Even those who don’t follow sports are familiar with the story of the “non-call” heard around the world, as two referees failed to call pass interference on a football player who ran into another, helmet-to-helmet, before a pass arrived in the waning minutes of last week’s NFC Championship Game. According to the New Orleans Saints, this non-call cost them the chance to play in the Super Bowl. Fans took it even further, renting billboards in Atlanta to blast their anger, demanding that the game be replayed, and suing the league, claiming “mental anguish, emotional trauma and loss of enjoyment of life,” and calling what happened “a travesty of epic proportions.” As a comedian on The Daily Show commented, this was clearly “the worst thing that ever happened to the city of New Orleans.”
By most standards, the outcome was unfair. Many other unfair things are happening in the world as well. Many government workers did not get paid this month. Teachers, soldiers and police officers are paid less than entertainers and sports figures, while women are paid less than men for the same amount of work. Drew Brees, the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, will make only $25 million this year because he was robbed by the referees of his Super Bowl bonus. And pity poor Ricky Jefferson, the only player on the Saints to make less than half a million this year. His salary is only $480,000, and he’s not going to the Super Bowl either. It’s so unfair.
Here’s something I thought was unfair as a kid. The other kids would ask me, “Where were you when brains were being handed out?” I don’t know! Nobody told me brains were being handed out! I didn’t get a memo and email hadn’t been invented yet!
When we perceive that someone is being unfair to us, our anger is often way out of proportion. Just think of being at the Oakdale merge on a Friday afternoon, waiting patiently like a good Christian in a 45-minute line of cars, when someone races right past everyone and cuts in up front. Or the feeling we have when we get to a restaurant first but someone else gets seated first, or served first. Or if someone gets a bigger piece of cake (a problem which led to the perfect classic solution in which one person cuts the cake and another chooses the piece). Last week I was enjoying a conversation with some people in the sanctuary after church and I missed most of Coffee Hour. When I got to Coffee Hour, someone asked me, “did you try the little ham sandwiches? They were amazing!” I had not. Someone else asked me the same question. But the ham sandwiches were gone. Do you know what I felt when I learned that? “Mental anguish, emotional trauma, and loss of enjoyment of life.”
Here are some other things that are unfair, according to Ecclesiastes: good people often die young, and bad people often live long lives. The rich oppress the poor and nobody does anything about it. And you can have everything in the world and not be happy.
The book of Job is possibly the oldest book in the Bible. We usually look at it as a book about suffering, but it’s also about fairness. Job was a great person, in fact the best person on earth, so good that he got the attention of both God and Satan. And Satan said to God, “I’ll bet if I took everything away from him, he’d curse you.” And God allowed him to do so, and Job lost everything: his home, his family, his health. It wasn’t fair! It was so unfair that Job’s friends insisted that he must have done something wrong to deserve it. But he hadn’t. Then a stranger came along and said the same thing. Then God came along and spoke to him for a while, and what we understand from this part is that God was with him in his suffering. But that doesn’t make it fair.
Many consider Ecclesiastes and Job to be the two most depressing books in the Bible. But they’re not meant to be. Instead, they’re meant to teach us a valuable lesson: that life is unfair, but that we’re better off knowing this at the beginning. We make some mistakes with our kids as we try to protect them from this fact. Every kid gets a prize, but not every adult gets a job. We don’t want our kids to feel like losers, so we don’t teach them how to lose.
The truth is, some people are prettier than others. Some people are smarter than others. Some people are more talented. You can life a good life and still suffer. You can be faithful and still get cheated on. You can be a good parent and still have a rebellious kid. You can be right and still get fired. You can be a vegan and still get cancer. You can play better than the other team and still lose. As Ecclesiastes writes, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
But also, everybody is going through something. It may seem like a person has it all, but inside they may be suffering. We present our best faces on social media, which makes it seem like we’re doing okay, when we’re not okay. If you think someone has a perfect life, remember, in the words of the famous children’s book, everybody poops.
