The world seems like a very fragile, fractious, and uncertain place these days – socially, politically, environmentally, economically for some, in the Church, and in lots of other ways, as well. And this uncertainty causes many people to feel fearful and uneasy. And even changes that come that are welcomed or bring about good developments, don’t always feel so good, because change and difference can be hard.
That’s right where the Israelites find themselves this morning, as we have been proceeding through hearing part of the Exodus story. They had gained their freedom from oppression and slavery in Egypt, as Moses led them – on God’s orders – through the Red Sea and out into the wilderness, where God’s presence led them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night. Now, however, they are grumbling and complaining about the conditions of their freedom. They are remembering that back in Egypt, even though they had to work hard and were enslaved, they had plenty to eat. Here in the wilderness they were not sure what they would eat – even though God had already provided water for them when they most needed it.
So what did they do? They grumbled, and complained. They went to Moses and Aaron and accused them of leading the Israelites to their death by starvation. They should have stayed in Egypt. They wanted to reverse course and retreat. Their anger was focused on their leaders, but really, they were complaining against God.
So God said to them, in effect, is it not enough that I brought you out of oppression and slavery Have you not learned to trust me yet? OK, I’ll make sure you have enough to eat, but it will not be by your own efforts. It will be a gift, not what you are used to, but it will sustain you, and it will be enough: bread in the morning, and the meat of quails in the evening. And it will be from me, the Lord, you need to understand that.
Fast forward twelve hundred years or so, and we hear more grumbling. Peter has whined a little to Jesus about the fact that the disciples have left everything and followed him; what are they going to receive for their sacrifices? Jesus mentions an abundant spiritual reward, a quality of life that will shine with God’s glory and see God’s purposes come to fruition. But he also says that some of the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, meaning that the thigs of God will not be ordered or arranged the way Peter expects them to be. Jesus then tells the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard – a riff on what he has just said to Peter.
He says that the Kingdom of Heaven (another expression for the Kingdom of God or Realm of God) is like a landowner hiring laborers to work in his vineyard. He hires different people throughout the day from the public place where the day-laborers gather. By the end of the day, everyone is working. But there’s a catch; when the wages are paid out, the landowner doesn’t do what is the normal practice or even what seems fair – at least according to the laborers who were hired first and worked the longest. Because all the laborers were paid the same wage no matter how much time they put in, the first workers feel cheated, short-changed, their efforts de-valued in favor of the late-comers. They were grumbling and complaining.
The story plays right into our notions of fairness, rather than equity. Fairness, broadly speaking, is when everyone gets the same payment, help, or attention. Equity is when everyone gets what they need to be able to participate on the same level. As with most parables, there are many layers of meaning, many resonances here, and we can’t always apply direct correlations from the parable to a single point, as one can in an allegory.
However, Jesus says this story describes what the Kingdom of heaven is like – the realm of God’s activity: in both the physical and the immaterial, in the here and now and in the hereafter. We often find ourselves in God’s new reality grumbling and complaining when God does not act according to our human ideas of fairness, reward, or quid pro quo. The Kingdom of Heaven always surprises us; it often brings us up short because our human judgment or vision or ego (including our human tendency to stay stuck in our sin) blocks our ability to see God’s abundance and generosity as a gift to us and to everyone else – not a reward for hard work or good behavior. And when we are fearful, and stressed-out, and uncertainty, it’s even harder to stay in that place of openness, willing acceptance, a peaceable heart, and generosity that faith in Christ calls us to be rooted in.
Even if we have been at this endeavor of following Jesus - of being a student in the school of discipleship - for a long time, when our personal circumstances change for the worse, and when the world around us seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, no matter how long we have been a Christian, we will want to retreat. We will want to go back to Egypt – like the Israelites – or at least to put on our pjs, and wrap ourselves up in a proverbial security blanket. Unfortunately, if we do that our security blanket can become a hard, defensive shell – not only protecting us, but keeping others out and maybe even growing sharp exterior barbs like a porcupine, and we can become disconnected from others.
Christian faith is not easy. God doesn’t promise that we will always be safe, or healthy, or financially well-off, or even happy all the time. But God does promise that his abundance will be enough for us in a variety of ways, that life will be filled with God’s purpose and meaning, and that we will know joy and the glory of the Lord. But we will not find that if we grumble and complain in this new and unfamiliar territory and yearn to go back to whatever Egypt was for us.
The Kingdom of God is here in our midst, and Jesus bids us to keep moving into “places of unlikeness” that we have never seen or experienced before. Let us walk with faith and joy into the unknown, with the fire of the Holy Spirit out ahead of us.
Let us pray.
The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand; and fillest all things living with plenteousness. And may we receive a fresh dose of thy mercy and abundance, new every morning. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017