By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
October 11, 2020
Video of entire worship service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/793647128103003
Scripture: Matthew 11: 2-15
I wasn’t kidding during the Children’s Time. I really hate Candyland. There’s just no way to make sure you win that thing! Those of you who know me well might have guessed this about me: I’m a naturally competitive person. Growing up, I was really into winning. I was competitive playing basketball (MVP on my team 7th & 8th grade…then I stopped growing). I qualified for a national speech competition in Washington, DC). I was my high school valedictorian, and came home from every awards night with an armload of trophies. I was super driven to win.
While my adult-self let go of that need to win a bit, it does still surface when I am playing games: especially trivia-related games. The last time we were vacationing with my folks in Texas, we got into a competition answering questions watching Jeopardy…and I proceeded to ruthlessly crush my dad, my mother, my husband, and my own teenage daughter.
I have a bit of a problem.
But as I noted during Children’s Time, the gospel does not at all help me to justify my desire to crush people. The gospel challenges everything that I know and have internalized about winning and losing, about domination, and about human hierarchies where some receive more power and resources, and others are left behind. The gospel stories help to illustrate how God works in the world and the kind of power God wields. Many times, it is very unlike the way that humans pursue and wield power.
Let’s take today’s story of John the Baptist. It begins with John the Baptist in prison. John had been thrown in prison for preaching against King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s former wife Herodias. This was against Jewish law. Kings apparently don’t really like it when you go around preaching that they are acting immorally. So Herod throws John in prison.
In prison, John is beginning to get a bit concerned. He should be… because eventually, he is beheaded by King Herod. So, John starts to doubt Jesus. He asks Jesus’ disciples to go check and make sure that Jesus really is the messiah. See, John really would have liked Jesus to be the kind of messiah who busts down doors and breaks folks out of prison. But that was not how Jesus was intent on changing the world.
Jesus sends word back to John to just look at what Jesus has been doing – healing the sick, restoring lepers to the community, raising the dead, bringing good news to the poor. That’s the kind of messiah Jesus is, not the breaking down the doors or overthrowing Herod by violence kind of messiah.
Jesus must have known that John would be disappointed in this because he says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Now, honestly, if I were John, I would have been thinking, “Great. So Jesus can heal and save all these other people, but he won’t get me out of this prison by force.” I would not have blamed John for thinking that Jesus was the very worst messiah at that point.
This is one of the challenges of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. It does not come by force. God does not use violence to achieve God’s purposes, no matter how much somebody who is in a real jam might wish it to be so.
In fact, this kingdom of God is unsatisfying for humans in a lot of ways.
I learned this week that what Jesus talked about as the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was more like the Jewish conception of a kingdom than a Greek or Roman one. When Jesus talked about the basileia tou theou or the basileia tou ouranos, the Jewish conception in his mind would have been the malkuth shamayim, “the sole sovereignty of God.” In Jewish kingdoms, even a king like the great King David was still subject to God and to God’s law. Other kinds of kingdoms had kings who made the law or were simply above the law (like Herod and his illicit marriage for example). But in the malkuth shamayim, “the sole sovereignty of God,” all people were subject to and obedient to God and God’s law, even the king.
To be a citizen of the kingdom of God, it means that God is in charge, not us. It means that you willingly become obedient to the way of God, even when it doesn’t personally benefit you.
And if even John the Baptist was thinking Jesus was the very worst messiah, we also might find ourselves reconsidering whether we really want to be part of this kingdom of God, too. In fact, Jesus teaches a lot of challenging things about the kingdom of God. One very irritating example is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Do you know that parable?
Like our reading today, it’s also in the Gospel of Matthew – about nine chapters after today’s story about John the Baptist. Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” The landowner agrees to pay them a good wage – a Greek denarius – for their day’s work. At nine AM, the landowner hires more workers and sends them out. At noon, he finds some more folks needing work, so he hires them and sends them out as well. He does the same at three, and even at 5 PM, he meets a group of people standing around who hadn’t been able to find work that day. So he hires them and sends them out to go work in his vineyard, too.
When evening falls around 6 PM, the landowner tells the manager to pay the group who started at 5 PM a denarius. A fair wage for a full day’s work. Well, the people who were hired first and worked all day saw this, and they were excited. They figured if the people who only worked one hour got a denarius, surely they would get more.
