"Follow God's Folly, or, Jilted Jonah and the Unfairness of Grace"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
18 September 2011
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Texts: Jonah 3.10-4.11
"But we know that grace is not fair
and that is something we can't bear
so we take eternal truth
and snuff it out, that's what we do...
and here's the rub though we have stayed
and say we've kept the narrow way
and kept the unclean ones away
God welcomes us in anyway"
-"If Grace is True" by Neal Hagberg
-“I just knew you were a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” So spaketh Jonah in a scene that easily wins him the Emmy for best biblical episode featuring a drama queen. The knowledge of God’s goodness is, apparently, so horrible to this prophet-turned-whale-appetizer-turned-shrub-keeper that he proclaims he is so angry with God that he wishes he were DEAD! I mean, what did Jonah want the Ninevites to say? “Um, wow, a loving and gracious God! That sounds great, but, well, you know, we’ll take destruction instead. Thanks though.” I mean, they even put sackcloth on their sheep! Of course, Jonah’s too busy to notice, crying about his dead shrubbery.
-This story is clearly proof that the Bible is not without a sense of humor. And yet, the story might be even more hilarious still, if it weren’t for the fact that it so accurately captures the rage, the resentment, the sense of entitlement, that we sinful humans often feel when confronted with the sheer unfairness of God’s grace. Like all great comedic geniuses, the writer of Jonah knew how to take a hard truth about us, and force us to confront it through humor. Our peels of laughter peal away to reveal deeper places in need of healing and transformation.
-Because let’s be honest. God’s grace really can piss us off sometimes. Especially when it starts to meddle in our own notions of fairness. Recently, a slew of books have tried to make the argument that there is no such thing as hell. Or, if there is, that it is empty. After all, a gracious God simply could not possibly stand to torture Her beloved creations for eternity, right? And you’d think such an idea – which is actually as old as the Bible itself – would be welcome to all of us who are clearly in need of that gracious God, and not the angry one. Right? And yet, no idea since evolution has caused such a stir in the Christian community. Because as loving as we like to think we are, surely, there has to be more “justice,” more “fairness,” than that. Surely, Hitler shouldn’t get to have the same eternal accommodations as the Jews he gassed. The rapist should not get to dine at the heavenly banquet with the child whose innocence he stole.
-These questions are by no means resolved. (I for one am going to side with Marty Luther in leaving it in the hands of a gracious God.) But I do think the question of God’s fairness brings to light just how unfair we human beings really are. In reality, the systems of justice and fairness that we create are, far too often, stacked decks, designed to be only as fair as can make me feel secure, me feel powerful, me feel important, me feel in control. In a world where we imagine God’s blessing to be exclusively dealt out to a select chosen few – of which we are, of course always a part! – we begin to hoard them, all the while seeing the good fortune of others as a threat to be held at bay. Or, if possible, eliminated.
-But what I think really jilts Jonah is having to face the fact that, despite our best efforts to be more unfair than God, God simply won’t let us be better at something than God is! Like the writer of Jonah, God is also in the business of satire and folly, and God is an expert at turning tables. It happened at Ninevah, where God used the conversion of the most debauched city in the ancient world to show the supposedly-righteous Jonah he had a lot to learn. It happened in today’s parable, when the life-time employees of God’s kingdom micro-brewery come to collect their pay stubs only to learn they have made the exact same as the Gentile day laborers who have only just crossed the border into the promised land of grace. It happened on the cross, where God Incarnate exposed the unfairness of human fairness and justice, removed the veil from human piety and human holiness, and clothed God’s-self in the folly of humanity, confounding all systems of human entitlement and control. Like Jonah, we are forced to confront the uncomfortable reality that, yes, the God who created the universe is in fact “a loving and gracious God.” And the God of Jesus Christ is far more unfair than we could ever hope to be!
-See, this unfair God who unfairly calls unfair jerks like Jonah, like you and like me to come work in His vineyard, this crazy God of grace also shows His unfairness in God’s utter unwillingness to let us continue in our unfairness. Because, at our worst, we all can be Jonah; can be the workers who got there first, wanting others to be made last so that we can feel important. But at God’s best, we are also those who, standing around idle, rejected by all other employers, are approached, again and again, by a loving God and invited to join in the joyous work of the kingdom. We are often those who God delights in making last, so that all can experience the glorious unfairness of the kingdom where all are first in the eyes of God’s love.
-And, as if to make sure that we know just how unfair God’s grace can be, God seems to love using the very late-comers, the very newcomers we resent, to woo us back into God’s feast of fools. See, I feel that God brings along, even converts people, for our good, not just theirs. We need to receive the gift of the enthusiasm and the wonder that newcomers bring. Because I wonder if every good thing left to the hands of workers who have been at it for a long time, might eventually fall into mediocrity and neglect.
–Which also means that, through the gift of another’s transformation, we can receive back some of the joy and delight we lost by caring more about being fair, than in being wooed. Like a parent who hears his kids listening to old forgotten records and suddenly remembers, “oh yeah, I really do love that song.” So with the kingdom.
-Part of the grace of forgetfulness is the gift of getting to remember delight again as if for the first time.
-It’s like this friend I had back in seminary. Recently, he’s become kind of a big deal on the emergent church blogging and speaking circuit. For a long time, I felt a lot of resentment towards my friend, because like the workers in the parable, I thought that God’s blessing him somehow meant that I was getting jilted. And in fact, I was. But not by God, and not by my friend. I was jilting myself. For too long, I let my resentment keep me from hearing the amazing story of redemption in his life. From being blessed by yet another sign of the kingdom come. From realizing that, yes, God still is in the unfairness business. Which means there is still real hope for unfair people like me.
-See, good news for others only means bad news for us if God’s grace and love are scarce resources. But in the new creation, good news for anyone is good news for everyone. One person’s blessing is in fact a blessing we can all share. God’s unfairness cuts both ways. Because in being unfair for someone else’s gain, God shows Himself willing to do the same for us, too.
-That’s why I think God cares so much about wooing us jilted ones back into the vineyard, no matter how unfair Her ways may seem. Because it’s a good, a wonderful, a joyful thing to work in God’s vineyard. To work together, enthusiastic newcomer and seasoned old-timers, in cultivating the grapes that will eventually be served as the wine of the new creation at the end of all things. Like the New Belgium brewery whose slogan is “follow your folly,” God invites us to follow God’s folly, God’s foolishly gracious unfairness, so that when time comes for the party, there will be plenty of delight to go around, and plenty of forgiven enemies on the dance floor. Not staring at our feet, bitter at all of the unexpected bandwagoners ruining our scene. But full of the joy of the knowledge that indeed, God gives up on no person, does not cease to pursue us until all of us – Jonah, Israel, the Church, you, and me – let go of what is fair, and embrace what is true, good, and beautiful. Because this is a comedy, and the ending is just too good for God to allow it to be missed.