Gratitude, Fairness, and Goodness

Ray Brown
St. Michael’s, Little Rock
September 18, 2011
Proper 20A

Did you see the story in the news last week about the young man in Pennsylvania who won $68 million in the lottery? Turns out his father is the CEO of the Marriott Hotel Chain and the kid is already worth millions. Some of those commenting on the online story were indignant that the universe (as they called it) would smile on such a one. It just doesn’t seem fair.

All of our scripture lessons for today touch on the theme of gratitude, fairness and God’s goodness.

In the lesson from the book of Jonah we meet a man, a prophet of God, who is angry at God because God has chosen to be merciful to Jonah’s enemies. When God first instructed Jonah to go and preach to his enemies in Ninevah, Jonah turned tail and ran, but thanks to a wild boat ride and a short sojurn in the belly of a great fish, Jonah relented and did go and preach. And what he most feared would happen did indeed happen. The people of Ninevah repented and so did God. Though successful in his preaching, Jonah could take no joy in his success. What do you do when God is nice to people that you despise?

In our Gospel lesson we see workers invited to work in a vineyard. Some accept the invitation to work while the day is very young and the sun is barely up…others respond to the invitation at mid-day and still others just before the sun sets and the day’s labors must come to an end. The trouble starts when they line up for their pay and everyone gets the same amount. Those who started early in the day expect a larger payout and when they end up getting the same as those who
came at the end of the day, they too start to whine and complain. What are you to do when the Master chooses to be generous?

The characters in each of these stories are unhappy. And they are not suffering in silence. If there is one thing that they have in common it is that they each show what happens when people fail to recognize that God’s ways are not their ways.

If we look closely this morning, we may see ourselves in these characters. Not everyone will, of course. There are those truly, genuinely good people who always trust God and who never doubt. There are those among us who never complain or wonder aloud when God’s ways just don’t seem to make sense. There are a few such folks among us. But most of us can relate. We, too, have complained and griped and groused. We have whined and sulked. We have questioned God. Perhaps if we can take just one lesson from each of these stories, we will be better equipped to live as God’s people.

If we had used the parallel Old Testament Proper for today we would have read about the Hebrew Children’s escape from bondage in Egypt. Though they had long pleaded for deliverance from their Egyptian masters, they were no sooner in the desert than they were ready to go back to Egypt. From the Hebrew children we are reminded that the path to the Promised Land is not always a straight one…and that it is important to remember where you came from as you continue forward on your journey in faith. The circumstances of the moment can blind you to both your past and your future. When that happens you get stuck and you start to complain.

From Jonah we learn that God loves people we might not like very much. I just finished reading a little book about Father Andrew White,
who is known as The Vicar of Baghdad. Father Andrew serves the only Anglican Church in Iraq, right in the middle of a dangerous section of Baghdad. Every Sunday he is escorted from his office in the Green Zone to his church by a convey of 20 armored vehicles. Not only does he serve St. George’s Church, he also has worked closely with Muslim clerics and leaders in an effort to broker peace in the region. In his book he tells of the close friendships he has developed with many of these religious leaders. His voice is a far cry from some of the voices we hear on religious programs in our country….voices that portray all Muslims as people of violence and ill-will. Father Andrew paints a very different picture. His is a story worth reading. You can Google him…Vicar of Baghdad or Father Andrew White. When Jonah was called to preach to his enemy he fled. When Father Andrew was called to Baghdad he embraced the call. Both Father Andrew and the story of Jonah are reminders that God loves people we may not like and the love of God is broader than any geographic boundaries drawn by human hands.

We will miss any lesson from the Gospel parable of the laborers and the vineyard if we fail to recognize the vineyard as the Kingdom of God. Laboring in the vineyard of the great King is a joy in and of itself. The reward is not just the payment at the close of the day, but the very work itself. Mother Teresa understood this truth. She labored in one of the dirtiest most disease ridden corners of the vineyard. By any earthly standards it was a lousy place to labor. It was dangerous and the pay was poor. But for Mother Teresa it was never about the money. She once stated, “I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No, I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God.” She
went on to add, “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.” When the love of Jesus is your vocation, working in the vineyard is itself a reward.

A second lesson from these readings is that Rightousness is not determined by how long or how hard you work. It is the result of the Master’s generosity. It is a gift of grace. One of the most fascinating persons I’ve met in my work at Presbyterian Village is a woman who was a missionary in Africa for over 50 years. She went there as a newlywed with her new husband in 1939. They raised 5 children there and served faithfully for over a half a century.

Visiting with her reminded me of another woman I baptized many years ago. Like my missionary friend this woman was in her 90’s. Unlike my missionary friend this other woman had lived a pretty rough and self- centered life. She had something of a death-bed conversion and I was called upon to baptize her, which I did.

If I understand the parable of the workers in the vineyard, both of these women will receive the same reward of righteousness. That is because it is a gift of God’s grace.

Taken as a group, these lessons all point to the simple fact that there is much we do not know about the ways of God in our world. The path to the Promised Land is not always a straight path, but God will provide along the way. From Jonah, God loves people we may not like. From the Gospel we learn that God is generous. There is so much that we don’t see. There is so much that we do not know.

When I was in college I was blessed to meet Corrie Ten Boom. You may have read her book The Hiding Place. She was in her 50s and living at home with her elderly father and sister in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. She and her family hid Jews and others in their home for several years before being found out and shipped to a concentration camp in 1944. Only Corrie survived the camp. After the war she traveled the world telling her story and proclaiming a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ll always remember watching her speak and hold up a canvas of tangled threads as she read the following poem:

My Life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who leave the choice with Him.