Beyond Christian Values

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16th Sunday after Pentecost Year A—20 September 2020
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest
Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11; Psalm 145: 1-8; Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16

+In the Name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

You don’t need me to tell you that we live in a world of envy, rivalry and violence. Everywhere we see people pressing their advantage, responding to perceived threats with spite, with compulsive litigation, and by retreating into conspiracy theories if all else fails. On struggle street the populist cry used to be that aboriginals are getting handouts, while nowadays its immigrants taking our jobs. At the other end of the pecking order, in the corporate boardrooms and among the right-wing commentariat, resentment ramps up against anyone who challenges the free-market—the elderly, for instance, who aren’t prepared to die of coronavirus for the sake of maintaining CEO’s bonuses; or the environment, which has the temerity to start acting up in response to climate change. Who does it think it is?

Friends, God in Christ has a different agenda beyond human entitlement, bitterness, and FOMO—fear of missing out. This different agenda lives in the Eucharistic Church, where Christ’s arms stretch out in a quite indiscriminate embrace, pulling us close together into strange and even unsavoury company. So, if nominal Anglicans like to talk about Christian values when they send their kids to our posh Anglican schools, they won’t find much support for that fantasy here. Today in our readings, and especially in that most scandalous of Gospel parables, there’s no sign of so-called Christian values to bolster a morality of prudent self-regard. Instead, we find a message that’s fit for saints and holy fools, for activists and ratbags.

Now, to today’s Gospel parable. The lowest and most precarious order of workers in any economy, the landless day labourers, appear in this parable. We saw them in the Great Depression waiting in groups for a truck to come along and take them off for a day’s work on someone’s building site or market garden. We still see groups of Hispanic men waiting to be hired in America. Or we see them here, in pubs, when dodgy furniture removalists come in looking to hire some muscle, for a cash payment at the end of the day. We’re not talking polished CVs here, or the old school tie that opens doors of opportunity. Everyone in today’s parable depends on the grace and favour of the master, and they know it. But then the master who does the hiring behaves scandalously. At the 6pm knockoff, the ones who’ve done a hard, hot day’s work from 9am get the same pay as the ones hired first thing at 6am, then at noon, at 3pm and even at ‘the eleventh hour’—at 5pm. Where’s the shop steward? Where’s the Fair Work Ombudsman? Where’s Anthony Albanese? And what in heaven’s name can we find here that’s fit to teach our children, to help them get on in life? Instead the bible gives us a different agenda.

The difference, friends, is that the biblical worldview, and biblical morality, and authentic rather than bogus Christian values, don’t begin and end with human beings staking their claims, pressing their advantage and hating to look like losers. Instead, we have Jesus’ scandalous closing words today: “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. And how everyone hates that. Jesus was resented for putting tax collectors and prostitutes at the head of the queue—though of course when the saints go marching in it won’t be a matter of queuing or of precedent. That’s the point of today’s gospel.

Today’s gospel addresses a conflict situation in Matthew’s Church. The Christians of Jewish background, whose ancestors had borne the heat of the day in fidelity to the Old Covenant, suddenly had to accommodate gentile Christians by the boatload, with unseemly pagan backgrounds, alien habits, and no stake in Israel’s proud heritage. The same attitude is regularly found in Anglican parishes whenever social hierarchy gets challenged, where old entitlements and pecking orders are questioned, where the old guard sees itself as missing out thanks to the new guard. And of course, these attitudes are absolutely endemic in the wider world.

Friends, the necessary mental shift that’s called for here is away from focussing on us and our entitlements, to discover God’s generosity as the new centre of our moral imagination. Genuine Christian faith and morality centre on God and what God’s like, not on priorities that reflect an unreconstructed human nature. Unlike Jonah and so many of us just like him, God cares for the sinful, for the undeserving, and even for animals, as we hear at the end of our Old Testament reading today. So, Jonah should pull himself together and give up his epic sulk. Jonah is affronted because God isn’t sufficiently punishing—because God scandalously chooses to forgive rather than to curse the previously wayward people of Nineveh. Jonah’s a bit like Pauline Hanson, then, or like the angry American I once heard define socialism as taking her money and giving it to other people. And, friends, we’d better get used to thinking in this different way, against the grain of our natural inclinations. Otherwise we’re going to hate being in heaven, when it turns out to be full of people who we don’t think should be there.

The contrast between God and God’s nature, on the one hand, and our distorted human nature, on the other hand, is made explicit at the end of today’s gospel, when God chides the envious and offended for resenting his generosity. As if we have any entitlement apart from that, which is the challenge God puts to Jonah. The better attitude shines through our Psalm today, in which God’s mercy and power to save are all that the psalmist wants to talk about.

This is also what motivates St Paul’s extraordinary testimony in our Philippians reading today. It’s not about Paul’s agenda, even about whether he lives or dies. Instead it’s all about Christ, and being found in him, and with that the wellbeing of his Church.

Paul would prefer to die and be made fully one with Christ, but he’s also content to stay alive and at work for the sake of the Church and its being made one with Christ. He comes across like a Buddhist Bodhisattva, who foregoes his release into Nirvana for the sake of staying behind to help others. Here we recognise a Christian soul wholly transported beyond the realm of ego, of self-interest. Paul doesn’t exist for Paul’s sake, and for protecting Paul’s advantage. He marches to a different drummer, walking a road less travelled. His is the voyage on which you and I were embarked in the waters of baptism. His is the road that we walk to the altar rail, to receive the blessed sacrament. His is a path in life that few could imagine or could stomach walking, but it’s our calling, our blessing and our burden to walk it. Paul makes clear that such a witness, such a way of life, is the only way to convince the Church’s opponents: by showing them that a different way of life with a liberating set of priorities is real and can be found among us. And this includes the capacity to suffer for love, for faith, as Paul also tells us, which is entirely the opposite of looking out for number one. Otherwise we end up like those envious day labourers in today’s gospel, begrudging God’s generosity and regarding it as the loss of their advantage.

Friends, here in the Eucharist we’re summoned as servants of a gracious master, not all proprietorial, not expecting our due. Because if it’s all about insisting on our just deserts, then Christ died for nothing, and we needn’t bother about Easter Sunday—not to mention the possibility that we might just find ourselves on the wrong side of the ledger. But just imagine instead that God doesn’t even keep a ledger. Imagine that God justifies the ungodly and blesses the undeserving. If we understand that, then we understand the whole gospel, we come to know ourselves as loved and forgiven, and hence we find ourselves on the path to genuine lightness and freedom in our hearts—because we’ve escaped the gravitational pull of envy, rivalry and violence.

The Lord be with you …

St Philip's Anglican Church,
cnr Moorhouse and Macpherson Streets, O'Connor, ACT 2602.