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The Unaccountable God
Mt. 20:1-16

It was not very long ago that I said that I have problems with the church. I also said that many people have problems with the church as the body of Jesus Christ, either because some expect an organization or institution of human beings to be perfect, in which case church membership would be either small or filled with those who think they are perfect, or because different individuals have varying and differing thoughts of what proper faith and behavior should be for those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I noted that other human institutions, such as families, also have these problems, if problems they are, but love holds them together.

I think it is time to delve a little deeper into the subject of our discontent as human beings, and realize that there is another dimension to our problems with the church. I have a problem with God, and I do not think that I am alone. Oh, I believe in God, and I have been called by God in a way that is intensely real. I have experienced ignorance and unknowing enough to know that I remain ignorant and unknowing about God in so many ways. I know enough to know that I do not know very much about God, that all that I can and do say and think and feel about God is only a minute scrap about God. I know that I, along with every other preacher and believer who talks about God proclaims, by necessity, an incomplete Gospel, but I do proclaim what little truth I do know, secure in the assurance that I do not need to know everything.

The problem with God, as I see it, is that God is not like us. I almost said that God is not human, but then that brings up the matter of Jesus Christ, Son of God, who is human and divine. Is the problem with God that it is we who are human? I do not think so. I do not think that being human is what separates us from God and makes God a problem for us. Is the problem that which separates us from God, what we call sin? Yes, that is most assuredly a problem since the definition of sin is whatever separates us from God. The caricature of this thought is the divine rule book approach of arbitrary rules that are to be followed without thought or exception. Ah, if only life could be so simple! We do have rules for righteous and healthy living, beginning with the Ten Commandments, but we also have sour saints, masters of rule-bending and rule-twisting, as well as complications and exceptions that puzzle our hearts, souls, and minds. If God were the ultimate accountant of rules, if God were the omniscient keeper of the cosmic record book, then we could, of our own volition and will, control God to a certain extent. Jesus would then truly be our advocate, our lawyer, and God would be accountable in that God would be understandable to us. All would be nice and tidy. We could know what God is up to, like it or not, but we would have an accountable God.

There are many people who do believe in an accountable God, accountable in the way I have described. There are many people for whom God is not a problem. Perhaps they are simply smarter or holier or wiser than I am. Perhaps I should envy them, except that I keep thinking of what C. S. Lewis wrote in his great Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe that beyond the rules and laws is an older and greater law. Remind me and I will talk about that later.

Since I have said that I have a problem with God, and since the title of this sermon is The Unaccountable God, we can surmise that the problem is that God is not neat and tidy and accountable. God loves a complicated and messy world, something I try to remember when it seems that I am running in different directions trying to find what I have misplaced, or when I am trying to clean up what I have messed up. I just cannot see the order in the chaos. I would like for the universe to be simpler and accountable, but God has not chosen to create the universe to my specifications, and I am not always sure that I am over that fact.

God is unaccountable, and that makes us human beings uneasy. If God is unaccountable, then God can run the universe just as God wishes. In reality, God has been doing this long before we came on the scene, but humans still think God is under obligation to us for creating us. God may have created us, male and female, in God's own image, but we humans have always been busy trying to create God in our own image. Again that brings up the question of Jesus Christ, the only begotten child of God, but we will get to that later.

Complaints about God are not new. Our Hebrew Scripture from the book of Exodus gives us one example of many about complaints about God. God selects Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Sinai wilderness. If you saw Cecil DeMilles' The Ten Commandments, you remember Charlton Heston leading the people through the Red Sea, you remember Yul Brenner saying, "So it is written, so it shall be," you remember Edgar G. Robinson, the Hebrew overseer trying to stir up the people to turn against Moses and return to Egypt. Edgar G. Robinson was the self-appointed head of the "Back-to-Egypt" committee, reminding the people that freedom did not fill the belly, and reminding them of the fleshpots of Egypt.

Now, let us think about that. Does anyone know exactly what a fleshpot is? I thought I did. I have always heard about the fleshpots of the city and other wicked places. I had always thought that a fleshpot was a rather sociable, since fleshpots seem to always be plural, pleasurable, and rather naughty people. It would seem that one could say, "Well, hello, Harry, you old fleshpot, you." One day I looked up fleshpot in the dictionary and found that the true meaning of fleshpot was much less interesting. A fleshpot is merely a pan or pot for meat, something akin to a crockpot. That puts a different light to things. Instead of, "Hello, Harry, you old fleshpot, you," we have, "Thank you for the fleshpot. It is a thoughtful and useful gift that we will use and treasure always." That is what Bible study does for us: bring us away from our fancies and imagination, and closer to reality. It should also bring us closer to what the issues of God are about.

