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.