Gathered Into One
Thursday, September 26, 2002
Welcome to "Gathered Into One."
Here you will find the manuscript of the most recent sermon as preached by myself at Christ Lutheran Church in Scarborough, Ontario. Christ Lutheran is a congregation of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada (ELCIC). The sermons are posted here for you benefit, yes; but especially for mine. I seek your feedback - both positive and negative critique - so that I might be a better preacher. Enjoy.
18th Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Come and See Sunday
Sunday, September 22, 2002
Text: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11, Matthew 20:1-16
Christ Lutheran Church, Scarborough, ON
The Book of Jonah is unusual among the prophetic books in the Old Testament. It is unique in these two respects. First, Jonah’s career as a prophet is unusual in that he is not sent to speak God’s word to the Children of Israel, or to the city of Jerusalem, but to a foreign city – the capital of Assyeria, the capital of the enemy. Given the diplomatic relations between Israel and Assyeria at the time, God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh would be much the same as a prophet from modern day Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, coming to Washington D.C. to pass judgement on the United States. This may help us understand why Jonah was so reluctant.
Second, normally when we read in the prophetic books, “The word of the Lord came to so and so saying…,” we are then given a hearing of what God told the prophet to say. Sometimes it is a word of judgement to the people as when Amos spoke:
You, who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth;
who push the afflicted out of the way…
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and take no delight in your solemn assemblies…
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. [Amos 2:7a, 5:21, 23]
Other times it is a word of comfort.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that she has served her term
that her penalty is paid… [Isaiah 40:1-2a]
But whether a word of judgement, or a word of comfort, the prophet always tells us what that word is.
Jonah is sent to the city of Nineveh with a word of judgement, but we are never told what that word is, what Nineveh has done wrong, or why God has passed judgement upon it. In fact, the book of Jonah isn’t a prophetic book at all, in the way we normally understand that term. Rather, it is a story – the story of a reluctant prophet trying to flee from the will of a persistent god.
And God here is indeed persistent. One way or another, God insists that Jonah will speak this word to the people of Nineveh. When Jonah hops on a ship headed in the exact opposite direction, God does not give up. When Jonah is thrown into the sea, God does not give up. When Jonah is swallowed by a big fish, God does not give up. And even though Jonah’s is one lonely voice in a city of millions – the Bible tells us it would take three days to walk from one end to the other – even then God does not give up, and God’s word is heard in that place through Jonah. In fact, it is heard so clearly that the King declares that all shall observe a fast, and all shall turn from their evil ways and their violence. “Who knows,” says the king. “Maybe we can change God’s mind.”
Thanks to God’s persistence with Jonah, God’s mind is changed, Nineveh is spared, and God’s grace abounds once again.
Jonah, of course, isn’t too happy about it all. I’m sure he thinks that for all his trouble, he should at least get to witness a show of fire and brimstone raining down from the sky. But things don’t turn out that way at all. Rather, petty little Jonah goes out of the city to sulk when things don’t go his way. Instead of praising God for God’s exceeding graciousness and generosity, Jonah complains when the vine giving him shade in the desert withers away.
“You are concerned about a vine, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow,” says God to Jonah. “But look at what we did. Together, Jonah, you and I taught a wicked city right from wrong, and we saved them from their sinful ways. Open your eyes, Jonah, and see what I am about. Open your eyes and see.”
* * *
Although the gospels never report Jesus speaking about the book of Jonah, I’m sure that unusual prophetic book was a favourite of his. Jesus deals with pettiness and blindness in same way God deals with Jonah – with an invitation to come and see something greater, something more wonderful than we can ever imagine.
Just before telling the parable of the labourers in the in vineyard, Jesus is having a conversation with his disciples about the rewards they will receive for their faithfulness. Peter says to Jesus, “Look Jesus, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
The words Jesus says to Peter are, “you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” which taken on their own, of course, sounds pretty awesome. But the idea being expressed by Jesus is more like, “if that’s all you want, Peter, if that’s what you think you deserve, then that’s all you’ll have. But let me tell you about something more awesome and amazing.”
And then Jesus tells his parable which begins, “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Come and see, Peter. Come and see this kingdom where your throne will sit. Come and see how small and petty your throne will be, but how glorious God’s grace and generosity is.
* * *
Remember how persistent God was with Jonah? Jesus reflects this same persistence in his parable. In the morning the owner of the vineyard goes out and hires some workers, agreeing to pay them the usual days pay. Then at nine in the morning the owner goes out again and hires more workers, agreeing to pay them “whatever is right.” And then he does the same thing at noon, at three, and again at five o’clock.
Finally, at six o’clock the day is over and the pay is dispensed. Not surprisingly, those who worked a 12 hour day are a little put off when they discover they are being paid the same as those who only worked 1 hour. “I have done you no wrong,” says the owner, “I paid you what we agreed. Or are you envious of my generosity?”
* * *
I am struck by the way the owner goes out again and again to look for workers. I know what it is like to be unemployed, and the terrible stigma that goes along with it. But I also remember that nobody came knocking on my door offering me work. Everyday I had to head down to the unemployment office to see if there were any knew postings. Everyday I was filling out application forms while being told, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any openings today. But we’ll keep your file open for six months in case anything comes up.”
If you’ve ever been in that situation, then you know that finding full time employment can be a full time job. That earning a days pay for a days work has as much to do with luck and good fortune as it does with receiving what we actually deserve.
But the owner of this vineyard isn’t concerned with what his workers deserve. He only cares about what they need. The vineyard of Jesus’ parable doesn’t exist for the sake of the fruit, or for the sake of the owner. It exists to provide labour and daily wages.
The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t concerned with what we deserve. That is too small, too petty a thing. But come and see something amazing. The Kingdom of Heaven exists for us, providing our daily bread!
* * *
There’s an old saying: Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. That is certainly true in the Church. The pastor isn’t preaching about this. The Sunday School isn’t teaching that. The ELW doesn’t meet my needs. I don’t like the hymns. These things are trees – shrubs really. They are not the forest of God’s grace. Your concerns about church programme, my concerns about Christian doctrine, these things are not the forest. I don’t mean to say that they’re not important. The forest, after all, is made up of trees. But it is made up of hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of them! My sticky little point of doctrine, and your frustration over church programming – even Peter’s throne in heaven! – they are nothing. God’s forest of grace is so unbelievably huge that it still stands even when – maybe especially when – we don’t get what we think we deserve.
* * *
Come and see this grace. Come and see Nineveh thriving among us, much to Jonah’s consternation. Come and see the vineyard paying “what is right” not what we deserve. Come and see the church of Christ, muddling through and knocking over trees as we go, but still striving for God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Come and see. It’s not what you deserve. But it’s greater than you can ever imagine.