September 21, 2014
- Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year A
- Donna Joy
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
The God we worship has promised to be with us always; with us in good times, and in bad; promised to be present – with us and in our midst – unwaveringly. Henri Nouwen says, “God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful.” This is what we are taught as Christians; what we are expected to believe. The difficulty, I suggest, is that this doesn’t always seem to be the case. Often, it seems, it is difficult to see the face of God in the midst of the pain and suffering that so often exists in the world. How is it even possible to recognize the presence of God in the midst of wilderness times?
Well, as we search for a response to this deeply probing question it seems that we may find some clues in our readings this morning, particularly in the reading from the Book of Exodus. This reading takes place at a time when the Israelite people have been led by Moses away from slavery in Egypt and are now travelling through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. In a rather dramatic series of events – with Moses’ leadership and help – God has delivered the Israelite people out of slavery and into freedom. They have been through numerous and enormous challenges along the way, and now they are free at last. Today’s reading takes place a short time after their liberation. Now the intense drama is over, but all is not exactly as the people had expected it would be; all is not as comfortable and easy as they seem to have hoped or anticipated. They are liberated, but are now in the wilderness; they are in the midst of a desolate wasteland with nothing to eat, and seemingly no comforts for their everyday living.
So they begin to do what people tend to do when they are experiencing struggle and discomfort. They begin to grumble and complain, and of course, as is often the way with human nature, they use their leaders, Moses and Aaron as their targets. And in their complaint they also do what people often tend to do, they start to look back on the Egypt experience through rose coloured glasses. “At least in Egypt we weren’t hungry! Never mind that we were miserable, but we weren’t hungry!" And they accuse their leaders of bringing them into this wasteland in order to kill them. Through this growing sense of fear and hunger they rebel, and they are reminded that while they may think their complaints are directed toward Moses and Aaron, in fact they are directed toward God. Clearly, they do not trust that God is with them in the midst of this wilderness time.
The real truth at the root of their complaints is that they feel alone; they feel that God is in no way with them, giving them strength, or preparing to provide for them in ways that exceeded their wildest expectations. But, it turns out that that they are not as alone as they feared. They wake up one morning, stagger out of their tents, and are surprised to find a white, dew-like substance scattered all over the ground. We have this sense that it was sticky and gummy, maybe even sticking to the bottom of their feet. Clearly, they have absolutely no idea what it is. Moses explains to them what it is; that it is Manna – Bread that God has given you to eat.
This piece of the story reminds me of one of the sentences we often use for the breaking of the bread as we celebrate the Eucharist: Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in Him. And I have this sense that later in the day, in desperation, someone who was famished dared to taste it only to find that it tasted quite good, and it was able to satisfy their growing hunger. Indeed, in the midst of this sparse and terrifying wilderness experience, they were not alone; God was keeping his promise to be with them, always.
(… Just as a bit of an aside . . . it seems to me that one practical question that could easily surface - and often does - as we reflect on this passage, is if God was prepared to provide food for those Israelite people as they travelled through the wilderness, why does God not perform such a miracle for all those who live and die in hunger in our world today. And the response is that God has equipped and continues to equip the world with enough food and nourishment for the entire global community. God has created each and every person on the planet, and absolutely expects us to share generously what we have. If every person on the planet was answering God’s call to share generously, no one – no one – would ever have to go to bed hungry....)
But I digress . . .
Bottom line here - in this piece of the Exodus story - is that . . . The Israelite people, in the midst of that terrifying wilderness experience, felt that there was no hope; clearly had no expectation that God was present with them, providing for them . . . And when God did make His presence abundantly clear through providing them Manna – enough to satisfy their hunger – they didn’t know how to identify what it was.
This theme of God’s surprising and generous presence becomes more fully developed through our Gospel reading this morning as we read and reflect upon the story of a landowner. Since this morning’s sermon is not dwelling on our Gospel reading exclusively, or even primarily, I’m offering a Coles Notes reflection.
In this story the landowner hires a bunch of labourers to work in his vineyard. He hires some to start early in the morning. Others to start at about 9:00. Others to start at about noon, and at 3:00 he did the same. But at the end of the day, when they all receive their pay they discover that they’ve all received the same wage. This, as you can imagine, creates some tension among the workers. Those who began at 3:00 and received wages for a full day’s pay are ecstatic, while those who began early in the morning and received that same wage are furious and quite vocal about their anger over this seemingly unfair set of circumstances. In fact, they grumble and complain much like the Israelite people in our earlier story from Exodus.
So, what does the one story have to do with the other? Well, those of you who have heard me reflect on certain parables over the past 4 ½ years may remember that much of what I say is – at least in part – informed by the work of Robert Capon. As with various other parables, Capon makes the point that the main character (in this story, the landowner) is a Christ figure; this is, in fact, a story that portrays the character of God made known through Jesus. It is a story that speaks of a God – made visible through Jesus – who does not ‘keep score’; it is a story that speaks of a God whose love is given freely and generously to all people, no matter how long they’ve been working at it; a God who loves the prison inmate – the prostitute – the church goer – the non-church goer – all with the same generous, abundant love.
