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WHEN LIFE IS NOT FAIR

Matthew 20: 1-16

In our world many people, and not just children, make the naïve assumption that life is fair.  Certainly you have found times when life has not felt fair to you. The topic of the unfairness of life has been addressed through the ages, from the times of the Bible until today. The general unfairness of life, its cruelty, and its injustice sometimes torment people. The story of Robin Hood perhaps had its roots when people saw the rich turning their backs on the poor. In England such perceived injustice also fueled the writings of Charles Dickens. For example, in his book Great Expectations, he wrote:

My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale.

 

In recent years, novelist Sue Monk Kidd, in her first book called The Secret Life of Bees, wrote: “Nothing is fair in this world. You might as well get that straight right now.” Nicholas Sparks is a novelist whose books and films, like The Notebook, have warmed the hearts of readers and moviegoers. In his book called Three Weeks With My Brother, he wrote these words:

Jill had three basic statements about life:

  1. It is your life, usually with some added social commentary.
  2. What you want and what you get are usually two entirely different things.
  3. No one ever said that life was fair.

 

And finally, in a book from my son Chris’ favorite author, cartoonist Bill Watterson, who penned the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” has Calvin’s dad say this to his young son:

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.”

“I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

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I used to own a stereo system that I got by getting to a store at 6:00 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving one year!  It was disheartening to see a line of people there already, and with the ad saying that only 50 systems were available, It looked hopeless. I got up early and wouldn’t get my 5 speaker sound system at the great price. Some of the crowd dispersed grumbling because they could also tell that more than 50 people were in front of them. Suddenly they opened the doors and we poured into the store, but the first 50 had the right to buy the system. All the boxes went into eager customer’s hands. I stepped over to the department manager in the hope against hope that he might have some more come in. He looked at another stack of systems that was an upgraded model.  With a sigh, he took out his pad and wrote “Same price as sale” then signed it and handed me one of the better systems! What would the early birds think about the advertised price they got, and me, arriving late, got something better than advertised? I didn’t ask them! The manager offered merchandise at the advertised price, but he also had the power to adjust the price on something else.  Being a manager of any business can be difficult work, trying to please customers without making others feel cheated. Like the workers who arrived at the last hour in Matthew chapter 20, I left tickled with my deal.  But, like those who arrived early for the merchandise, there are plenty of times when someone else got the deal instead of me.  You know how that is, don’t you?  No laws were broken, nothing was unethical; it’s just that one response was “as promised,” and the other was “more than promised.”

 

Life is filled with situations like Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard; it is an “everyman” parable. We have grown up thinking life should be fair and some learn the hard way that it is not.  In Jesus’ parable, the issue really isn’t fairness, although we make it that. Did the owner keep his commitment to pay those who arrived first? Yes. Does he have the right to be generous with those who arrive last?  Yes.  Would it matter to you if managers of labor pools sent some people out to a job and left others without work? How are such a decision made; by a process; first come first served; by a payoff; by favoritism? People wonder. Today’s story is almost a labor pool story. In our day a person might arrive late to a labor pool office for several reasons; he could be hung over, or maybe his truck did not start; he could be late all the time, or maybe the bus he takes was late. In Jesus’ day this story had similar complications: A man went to a labor pool, (or a place where people needing jobs congregated) and hired the men he thought he’d need.  They went. Then through the day, either out of pity or compassion, or need, he returned to that place and hired more workers. Hungry and in need, they gladly went. Today’s lesson deals not just with fairness, but with justice; not just with jealousy, but also with generosity.

 

Methodist minister J. Ellsworth Kallas once wrote the following account: “There is an experience deep in my memory which helps me understand these workers [in Jesus’ parable. I have a vivid memory of a] sun swept October afternoon in 1932 when I came bounding home from school, eager to tear off school clothes and put on playground stuff. But to my surprise, Dad was at home. This was unthinkable at three-thirty in the afternoon. Mother and two of my older sisters were standing with him. No one was seated; three were leaning against the kitchen sink and the other against a chair. “Why are you home, Dad?” Dad was generally slow to speak, but especially so at this moment, and Mother quickly filled the gap. “Daddy’s lost his job.” [Kallas then says:] Until then, I didn’t know that good people could be unemployed. I thought only lazy people were without jobs, people who wouldn’t apply themselves or who didn’t deserve a job. This was the sort of ethic in which I had unconsciously imbibed while listening to adult conversations. But for the next eight or nine years I was to live in neighborhoods where many, from time to time, for shorter or longer periods, occupied themselves any way they could because no one had hired them.’”

