“And also much cattle.”

cattle

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16 

 

“And also much cattle” Job 4:11

In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith tells of a heart-wrenching time in his life. At first things could not have been better for him. He had a loving family, a beautiful wife, a healthy son and a great career. He had become a Christian 12 years earlier and he was seeing God move in his life in obvious ways. So he had no trouble believing then that God was good.

But things changed. His wife became pregnant and at eight months discovered that their unborn child had a chromosomal disorder and would likely die at birth. She was born deaf, had a heart defect and could not keep food down, but she didn’t die at birth. She was just over two years old when they put her in the ground on a cold rainy day. At that time he had difficulty believing that God was good.

As if that was not bad enough they received well meaning but ridiculous comments like, “Well I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than He wanted her on earth.” Even worse a pastor took James to lunch and bluntly asked, “Who sinned Jim, you or your wife?” When James asked what he meant by that question the pastor said, “Well one or both of you must have sinned at some point to have caused this to happen.”

Do you see where that question is coming from? It comes from the belief that if you are good then God will bless you and if you are bad then God will punish you. So if you are being punished then you must have done something bad.

This false view of God is in many world religions and sadly in much of the church. And we embrace this view because we want things to be fair and blessing the good and punishing the bad seems to be fair. Additionally, as we see in today’s parable, we also don’t want to see people get more than they deserve because that also would not be not fair.

But the great problem of expecting God to be fair is that eventually you will be forced to conclude that He is not good. I say that because you don’t have to live too long to discover that life is anything but fair. Beth’s father was one of the best men that I have ever known and one reason that I fell for her was because she is so much like him. He was very careful about his health and could still wear the same size pants that he wore in high school. But just after when he was 68 he got pancreatic cancer and died right after turning 69. Meanwhile Fidel Castro, who stole a nation and exiled, killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of his own people, lived to the ripe old age of 90. Life isn’t fair.

However this demand for God to be fair is so ingrained in us that Jesus tells numerous stories and makes numerous statements in order to paint a different picture than that of a fair God who blesses the good and punishes the bad. And when Jesus paints this picture He paints WAY outside of the box. Jesus changes our focus froim the fairness of God to the grace of God. The grumbling laborers were unhappy because they did not get what they thought that they deserved. Jesus tells us that the good news is that we don’t get what we deserve because we don’t truly want what we really deserve because it’s not more denarii.

This understanding of God did not start with the New Testament. We see grace all through the Scriptures. It wasn’t fair that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But by God’s grace he became the second most powerful man in Egypt. It wasn’t fair that Ruth’s husband died. But by God’s grace she met and married Boaz and became an ancestor of Jesus. It wasn’t fair that King Saul in a fit of jealousy drove David into exile. But by God’s grace David became the greatest of kings. I wasn’t fair that Paul was beaten, stoned and imprisoned just for sharing his faith. But by God’s grace his writings have held the Church together for 2,000 years. It’s not about fair, it’s about grace! The only fair you are going to get in this life is the kind that sells funnel cakes.

In telling this parable of the generous householder Jesus is illustrating both the grace of God and how misguided our thoughts about fairness truly are. The laborers that the householder first hired agreed on one denarius, which was a typical day’s wage for agricultural work. So there was no ill-gotten gain by either party. What caused the rumblings was when those who had only worked an hour received a denarius, those who had worked throughout the day were sure that they would receive more. After all, that’s only fair. But when they only received the one denarius they were insulted and cried foul.

The landowner makes two very important points. First they received what they had agreed upon so their perception of fairness was distorted. Second, the householder has the right to be as generous as he wants to be because it all belongs to him in the first place. He is free to be as generous as he chooses. And in terms of the laborers, as it says in the Message, “It”s no skin off your nose.” (Actually it doesn’t say that but it should).

What Jesus is preparing these first listeners for is the shock that they will experience when they begin to see salvation come to the Gentiles. Here God has been in a covenant with Israel for centuries and these Johnny come lately pagans are receiving the grace of God just as they are? How is that fair? Answer, it isn’t. It’s called grace.

