As a people we have a really hard time with grace. Or rather, we have a really hard time accepting that God is gracious to those we feel do not deserve it. At the same time, we do want that grace for ourselves.
I think about when I was a 19 year old working as a volunteer in mission in rural Alabama for a summer. One night I was driving home very late to the house where I was staying. I was driving on abandoned, empty, quiet, dark rural roads. Apparently though I ran a stop sign. Suddenly out of no-where there were sirens and I was pulled over by a Sherriff. He explained to me that I’d run a stop sign. I told him, honestly, that I didn’t see the stop sign and wasn’t aware that I’d run it. He still would have been absolutely within his rights to give me a ticket, but instead he offered me grace. He let me off with a warning and sent me on my way. That was the first time I had ever been pulled over, and I was deeply grateful that he had not given me a ticket. It was grace, pure and simple. I had not deserved that response, but he chose to give it anyway.
Still, despite the grace that was offered me that day, there are times when I see a car speeding down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, often blaring music without regard for others, that I find myself wanting them to be pulled over and given a ticket. I did not get a ticket I deserved, but it is still hard for me sometimes to want that same grace for those around me. I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are. I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments. I want justice, and I forget about grace.
The grace of God is so evident in all three of the scripture readings for today, as well as the human response to that grace. In the passage from Exodus, we continue the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt. They’ve been rescued by God from slavery, but now they are struggling against the difficulties of the wilderness. They don’t think it’s fair. They’ve been in the pain of slavery and now they are in the pain of being in the wilderness. We might see it differently. They’ve been led out of slavery and they are STILL complaining. But God doesn’t have the same sense of justice as we might. God listens to their complaints, listens to their whining and gives them what they ask for, providing for them again and again. It is grace, pure and simple. They haven’t earned that kind of care. They haven’t deserved to have their every prayer and complaint answered. But God provides it none the less. Out of grace and out of love, God provides.
Then we come to the story of Jonah, and I think Jonah’s reaction is so very, very human. Jonah has been sent to warn his arch-enemies of God’s coming wrath. Jonah doesn’t want to do it and we can understand why. Nineveh was the capital of Israel's greatest enemy, Assyria. Nineveh's deliverance in Jonah's lifetime meant that Assyria would go on and destroy the northern kingdom and put all of Israel firmly under the thumb of Assyria as its vassal. God sending Jonah to Nineveh would almost be like sending a Jewish person into a Nazi camp with the message that God was going to punish them unless they changed. It would have been terrifying, it would have put his life at risk, and for what purpose? But he went. God offered Jonah grace by seeking after him even when Jonah had said “no”. God offered Jonah grace by rescuing Jonah from the storm in the belly of a fish. God offered Jonah grace by providing a plant to give him shade. God offered Jonah grace again and again and again. But when, out of gratitude for that grace, Jonah does eventually do what God has asked and goes and confronts the people of Nineveh, they actually do listen and then God offers THEM grace. And Jonah’s response? To become angry, hurt, surly, defiant. Jonah willingly accepted the grace that came to himself. After all, God is a good God, a loving God, a God of the Israelites and Jonah is working FOR this God. So of course God would not punish Jonah for his rejection of God’s call, of course God would not exact justice on Jonah for running away. God would offer grace. Of course. But to the Ninevites? That’s a whole other animal. And Jonah becomes enraged.
Finally, we come to the gospel lesson. And we have workers on both sides who may have felt the situation was unfair. We have those who have worked hard in the sun all day long. And we have those who have waited and waited to be hired but weren’t hired until the end of the day. Both sets of workers need to feed their families. And in the end, God’s grace, the grace of the master in the parable, is extended to all of them. All of them are given the wage that will feed them and their families for that day. But inevitably someone was unhappy. And declared in loud and strong voices that life just isn’t fair.
The truth is from a personal perspective, nothing is EVER fair. When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair. We don’t get what we think we deserve. Others seem to get more than we think they deserve.
As some of you know, when we lived in CA, Jasmyn attended a very elite private school in Oakland. This was an amazing school academically that had a strong vision for social service and for caring for those in the community, and made it part of their curriculum for the kids to be involved in service to the less fortunate. I loved that about her school. They valued giving opportunities to kids of all kinds, so Jasmyn was on full scholarship to attend this school, and I felt incredibly grateful that she had that opportunity. At the same time, personally, I struggled on a daily basis with the decision to send Jasmyn to this school, because Jasmyn was surrounded at this school by others who had so much more than she had. And instead of her realizing that we are incredibly wealthy when we look at the big picture, the world, and that we therefore have a huge responsibility to care for the world and to share our resources with those who have less, instead, she would come home with things like, “Sophia has her own little house in the back yard. Why don’t I have my own house in our backyard? Amanda has a hot tub and a swimming pool and a play room in her house. Why don’t we have those things? Julia lives in a five story castle. Why don’t we live in a five story castle?” She was walking away from her friends and playmates not with a sense of gratitude for the abundance that she had in her life, but with a sense of life not being fair, not treating her fair, of somehow being deprived in a world in which she felt, as a peer to these other children, entitled to have “more,” and what was of more concern, she began to devalue herself as somehow being a child that must not be as worthy as these other kids with all of their wealth.
How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”? In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film. After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe. There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it. If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation. But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film. So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common. It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made. But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough. But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film. In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe. And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid. Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things. People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed. Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
The last church I served was near a mega-church that had several pastors and one of the pastors was bitterly complaining to Sarah, the other pastor with whom I worked, about the amount of pay she receives. She was complaining because she received less than one of the other pastors at her church. But the pastor who was complaining was making twice what Sarah made, four times what I was making, simply because her church had more money - though she worked no more than either of us. It again was a matter of relative position, though I have to say it was very ironic that she chose to complain to a person who was making about half of her income. It is easy to get on board the entitlement train. It is easy to see in what ways we are not being cared for as others, rather than seeing how even more people have even less than we do.
Again, it is a matter of perspective. But the bottom line is that our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude, and of being aware of the amazing grace that God gives us every week, every day, every moment. I want to say that again. Our sense of entitlement robs us of gratitude and an awareness of grace. When we start feeling that life is unfair, that we don’t have what we deserve and that others are getting more than is “just” it becomes harder to see the riches and blessings in our lives, it becomes harder to connect with grace, it becomes harder to connect with God.
So in the face of this, my challenge to all of us is to recognize that we have a choice about how we deal with life. Will we choose to focus on what feels unfair? Will we focus on the hardships we face unfairly while others seem to have lives touched by undeserved rewards and grace? Or will we choose to see the grace that is given to us, to celebrate it and to pass it forward to others? To celebrate the times when others also receive that grace, even when it is undeserved?
I’ll admit, celebrating the grace, the second chances, the opportunities, the gifts that others receive when they don’t deserve it is not easy, at all, for any of us. On a daily basis, I hear people stating what so and so deserves because of things they’ve done that were evil or bad or wrong. We want to see people punished. We want JUSTICE, again, at least for other people. When we make mistakes, I think we want forgiveness and grace. But it is rare, RARE to hear people celebrating the grace that others are given undeservedly, especially when that grace comes in the form of forgiveness or lack of punishment for misbehaviors.
We are not living in a gracious world. But we are called to follow in God’s ways, in Jesus’ ways and be graceful. We are called to celebrate God’s grace extended to all of us. We are called to extend that grace ourselves.