[PARABLES FROM THE BACK SIDE, Abingdon, 1992, p. 89.]

 

Shortly after I came to Daytona Beach many years ago, some people who needed to be shown grace and generosity were GE workers. GE, once a vibrant presence in Volusia County, closed its offices here, and hundreds of excellent, loyal employees lost their jobs and even their pensions. It happened with Eastern Airlines in another year. Some unemployed persons were in our church. They were living the dream and it turned into a nightmare. In recent years the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, the photography giant for generations, created not only unemployed hard working employees, but also made some retired employees who had put in their work lose their pension. That is but one modern-day nightmare for those workers and retirees. What does Jesus’ story want us to learn? Is this about understanding the saying “There but for the grace of God go I?” Is it about controlling feelings of jealousy when someone, according to the text, has simply not been hired until the 9th hour, and then gets a wage that reflects the power of supply and demand?  Whatever the crop, if it is not picked in the peak of the season, it does not bring the best price. Last spring our “Dinner and a Movie” church group watched the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart.” In order to keep her farm, Edna Spalding hires Moze, a man in need, to help her pick her cotton in order to win the prize for the first bale of the season being brought to the gin. When they see that the task is too much, Moze suggests that Mrs. Spalding hire more pickers, even though he knows that she will have to pay them even more than she pays him. The hiring is done and the objective is achieved: the crop of cotton is the first one in, the monetary prize is won, and the farm is saved.  Sometimes companies are forced to pay some workers overtime in order to achieve an objective.  There are any number of reasons why an employer might need some extra workers to get a job done.

 

Back in 2005, this parable spoke to another situation: the last people found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were not all shiftless, lazy, and stubborn; they were just last. Some were sick or trapped or afraid:  For the most part, their situations were pathetic. Clearly there were some who were con artists among them, but by and large our Presbyterian Disaster Assistance gave on-the-scene help where help was desperately needed.

 

Over the years, some people have asked me if I believe that criminals who confess their sins on their deathbeds get into heaven like those who have lived Christian lives for years. Jesus answered that question, I believe, in two places: in today’s parable about God’ generosity and grace, and in the prodigal son parable, when the father says to his older son as his younger son is found: “Everything I have is yours. But it is right to celebrate this day; for your brother was dead, and is alive again; was lost and is found.” Thanks be to God that some of us will get into heaven by the grace of God and our love for Jesus, even if we are selected lastThanks be to God that Heaven longs to welcome the first, the last, and the lost ones who get found! Jesus came from heaven to earth and showed what his Father’s love was like.

 

God has buckets of blessing for you …and for others: the first, the last, and for those in between who pray to and honor Him. And remember: God gets to choose who God wants to choose: perhaps some choices are made because God is righteous; and maybe other selections are made because God is generous! However God chooses me, I want to be in that number, whatever the number, when those saints go marching in. How about you?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 21, 2014

 

 

 

 

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DECIDING TO FORGIVE
Matthew 18: 21-35

This week we continue our journey through Matthew’s gospel with a text that is informed by last week’s Bible passage. Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ suggested method for negotiations with one another when people disagree. Barbara E. Reid sums up that story like this:
The parable is preceded by an outline of the steps that should be taken in a situation in which one member of the community sins against another. Highlighted are the hard work and persistence that are necessary for achieving reconciliation. [Parables for Preachers, Year A, The Liturgical Press, 2001, p.132.]

