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    Jan 07, 2018

    Let God Be God

    Passage: Matthew 20:1-16

    Speaker: Vivian McCarthy

    Series: Faith's Tough Questions

    Category: Faith

    Imagine yourself as one of those vineyard workers. Depending on when you got the job, how do you think you felt when the pay packets were handed out? “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Ominous words. Fair? Probably not if you are thinking in human terms – and isn’t that how we all think?

    This parable is one that leaves many of us scratching our heads. What reasonable employer would pay a worker who worked at least 8 hours the same amount as one who worked just 1 hour? That’s just crazy talk. And annoying!

    Beloved, we just don’t have the capacity to think like God or see things the way God does – to extend the kind of grace and mercy that God extends – to love like God loves. And the danger is that we too often take our human thinking and assume that applies to God. It’s supposed to be the other way around.

    The 2-part series we are starting today is called Faith’s Tough Questions, and today’s meditation is based on a question raised by several members of the congregation back in September:
    Some of my family members aren’t practicing Christians. What will happen to them when they die?

    Some of you may not like what I’m going to say. Some of you might think I’ve lost my mind. Some of you may think I don’t read the Bible. Some of you may be immensely relieved. Some of you may want to argue with me. Further conversation is always welcome, friends! Let’s wade in.

    I chose this parable for today exactly because it illustrates how our thoughts are not God’s thoughts – or Jesus’ thoughts. Jesus was actually picking up on Isaiah’s writings when he told this story. According to Isaiah, God said it this way:
    Come back to God, who is merciful, come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness. I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.”

    Doesn’t our fear of God – the terror that we won’t see a loved one in Heaven – come from our human understandings of judgment? We root for the good guys and want the bad guys punished – off the street – locked away with the key thrown away. We have the notion that if we don’t measure up, we will spend eternity in hell – fire and brimstone. I keep thinking about those goats and how they get such a bad rap.

    I know there are scripture passages that describe punishment and judgment. I know there are scripture passages that say things like grace only apply to those who are disciples. I also know that there are different opinions on the authority and sources of scripture. Some people think that scripture is inerrant – which means that there could not possibly have been any human influence and every single word of scripture was “dictated” by God. And though some United Methodists may believe that, it is not our theology.

    Our theology of scripture understands that humans were involved and that in the writing down, in the translating, in the oral passing along of scripture, there was interpretation – layer upon layer in several thousand years of interpretation. One example of interpretation lies in which scriptures we choose to make primary in our particular expression of faith. Every expression of Christianity makes choices. Just so you know, United Methodist choices elevate theologies of grace above theologies of punishment.

    Most of you know I’ve been a Methodist all my life. I have been shaped by a Methodist/Wesleyan theology of grace and wonder. Deep in my bones – deep in my DNA – deep in my heart of hearts – I believe that every single human life is precious to the Creator. Every single one. Even when the person makes bad or even horrible choices. Even when the person does not choose to express their faith in the terms that many of us in this room believe separate us from God and from each other.

    To put this really simply, I want to go back to something I said a moment ago: I know there are scripture passages that say things like grace only apply to those who are disciples – part of the inner circle. Let’s examine those passages in the context of human thinking. Humanity has a need to be right – to be in control – to have an inside track. Again and again and again, Jesus taught that those with the inside track – like the scribes and Pharisees, the priests and holy people – didn’t always get it right. They are the ones Jesus pushed. They are the ones that Jesus challenged and criticized. He saw them as gatekeepers – as people who wanted to bar or exclude others from the grace and love and God.

    Even in the Hebrew testament where many folks see only judgment, God’s care for those who are on the outside shines through. (As an aside, as I was writing these paragraphs, I kept hearing over and over in my head a phrase from The Lord of the Dance: I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame, the holy people said it was a shame. It’s a dangerous thing when we think we are the holy people.)

    So what does all of this have to do with what happens to our loved ones who don’t practice their faith – or don’t practice it as we think they should or how we have been trained to think they should? Or don’t talk about it in terms that we understand?

    The gospel of Jesus Christ – the Good News proclaimed by Jesus Christ – is that God loves the world. And as the bumper sticker says, no exceptions. That’s the world in broad terms and the world in individual terms.

    Beloved, based on scripture and my grounding in Wesleyan theology, I believe that God’s love and grace can extend to cover what we humans see as limits – to what we humans set as limits. And that grace can make room for God’s beloved children no matter what.

    God is so much bigger than you and me. At the end of today’s service, we are going to sing There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, and the second verse begins: For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. Yes!

    Our minds and hearts have limits. God’s do not. We are earth-bound in so many ways. What would it look like if we were able to be freed up from the limits we place on ourselves? From the pressures we place on our own lives despite the fact that Jesus Christ came to free us up?

    The hymnwriter had an inkling. That second verse of our closing hymn ends like this: If our love were but more simple, we should rest upon God’s word; and our lives would be illumined by the presence of our Lord. Disclaimer: these are the words from our hymnal and we are using an equally nice translation of the hymn that says: If our love were but more simple, we would gladly trust God’s Word; and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord. Either way, it makes the point.

    I know that there are voices in the world telling us that there is this way or that way to obtain a place in heaven. One of our deceased members used to grill me on whether we were offering people the chance for salvation – showing them the specific thing they have to do to be assured a heavenly home. That implies that it’s up to you and me. Friends, salvation is a gift from God. Neither you nor I can manufacture salvation for other people, no matter what steps we think they should take. God’s gift, offered to us without price.

    It is so hard to grasp the measure of God’s grace. But there it is. Perhaps the hardest thing about faith is to have trust and not let others pull us this way and that. As for me, I will do my best to trust God – to let God be God – and respond to God’s grace in my life by living that grace for others as best I can every single day. That includes trusting God to love and care for our children forever, no matter what. What about you?