We see can see also that one person’s idea of fairness is actually prejudice, as in this story of Jonah. He was running from God precisely because he knew that God would have compassion on these wicked pagans who don’t know their right hand from their left…. “and also much cattle.” They weren’t Jews. They weren’t a part of the covenant people. What did they do to deserve the mercy of God? Answer…nothing. It’s called grace.

I love that line….”and also much cattle.” Did you know that is the very last line of the Book of Jonah? It seems to leave you hanging but it is a great technique to have you finish the story. God asks Jonah if Jonah had pity on a plant that lasted only one day shouldn’t God have pity on these 120,000 pagans and even on the cattle?

What a great snapshot this is of the grace of God. No matter the level of our wickedness, no matter what we have done in our past, God responds to our repentance, as He did with Nineveh, and showers us with such grace that even the animals benefit. “And also much cattle.”

So how do we apply this truth that Jesus is teaching us? How do we move our thinking from focusing on fairness to focusing on grace? Several suggestions.

First and most obvious is to abandon all hope of this life being fair. As author Dennis Wholey bluntly put it, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.” 

But for heaven’s sake don’t stop there. Just abandoning hope would only lead to depression. In his new book Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado suggest four positive things that we can do to focus on God’s grace. He draws his insight from a famous passage in Philippians 4.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. 

Max suggest this acronym, C.A.L.M. St. Paul says we are to rejoice in the Lord so C stands for “celebrate.” We celebrate God and His goodness. Instead of complaining that we worked all day and only received one denarius we celebrate that God is so generous and good that He even blesses the guy who only worked one hour. Rather than complaining that life is not fair we celebrate a God who is so compassionate that, as Jesus said, He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

A is for “ask.” St. Paul said that in everything we are to let our requests be known to God. First he tells us not to be anxious and then he tells us to take it all to the Lord in prayer. And Jesus taught us to be specific in our prayers. It is not selfish to ask for daily bread. That is what He taught us to do.

L is for “leave.” Once we take our concerns to God we need to leave them there if we are going to have God’s peace. It doesn’t do us any good to take our burdens to the Lord and ask for His help and then pick them back up again. How do we leave them with the Lord? By doing the last step that is M for “meditate.”

St. Paul says whatever is true and noble and lovely we are to meditate upon. As Max put it, “you can pick what you ponder.” The Scriptures call on us to take our thoughts captive because we become what we think about. If your thoughts are all about regrets from your past you will be filled with despair. If your thoughts are all about “what if’s” in the future you will be filled with anxiety. But Isaiah 26 says of God, “You will keep him in perfect peace, Whose mind is stayed on You.”

One final thought about our wanting life to be fair. While some of that desire may be rooted in selfishness as we saw with the laborers I believe that some of it comes from God. We have been created in His image and since He is a just God there is a longing in the human heart for things to be made right. There is a difference between justice and fairness but that is another sermon. But follow me.

We certainly see the Psalmist struggle with the injustices that he sees all around him and how often he calls upon the Lord to set things straight. It is also a frequent call of the prophets. The insight that the Scriptures give us is the timing of things being made right. It will not happen until the kingdom comes in its fullness. So while we should pray for justice and work for justice we should not set up ourselves for disappointment and discouragement if we do not see it in our lifetime. It will come as surely as Jesus will come again but it will not come until He does.

The Book of Job is most instructive here. In this story some very bad things happen to a good guy. His religious friends give him the kind of counsel that James Bryan Smith received from his pastor. To paraphrase their counsel, “Just figure out where it is that you have sinned and repent so that God will stop punishing you.”

Job knew that wasn’t the answer so he searched deeper to understand why these bad things were happening to him. Towards the end of the book He is granted an audience with God and Job calls God into account. The Lord in essence tells Job that there is an answer for why bad things happen to good people but that Job would not be able to understand it. Job repents that he had called on God to give an account for Himself and Job says. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

Trust was the lesson for Job and trust is our lesson as well. On this side of glory life will not be fair. We will have many things happen that we will not understand and many things will be well beyond our control. But one thing that we can take charge of is in whom we trust. We can decide like Job that we will trust the Lord even if it kills us. And why should we? Because of this good and extravagantly generous God that Jesus came to show us. We trust in Him because it is this God who on the great day will make all things right…..for you and for me “and also much cattle.”

