“The Gospel Is Good, Not Fair” – 9/24/17 FBC Sermon

Exodus 16:2-15 Matthew 20:-16 

Introduction: Did you know that we have a lot of deep-seated feelings that go against the clear teaching of the gospel? Have you ever heard someone say, “God helps those who help themselves.” Well, that’s not what the gospel says. The gospel says, “God helps the helpless.” We need to take a look at some of these hard-core attitudes and see if we can get rid of them. Lucky for us, these hard-core attitudes, these hard-to-admit, harder-to-change attitudes are embedded in our two biblical stories. Putting aside all the other radical ideas in this story, ignoring our different politics and economic theories, let’s ask one question until we are willing to face the truth: Are we resentful because God is generous?  

LET’S TALK ABOUT MEANNESS! I don’t think meanness meshes with the gospel. There are those who think God has called them to make sure that everyone who has it coming gets it. They are mean people; they make me nervous. There’s something in our brand of religion that makes it hard for us not to police other people. Flannery O’Connor, as great a writer as she was, had this tendency. “You get the sense of this round-up of all the evil people who get sent off to hell at the end. In the novels of E. M. Forster hell always means having to marry the wrong girl. Hell in O’Connor means being one of those people in Georgia who has to sit down and listen to your mother talk to you all day and all night, and you’re ugly, peg-legged and must hear your mother go on about “blacks” till doomsday” (Reynolds Price). We have this strain of Christianity that wants people to suffer out of our need to punish them for not being good enough Christians. There’s a billboard on I-65 outside Chicago: HELL IS REAL! There’s no gospel in those words! There’s a billboard on I-65 outside Nashville: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It’s an abomination – God.” The sign says it is “paid for by concerned Christians.” Those billboards, allegedly signed by God were a fad for a few years. I referred to the god of the billboards as “The Redneck God.” I once remarked that sooner or later the god of the billboard would make a grammatical error. One day, I saw what I had predicted: The billboard said “YOUR going to hell instead of You’re going to hell.”  

It takes a lot of negative energy to always be grabbing people by the neck and saying, “You’ve got to become what I want you to become and if not, you’re going to hell in a handbasket.” There’s narrowness in that way of thinking that I can’t accept. How odd that the threat of hell trumps the love of God poured out on Calvary where Jesus died “once for all.” I think people created hell because when they are powerless to get even here on earth, they like to dream about sending people to an awful place where they will burn and suffer for eternity. It’s a tacky doctrine and I don’t like it one bit. I never liked it even though, in my first sermon at the age of 12, like a good little fundamentalist, I preached on hell. My Aunt Peggy recorded that sermon and when I finally got my hands on it, I burned it. A just ending for a sermon on hell don’t you think? I confess to feeling some jealousy toward Rob Bell, the conservative preacher who saw the light and started telling other conservative Christians there is no hell and became famous telling those folks what I knew forty years ago. See how sneaky those attitudes can be?

LET’S TALK ABOUT GRIPING. Why? Because griping is an American obsession. We like griping. We have a list of grumbles and gripes and we get immense satisfaction from griping about things like bad roads, bad service, traffic congestion, smog, you name it and we will gripe about it, especially the government. Did you know that you can get a lot of votes by griping about the government and then you become the government and the dog named “Old Gripe,” develops rabies, and bites you in the behind? We gripe about having to wait 2 hours to be seated at a restaurant but we sit there anyway because that’s what everyone does. We gripe about the roads, the traffic, the weather, the family, the ball club, the restaurants, the television news. We gripe so much I think it has become our second language. “WE speak GRIPE” should be our confession. In our Old Testament story the Israelites, after only forty-five days of freedom, have already thrown two pity parties, and are on the verge of a conniption fit. Free of back-breaking labor, free of bearing the hot sun day after day, free of gathering straw, making bricks, and building storage bins for Pharaoh, the Israelites should be full of praise and gratitude but they are not. They are a bunch of whiners. First they grumbled about being trapped at the sea. Then they murmured about the lack of water. Now, they are complaining about the food.

How does God respond to our griping? Well, it appears to me, that God considers our griping a form of prayer, because instead of a lecture on no griping and instead of meting out some discipline or punishment, God gives the people food: quail and manna.

This story has deep personal meaning for me that I have to include in the sermon. My dad was a quail hunter. When the covey rose in front of his dogs, Dad would fire his Browning 12 gauge with #8 shot 3 quick times and drop 3 birds. Once I managed to get 5 quail walking home from school. Problem: It was out of season. My dad disciplined me for this manifold wickedness and then made me clean the 5 quail and put them in the refrigerator. The next morning, I got up, came into the kitchen and he was frying those quail for his lunch. I questioned him and he said, “Son, just because you sinned against the Lord doesn’t mean that the Lord wants these quail to go to waste. After all, the Lord gave the Israelites quail in the desert after their sin of grumbling. Now, you get dressed for school and mind your own business.” So quail have an important role in my heart.

Look, God knows that life can dish out harshness that causes us to gripe a lot. Rather than act like there’s something immoral about griping, why not always turn it into a prayer? God is the head of the complaints department.

