The Rev. Caroline Hall
Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20:1-16
In a pivotal scene from the movie Then She Found Me which came out last year, Holly Hunt plays a devout Jewish woman about to have a medical procedure. Her mother, played by Bette Midler, suggests she prays first. Holly Hunt’s character refuses and eventually admits it’s because she feels let down by God whom she had thought was loving and good. Bette Midler’s character says, ‘What if God is… difficult… awful… complicated?’
And that is my question to you this morning. What if God is difficult, awful, complicated?
When I was living in Scotland my dear friend from Virginia told me about the wonderful birthday cake her mother made her every year, and I decided to secretly get the recipe and surprise her with her favorite cake. So I called her mother in Alexandria who seemed oddly elusive and said she’d see if she could find the recipe. A week or two later I received a parcel in the mail. It was a packet of Betty Crocker cake mix.
There are some real advantages to using a cake mix. It takes all the guess work out of it – instead of beating the sugar and butter until soft – how soft? Or adding a spoonful or two of flour, just enough to stop the mixture curdling – how much is just enough? Instead of all that uncertainty - you just add eggs and oil and pop it in the oven and it comes out the same every time. It’s easy – good results are pretty much guaranteed.
Many people want God to be like a cake mix. They want God to be sweet, simple, uncomplicated and the same every time. They want a tame God who shows up on cue to solve their problems and help them out of their difficulties. They expect that if God exists he will answer their prayers and keep them out of harm’s way. If that doesn’t happen then either God can’t exist or if he does, he doesn’t care. How, someone asked me yesterday, can I trust God if he doesn’t answer my prayers?
God’s primary purpose is not to answer our prayers. Our primary purpose is to relate to God in friendship, love and worship. We are only truly fulfilled when we are living in relationship to God however we understand her. But our readings today suggest that God may be a lot more difficult, awful and complicated than we would like to think. Relating to God is much less predictable than baking a cake from a cake mix.
In our first reading Jonah gets mad at God. Jonah, at great personal sacrifice, overcame significant reluctance and went to the Gentile city of Ninevah to tell them that if they did not repent they would be destroyed. Then he sat on a hill opposite the city and waited for God to destroy it. But they repented and God repented and there were no fireworks. Jonah was furious. He’d come all this way and gone through hell and high water all for nothing.
In the gospel reading we heard about some very disgruntled field workers. They started work early in the morning and agreed a fair wage with the owner of the vineyard. But at the end of the day they saw others who had worked only a few hours getting paid as much as they were expecting, and they were excited. Obviously the boss was in a generous mood – and they would get paid handsomely. But when it was their turn they were paid only what had been originally agreed. They were angry. Where was the fairness in that?
This is clearly not a parable about equitable pay for fieldworkers. Jesus is trying to talk about the kingdom of heaven and how it is different from the kingdom of earth. Assuming that the landowner is in some way representative of God, the fact that the landowner can spend his money the way he chooses tells us something important about God.
Both these stories talk about the freedom of God. God is difficult…awful… complicated… and free. That means that we cannot control God. We cannot take her out of a box, add the oil of prayer and the eggs of love and get the same result every time. Because it isn’t about us.
That may be the most difficult thing for us to really understand.
Yes God loved the world, and that means you and me, so much that she sent her only beloved Son, part of herself, to die on the cross so that we might know God. But it’s not all about us. It’s all about God. In the beginning was God. The one who is I AM Who I AM.
God is free to do whatever God wants. God created the universe and is continuing to create the universe and if God chooses to do that through DNA or through a creative word or in some totally different way, that’s up to God. God longs to be in relationship with us but it’s not a relationship where we ask for something and God gives it, again and again and again. God has already given us the ultimate gift in Jesus.
Now it’s up to us. It’s up to us to dedicate our lives to loving, serving and worshipping a God over whom we have no control. A God who is difficult, awful, complicated and free. A God who can send us off to do something and then change her mind. A God who can reward people as she sees fit, not according to human systems or ideas of fairness.
None of this lets us off the hook, because it’s not about a relationship of equals. Just because God is free to do whatever God chooses and God may choose to allow Godself to be limited in order to respect our free will, it does not mean that we can forget about ethical holy living. It does not mean that we can forget about loving God.
In fact, it makes everything a bit more demanding and a bit more exciting. Relating to God is not like using a cake mix, it’s more like following a recipe from scratch. A recipe that you haven’t cooked before which has slightly imprecise directions – a ‘dab’ of butter, a ‘rounded’ spoon of sugar, then beat until it coats the back of the spoon – that kind of recipe. You have to give up the need to get it right. You have to surrender to the process and trust that it’ll come out alright and if it doesn’t it’ll still be alright.
That’s the kind of relationship that God calls us into. A deep relationship is one of submission, of saying God’s will not mine, but not one of passivity. We do not get to sit back and say whatever happens is up to God, God expects us to be actively engaged in working for the reign of God. God expects us to be actively engaged in our spiritual work.
Just as God is actively engaged in our lives and the life of this planet. But it isn’t a simple cake in a box, God’s activity is not a panacea which takes away suffering and difficulty. God’s love holds us and supports us but doesn’t mean we avoid pain and suffering. It’s all much more difficult… awful… and complicated than that.