September 20

Taking Precedence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Jonah 3:10–4:11

Philippians 1:21–30

Matthew 20:1–16

Click here to hear just the sermon

A friend of mine tells a story about their facilitation of a bible study on Matthew a few years ago.  The study was held in a church in a well-off town just outside a major American city.  For the first nineteen chapters of Matthew, there was lively discussion, and everything remained relatively calm.  But when discussion started on the passage which is our Gospel text this morning, the tenor of discussion changed.  There was anger, and resentment, and attempts to dismiss the story on various grounds, the chief ground being that it might be all right for the landowner to act like that in the kingdom of God, but in real life no one would work for them, and such behavior only rewards the lazy.  The members of the study had all worked hard to get where they were, and the idea that late hires would be paid the same as those who had worked out in the sun all day was both an outrage and deeply distressing to them, especially as this was a God story.  The vineyard owner’s claims were offensive.  Did they have no respect for diligence and hard work?  Did God have no respect for them in their hard work and diligence?  Things got pretty heated.  Then one of the members, who had not said much, suddenly said, “But haven’t any of us ever caught a break?  That’s what happens to the late hires, isn’t it?  It wasn’t their fault they weren’t hired.  They caught a break from the landowner.”  Well, this was a bible study that had been going for a while, and the members knew and trusted each other.  So they thought about it.  And little by little, “Well, when you put it that way …”, the stories began to come out: some about little and amusing breaks, some about life-changing ones, sometimes about breaks that saved a life or many lives.  The concept of “catching a break” was examined, as something that was not expected, not necessarily deserved; and while it might involve someone else feeling affection or the desire to help another person out, it could be, as it is in the Gospel, purely due to the desire of the one who hires and has both the control and resources to provide the break, and they provide it because they can.  The study session ended on the general understanding that everyone present allowed that they had experienced catching a break and they were grateful.  And of course God could do whatever God liked.  But they were honest enough to allow that while the kingdom of God was one thing; if they saw such behavior from their bosses, and if they were the ones first hired, it would still rankle.

Someone or something that “takes precedence” is someone or something that is more important than the people or things around them.  Or it is someone or something with somehow a right to preferential treatment.  Religious, academic, state, community, or family, processionals or seating arrangements often demonstrate the importance of some people taking precedence over others, through formal organization hierarchy.  And, taking precedence is often claimed, or given informally by individuals or groups, or given to certain people, as the members of the bible study gave precedence to the early hires over the late hires with regard to who deserved the most pay from the landowner.  

Some things, commitments, and feelings also take precedence, even over things, commitments, and feelings that are also important.  The Book of Jonah describes a case in point.  Previously in the book to our story this morning, Jonah has been called by God to go and preach warning and repentance to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the great, wicked city of Nineveh.  For reasons that are unclear at the time, Jonah goes overland to the place farthest from Nineveh, and then he takes a ship to go even farther away.  A storm blows up, Jonah tells the sailors that the storm is his fault for disobeying God, and he allows the sailors to throw him overboard so that they will not be harmed.  Jonah goes overboard, the sea calms, and Jonah is a swallowed by a great fish, or a whale.  He spends the fabled three days in the whale’s stomach.  Then the whale spews him up onto dry land.   

Our Scripture this morning, then, is post-whale.  Jonah has, it seems, decided to obey God’s call, and goes to Nineveh.  He has a spectacular preaching tour.  He only repeats one phrase, and the people and even the king pay attention.  They fast, repent in sackcloth and ashes, and turn from their evil ways.  God accepts their repentance, changes the divine mind, and does not overthrow the city.

Amazingly enough, Jonah is angry at the results of his work, work that he had been called by God to do.  He is angry with God.  He is specifically angry with God’s character and nature.:  God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s slowness to anger, God’s abounding in steadfast love, God’s readiness to relent from punishment.  The same qualities of God that he remembered as he prayed in repentance from inside the whale, when they are turned toward his enemies, he is so angry with God that he wants God to kill him, because he would rather die than live in such a situation.  God asks Jonah if he has a right to be angry, but receives no answer, and Jonah goes to a lookout to see what becomes of the forgiven city.  A bush grows over Jonah’s head and shades him, but a worm comes and kills the bush, and in the renewed heat Jonah again asks God to kill him.  God asks again if Jonah has the right to be angry, this time about the bush, and Jonah says he is angry enough to die, which is better than to live.  Jonah has allowed his anger and hatred of the Ninevites, and his concern for his own comfort, to take precedence:  precedence over his call from God, precedence over what he knows is the character and nature of God, and precedence over the great transformation of a wicked and violent city into a place concerned with repentance toward a right relationship with God and others.  For God, however, what takes precedence is the welfare of one hundred and twenty thousand people who are confused and fearful; and let’s not forget their animals, because God does not forget them.

The message of this morning’s two stories is that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is different from Jonah’s; and as Jesus declares in his God story, it is different from that of the early hires.  God, who created everything, can in divine generosity do whatever God wants, for whoever God wants, and the people who are called to God’s mission both are taken care of and also will catch some breaks.  In these things, these stories are similar.  For our purposes this morning, we will note some differences between other aspects of the stories.

