows that you are having an affair with your next door neighbor.”
We thought we wanted to hear about sin.
But now we’ve changed our mind.
We are caught…and everyone knows about our sin.
It is we who are the object of the story.
How did this happen to us?
The Apostle Paul asked the same question.
He was ready to pass judgment on Mr. Smith
And on Maria
Because he knew that he was truly righteous according to the law.
He knew that if anyone could judge the sin of others, it was he.
Circumcised on the 8th day.
A child of the Hebrew people.
A member of the tribe of Benjamin
So…tell me the story of Mr. Smith
Tell me the story of Maria
Tell me the story of the renters of the vineyard
I am ready to shake my head, and click my tongue
I am ready to pass judgment on them
Even a judgment of death.
Cruel death if they deserve it.
Now, tell me the story…
And then Jesus says to him:
“You are that one.”
And you surely deserve to die.
It was this realization that struck Paul like a lightening bolt on the road to Damascus.
“It is you Saul.”
“The person you seek to persecute for their sins is you.”
And Paul fell to the ground, and could not speak or see or eat.
In medical terms, we might say that he had a traumatic experience.
That he experienced a kind of hysterical blindness
A psychological reaction to something that his brain could not make sense of.
But in theological terms we would say
What he experienced was the truth.
And it was so overwhelming that it changed his life.
Not only the truth about his own sinfulness.
Not only the truth that he deserved death.
But the truth that, amazingly
He was forgiven by God
Not only forgiven but loved.
Not only loved and forgiven, but chosen by God
And this is a message that he spent the rest of his life proclaiming.
Did you hear about Mr. Smith?
He deserved judgment, but he was forgiven.
Did you hear about Maria?
She deserved punishment, but she was forgiven.
Did you hear about Paul.
He deserved death, but he was forgiven.
Did you hear about you?
Jesus Christ embraces you in your sin
And calls you to a new life.
There is no shaking of heads or clicking of tongues…
There is only silence
Because the story ends where we never expected it to end:
It is we who have been condemned
Yet we who have been saved.
It is we who have been judged
Yet we who have been loved.
We who deserve death,
Yet we who are offered life.
Have you heard about Maria?