Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 September, 2017 Pentecost 16

Readings: Jonah 3:10 - 4: 11 Matthew 20: 1-16

We pray:  Gracious and merciful God, we pray that you would speak your truth into our hearts today, that we would challenged, encouraged and renewed to your service. Amen.

A sermon of two parts today – but one message: the grace and mercy of God is abundantly generous and is for all people. 
A statement that Jonah in our first reading absolutely disagreed with – when asked by God to deliver a message denouncing their wickedness to the people of Ninevah he ran in the opposite direction, not so much because he was afraid but because he suspected that if they listened they might repent and then God would forgive them. Because he knew his God’s ridiculous capacity for mercy. And Jonah didn’t think that they deserved any second chance. 

Whatever else you might think about Jonah – he had gumption.  Not a lot of wisdom but a heap of attitude. We know the story of his flight and God’s relentless pursuit – we all know the story of the his voyage at sea, his being chucked overboard, his encounter with a whale  – and his realisation that it was his own actions that had led him to this.  His prayer to God when he realised his predicament was deeply contrite for he realised how foolish he had been  – ‘as my life was ebbing away I remembered the Lord’. 
But then the graphic emotive description of life and death storms and grief that accompanied Jonah on the sea voyage become somewhat pedestrian when we hear the next part of the story. He was spewed up onto the land and walked to Ninevah. – he entered the city, cried out the words, ’40 days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’.  The people heard the truth of his words and threw themselves on God’s mercy.  Jonah was right about the outcome, he knew that God would respond with compassion and thought that was wrong – that they should be punished for their evil ways. 
Jonah, who himself had pleaded for forgiveness and with it his life whilst in the belly of the whale wasn’t prepared to see that same mercy offered to the people of Ninevah! Seriously double standards here.  Hence the episode outside the city - the sheltering bush being eaten by the worm – lesson number two for Jonah – that if he valued the shade of a bush he had no other relationship with, how much more would God be concerned that the 120,000 people of Ninevah should see the error of their ways and come to a way of right living again.  We don’t know if Jonah needed more lessons in his life but we would suspect he did.

The teaching for us from this story – the persistent love of God that pursued both Jonah and the people of Ninevah for as long as it takes to get them on the right path and understand the justice and love that is the way of God.  Do we recognise that same guidance to shape our lives in the way of Jesus – that we are forgiven seventy times seven, that God’s grace and mercy are beyond generous when we stumble and fall and that no amount of turning our back will remove God from our lives and our living.

And it was lesson time too in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.    Whether this speaks into the relationship of long-time Jewish Christians with newly arrived Gentile converts or the fact that some work hard and long hours for the kingdom and want others to prove themselves before they are fully admitted – Jesus reply is the same:  All I have promised you I have given you – I choose to offer that same to all who come to me! 
The complaining servants remind us that we can be so busy worrying about what it is that we don’t have or a perceived inequity in our lives that we forget to be grateful for what we do have
Where we see equal pay for equal work – Jesus offers a living wage to all.  Where we would carefully watch to see that fairness is upheld – God distributes generous grace so extravagantly that it actually deeply troubles us – it upsets our sense of right and wrong, our belief that we earn our way and receive that which we have worked for. 

There is a fundamental difference here: it's actually a place where our culture and our faith clash quite profoundly.  The abundance of God’s grace and mercy to us is hard for us to replicate to others.  We, like Jonah, like the labourers, get angry if we feel people haven’t paid their dues in some way.
We see it in the ethic that says people at the bottom of the economic heap don’t deserve decent housing, medical care, work opportunities.
We see it in the policies of governments that allow tax avoidance by those with money to burn when that money would contribute to the good of all.
We see it in the demeaning walk of shame that those in the welfare system encounter every day.
We see it in a society that says self comes first and community second.
We see it in the child poverty, the crisis in mental health, the consumer culture that exploits the poor and the powerless…. and so the list goes on.   

At the time of writing this I do not know the outcome of the election but I would hope and pray that our generosity as a nation to those who are still standing waiting to be picked at the end of the day would be the same as that landowner.  That our plenty would be distributed in a way that values all people despite their marketable skills or lack of them.  That would be the Jesus way and so is our way.

And that is for me the teaching from this story: God’s generosity is a gracious and undeserved gift to all people.  Where we look for equity, we are surprised by generosity.  Where we talk about deserving, we find love poured upon us without conditions.  When we look inwards at the fairness or not of our own situation, unexpected generosity is happening all around us and we have missed the celebration.

Our challenge is to turn our world view upside-down; to stop insisting that the books balance and instead to see the world through the love and grace and mercy of an insistently generous God who will not take no for an answer.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

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