The Keys or the Cross?

Keys to Kingdom

Matthew 16:21-27

If you think that it is difficult at times to understand Jesus’ teaching then imagine what the disciples must have been thinking in this exchange that we heard today. Jesus had just finished telling them that He was giving them the keys to the kingdom and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven and whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven. And now, three verses later, He is telling them that they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. First the keys and then the cross? What? If I was one of those disciples I would be saying to myself, “Which is it Jesus? Is it going to be the keys or is it going to be the cross?” I believe that Jesus is teaching them that it must be both, and I will explain why I believe that, but first I have to touch on good old Peter. Is he a piece of work or what?

Peter had just been praised by Jesus and called “Blessed” because he recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Then just a few verses later Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him, “You are a hindrance to me.” Can you imagine the Christ, the Son of the living God calling you a hindrance to His ministry? And Peter’s faux pas will not stop there. In six days Jesus will take two others with Peter to the Mount of Transfiguration and Peter will wrongly suggest that they make three tents and stay there, in spite of the fact that Jesus has been telling Him that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and be raised on the third day. Next the disciples, presumably including Peter, will get into a discussion about who is the greatest. Then Peter will ask if he really has to forgive more than seven times, only to be told seven times seventy. Then it really goes down hill. Peter will fall asleep in Gethsemane while Jesus is praying, cut off a servant’s ear at Jesus’ arrest and deny Jesus three times. Daniel Powter had a catchy song that had he line, “So you had a bad day….” This could be Peter’s theme song.

But I also find Peter’s story refreshing. First it demonstrates the reliability of the Scriptures. If the Apostles were making this story up they would have made themselves look a lot better than they do. There are points in the story where even Jesus gets frustrated with how dense they were.

But Peter gives me hope for my own journey. He is an example that the real issue is not how many times you fall down or get knocked down but rather how many times you get back up. Or to be even more precise, how many time He gets you back up. And you know how this story ends. After Peter’s denials he returns to Galilee only to have the resurrected Jesus seek him out and call on Peter to feed His sheep. It’s the story of redemption. That is our story too. But back to keys or crosses or both?

I have seen the damage done by those who only focus on the keys. Everything becomes about how much authority they have and they often end up lording over or taking advantage of others. I have seen a number of groups or churches, including one I was a part of in the 70’s, start out with the best and purest of intentions. But because of an overemphasis on authority they turn very cult like.

I have also seen it where too much focus on the keys, and by extension the church’s authority, turns into a kind of magical thinking. For example I read a blog from a cleric about the recent hurricane in Texas. He said that he was disappointed in the Church because we failed to get together and pray and/or command the hurricane to miss Texas. Where were we supposed to command it to go? Louisiana?

The keys are not given to the Church to turn it into the great and powerful Oz. The expression of binding and loosing was actually a rabbinic expression that the disciples would have understood and it had to do with retaining or releasing someone from their sins. In the Old Testament when the priest laid his hands on the scapegoat to impute the sins of the people, and drove the scapegoat out into the wilderness, he was loosing the people from their sins.

The Church uses the keys in several ways to lose people from their sins. First and foremost is through the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus as the Truth sets people free, free from guilt shame and condemnation as well as from final judgment. Second we experience the keys when we are absolved after the General Confession in the Mass or in a private confession. I’m sure my brother priests will agree that it is an intensely holy moment to lay hands on a penitent and proclaim Christ’s words of forgiveness and lose them from their sins. I always experience holy fear at that moment but that is followed by the joy of seeing the monkey come off their backs. The third way that we experience the keys is through the Sacraments. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us as we pray, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body and our souls washed through His most precious Blood.” 

On the other side of the coin, I have also seen very bad fruit come from those who only focus on the cross. I knew a bible teacher years ago whose constant message was that we needed to be broken and so he encouraged folks to embrace suffering at every turn. Every time you had a problem or faced a challenge it was another opportunity to be broken.

Not only that but he warned about having too much joy. He even went so far as to warn that if you loved something too much the Lord would take it from you and that included a spouse or a child. Let me tell you this was one guy that you did not want to invite to a party. And yet when you read the New Testament you see how saint and sinner alike loved hanging out with Jesus. Thus we can conclude that the bible teacher was telling a very different story about God than Jesus told. In only focusing on the cross the bible teacher somehow forgot that as important as Good Friday is to our faith, we are an Easter people.