Here’s the most unfair story in the Bible. A man goes out at the beginning of the day to hire some workers, and he promises them a day’s wage. But at lunchtime, there’s still work to be done, so he goes out and hires some more workers for the same price. And then at the end of the day, he goes back to hire even more workers, and even though they work for just a little bit, he gives them a whole day’s pay. This makes the people who were hired earlier very upset. It’s not fair, they say. But he responds, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:1-16).
The story seems so unfair that we think it’s about fairness, when it’s really about generosity and grace. So let’s look at it another way. Think of the person you hate the most, and if you can’t think of someone like that, think of someone who really annoys you. Now imagine they were mean to you in elementary school, then they were mean to you in middle and high school, and just when you thought you were rid of them they followed you to college, and when you graduated they moved to your town and kept causing trouble for you. And it’s not just you. This person is a terror, and everyone knows it. Hates kids, hates children, only into themselves. So eventually you die and go to heaven. Yay! But then a few years later they repent on their deathbed, and you’re enjoying heaven when POOF! they appear beside you. NO! THIS IS NOT FAIR!
But this is how God works. God does not give us what we deserve. God operates through grace.
Here are a couple examples from the donut world. I’ll try to be fair by sharing one story from Dunkin Donuts and another from Krispy Kreme. I was upset the other day because I wanted a small coffee from Dunkin Donuts but the medium coffee was cheaper. I didn’t want a medium coffee, I wanted a small coffee, but I didn’t want to pay extra. I was missing the point that they were trying to give me more. Later in the week I was at Krispy Kreme. They finally had a donut I’d been looking for for years. I’d seen it online, and I’d looked for it in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. And it was here for a limited time only. But you know what? It wasn’t really that good. But the other limited edition donuts were really good. The point: as most psychologists know, we are very poor at predicting what will make us happy.
Think of all the things we pray for and don’t get. Paul prays three times for God to take away his physical affliction, so he can serve God better. But God says no all three times, finally saying, “My grace is strongest in your weakness.” This is not what Paul wants. God doesn’t give him what he asks for; he gives him more than he asks for. God is saying, “I hear you. I know what you want. But I have a better plan.”
As the author of Hebrews writes, “God is not unfair. He will not forget the work you did, the love you showed or the help you gave” (Hebrews 6:10, TEV abb.). But in a way, this Scripture is incorrect. God isn’t fair. If God were fair, we wouldn’t make it to heaven. God turns the entire concept of fairness on its head. And then he does the same with suffering.
Peter writes, “My dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful test you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12, TEV). And Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us … for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (Romans 8:18, RSV and 2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV).
When we’re in the middle of suffering, it’s hard to see grace. We get anywhere from zero to a hundred or so years on this earth, and for many good people, much or most of it is bad. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be on the other side of eternity, looking back. A hundred years in heaven, looking back on a hundred years of suffering: it’s equal. A trillion years, looking back will seem like the blink of an eye.
Life is not fair. Jesus prepares his disciples for this truth at the Last Supper: “The world will make you suffer. But take heart! Be brave! For I have defeated the world” (John 16:33b, TEV/NIV combined). Is God unfair? Yes ~ God is unfair, but when we are on God’s side, God is on our side. He doesn’t make the call that would condemn us. Instead, he overlooks our sins and invites us to heaven. For a while, this may be little consolation to the New Orleans Saints. But all this will seem like nothing one day if they are in that number when the saints go marching in.
Our nation is incredibly divided right now. We are in the midst of the longest government shutdown in history. The Coast Guard is not getting paid. Government workers are pawning their possessions, taking out mortgages, trying to feed their children. Congress seems deadlocked, neither side willing to make an attempt at real compromise.
This is only one symptom of a larger problem. Every news story seems fraught with division. The Women’s March is marred by charges of anti-Semitism. Accusations fly in DC between Catholic youth, a Native American veteran and members of a black Hebrew group. Gladys Knight takes heat from all sides for agreeing to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Who is right? Who is wrong? And whatever happened to the U in USA? Why are so many people who claim to love the United States dividing it with their words and actions?