Whether you began following Jesus when you were 5, or 15, or 50, or 80…. God’s love is always generously given. This sentiment is implicit in the Iona Community invitation to Communion we often use as we invite people to Communion…. “Come to this table . . . You who have much faith and you who would like to have more . . . You who have followed Jesus and you who fear you have failed . . .” God’s generous love is given unconditionally and absolutely; unstoppingly and always.
God sent Jesus, who died so that all people may be reunited with Him. Tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Gentiles, unfaithful disciples . . . Remember that God sent Manna to the Israelite people who were behaving in a most ungrateful manner after all Moses and Aaron had done for them.
So, no matter who you are or what you’ve been up to . . . you are loved with God’s generous unconditional love. The God we worship has promised to be with us always; with us in good times, and in bad; promised to be present – with us and in our midst – unwaveringly. The God we worship has fulfilled this promise with Jesus, who has died for us, risen to new life and filled us with the gift of the Holy Spirit so that absolutely we are never left to our own devices. No matter how far we may feel we have strayed, this Holy Presence is always with us. No matter how devastating our circumstance may become, this Holy Presence is always with us.
Now, let us return to the question with which we began. How is it even possible to recognize God in our midst? The Israelite people experienced God’s Presence through an enormously generous gift and they weren’t able to recognize it for what it was. How often, do you suppose, do we feel we have been abandoned by God when in fact God is right there – and visible in tangible and generous ways?
I can tell you that I have sat at the bedside of people as they have anticipated that death is near, and at the bedside of people as they have drawn their last breath and as their loved ones suffered deeply because of this loss. I believe that – often - I have experienced the presence of God through those who came and sometimes sent messages from a distance to surround those who suffer with love and care and compassion and support; I have experienced the presence of God through prayer in the midst of such times. Although maybe not immediately seen as such, I see this as Manna in the midst of a wilderness time. I believe that – often – I have experienced the presence of God through the skillful care of the medical team providing those who were sick with the assistance they need and carefully providing their loved ones with the information and care they needed. Again, Manna in the midst of a wilderness time.
I am not naïve enough to think that the system always works as it should. But when it does, I believe that I have seen the face of God, and when it doesn’t I believe that God is calling us to provide whatever feedback is possible so that it may improve.
We may ask ourselves where is God in this post Christendom church culture, as mainline churches experience decline in ways that – to a large degree – seem surprising and devastating at the same time. (It is interesting, however, that Pierre Burton predicted this decline in the 1950’s with the publication of his book ‘The Comfortable Pew.’) I’ve witnessed much despair over the past 24 years through my work as a Parish Priest, Intentional Interim, Diocesan Archdeacon, as well as through various National Church responsibilities as well. As I have listened to numerous church discussions over the years in which membership was down and finances were depleted, the tone has often resembled that of the Israelite people in this morning’s passage from the Exodus story. There is often a sense of hopelessness and despair; a kind of forgetting that the establishment of church is part of God’s plan, and God simply will not abandon God’s people. God will always be present, maybe in ways the church isn’t expecting, in ways that the church may not even recognize – much like the Israelite people whose response to the gift of God’s presence through the gift of Manna in the wilderness was to not even know what it was.
I believe that I continue to see the presence of God made known in Jesus through a growing willingness to take matters of the faith seriously through reading, and study; through worship and various spiritual disciplines that allow people the opportunity to experience God in particular ways; through mission and outreach. I see all this as Manna in the midst of a wilderness time. I believe that I continue to see the presence of God and God’s generous love made known in Jesus here at St. Peter’s in spectacular and sometimes surprising ways. One week ago Vestry, parish staff and honorary assistants spent a whole morning working prayerfully, thoughtfully and carefully on a parish purpose statement. Prior to this meeting almost every member had taken the time to do some intentional reading to prepare for this important piece of work. They actually sacrificed some of their precious summer to prepare for this piece of work. I see the presence of God made known through Jesus in this quality of faithfulness.
In the world this past week we watched and waited as the vote in Scotland was to take place, and then we discovered that Scottish independence was not the will of the majority. We know that much pain and disillusionment has been present on both sides of this argument, and for some a sense of despair. So, in the midst of this where might the presence of God be seen? Well, I believe I saw a glimpse of the presence of God made known in Jesus as I read a message from Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who is urging the churches in both nations to play a mediation role as politicians prepare for a way forward. He is calling for a time of reconciliation and healing that might heal the open wounds that have clearly existed for a long time and have surfaced even more visibly over the past little while. I believe that through this message God is using Justin Welby to offer Manna in the midst of a wilderness time.
The God we worship has promised to be with us always; with us in good times, and in bad; promised to be present – with us and in our midst – unwaveringly. And, as Christians, we believe that this promise has been fulfilled in and through Jesus. Once again, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful or painful.”
Taste and see that the Lord is Good. Happy are they who trust in Him.