While there is some scholarly warrant for the possible existence of a “Jonah son of Ammitai,” and the enmity between Assyria and Israel is a matter of historical record, debate rages over who actually wrote the Book of Jonah.  Debate also rages over why, where, and when the author wrote it.  There is even debate over what category the book falls into:  history, parable, satire, and/or political/religious persuasion toward a more universal concept of God’s presence and love.  What we do know for sure is that Jonah’s is a story that was included in the Hebrew Bible, is referenced in both Matthew and Luke in the Christian scriptures, and has captured the imagination in books, song, and art for centuries.  And, the picture of Jonah it paints is both absurd, and in our time a bit too close to some of what we see at loose in the world:  a man who insists that what takes precedence, what is more important, is his own hatred of others, his anger toward those who change for the better and toward God,, and his preference for death, rather than life in a world where human repentance and divine generosity and mercy are possible.

Jesus’s story has noticeable differences.  It is an everyday story of marginal day workers and a disconcertingly fair and also generous employer.  We recognize its issues in our own reactions as to which workers should or should not take precedence in our own workplaces.  And we recognize its issues in our national labor policies that affect millions of lives and futures.   If we are like the members of the bible study, we will also remember the times when someone  allowed us to take precedence and gave us a break, and the warm feelings up to and including incoherent relief with which we received that break.

In the Gospel of Matthew the tax collector, this story is set in a whole section of stories which emphasize the fact that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is not necessarily what we or the world think takes precedence, think what is more important.  In the stories that precede our story this morning:  Jesus insists that little children be allowed to come to him, because it is to those like them that the kingdom of heaven belongs:  Jesus encounters the rich young ruler who would not follow him because of his riches, and acknowledges that it is hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven; when Peter asks what will they get, who have left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus says that they will have more than they need, and, in this case too, that “ … many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  In the verses following our story this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die; the mother of the sons of Zebedee does their work for them and asks Jesus to put her sons to the right and left of him when he comes into his kingdom; Jesus tells James and John that they don’t know what they are asking, and anyway that’s not his to grant; when the others are angry with James and John, Jesus tells them all that whoever wants to be great among them must be their servant, and that Jesus himself, who comes to serve, is the embodiment of God’s upending of worldly ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important

We have noted before that the Gospel of Matthew is in part a manual of instruction, a teaching Gospel, that teaches through the example of Jesus what his followers  need to know:  about God and Jesus, about themselves, and about their neighbors. The Gospel teaches about God’s invitation and inclusion, about God’s ideas of who and what takes precedence, about who and what is more important.  The kingdom of heaven, present and coming, is like this:  a place where everyone is included, where everyone is important, and where at any given time and in any given situation, some people change places, so that the first shall become last, and the last shall become first, so that love and justice can prevail.

These stories come at an interesting time for us.  The Covid-19 pandemic also upends our ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important.  It reveals the deep fissures in our society, which in turn reveal disdain and hatred, and as well mercy and generosity.  Now I want to be very clear here.  I am not saying that God caused either the virus or the pandemic.  From what I gather from the science, medical , and political communities they are likely the result of a combination of natural processes and the consequences of human denial, fear, and short-sighted choices around environment, our relations with other species, and public health.  I am also not saying that God has sent us the virus as a punishment.  The pain, sorrow, fear, and despair this virus has caused and continues to cause is suffering enough to go on with for anything.   And these all are exacerbated in turn by uncontrolled wildfires, racial injustice and unrest, a frightening economic situation, and the background of climate change.  Our faith does not promise us that we will be punished for anything through natural processes or their consequences.  What our faith does promise is that God’s presence, guidance, and help are with us, to help bring us through, and to help us learn.  

And we are learning a lot now, in deeper and richer, and yes, in more challenging ways.  Some of what we are learning is that those who we may have overlooked or taken for granted take precedence in importance to our well-being, if we are to eat, to continue to function as individuals and a society, and to recover and get well.  We are learning that some, through no fault of their own but through being discounted in their human being and dignity, suffer more deeply and widely than others, and that certain changes must take precedence over the status quo if this extra suffering and blatant injustice is to end.  We are learning how important each individual person who has died was, to their loved ones and to their communities. We are learning how important we who live are to each other, as we long for physical presence, contact, and energy.  We are learning how human relationship, and human relationship with the natural and wider world, take precedence over so much of what we thought was more important.  And we are learning the importance each one of us has and can have to God and to our neighbor, in actions both large and small.

Paul writes about this in his own inimitable way in his letter to the church at Philippi, a church for which Paul has a particular affection.  His letter is full of friendship and rejoicing in and for them, even in the midst of the sufferings they variously face, and he recounts his dilemma in the face of their friendship in Christ.   He does not know which to prefer:  to die and be with Christ is what he would prefer as the best of all situations; but if he continues to live, he has fruitful labor to do, and that is more necessary for the church at Philippi, which he loves.  So, he will remain alive and in the flesh, to continue with them in progress and joy, and so that they may all boast in Christ when they can be together again.  Since life take precedence over death for Paul in his call from God, he will do his work toward fruitfulness, endure his sufferings in faith, and enjoy his time with his friends.

Covid-19 is no respecter of precedence or people.  But as long as we are, like Paul, still alive and in the flesh, our life with God, self, and neighbor takes precedence even over our fear, and accompanies our grief and the many other emotions of this time.  Now more than ever, we are called to consider what will take precedence, what will be more important, in our lives.  We are called to be fruitful in the work we are called to do.  We are called to rejoice in our friends and companions in Christ.  In all this we are called to be guided by God’s ideas of what takes precedence, rather than our own or the world’s.  And when we do, we are promised that our world will be the more interesting, the richer, and the more just for it.  May we rest in God’s mercy and generosity, and may we extend God’s mercy and generosity to as many others as we can.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Comments are closed.