The first step, you may recall, was a willingness to talk directly to the other party. A willingness to forgive was also needed. Then if that step didn’t work, the process got more involved with people trying to gain a good conclusion. The last verse said, “If those don’t work, let the person be as a Gentile or a Tax Collector to you.” And so we pick up our story today. Most people in Jesus’ day, and likely in our day, think that means “treat the other person as an outcast.” After all, that’s often what we do. But ironically, today we learn that Jesus suggests, in a manner of speaking, that people start the negotiation process over again! We recall what Jesus did with tax collectors: One we know of—Matthew—he called to be a disciple! Matthew began to learn from and eat with Jesus. Another tax collector we know of—Zacchaeus—became Jesus’ host at his own dinner table! And in the case of Gentiles, they were much more welcoming to Jesus’ ideas and teachings than his own people were! “Treat them like tax collectors or Gentiles.” Is that a call to shun, or a call to break bread with the one with whom you disagree? Jesus also said: “Those who do not feel like they are sick need no physicians, but the sick do….I do not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 12-13) “Jesus: friend of sinners.” I remember reading that for communion liturgies, and I remember singing it as a choral anthem. And today we hear what our Lord says about forgiveness.

People through the ages have wanted to quantify “how much is enough?” So immediately after his advice about dealing with others, Peter asks him: “So how many times, when neighbors sin against me, do I have to forgive them: seven times?” Seven was a number indicating completeness to a Jew and later to Christians. Seven is the number of days it took to create the world and it is a holy number in Revelation. It’s a symbolic number. But Jesus’ answer is not a numeric number: “seventy times seven” as in 490 times; it is a symbolic number that says “limitless.” Jesus, who knew the heart of his Heavenly Father, also knew the countless times that the world had already been forgiven by God. As a hymn we will sing today says: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” But we are left to wonder if God’s forgiveness is actually limitless, or do God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness have limits? A key to Godly living includes forgiving those who have hurt or betrayed you instead of not forgiving them and holding a grudge. Those who forgive give the world an amazing glimpse into the nature of God. Like the Father in the Luke 15 passage who ran to meet his youngest son, and who went all the way into the field to talk with his pouting older son, God shows amazing patience, and God forgives: seventy times seven times.
Here are some real-life examples of extraordinary forgiveness:
Gary Leon Ridgway is better known as the infamous Green River Killer. In 2003, he confessed to the murders of 48 women. In 2011, Ridgway was convicted of the murder of Rebecca Marrero, bringing the victim count up to 49. By his own confession, he may have murdered as many as 60 women. His crimes were clearly heinous and many in number.
At Ridgway’s 2003 sentencing, the families of the victims, had the opportunity to speak out and address him directly. Understandably, many were angry and lashed out at Ridgway for the unimaginable grief he had put them through. They cursed him; some hope he would be tortured; some hoped he’d burn in Hell. As Ridgway listened to the family members express their grief and anger he was stone faced; his expression never changed. At last one person came up and said something unexpected .It was Robert Rule, the father of teenage victim Linda Jane Rule. He stood before the man who murdered his daughter and said: “Mr. Ridgway . . . there are people here that hate you. I’m not one of them. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that’s to forgive. You are forgiven, sir.” Only those words brought Ridgway to tears; the killer of so many, and the one who had been understandably verbally pummeled. You can Google the case and see the videotaped exchanges I just described.

Another example:
In 2011 Patricia Machin lost her husband when he set out to buy the morning paper. Gerrard Machin was doing what he always did, but this time would not return home. Patricia sensed something was wrong and went to look for him. She was greeted by the sight of an ambulance and blood on the ground. Her husband had been struck down by a driver.
The driver, Brian Williamson, was extremely distressed over having hit Gerrard Machin. Patricia Machin, remarkably, felt no anger toward the driver. She knew that the horrible accident had not been intentional, and she harbored no ill will toward Williamson, shown through the sincerity of her forgiveness in a letter she wrote to him that was used in his defense. In that letter she wrote, “However bad it was for me, I realize it was 1,000 times worse for you.”
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So we have had two kinds of amazing forgiveness, one for a seemingly remorseless serial killer, and one for a man who hit a woman’s husband by accident. Do you have people you have not forgiven? Are they people you know personally, or are they public figures? Psychologist have told me that incredible daily energy is expended when a person decides to withhold forgiveness from someone who has sinned against him or her. One time I decided not to forgive someone for four years, because I believed he betrayed me. In hindsight I can tell you it affected my human relationships and it clogged my prayer life. Jesus taught his followers to pray to God like this: “And forgive us our debts (sins, or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who sin against us; those who trespass against us.)” Jesus tells us to pray for the exact same amount of forgiveness from God that we are willing to offer others! When I read that (perhaps for the five-thousandth time over my life) in the midst of my marathon of unforgiveness, I had an “aha” from Heaven: God was doing exactly what I had prayed for him to do; God was withholding holy forgiveness from me until I offered the same forgiveness to my neighbor, who I had nicknamed “my enemy.” Streams of mercy poured over me from Heaven when I let go of the grudge and forgave. It did not mean what was done did not hurt: it did. What it did mean was that I decided to not spend all my daily power withholding forgiveness. You know how if you pick up a twenty-pound weight in your hand, you can hold it pretty well for awhile: Could you do it for a minute? 2 minutes? 15 minutes? An hour? What about a day; or a week; or four years?? It’s tiring! God had better plans for me and God has better plans for you. I think that’s at the heart of Jesus’ magnanimous reply today: Forgive; forgive; and then repeat.