Wrong. They too got the denarius they were promised. This of course made them angry, but the landowner said to them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give to the one who was hired last the same as I gave to you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
So how do you feel when you hear that story? Let’s have a show of emojis and hands. When you hear that story, do you feel good? (Like emoji. Raise hands.) Or, be honest, do you feel angry? (angry emoji, hands?). You can be honest with me. Because my first response to it is: “That is not okay! Those first workers should get like 8 times what the last workers got!”
That’s how I think things should work. Yet, that is not how things work in the kingdom of heaven. The last will be first, the first will be last. Who wants to be a part of that kingdom anyway?
In our text, Jesus highlights this flip flop of power in the kingdom as well. He goes on saying great things about John the Baptist. That he’s a prophet, more than a prophet, that among those born of women, no one is greater than he! Then he pulls the rug out from under poor John by saying, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The last shall be first. How irritating.
I mean imagine. Imagine us saying, “We are allowing 50 people in the sanctuary, first-come, first-seated.” Now, imagine if someone showed up at like 10:15…super late, and the ushers brought them in and were like, “Oh hey – first person who got here this morning, you have to leave to make room for this late person.” We would FLIP. OUT. Yet, that’s what the kingdom of God is like.
This is not the kingdom we want. We struggle with accepting the malkuth shamayim, the “sovereignty of God” where God is the only one on the throne. When we go to vote, we want to put someone on that throne who stands for us, right? We want to put Trump on the thrown or Biden on the throne for our own good, because we think that Trump or Biden will be the ruler who looks out for my well-being. But in the kingdom of heaven, nobody gets a throne but God. God is the one to whom citizens of the kingdom are obedient, and we obey God’s table-turning, power-and-resource-sharing ways…whether it’s our human inclination to like it or not.
It’s hard to keep choosing this kingdom when giving up power for the “least of these” makes us feel nervous at best, maybe even threatened, maybe even angry. Just like John the Baptist probably thought Jesus was the very worst messiah because he wouldn’t bust John out of prison, we might have moments of thinking this kingdom of God is the very worst kingdom because it doesn’t conform to our power-seeking, dominating, human ways. We too, perhaps in the dark corners of our hearts, want a God who will violently intervene by force to put us or the candidate we support on the throne.
But our job, as citizens of the kingdom, is to refuse to put anyone on the throne but God.
So how do we resist our very human and understandable desire to replace God’s kingdom with a kingdom that benefits only ourselves and those who will keep heaping power in our direction?
I want to answer that with a story.
This week, the Today Show reported on a very unusual study. Researchers gave $7500 Canadian dollars (a little less than $6000 American dollars) to 50 people who had recently become homeless. The people were free to use the money however they liked, with no restrictions. This of course flies in the face of the “traditional wisdom” that tells us not to give cash to homeless folks because it might be used on alcohol or drugs or other harmful purchases. To the surprise of the researchers, they found that the recipients used the money to turn their lives around.
They got stable housing about 12 months faster than those who didn’t receive the cash. They were able to provide enough food for their families over the year. Despite having significantly more money, they actually saw a 49 percent reduction in spending on alcohol and drugs. Some recipients used the money to start small businesses, some took computer classes, some got a bike or car repairs so they could commute to work. Plus, the generosity trickled out. Recipients invested in their children’s well-being and even helped out other family members who were struggling.
And hear this: reducing the number of nights spent in shelters by the 50 study participants actually saved the Canadian government money. It saved them approximately $8,100 dollars per person. Which, if you will remember, is $600 dollars more than the cash each recipient received. This experiment created a net gain of $30,000 Canadian dollars. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/09/americas/direct-giving-homeless-people-vancouver-trnd/index.html]
Now, the idea of just giving homeless folks almost $6,000 US dollars with no strings attached might make us say, “That’s reckless!” or “That’s ridiculous!” or “That’s not fair!” Maybe if I’m being honest, I would tell you: that was my very human reaction to the story as well.
It is possible to hear this story with no small bit of cynicism.
But when I am able to open my heart to God, when I allow the Holy Spirit to calm my fears and quiet the screaming of my own ego…then when I hear a story like this, I can almost hear Jesus whisper: Repent. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Thanks be to God.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1) How did you feel when you heard the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” during this sermon (Matthew 20:1-16)? Why do you think you reacted the way you did?
2) Have you ever been envious because someone else got something you thought they didn’t deserve? How did / how does being envious make you feel?
3) What do you think about the study discussed at the end of the sermon? Does it make you nervous? Does it give you hope? Why?
4) What’s one way either you or someone you know / have heard about has chosen to put others’ needs first, even if it meant less for themselves?