Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sermon: Thursday of Septuagesima

27 January 2005 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Matt 20:1-16

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old saying: “Rank has its privileges.” This is why first class passengers get to eat on fine china while the rest of us are lucky to get a stale bag of pretzels. This is why seniors get to park in the back lot, while all the other students have to hit the bricks. This is why teachers get to grow beards, but stubbly-faced students are given detentions, or charged a dollar for a plastic razor, and told to come back with a smooth baby-face. Rank has its privileges, indeed. Life really isn’t fair at all. But how about God?

Surely, we can expect God to be fair. But is he? Of course, if anyone can expect to pull rank and enjoy privileges the rest of us don’t have, it must be God. So he does run a fair universe? Is God an impartial judge, or does he play favorites? Does God give everyone what they deserve, or does he treat some people better than others?

As much as our flesh would like to think otherwise, God is not fair at all. He has his pets, and he shamelessly takes care of them, getting them out of trouble, and letting them even, in some cases, get away with murder. In the words of the ancient hymn called the Te Deum Laudamus, and based on Holy Scripture, Jesus will be our judge on the final day. But this judge is also our attorney. By the way, he is also the jury. Look at what a crooked courtroom God runs! Imagine this, the defense attorney gets to be the judge and the jury! The prosecutor doesn’t have a chance. By the way, the prosecutor is Satan. And there is no higher authority, no Supreme Court, he can appeal to. He can cry “injustice” all he wants, but God simply continues to bend justice in favor of his cronies.

Of course, being one of God’s cronies doesn’t always mean you will be treated fairly, at least according to our standards. In the Old Testament, God allowed Joseph to be kidnapped by his jealous brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, spending many years in a prison cell. God allowed this good man to suffer. In the end, Joseph’s suffering saved the children of Israel from famine – but God does have a strange notion of right and wrong, doesn’t he? He says: “My ways are not your ways.” Yeah. Ain’t that the truth?

And how about poor John the Baptist? You will not find a more faithful preacher. Jesus calls him the greatest man born of a woman. And yet, John finds himself in a dungeon to be beheaded. Where is God’s justice? It’s no wonder so many of the Psalms cry out to God, asking him why he doesn’t punish the wicked. Sometimes it seems as if evil runs unchecked, and one has to even wonder if God enjoys it sometimes. If God is fair, I defy anyone to explain why our dear friend and brother Brandon Fury has had to endure month after month of medical treatments. He has done nothing to deserve any of this, and I have done nothing to deserve not to be in his situation.

Now consider our text in which Jesus tells a story about workers and pay. The bottom line is this: the boss gave everybody the same salary – no matter how long they worked. Those who slaved away in the hot sun for 12 hours got a denarius. Those who showed up an hour before quitting time got a denarius. If a boss today did such a thing, his workers would be organizing a labor union and suing him for being unfair. And yet, Jesus tells us this story in order to tell us what God is like.

So what gives? Why is God so unfair?

The unfairness of God reached its peak when the only truly innocent man who ever lived was allowed to be put on trial by amoral religious leaders and politicians, flogged by sadistic soldiers, mocked by a bloodthirsty mob, and finally nailed to a cross and executed by a corrupt imperial government on behalf of all of us – sinful people who reject the living God every day of our lives. As we sin, day after day, year after year, we join the mob in yelling “crucify him!” We drive the nails. We spit on him. We plunge the spear into his side. God allowed his only begotten Son, whom he loves, to suffer like this. And thanks be to God that God is so unfair! For this is why we call it “Good” Friday.

For by virtue of this sacrifice, we who deserve death and damnation, we who have earned the fires of hell, receive a pardon. We are unfairly let off the hook. By faith, we who believe are all “Rabbi’s Pets.” Even though we grieve him when we sin, even though we disappoint him, he continues to pardon our sins. When we repent and seek forgiveness for our sins, our unfair God looks the other way and spares us the punishment we deserve. And who are we to complain when someone else gets a break? We’re quick to complain about “unfairness” those rare times when “fairness” would benefit us, but we’re even quicker to ask for God to be “unfair” with us when we deserve to be punished.

There’s a word for this kind of unfairness. It’s called “mercy.” This is why we poor miserable sinners find such comfort in God’s unfairness. This is why we pray again and again: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

And let us not be afraid or ashamed to “pull rank.” For by the Sonship of Jesus, we too are children of God. This is why we are so bold to pray to God as “Our Father.” And our Father runs the universe. Rank indeed has privileges. The greatest privilege is to be a baptized child of God, one of God’s chosen, one of the Great Teacher’s pets, one who is indeed treated unfairly. Where we deserve death, we receive life. Where we deserve condemnation, we receive pardon. God is absolutely unfair. Thanks be to God!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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