Today’s world is exceptionally polarized, and forgiveness is most often addressed when a celebrity or politician caught breaking the law, asks to be forgiven. I get jaded over that, and I’d imagine you do to. Back in the 50s I was just a young boy, but from that time and earlier the United States seemed to be a more praying nation, one that asked for Godly grace to change our admitted flaws. And then in the 1960s, the counterculture and the Vietnam War caused people to begin not trusting their leaders. Later in the 70s came Watergate, and soon our Presidents became not just fodder on late night television, but fodder on the main streets and suburbs of America. From Presidents Johnson to Nixon, Ford to Carter, Reagan to Bush, Clinton to Bush, and now to President Obama, I believe fewer in our nation have been praying for our presidents than our nation did in 1950 and before. And if we believe in prayer, and we believe in the forgiveness of sins, perhaps it is time to pray and to pray differently! We’ve just learned about the power of forgiveness not only to change the climate of our world, but also to change the countenance of our souls. How might our world change if more people did what Jesus did and followed what Jesus taught? How could we change the world if we truly prayed for this president and every president, and this and every governor, instead hearing cutting comments about them from comics on television, or hurling ugly emails through cyberspace? How might our nation change? We have seen what retaliation, unforgiveness, and vengeance looks like not only in the Middle East, but even in cities across America. Vigilantism rises up now and then, and it has risen recently. Can Jesus’ followers keep from moving in lock step behind those whose agenda is destruction or pain or death, and instead do what Jesus set out to do: make the kingdoms of this world become more like the kingdom of God; and of Jesus Christ? There must be great power in forgiveness; for it was forgiveness that Jesus offered to all were broken or in need; all except those who believed they were right in their rigid human stances. Jesus embraced and offered hope and forgiveness to others in their brokenness.
Go and do likewise.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 14, 2014

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WHEN NEIGHBORS DISAGREE

Matthew 18: 15-20

 

As we enter our nations’ 9/11 week again, we are in a time of unusual turmoil and tension in too many places.  We’ve spent four weeks watching neighbors in Ferguson Missouri in each others faces. We’ve become uneasy with the news that Ukraine has Russian troops entering that country. We know people in Israel and Palestine, who claim to worship the God we worship, who are living as if God’s guidance about how to treat your neighbor was not written for them. Although Jesus reiterated the words, “you shall your neighbor as yourself,” they were originally said in the part of the Bible known as the Holiness Code in Leviticus, a book that some don’t read carefully! In addition to Paul’s wise words about neighbors in Romans; and Jesus’ wise words in Matthew; listen to these words from Leviticus, a book both Jesus and Paul would have known well:

 

You shall not defraud your neighbor …. With justice you shall judge your neighbor …. You shall not slander your neighbor or profit by the blood of your neighbor…. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Leviticus 19)

 

 

Jesus did not make up that last sentence for his “Greatest Commandment” answer.” The full message from Leviticus was: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

 

So why are laws drawn up; and why are guidelines needed? Clearly they are written when people have broken codes of law, of civility, or of morality. And codes are drawn up when a community agrees what is and isn’t appropriate. The freedom to have a loud party at your home at night might infringe on the rights of your neighbors to have a quiet evening. The freedom to load a plate with food at the buffet line at a family gathering might take food away from those who are last in the food line. Neighbors are local, but they are also global! The border issues in Ukraine, in Israel, or at the southern border of the United States should invite members of the world back to the dialogue table to re-think how a neighbor relates to a neighbor.  Perhaps new response can be gained.