The Back-to-Egypt committee wanted security and accountability from God. It was better, in their mind, to be oppressed but secure. This is very human. In the days of the Cold War, there were those who came to the United States from behind the Iron Curtain. Most found the United States to be a land of opportunity, but some found that the uncertainties of freedom were unsettling. Some could not cope with unemployment or with ambiguity or with all the choices. Some returned to their totalitarian homeland where they would have the security of being controlled. Some would like God to be this way: control us and give us security. God, be accountable in ways we can understand is the prayer of many people.

The problem is that God does not seem to wish to control us. God gives us freedom of choice and free will, which has created many problems in the history of humanity. Then God does strange things. When Jesus began a teaching with "The kingdom of heaven is like . . . " then we know we are in trouble, because what Jesus said would have a twist that would puzzle and astonish all who listened. Consider today's Gospel lesson. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hired day laborers all day long. Some came early in the morning and agreed to work for the usual daily wage. Some came later and were hired also. On it went through the day, until some were hired for the last hour or so. Then the landowner paid the workers. Those last hired were paid a full day's wages. This is very generous. The problem is that everyone was paid the same, whether they had worked an hour or the full day. Those who had worked the longest grumbled because they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, therefore did they not deserve more than those who came at the last hour? The landowner told them he had paid them what they had asked, therefore they had no complaint to make. As for his generosity toward others, was he not allowed to do as he wished with what belongs to him? Or were they envious because he is generous?

Jesus told this story and it bothers us. Jesus told this story to those who worked very hard to follow the rules and to those who had given up everything to follow Jesus. Now Jesus indicated that those who had contracted with God to be good in return for the blessings of God would receive no more than those who came at the last minute for whatever would be given to them. What kind of accounting system does God have? Is God accountable?

There are stories of heated arguments in Sunday School classes about what this story says about what we should do in real-life economic situations. The landowner had paid all a day's wages, had paid all enough to support self and family, had paid for the needs of all who came, but I think that the story Jesus told was more about our tendency to try to limit God to our understanding and need for an accountable God. When the Israelites complained about being far from the fleshpots of Egypt, God responded with something unknown, what the Israelites called with a word that would translate into our language something like "whatcallmacallit." That word in Hebrew is manna. The trick to manna, a natural secretion of some plants, although only at some times of the year, is that it could not be stored for the future. One had to trust God every new day for new manna. So also we have to trust God for healing and love and salvation every new day. We cannot store it up for ourselves because it becomes stale and rotten.

I told you about C. S. Lewis saying that beyond the rules and laws is an older law. It was at the point where Aslan the lion had traded his life for the life of a boy who had betrayed Aslan. Aslan gave himself over to the evil witch who had Aslan beaten and killed. When sunrise came, Aslan was alive again. That is when C. S. Lewis said there is an older law behind the rules and laws. That older law is the law of God's love which reaches out to all in their need, even to sinners such as we, even if we come at the last hour. As Jesus noted, if we come early, we tend to try to bargain with God, not realizing that we may be limiting ourselves to the full blessings of God, or be discontent that God is so generous with love to others in their need for forgiveness, health, and acceptance.

I was in Israel, the Promised Land, three and one-half years ago. Among my souvenirs was a piece of a tree twig which our guide told us would secrete a sap that turned to a white stuff that was probably the manna of old. I also remember that we went to the last remaining wall of the temple built in Jerusalem by Herod the Great, remnants of the same temple Jesus had taught in. It is the custom for pilgrims and others to write prayers on slips of paper and shove the written prayers in the cracks between the great blocks. One can now E-mail such prayers to a firm in Jerusalem which will place the prayer in the temple blocks for a fee. The prayer I wrote was for peace and love between the Israelis and the Palestinian peoples. Within a few months, the Israelis and the Palestinians had agreed to try to live in peace. The love is a little slower coming along, but it is no longer so impossible. My wife reminded me that there must have been many other such prayers, but I try to remember that the love of God is not impossible, just unaccountable. God who would send Jesus to die and rise from the tomb for us is an unaccountable God who does love us, even when such love seems strange and puzzling. Should we be envious because God is so generous with what belongs to God? Should we recognize that we have more to learn about the love of God? Should we rejoice that God is greater than we in the scope of meaning and purpose, that God loves what is beyond our understanding, that God just might know what God is doing? I try to do this because, strange as it may sound, the love of God makes the most sense and offers the most hope in a world made by an unaccountable God of love.

Amen and Amen.