What We Deserve
Many of us were raised to believe that if we work hard and put in the effort, we will get what we deserve. God’s love and grace, however, are not transactional. How do we reconcile our notions of fairness with a God who proclaims that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last?” Worship with us online, and experience God’s abundance with us this Sunday! All are welcome!
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Can you imagine being that worker hired at 9am? At the end of the day, I would be grumbling as well. I worked a 9-hour day! But the ones hired at 5, who just worked one hour, get paid the same amount as I do? How is that fair?
And then, there are these Israelites in the wilderness. Can you imagine what the Pharaoh and the Egyptians are thinking?
The Israelites left Egypt where food and meat were plentiful and chose to go wander in the desert. Now they’re complaining about being hungry? “That’s what they get for leaving,” I’d say!
In our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” society, we expect hard work to be rewarded, and those who don’t put in the work to be punished.
Conversely, we also tend to believe that those who have money and power have earned it and deserve it while those who don’t have likely done something wrong or simply not worked hard enough for it.
This theology of divine reward and divine retribution can be found all throughout our society. The prosperity gospel is rooted in this ideology. Even capitalism can find a home here.
And I get it because it can be comforting to believe that if we just work hard enough and just do the right thing, good things will happen.
And if something bad happens, well, we must’ve messed up along the way. And let’s figure out what that was, so we can fix it.
This system of belief gives us a whole lot of control.
But, unfortunately, life just doesn’t always work that way.
I learned that early on. My parents are some of the hardest working people I have ever known. They weren’t and aren’t perfect, but I can say without a doubt, they worked hard.
When I was growing up, they would start their day at 5 in the morning, go to church for morning prayer, and be into work by 6:45 am. They would then work a 12-hour plus day, come home and eat dinner with their kids. Then, lather, rinse, repeat.
On Wednesday nights, they’d go to church. And on Sunday, their only day of rest, they’d go to church.
If they got what they (quote unquote) “deserved,” based on their work ethic and their religious piety, they should have made tons of money and led comfortable lives.
But instead, they struggled every month to pay the bills. Our small business was eventually foreclosed. And when they re-opened another business, a fire damaged everything they had built.
Life is not always fair. And we don’t always get what we deserve. Ask those who have lost loved ones and businesses and homes due to these recent wildfires. What sense is there to that loss? Who is to blame except our collective ravaging of this planet
that has led to climate change and cataclysmic disasters that now seem to happen
year after year? And since we’re on it, let’s be honest, none of 2020 has been very fair.
Am I right? Can I get an amen? (I’ll trust that even the most “frozen chosen” among us are amen-ing from home.)
And yet. Here we have these two stories from scripture. They’re two very different stories.
But they both show us a God who does not give us what we deserve, who does not play by our notions of what is fair and unfair, or who might deserve punishment or reward. This God grants us unconditional love, lavish grace, and mercies abundant.
In the first story, God provides for the Israelites in the desert. They are a grumbling and wretched and fickle, fickle people. Yet God listens, and God responds. Not only with the food they ask for, but with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. God’s presence is known to them, visibly and tangibly.
And in the parable told by Jesus, we often think how unfair it is that the one who worked the most gets paid the same as everyone else.
But imagine being the one who worked the least, the one who really didn’t deserve all that pay. Imagine how that laborer felt.
What a lavish God we serve! How prodigious and over the top this God is!
Our God’s isn’t fair in the ways that we understand in this society. Our God is radically gracious and full of mercy – regularly giving us what we don’t deserve, showering those considered the “least” with the most.
The Gospel Jesus spoke of was a radical, upside-down view of the world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first; where those who are lost and wandering in the desert, are provided for and fed; where the one whom everyone else considers unemployable is not only hired but paid the same.
Friends, God’s abundance is beyond our understanding.
And I believe, even in the midst of all that has been the year 2020, that God continues to be present, continues to love unconditionally, continues to grant us with undeserved grace and unending mercy.
But listen, if you’re struggling with this, I get it.
The Talmud states, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’”
If I’m honest, though, the great enormity of the world’s grief is daunting to me these days. And I have wanted to abandon the work on multiple occasions these past six months. Everything just seems harder.
In fact, my new year’s resolution was to write down 3 things I’m grateful for each day.
I even bought a brand new, shiny “Gratitude Journal.” You know where the entries end?
March 16th, the first day of our “shelter in place” orders.
All right. If I’m honest, that’s not completely true. I have one more entry, about a month later, that says, in all caps, (excuse the language) “Everything sucks.”
Maybe some of you resonate.
And who knew that the year could get worse, but it did.
I am no optimist, trust me. But I still believe that even in the midst of all of this,
God is present and available, walking with us, weeping with us, holding us, and carrying us through, even calling us to do justly now, to love mercy now, to walk humbly now,
to do whatever we can in this moment, for this day.
I know God is calling us to this work, but God is not asking us to do it alone. God gives us each other, even when we are apart & socially distanced. And God promises to be with us in that work.
I can believe this because I experience that in this community, as we pray and worship, and serve together.
I feel it in my bones when I hold my babies.
I saw it as people and businesses and even sports teams protested against systems that take black and brown lives.
I heard it as voices spoke up against racism and injustice.
I tasted it in the cupcakes that were a disaster to bake with my children.
I believe it in my heart when we pause to sing and dance and worship and use joy to resist hopelessness.
Surely all is not lost. Love endures. God is here. There’s a saying that goes: “The optimist says the cup is half full. The pessimist says the cup is half empty. But the child of God says, “My cup runneth over.”
Friends, may your cup runneth over this week. May you experience the lavish love of God, in spite of all that is going on the in the world. And from that great outpouring and overflow,
may we share that love with one another and with the world.
Thanks be to God.