 

Sometimes neighbors down the block, down the hall, next door, or on the others side of the globe can just be belligerent, defiant, rude, or evil. Today we learn how Jesus gave permission for individuals, churches, and even nations to act at escalated levels of engagement when that’s the case. To paraphrase our Matthew text today, Jesus says “First go alone and talk with the one who has encroached on or harmed you. If that works, no more is needed. If not, go to level two: take one or two others with you as witnesses and as a show of solidarity. If that does not work, go to level three: let everyone in your faith community know what he or she has done and bring the person to stand before the community if he or she will come. Beyond that, you have the right not to associate with such persons, and to use other means, including courts.” In our day people forget that there are progressions of negotiation; but some people don’t want to put the effort into negotiating or speaking face to face. Instead they just decide to sue: they pay their attorney, and their neighbor pays an attorney, and they speak to each other in a limited fashion; usually attorneys presents their cases to a judge. So in heightened situations, tensions escalate and communication become highly controlled.

David Thorpe belonged to a church in DeLand before he moved here and joined our church.. He made a trip to the Holy Land three years ago. He just got a letter from his tour guide this week. Here is a portion of what his tour guide said:

 

Tourism is weak now.  People are canceling.  People are nervous, scared.  But a plea to my friends: Israel, the Middle East, needs you now.  You understand more than others.  You are the friends of the peoples living here.  You understand Israel’s Jewish Christian roots and also you know our Muslim Arab brothers.  The extremists should not be allowed to win.  The terrorists have to see how they are wrong.  Most people want to live a normal life.  We must listen to the claims of our neighbors.  We may not agree but we should respect them: not the fanatics, but the majority. I just finished leading a Catholic group from Nevada.  They were wonderful.  I am sure they felt they had had a special experience coming to Israel at this time.  They met Israelis, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, soldiers, and saw the human face of the conflict. We were so moved at their coming that my wife insisted that all would come visit our home! They came with their Jerusalem Arab driver and a friend of his.  It was a special evening, one of the highlights of the tour.

 

 

We too experienced such hospitality on our visit: moderate neighbors living side by side with others. It’s the radicals that make the choice of killing.

 

In the midst of the Russian border issues with neighboring Ukraine; with Israel and Palestine and several other neighbor conflicts, I was reminded of  a book written during the Cold War by the famous children’s author, Dr. Seuss. The book was written for children on one level, but on another level was an adult commentary on the USSR- USA military actions. Read The Butter Battle Book through those eyes and see his comment about disagreeable neighbors.

 

In our world that has slid down the cliff of polarization for more than 20 years, Jesus’ words of guidance are an action plan for Christians and others who honor his wisdom: he had levels of approach for disagreements.  Let’s work on not escalating disagreements too rapidly. Can we remember to talk face-to-face first, to start with civil discussion? But if, as is happening in more corners of our world than we care to count, we find our neighbor will not talk, or respond, or turn back from destructive and damaging actions, then we have the right, and the responsibility to move to higher levels of negotiation. Jesus outlined the pattern. Even he did not stand for arrogance, belligerence or injustice. As I said to the children today: I would love for the world to be more like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood; but I know the world of children is rarely so nice. I would love to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but that sounds more and more like a pipe dream. But short of that, I will try to do what Jesus would do: pray, share, listen, and ask.

 

As we come to the Lord’s Table, recall what the English hymn writer Samuel John Stone called “Mystic sweet communion.” We don’t know how we are connected with those who have gone before us. We don’t know how Jesus is truly present with us. And we don’t know how we are connected with other Christians around the world every time we share the bread and the cup. But we are; we are connected; and in that connection, may you receive both blessing for today and inspiration for the ways you relate to others.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          September 7, 2014