- God Is Not Fair, God Is Good
Jonah 3:10 - 4:11; Matthew 20: 1 -16
Jonah does not get out of the kids’ Sunday School lessons and enter the “Big Church” very often. And really, when is the last time we considered Jonah without his fish? Even our favorite Bible stories suffer from categorization and “the way we have always done it.”
So today we let down our guard and we consider the close of the Jonah story. Jonah is selfish. He wants God to do it his way. When God proves to be more generous than Jonah, Jonah does not claim the opportunity for spiritual growth. Nope. Jonah pouts.
I would like to think that in the world we live in today we are more mature. I would like to say that, but it would be hard to justify. You already know how sensitive I am to uncensored emotional reactivity. It must be a reaction to the price I have paid learning to control my own behavior.
Jonah makes a good children’s story because God speaks directly to Jonah. You and I, we have a hard time hearing the voice of God. Many is the time I have asked God to just - spell it out for me. Most of the time I am getting frustrated is because it is already clear that what God wants, its just not what I want. “Don’t send me to Nineveh - send me to Tarshish, why can’t I hear you say what I want to hear?” is a favorite prayer of mine.
One of my favorite illustrations is a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is true and complete in and by itself, but a single piece of a 1,000 piece puzzle does not give you the whole picture. You may even put together an entire corner of a puzzle. That may give you a hint of what the puzzle is about, but it is usually not even the most important part of the puzzle.
In the mind of God, you and I are active pieces of a multi-dimensional puzzle, moving around and relating to each other, and preparing today for what will come tomorrow. Not only does God see us today, but plans for how our yesterdays will impact the tomorrows of people we have yet to meet. But the puzzle is about God and God’s love, it is not all about us.
I worry about the folks whose faith makes them believe that God is in control of everything, and that they should play detective, and understand what God is trying to accomplish as they weather the storms of life. Their faith becomes even more of a head game. I do not think it is helpful to go there, though it should help a lot - to know that God is present with us as we respond to the twists and turns of life.
So if God is not in control of everything, then it really does matter what we think, what we say, and what we do. It makes a difference when God works through our prayers to change our hearts and influence our choices. It matters to God, and all of the creation, that we act to make the world a better place. And we cannot always see how we impact others.
I often play golf with my best friend and regular golf partner, Pat. But sometimes, Pat cannot play when I am available. A year or two ago, I went to the course and was invited to play with a couple of men about my age, who regularly played together. We did not play for money. My game is not made better by increasing the importance of any single shot.
We were playing a good course, in good shape. I noticed immediately that my two partners routinely moved their golf balls on the fairway, to get it in a better position on the grass, before making their next stroke. I often did that in the past. It is especially useful when the course is in rough shape, damaged, or does not have good grass. Today I play the ball as it lies.
After a few holes, the two asked me at the tee why I did not improve my lie. I explained that it was part of the game to play the ball as you find it. Over the years I came to believe that on a good course, it did not make much difference to my score, and I was more satisfied on the days when I did well - to know that I had not cheated myself. They said that sounded silly to them.
A year later I met the same two guys on the same course. They remembered me, and claimed that beginning the week after we played together, they stopped rolling the ball in the fairway. It made them feel better about themselves and their game. You never know what influence you will have on others. If you routinely do good, when it does not seem to matter, it is so much easier to do good, when it really matters.
The gospel lesson gives us a perfect example of God being good and generous, and how easy it is for God’s generosity to tick us off. You see, we are more like Jonah than we care to admit!
This week the news has been full of disasters, again. Some of them were unavoidable: fatal earthquakes in Mexico, still another super-sized hurricane roaring through the Caribbean. Others appear to be less involuntary; the Congress making still another proposal to make health care a privilege of the rich, and the President of the country we love - making an incendiary speech to the United Nations.
That is enough to make our hearts heavy. In St. Louis, which is now center stage in naming and framing the extent of institutional racial bias, the racism embedded in the justice system, shows us again that it is easier to get disgusted at protests that are vulnerable to violence than even consider the tragedy of a legal system that is blind to prejudice. We ache for something to be simple.
The landowner in Matthew offered a fair days’ wage for useful work. The first folks readily agreed to do the assigned task. Simple. In subsequent hours, more workers were added to the force. When the end of the day came, all the workers were paid a days’ wage. But some had only worked for a couple of hours. Clearly it is not fair, and a cause for protest.
