Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grumbling vs. Honest Questions

The Lord be with you / and also with you
Our God is more generous than we can ask or imagine
Come, let us worship!

Sermon for 9.18.11: “Grumbling vs. Honest Questions”
Exodus 16.2-7, 10-15, 19-21; Matthew 20.1-16

I realize that “Revised Common Lectionary” may be a strange term. It’s important because it represents a huge ecumenical effort over decades and Methodists are asked to follow it. Last week, for good reasons, I made my own choices from Scripture, but usually we are to read and preach from four passages: a psalm, the Old Testament, something from the New Testament, and then the Gospel. We can use a psalm during our opening and then follow with two or three of the others. Two passages are ok, but using three is traditional and unites us with mainline Christians, including the Roman Catholics. That doesn’t mean that everyone does this; often they don’t. But the idea is for all Christians to be united in as many ways as possible. And so, for me, the idea that on Sunday morning, we are all focusing on the same texts, praying over them, trying to understand them better is a truly holy thing. We should never discount the power of Christian unity: working together and praying together as the full body of Christ, even across denominations; honoring together the words that have been saved for us in Scripture to tease our minds into more active thought.

That being said, I read only two passages this morning, and I did play around a bit with the verses in Exodus. These two readings and the psalm--considerably shortened--are from the Revised Common Lectionary. Note the word “Revised.” Pastors, priests, and scholars struggled over the selection for years because they hoped that by following these readings in three-year cycles, the faithful would hear or read the crucial parts of the Bible. Not everyone loves their choices. Another way is to read chapter by chapter on a daily basis, and many of us do. But this lectionary attempts to showcase those parts most relevant to our growth as Christians. That means a lot of history and those “begots” can be put to one side. Sexy parts too. There has also been a heroic attempt to chose passages that go together in some way. Sometimes pastors tear out their hair; sometimes pastors try very hard to draw them all together; and sometimes we just give up.

This morning I left out the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, although it would have been fun to tie it in with the grumbling of the children of Israel wandering in the desert and the workers in Jesus’ parable. Paul is grumbling because he’s in prison and wants out so badly that he wishes that God would end his life. You can read any of the passages on your own before church since I print the readings for the following week. When I was sitting in the pews, I liked to try to guess which the Pastor would pull. This wasn’t so much an intellectual exercise; I wondered how to make a fuller picture of God’s Word.

There is a common thread in Exodus 16 and the parable from Matthew. In Exodus, the people haven’t been on their journey for very long, but they’re already complaining: Not “Are we there yet?” but “Why did we come at all?” They had been desperate to escape Egypt, and for good reasons. Now a very small part of their life in Egypt becomes what they long for most: the familiar taste of bread. This is so human and so true to life.

The people make life a nightmare for Moses and Aaron. But God hears anyway. "They want bread," says God, "I’ll give them bread." And it was wonderful bread: with the taste of coriander and honey. HOWEVER: God’s ground rules are different. If they tried to hoard this bread, it became unfit for consumption: full of worms. Could it sound like "Give us this day, the bread that we need for this day—that we actually require"? God’s blessings, like manna, cannot be hoarded. God’s blessings, like manna, are fresh every day.

The complaints in Jesus’ parable are different: There everyone gets paid the same wages for the day, even those who had been hired for just a few hours. It’s tempting to side with the workers who’d gotten out early and sweated through the entire day. Their question is an honest one: We ask God such questions all the time: Is this fair? I don’t understand, God. Why? And especially, Why me?

But this is not a story about labor relations or even about God as a rigid parent/boss who requires that we follow the rules, whether we like them or not. Don’t forget the opening. This is a parable that describes the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who….” And then it explains how things work in this kingdom that we pray will come to us on earth and that we will find in heaven. A kingdom that we pray will come, even though we can only dimly grasp what that means in moments of grace, in those moments in which we transcend out usual selves. God answers the workers questions. The first may seem authoritarian: “Can’t I do what I want with what belongs to me?” But listen to the second: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

The message here is about a world, here and hereafter, that is not run by clocks or payscales. That is not run the way we usually think things should be run. It is not about the way we compare ourselves to others. It is a way of showing God’s generosity. The kingdom of heaven is conceived and implemented by a generosity that our conditioning makes hard to accept. Too bad this isn’t a sermon on stewardship; the message applies. It is a message that shines upon those who in so many ways work hard for the good of this church, even those who come to help at the last minute or who hope that whatever their honest contribution, it may be of some use. It is a message that shines upon those who seek to learn how to be emergency responders for a crisis the likes of which our region has not experienced in some time.

The kingdom of heaven comes a little closer as we stretch towards generosity of spirit through time, money, and whatever talents God has graced us with. Remember the father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father is willing to wait until his son is on the road home and then welcomes him with the fullness of love. Even if we show up later than others, God longs for our hearts to be moved in this way. And God can be patient. As for those who were First Responders for the Kingdom, that’s cool too. God pays them in full. As the father says to the son who has labored at home all those years, “I am always with you and all that I have is yours.”

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, thank you for your overwhelming generosity to us. Give us the grace to trust it, even when to us it seems slow in coming. Help us to be more generous to those whom you have given us to know. Help us to be more generous in the way we see others. Help us to be more generous in the time that we spend with you. Help us to be more generous in judging ourselves, for we are your laborers, valued and provided for by you, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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