What I am suggesting therefore is that when it comes to the keys and the cross, it is not an either/or proposition. It is a both and. And as you have likely already deduced, they are the perfect balance for one another. If you only focus on the keys you end up with televangelist theology. But if you only focus on the cross then you drag around through life like a living martyr filled with self-contempt. Jesus does tell us to take up our cross but He also says that He came to give us an abundant life and they are far from mutually exclusive. As the beautiful collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer puts it, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

The next question that presents itself is to ask how we take up our cross. There are many ways that question could be answered but you would be hard-pressed to surpass St. Paul’s command that we heard in Romans. “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The cross is an instrument of death and to sacrifice oneself is to die and so we take up our cross when we become living sacrifices to God.

As He is in all things, Jesus is our model here. Jesus was a living sacrifice. He made it clear that He came to do only the Father’s will. He even said, “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” And you will recall Him praying in the garden, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” He was a living sacrifice before He became a literal sacrifice, the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world.

 But let’s take it a step further. How do you present you body as a living sacrifice when you have kids to get to school and flights you have to catch and doctor’s appointments that you have to meet? It was pretty clear that Mother Theresa was taking up her cross and being a daily sacrifice but none of us are not Mother Theresa and likely never will be. I believe it begins with the attitude of your heart. As you begin your day do as Jesus did and proclaim that you have come to do His will.

I have boiled it down to a child like simplicity for myself. I pray the daily office but I also pray this simple prayer. “Lord I want to be your servant today. Help me to go what you want me to go, meet who you want me to meet, say what you want me to say and do what you want me to do.” And then I go about my normal day looking for ways that He answers that prayer. Someone once said that it seems the more he prays the more coincidences happen to him. I like to think of them as divine appointments.

The beauty of this approach is that you don’t have to go through your day wondering and fretting if you are doing God’s will. As a living sacrifice you have presented your day and yourself to Him and then you trust that if He wanted you to be doing something else He would let you know. After all He is mindful that we are but dust.

One other practical suggestion I would like to offer to you that you might find helpful. I had an Uncle Bubba who was convinced that clergy only work one day a week. But most folks know that we are on call 24/7, so my concern was how to know when my day was done. How can I tell when it is time to put today’s cross down in order to prepare to take up tomorrow’s? I felt that the inability to discern that was a major reason the 80% of ordained clergy do not last more than 5 years and I didn’t want to be a statistic.

Through prayer it came to me that I should measure my day by deeds and not time. I decided that I could lay down my daily cross after I had accomplished a minimum three significant good works that in some small way furthered the kingdom. (I think I chose three because of the Trinity.) For example if during the day I meet with the clergy to plan for the Church, I did some individual counseling and then take the Sacrament to someone in the hospital the day is a success. I would of course do other things through out the day like answer phone calls and emails and meetings and daily administrations. But because I had fulfilled at least three good works I could take off my spurs without any guilt.

If that is something that would be a practical way to take up your cross give it a try. But know that because no one’s life is the same, you will have a different standard than others. With family, jobs, football practice, etc. etc. You may find that you would do well to accomplish one significant good work in a day. That may not sound like much but if you are doing it for God’s glory and if you do it 7 days a week, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, you will have had an impact on this world. And none could doubt that at the end of days you will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

The second part of St. Paul’s call to be living sacrifices is his command “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Thus we take up our cross by not being conformed to this world. And by this he is not calling on us to create a list of legalistic rules and things to avoid. Rather he is calling on us to think and to act differently than the world. For example he will say later in the chapter that we are not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think and we are not to repay evil with evil. The recent insanity of Antifa thugs fighting the neo Nazis and KKKers is proof right before our eyes where pride takes you and that evil fighting evil accomplishes nothing. We succeed in not being conformed to this world when we think and act like kingdom people. St. Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

 Jesus gave the Apostles both the keys and the cross. He does a similar thing to each of us when He gives us His Spirit to be His coworkers and at the same time calls on us to die to self. He does so because He above all knows that the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. Amen.