Sermon – September 24, 2017 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Our scripture readings for today are all about God’s grace and mercy. Who doesn’t love hearing about God’s grace and mercy? The catch in these readings, however, is that they seem to indicate that God’s grace and mercy are not always fair and that perhaps one of the defining characteristics of God’s grace is its unfairness. We hear this in the gospel parable today, where those who have worked only part of the day receive full wages, making those who spent entire day working very upset. We also hear this theme in the story of Jonah, which is what I’d like to focus on today.

If you haven’t read the entire story of Jonah, do it! It’s really short and really good and dramatic! We are just getting the tail end of the story here today, so we need to do some background work. To sum up the story, the people of Nineveh have been bad and God’s is angry. Jonah has been asked by God to go to Nineveh to warn the city about God’s plan to destroy them. Nineveh was known among the Israelites as being a horrible, lawless city. Everything the Israelites were called by God to do, they did the opposite. Israelites abhorred Nineveh and it looks like God was pretty upset with them too. Jonah, hearing the call of God to warn Nineveh, decides to flee to Tarshish… which is about a far away from Nineveh as you can get.

Why would Jonah flee? Well, Jonah is a good Israelite who HATES Nineveh. My hunch is that Jonah doesn’t want to warn Nineveh of God’s wrath, he just wants to see them burn! This upsets God and in turn, Jonah spends some time in the belly of a large fish. Meanwhile, while God was relieving the fish of Jonah, and despite Jonah’s failure to do his job, Nineveh repents of their horrible ways. And then God changes God’s mind about destroying Nineveh… this is where the story picks up for us today. When Jonah finds himself saved from the belly of the fish, he praises God and thanks God for the mercy that was shown to him! Then, he finds out that God has decided not to destroy Nineveh and his praise turns into anger. He is angry at God, so angry he could die.

It’s important to note here that the story of Jonah was written as a satire. The character of Jonah is meant to be dramatic and eye-rolling and over-reactionary to prove a literary and spiritual point. I point this out because for some people, anger or sadness or hurt to the point of wanting to die is an everyday reality… a reality that I believe God takes very seriously and has great compassion for. So if we remember that the original intent of this story was to be read as satire then know that God is not brushing off a serious concern, rather the story is highlighting the dramatic, over-the-top character of Jonah to reveal something to the audience of readers or hearers.

Jonah is upset because, in addition to being great enemies of Israel, Nineveh is not supposed to be in God’s merciful wheelhouse. It was Israel that had the covenant with God, Israel who would receive God’s favor, Israel was supposed to be the special ones in God’s eyes. See, Israel relationship to God’s mercy was economic in that Israel received from God what they thought they deserved. If they followed the law set out for them, if they lived rightly in their covenant with God, then they would in turn receive God’s mercy. God’s grace and mercy being extended to Nineveh, outside of that relationship, was a big slap in the face to the Israelites. Nineveh was not a part of this covenant and not only this, they actively worked against it. It was not fair that God saved Nineveh from destruction. Jonah’s story challenged how Israelites saw God’s grace and mercy. God is concerned about the injustice of Nineveh, yes, but God’s mercy is bigger. What these two stories teach us, both Jonah and the parable in the gospel, is that God doesn’t always follow the rules. And, despite our propensity to often breaking the rules ourselves, we humans do not like that.

The reaction of both Jonah and the vineyard workers was anger at God’s generosity. But what is so upsetting about God’s generous grace and mercy? The underlying assumption in both of these stories, and perhaps for us as well, is that God’s grace and mercy is limited. The concern then is if God’s grace and mercy is extended to someone else, then there may not be enough for me. If we think that God’s mercy is limited then of course we are going to be concerned with who is deserving enough to receive it. We live in a economy of scarcity and that is often how we orient ourselves but God’s economy is one of abundance. There is enough mercy and grace to go around a hundred fold. There is so much grace and mercy that it is extended even to people who did not earn it and did not deserve it… even ourselves. This abundance has been present in God’s story from the very beginning. It’s us humans that have given it limits.

The bible is full of stories that remind us of God’s radical abundance:

-There’s the story of when the Israelites were traveling in the wilderness, weary and hungry, and God causes bread to fall from heaven. (Exodus 16)

-The story of the starving widow who uses the last of her wheat to feed a traveling Elijah, only to later find that God has replenished her food stores. (1st Kings 17:7-16)

-When Jesus visits the woman at the well and tells her of an abundant living water that takes away all thirst. (John 4:1-42)

-The feeding of the 5,000 from just two fish and five loaves of bread… as if that wasn’t abundant enough, somehow there are 12 overflowing baskets of food left over. (Matthew 14:13-21)

-The last supper, when Jesus chooses to spend his last night on earth in service to his disciples, even the one who would betray him. (John 14)

-And then, Jesus’ final words to his disciples, “Remember, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Grace upon grace upon grace. There is a wideness in God’s mercy that we cannot even begin to wear out. If you ever need to remind yourself of this abundant grace and mercy, remember God’s word. Read those stories of God’s radical welcome, radical forgiveness, radical embrace that was present from the very beginning and promises to be there until the very end.

It is not our job to worry about who is worthy or not of receiving God’s grace and mercy. Our only job is to receive the gift and let it change us. How will you let this gift change you this week? Is there something on your heart? Let it go and give it to God. Is there someone you need to forgive? Extend God’s grace and mercy to them. Is there someone you need to seek forgiveness from? Reach out to them.

God’s grace and mercy is not always fair but that’s good news because there will be a time when we will need it’s abundance. There will be times when we know we have done wrong, when we mess up, when our brokenness shows a little too much… Children of God, grace and mercy will be there. God’s abundance will show up and it will not relent. Thanks be to God.