Except that to be clear, the landowner paid folks at least what he promised them. Some of the workers got paid more than they deserved. God, you see, is generous. Others got only what they were promised. That is actually fair.
When I tell you that I do not believe that God is in control of every little thing, then it is not really an act of God when the hurricane blows in. It is an act of nature. In 2004 there were a number of tornadoes that touched down around my home in Ottawa.
In Utica, just west of Ottawa, a number of folks left their trailer homes and went to stay in the basement of a large brick building that housed a tavern owned by friends of theirs. The tavern took a direct hit, and the building collapsed and killed all 8 of the people who sought protection. What are the chances of that?
The point I am making is that life is hard, and often unfair. The presence of God, in good times and bad, is consistent. Our sense of God depends more on our own awareness and the quality of our prayer life, than on our church membership, our intelligence, or even our good choices.
Last week we emphasized our need to accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves. Today we make clear that God is good, even when we do not deserve God’s goodness. God’s goodness does not come with a “Get Out of Jail - Free” card, but an even more generous offer to go with us.
The execution of Jesus by the cooperation between the legal system and faith community, demonstrates God understands that human justice is not like God’s generosity. And the presence of God is not limited or restricted to nice places and good times. There is no place so dark, no bad choice we can make, that will cause God to turn her head and look the other way. When God promised Moses at the Burning Bush - long ago and far away, God made a promise that is still valid to all of God’s children. God is with us.
Salvation is about the love of God for you, and you learning to respond in kind. The good news is, you do not - and cannot - deserve that love. Instead, we learn to trust that love, and share that love. When we walk through the dark places of despair with loved ones, when the diagnosis turns fatal before our time, when the world charges our hearts more than feel we can bear, God is with us. God is not fair, God is good.
What does that mean for us? If we would accept that Jesus is not just a divine image to be worshipped, but a moral teacher, then we would look at the world with new eyes. We would see the needs of those who are hurting due to the unavoidable catastrophes of nature. And while we rally to help, we may ask - if in fact, human activity has disturbed nature.
We would consider critically - the political climate that spends billions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction, and warlike posturing - in places that are intended to create a venues for cooperation. We would ask what are the priorities that we support in our lives together, if we cannot seek peace even in the forums built to foster understanding.
We might ask the hard questions of how we might reclaim the sense of democracy from the current culture, where unethical use of ill gained wealth by multi-national corporations, disconnected from the relationships of local communities, buy the allegiance of our representative government. I fear that the future of our experiment in democracy is threatened in lethal ways.
Today, the influence of the church, locally and nationally, is at a very low point. But I do not fear for the church. The God of love will not be destroyed by the culture. The church we love may need to be reconfigured, but the love of God can survive any storm.
Where then is the heart of our lesson today? Our God sees the world with eyes that see both the large and the small. God’s love for Nineveh compels action, even when evil rules the day in Nineveh, or even North Korea. Even when the reluctant church, played today by Jonah, tried to run the other way, God acts for love and reconciliation.
When the greedy landlords of the economy call for a disproportionate share of the public piggy bank, we hear the call to be generous. But generosity is not simply restricted to control of our own wallets and checkbooks. We are also responsible for the content and quality of our common life together as citizens.
Do we really need to spend billions and billions of dollars on weapons? Can we really afford to crush Medicare without a replacement? Is it really the best policy to threaten the world with nuclear war?
We are called to do good, even when it does not seem to be important. We are called to be generous, both in our personal lives and in our political lives. We are called to praise God, and look for God’s presence, especially when the weight of the world presses in on us.
In a world where the limitations of human justice systems are so blatant, we are called to be more than fair, we are called to be generous. Even when it feels like our sphere of influence is unnoticeable, we choose to do what is good and generous.
When the world appears to be consumed with what is shallow and anxious and short-sighted, we look for the goodness of God. We seek God in prayer. We seek God among those who are wise. We ask God to give us strength to be faithful. When others who claim to be faithful want to argue about what kind of fish swallowed Jonah, we recognize an attempt to avoid thinking about where God is calling us to go and speak out. God, strengthen our faith in your good love. Amen.