August 20, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Matthew 20:1-15, Romans 9:14-26
But The Next Day…
(seventh in the series Church and State)
Today we’ve heard two scriptures that hurl at us the same promise: God is not fair. If you know God, even a little, this is probably something you have experienced.
God’s kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agrees to pay them the usual daily wage. Then you know what happens. He goes back at nine o’clock and hires another crew agreeing to pay them what is fair. He goes back at noon and does the same thing; at three o’clock, he does the same thing.
At five o’clock, there are still people standing in the parking lot who have not been hired. “What are you doing here?!” he announces to the universe, and he hires them too. And of course, the twist in the story happens an hour or so later when he hands out the pay checks. “Wait a minute!” yells one of the six a.m. workers. “They got the same amount we did! We’ve been working in the vineyard all day. They’ve been standing around all day. It’s not fair.”
Because it’s not fair. And if you have ever heard this parable before, then you’ve heard the moral of the story which goes a little something like: “Look. As long as you have gotten what you were owed, don’t worry about what the others get paid.” Don’t keep comparing yourself to others, wishing you had more. Don’t keep trying to keep up with the Joneses our outdo the Joneses. Somebody will always have more. Somebody will always have less. Be grateful for what you’ve got.” This is the classic take-away. Our indignation with those six a.m. workers gets roundly shut down, as though Jesus is saying, “You should be ashamed for complaining.”
Now of course, there are problems with our human fixation on fairness. Our need to make things fair justifies our craving for revenge, as in: if we have to suffer, they should have to suffer too. “It’s not fair!” can validate our greed. “Sure I get to take a tax break on my house, but it’s not fair that this person is receiving government entitlements.” It is certainly possible for us to complain out of our insecurity and selfishness, so if I hear Jesus shaming me for this kind of complaining, okay I get it; that makes sense.
But what if this parable is more than that… And what if our human impulse to look at our sister and shriek, “It’s not fair!” is actually an important impulse. This surge of indignation could help us feel a twinge of empathy for others who experience unfairness, and what if this twinge of empathy could become something more…
What if God, herself, has looked at the world and sighed out loud: “Oh my people. See what is happening! This is not fair.” And evening passed, and morning came.
Our second scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Now this is a church comprised of Jewish people who had converted to Christianity and people who were never Jewish (called Gentiles) who became Christian. Also in the wider community, there were Jewish people who were staying Jewish and not converting to Christianity. There were pagans, and mystery cults, and influences from other religions and cultures. So you have to imagine a theologically diverse congregation situated in the midst of diverse city. We can relate.
In the short passage we hear today, what Paul is doing is trying to appeal to those who were Jewish and planning to stay Jewish. He says to them: Here you have been following the law and returning to our covenant with God, and while you are doing all this, God is giving salvation to the Gentiles who have put in none of your hard work. They show up late to the story, believe Jesus is the Messiah, and in this, they find reunion with God. You could too, says Paul.
And if this sounds like a problem to you, it is. It is not clear that the Jewish people were jealous of the Gentile Christians even though that’s what Paul is angling toward (Romans 11:11). More importantly, as Christians living in this century, we know the horrors that have been heard from this kind of teaching which gets used to validate the notion that a person has to be Christian in order to be saved. As though we human people have any right to announce to the universe whom God is allowed to save.
But then, in the middle of his argument, Paul invokes the power of God. “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy… So then God has mercy on whomever he chooses, and God hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (Romans 9:16-18).
He goes on to describe the wrath and mercy of God. And I’ll tell you, the mercy part is beautiful. If you have ever experienced God in your life, then you know: God’s power is this uninhibited compassion. Her reckless generosity. His relentless forgiveness. Oh hallelujah.
But the wrath of God? I mean, really, what is this. Who comes to church yearning to hear a word of the wrath of God? What kind of God is driven by fits of indignation and fury? Except there’s this. Who am I to decide that God is not allowed to be outraged.
What if God’s anger is actually the impulse that turns into mercy — so this fury is the energy that unleashes his almighty compassion upon us… The prophets like Amos and Hosea charge in with their protest: It’s not fair! But that’s not where it ends. Their prophecy keeps calling for the day of restoration where every tear is wiped away, then imagine the day after that. Our God who goes around hardening the hearts of whomever she chooses knows, the next day, these are the hearts that break open, like it goes in the song: “God will break our hearts of stone; give us hearts for love alone.”
Now it’s not just the Day of Judgment. It’s what happens the next day. There is nothing I can say, no scholarly analysis, no poetic pleading, nothing can soften the fury of God who sees hate carry torches and come after her people, who sees people locked in prison for being poor, who sees children go hungry while I have more food in my refrigerator than I need.
What kind of God could look at the world and not be filled with outrage! Then what if this anger summons mercy in the next breath. What if our own impulse to cry “Hey… This is not fair” is what makes us notice how God is furious, then see this fury turn into compassion all soaked in tears, so utterly unafraid of our riot gear.
Last fall, five hundred and twenty-four religious leaders responded to an invitation to gather with the Sioux community at Standing Rock to protest building the Dakota Access Pipeline which would run through their reservation. For one thing, the company did not get proper authorization to put this pipeline on the reservation; it was not fair. Worse, the pipeline would disrupt sacred burial grounds of the Sioux, and if the pipeline leaked, the oil would contaminate their drinking water. Since these protests, President Obama issued an order to block the pipeline. President Trump overturned this order and the pipeline was built this winter. Already, oil is leaking. 
So maybe it seems like the protests didn’t work. Or maybe these protests began something deeper and more lasting. Last fall, when the religious leaders showed up on the scene, the Sioux community invited them to share a ceremony of singing and prayer in which they repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. (This policy from the fifteenth century authorizes white people to “Christianize” and colonize Native American communities and it was still in effect! It has been employed as recently as 2005.)
Now the Sioux people were saying to the churches: “You have got to believe this doctrine is not fair. Why don’t you come here, and stand with us, and say that.” And they did. Several of our local pastors went to Standing Rock including Pastor Christine from Edwards in Davenport and Pastor Stephanie from Maquoketa United Church of Christ.
Weeks after the clergy gathering at Standing Rock when threats of violence were escalating between protesters and law enforcement, a group of two thousand veterans showed up to protect those who were protecting the water. People from all over the country were finding ways to show up and stand with Standing Rock.
Look, it would be easy for anybody to say, “Sorry. I have issues in my own community. I can’t just pick up and go to North Dakota to help that group over there. We’ve all got to fight our own battles; we’ve all got our own things to do.” I know it is easy to say this, because I didn’t go. Thankfully, others did. Thankfully, the protests at Standing Rock prove there is no such thing as fighting our own battles; their struggle must be our struggle. Now they have a pipeline disturbing their community, and we get clean drinking water, and this is not fair. My prayer is that this is not over.
So today we remember the story of the man who went out to hire workers for his vineyard. Here he was giving the day laborers a chance by hiring the crew at six am. But then he went back, and there were more people looking for work. He went back again and again, and why are all these people going unhired? What’s going on with our economy!
So the man in our story decides that afternoon: not today. This will not overturn systemic oppression, but if I can help it, nobody will go hungry tonight. So this day, he hired everyone he could find and sent all those workers home with the usual daily wage; even the grumbling ones would eat.
But what happens the next day? And the day after that? May our indignation join up with the outrage of God then turn into our work. May our work give way to the promise of God which is not condemnation. Not retribution. Not settling the score. Not anything fair at all. The Day of God’s Mercy is coming.
And O Lord how we need it. Amen.
 from “Here I am, Lord” by Dan Schutte