Sermon: “Counting Our Blessings: 
God’s Reckless Mercy”

21 September 2008

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 21, 2008           

“Counting Our Blessings:  God’s Reckless Mercy”

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1–16


Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

It’s only fair to warn you that today begins another sermon series that Jen and I have put together for this season.  In church time, it’s officially still that long green season of Pentecost, but as Sandy told the children last week, in New England there’s a new season starting – school is back in session and fall is in the air.  We’re well down the road to the Yankee Fair (how many days left, Walt? 27?) and just beyond that, Thanksgiving, and the beginning of Advent.  So Jen and I are celebrating with you sort of a “Season of Thanksgiving,” with this new theme: “Counting our Blessings.”

You might well wonder: Do we really need a sermon to persuade us to count our blessings?  It should go without saying, right?  It’s why we come to church, to thank God.  But these two scripture readings would argue otherwise.  Neither Jonah nor the early bird workers in the vineyard felt very grateful the end of these stories.

Some Sunday mornings it’s hard, I know it’s hard, to get up from the breakfast table, fold up the Sunday paper, and find the sheer human willpower to walk out the door, get in the car, and come in to church to praise the Lord!  I mean, if you read your newspaper, if you watch the news – some days, we all have to think – well, there just can’t be a God, or he or she MUST be taking this season off.  Because I see plenty of reason there should be lightning bolts hurled at that guy, or at that political party, or at that group of ne’er-do-wells on Wall Street or in Congress or in Iran or Pakistan or wherever.  We all must be tempted, like poor Jonah in this story, to stand apart from it all and rage at the Heavens for God’s reckless mercy shown to those awful people over there!  Here in church we have a lot of great songs about love and peace and, you know, “red yellow black and white all are precious in his sight” – “Amazing Grace!” – but when you stop to think about it, God’s grace is not just amazing, it’s outrageous!  God’s mercy looks downright reckless and irresponsible, sometimes.  Sometimes, you just have to say, “What in God’s name is God thinking to love …them??”

The point is, I think we need to get in touch with our own deep anger at the things we believe are evil or wrong if we want to try to understand why Jonah was so mad with God about showing mercy to Ninevah.  I still remember my parents hearing my first outraged rants about some elementary school injustice – and speaking those immortal words of truth to me:  “When did you get the idea that life is always fair?”  Now that’s a phrase that should be embroidered or engraved over the door of every Sunday School class, because God is NOT Santa Claus.  But I was all worked up, so my parents’ good advice really took all the fun out of stomping my little feet.  There is something about our own smug, self-righteous anger that feels so very good, it’s addicting.  That’s what BOTH of these texts are about – that delicious, seductive taste of self-righteousness that we relish when we know our side is in the right, and the OTHER side, the ENEMY, is just plain wrong.  Election season breeds this kind of ugly feeling.  It’s in the air.

But God is looking for us to share a different Spirit in his Kingdom.  Jonah says to God in this passage – and I love this – he says to God that he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the beginning of the book of Jonah because he knew – he just KNEW – that even though the city was evil and full of awful, evil, good-for-nothing people, he just KNEW that God was good and loving and merciful and God would spare them.  He knew that God’s grace was not just amazing – he knew that God’s mercy was reckless, irresponsible, outrageous – and he couldn’t bear to watch it in action.  That’s why he ran away in the first place. 

I’m guessing you might remember the story of Jonah?  It’s a fun, short little 4-chapter book – they made a Veggie Tales movie about it.  In the beginning, God calls Jonah to be a prophet to Ninevah – to call them to repent and turn back from their evil ways.  What you may not know is that this was the city of his nation’s worst enemies, a great city of the cruel and powerful Assyrian Empire of the 700s BC that 200 years later would be a great city in the Babylonian Empire that would take the Jewish people away in chains, during the Exile.  Today, you could hop on a plane and visit the ruins of Ninevah if there wasn’t a war going on there.  It’s just outside Mosul, in modern Iraq.  So we can understand why Jonah doesn’t want to bring any warning to Ninevah.  He doesn’t want those bloodthirsty monsters to repent.  He wants God to give them the punishment they deserve.  He refuses to go.  He flees on a boat, out to sea, goes as far as he can in the OPPOSITE direction from God’s call.  And that’s when the bad things start to happen that make the best special effects – God blows up a huge storm, the sailors cast lots to find out who has offended the sea gods, Jonah confesses he’s a prophet running away from God, the sailors throw him overboard (which turns out to be good seamanship, as the storm dies down), the big fish swallows him and, after Jonah fervently begs for forgiveness, it finally vomits him up again back on the shores of home – where he reluctantly, grudgingly, heads back to Ninevah, to save their worthless, sorry …souls.