The gospel parable shows up people griping because they believe they have been treated unfairly. In The Politics of Resentment, Katherine Cramer, found that rural residents in Wisconsin resented city folk, especially professors and teachers, because they thought the urban areas where getting a bigger slice of the pie than they were in the isolated rural areas. Cramer says, “They resented fellow residents who they think are eating their share of the pie.” And even more, they have the idea that the one-hour workers have received more than they deserved. Unfair! There’s resentment when the perception is one of unfairness. How many people resent immigrants because we have been told that they are taking our jobs? How many people resent folks getting food stamps and welfare but are fine with farmers receiving subsidies for not planting crops on their land? If poor folks receive government help it is called welfare. If rich folks get government help it is called a loan.  

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE BELIEVE THEY DESERVE. Studs Terkel once said that the typical American attitude is, I’ve got it made because I deserve it. And if you don’t have it made, you don’t deserve it.” The dominant metaphor in American life is that of the STRICT FATHER (George Lakoff, The Political Mind). The strict father is the moral leader of the family, and is to be obeyed. He has to protect the family from evil in the world and Mommy can’t do it. The strict father has to win competitions to support the family and Mommy can’t do it. You need a strict father because kids are born bad, born in sin, nasty original sin. They don’t know right from wrong. They need to be punished strictly and painfully when they do wrong, so they will have an incentive to do right in order to avoid punishment. This is how they build internal discipline. With that discipline, they can enter the market and become self-reliant and prosperous. Authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment are all there in the strict father family, organized in a package.  

Also at work in this model is the concept of merit. The father merits his authority, and hierarchies of power and wealth are justified on “merit.” Why should CEOs make so much more money than other employees even when the corporation is not doing well? They deserve it.

LET’S TALK ABOUT FAIRNESS. There’s a fairness doctrine built into most of the areas of our lives. And there is much to commend fairness to our children. Fairness is a major part of life. We think life should be fair. I think this idea of fairness is built in to the evolutionary process that goes back to the monkeys. At the Yerkes National Laboratory in Atlanta pairs of capuchin monkeys were trained side by side to do the same task for the same reward (a piece of cucumber). Then one, but not the other, got a better reward (a grape). The monkeys who got only the cucumber rebelled. They often refused to participate in the experiment any longer, refused to eat the cucumbers, and in some cases hurled the cucumbers back at human researchers.

This is why that no matter how we read the parable of the workers, all we can say is “Unfair!” It adds up to injustice. Workers in the hot field for 12 hours get $40 and workers show up for the last hour, a quick cool hour, and they get $40. Well, it’s wrong. Can we own up to this feeling?  

But the gospel doesn’t feel the same way about fairness. The gospel is good and good is bigger and more generous than fair. Do you want God to be good or fair? This is hard for a people of fairness to swallow.  

LET’S TALK ABOUT RESENTMENT. Why? Because resentment is what we feel right after we say “Unfair.” Resentment is a big ticket item in America. “We’ve worked all day, but they only worked one hour.” By and large, we identify with the all-day workers in the story, especially when it comes to our church. Many of you have been at FBC for many, many years. You have given your life and thousands of dollars to this church. Shouldn’t you get a little recognition? It would be hard not to think that you have earned some credits with God. We may resent those folks who only show up on Easter and Christmas and think that we deserve more than they do. Maybe we think that God ought to be fair and if God is fair, we will be treated really well because we have given our lives to this church.  

Resentment plays a large role in American life. Kramer, The Politics of Resentment, tells the story of a Wisconsin dairy farmer feelings about public employees: “I’m glad Walker did what he did. It’s about time someone takes something away from those bastards.” When it comes to resentment in America, “our cup runneth over.” As I read The Politics of Resentment, I was surprised at how much resentment there is toward public school teachers. This made no sense to me until I realized that preachers have been railing against public schools for more than fifty years. Some of that criticism is rooted in racism and the fear of giving up segregated schools. Most of the criticism is rooted in the false claim that the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in schools and that since that day our schools have gone to hell. David Barton, a pseudo-historian from Texas, goes around the country telling people that when the Supreme Court outlawed prayer, SAT scores started going down. But the big elephant in the room of criticism is the teaching of evolution. Ken Ham, at the Creation Museum, blames evolution for every evil that has happened in America. His ability to make up false cause and effect arguments is astounding. And so public teachers have taken the brunt of all this criticism from preachers, all of whom were taught to read and write by public school teachers. Resentment is an ugly, ugly sore on the American psyche. I call it “ATD” – Attitude Transmitted Disease. 

But the parable gives resentment no breathing room. We are not free to resent our neighbors in God’s kingdom. Since we know that in God’s kingdom it’s all bleeding charity, then shouldn’t we be a bit more charitable with our neighbors? Since we know that we can’t earn our salvation why are we so hard-nosed about the poor? Do we deserve God’s astonishing mercy? Never! Well, shouldn’t that color our treatment of the poor since none of us deserve God’s mercy?

The amazing generosity of God is intended to overcome our griping, resenting ways and to supersede our misplaced sense of fairness and who deserves what. The very nature of the Gospel is that the good news really is good. It is good and that’s what makes it news. You can’t earn it. You can’t achieve it. There’s no test. Just receive it. The gospel is good! It is good all the time! Let the gospel wash over you like the waters of baptism until you are break dancing and singing, “God is so good. God is so good. God is good all the time!”