The United Methodist Church is ensconced in a similar debate. In February, delegates will vote on gay marriage, and whatever decision they make is likely to divide the church. Many delegates to the February conference were elected because of their pre-existing beliefs, rather than on their ability to build bridges.
Who suffers when we argue? When I was younger, I would get in fights with my father at the dinner table. We were both very stubborn. But we never noticed, until it was too late, that we were making my sister cry and that she was losing her appetite. Who suffers when we argue over borders? Right now, a lot of people who can’t afford to make ends meet. Who suffers when the church argues? Those who come to church for forgiveness, grace and companionship; those who want to believe in goodness; and those outside the church, who may decide not to come in.
I recently asked a friend, “What do you think is the biggest issue facing our nation?” Her response, “We don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply.”
John Wesley, in The Character of a Methodist, writes, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. We believe God to be the eternal, supreme God; but as to all opinions which do not strike at the heart of Christianity, we think and let think.” He elaborates on this idea in a sermon, writing, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we can. Herein all the children of God may unite, not withstanding these smaller differences.”
Wesley’s writings are echoed in the words of Bob Marley, who writes, “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right; give thanks and pray to the Lord, and I will feel all right.” Who would have thought that John Wesley and Bob Marley would agree on anything?
To find the root cause of our modern divisions, and the potential cure, we turn to Scripture. In the book of Galatians, Paul writes, “What human nature does is quite clear; people divide into groups and fight.” He goes on to say that those who are ruled by human nature will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those ruled by the Spirit will be blessed ~ and that there is no law against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:19-26).
How early does the church start fighting? For the church at Corinth, it’s right away. In the first chapter of the first letter he writes to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “Some are saying, ‘I follow Apollos,’ some ‘I follow Paul,’ some ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups! He tells them, “Be united: one thought, one purpose. Don’t be like the world around you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:1-4).
To the Colossians he writes, “You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be tolerant with each other and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-15). Imagine if every day we paused before walking out the door and vowed to love, forgive and be grateful for everyone we met; and every night, before entering our homes once again, we paused again and vowed to love, forgive and be grateful for everyone inside the house. Wouldn’t we change the world?
Paul’s message is remarkably consistent across his letters. While in prison, he writes to the Ephesians, “I urge you then – I who am a prisoner because I serve the Lord: live a life that measures up to the standard God set when he called you. Be always humble, gentle and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
And what if we did this ~ we, the 90% of America that calls Christianity its faith? We would make the hope of the Christian hymn come true: “And They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Another line is particularly relevant to the conversation: “And we pray that all unity may be day be restored, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Unity comes first.
Another song that comes to mind is “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” It’s found in a famous Coke commercial, in which people are holding hands and singing on a hill. The phrase is echoed in “Let There Be Peace On Earth” (“let us walk with each other in perfect harmony”), another song shared and made famous on a hilltop.
Harmony recognizes that we are enriched by complementary differences. But as an example of how even churches can get things wrong, harmony was once banned by the church! That’s right ~ churches once wanted everyone to sound exactly the same. Fortunately that time has passed.
To my surprise, I found that even yelling can be done in harmony. My nephew had just found out that there was no ice cream, even though he had been told earlier that there was. So he was yelling, “I want ice cream!” And demonstrating my maturity level, I started yelling the same words ~ but I tried to find notes that complemented his. He stopped and looked at me like, what is going on? He realized that he had been heard and appreciated and that someone was trying to connect with him.
Our faith provides us with a way forward. Let us pray for divisions to be healed ~ divisions between black and white, male and female, Republican and Democrat, Catholic and Protestant, all religions and all humanity. May we listen not to reply, but to understand. And may our unity be restored, so that we may be more than the United Methodist Church, more than the United States of America, but united in Christ, under the one God who works through all and is in all. Amen.
The Reverend Richard Allen