Don’t you just love Jonah’s rant to God about all this?  I do, but maybe it’s because I’m a preacher and I love to pound the pulpit! “O Lord! Is not this …why I fled …at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please TAKE my life from me, for it is better for me to DIE than to live!”  (This sounds JUST like me in elementary school.)  Jonah hates his enemies so much, he can’t BEAR to see them be blessed by God.  He’s so blinded by his rage and self-righteousness, he can’t find it in himself to rejoice in God saving these poor people, too stupid to know their left hand from their right, and all those nice animals – he is spiritually unable to give God thanks and praise, or to count his blessings.

The lectionary pairs this story, I think quite well, with Jesus’s famous “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” that is the Gospel text from Matthew.  It’s a story that offers some hints from Jesus about how our hearts can be moved – when they are hardened with envy or anger – to stop blaming and raging at others and to focus in on our OWN relationship with God instead.  The workers who arrive first thing in the morning work HARD for the master; they labor morning, noon, and scorching hot AFTERnoon in the vineyard; their hands are cut and bleeding, their backs ache, their lips are parched and dry.  And then, those lazy workers who showed up at 3 and 5 o’clock, who still look so fresh and happy right now – those good-for-nothing bums who didn’t even GET UP until noon, until they had slept off the booze from the night before – those arrogant you-know-whats get the exact same crisp new $100 bill as WE do at the end of the day.  Does no good deed go unpunished?  Where is God? 

If you’ve ever been in a position like that, you know that kicked-in-the-gut feeling you get when injustice is done to you and no amount of yelling about it to God seems to make any difference.  You know the story; it begins sometimes when you’re very young:  you work the hardest of anyone on the team – anyone with an eye to see can tell you’ve got potential, even if you’re not the VERY best – and still, you get CUT from the team and some new kid who just moved to town makes it???? Or when you cover for someone else’s mistake at work – you’re the nice guy and make HER look good – and SHE somehow schmoozes the boss over drinks and gets the big promotion?  Or sometimes, the stakes are even higher, and YOU are the good parent – the one who takes the kids to church, GETS them to do their homework, reminds them to send thank-you notes and birthday cards to HIS parents – but when it’s time for custody to be decided in the divorce, HIS slick lawyer makes him look BETTER than you, and he gets just what he wants in custody???  The world is NOT fair, my friends.  It is NOT fair.  And we may well be tempted, like Jonah and like the workers in the vineyard at the end of the day, to want to scream at the Heavens to complain about God’s reckless and outrageous mercy!  I’m sorry, but there are days, when I really just don’t FEEL like counting my blessings.

So what does my friend Jesus have to say about all this?  Do you have any Good News to offer us, Jesus?  If the Kingdom of Heaven is as you say, Jesus, full of these workers who barely did a lick of real labor – I’m not sure I want any part of it!  Here’s what the vineyard owner says in the parable, the words Matthew says Jesus spoke to his disciples (Matthew 20:14-16):  “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s good news and bad news in all this, my friends.  The bad news is the Kingdom of Heaven, like the town of Ninevah and the town of Brookfield and the United States of America, is filled with a most distressing mix of horrible sinners who stumble around hurting one another and getting drunk and saying stupid things and offering bad loans and foreclosing on poor people and telling lies and then having the nerve to run for public office – but those of us who call themselves “people of the book,” we who are wise enough to “fear the Lord,” all have one thing in common.  We have had the good sense to throw ourselves onto the reckless and irresponsible and outrageous mercy of God, shown to us through Jesus Christ.  The Good News is we are all offered this amazing grace.  Let us count our blessings.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.



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