Sunday Sermon

16 Pentecost 2017

Year A; Proper 20; RCL

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

"If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger...I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God."Ex. 16 Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face. Ps. 105. "...so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel..."Phil. 1. "Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard... I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last." Mt. 20

The Collect

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

WILDERNESS WALKING

     You should have killed us in Egypt, but NO! You had to drag us out here to the middle of nowhere to starve us to death!  Did you hear a please feed us? A thank you for the rescue? This is Israel at the beginning of the Wilderness Walk. They are full of fear and anxiety.  They have no reason to expect good treatment from anyone with power over them.  Oppressors and overseers with whips were all they had ever known.  Accustomed to being treated badly and hurt carelessly, they had not the slightest idea how to respect this God who loves them enough to save them. Every time I come to the whining in the Wilderness I look back on my own whining because I know I’ve done it.  God, why did you do this to me? It’s not as selfish as it sounds. Rather than being all full of themselves, these slaves need to fill in their experience with some good things to balance all the hurt. They feel beaten down by all that’s happened and scared. Genuine respect for their Savior?  They just aren’t there yet.         

     “Well in Egypt”, the Israelites smarted off, “we may have been slaves, but at least we had enough to eat”.  I would have wanted to smack them. God must love us very much to stay in the salvation business! Slaves will turn on you. They stopped believing that anybody cares ages ago, if they ever did.  This is not the only time they stage a revolt in Exodus. Every time the going gets rough, the whiners strike up the band like locusts in my yard on a summer’s evening.  Bringing people out of slavery is hard work. These people were miserable.  They are powerless in this strange land where they don’t know how to survive, sitting on their hands, crying and complaining. They were accustomed to having someone to tell them what to do.  They are used to having someone to blame for their misery. God took them out of Egypt, but it will take forty years to work Egypt out of them as they wander the Wilderness.  40 years to become their own persons.  The Exodus story gives some perspective on salvation.  Transforming how we relate to our world, if we undertake that job, takes a lifetime.

     St. Paul in Philippians is guiding the Church through their Walk of Faith.  If the Exodus passage shows us the beginning of the Walk, then St. Paul tells the Philippians what it looks like near the end of his long journey.  He tells how he feels about living and dying.  He asks them to remember what he taught them so that word will come back to him of how well they are doing.  He described their destination for them in the opening sentences, while he is describing his readiness to live or die. I love this passage because Christ is so present for him that living and dying are equally desirable.  Just before my Dad died he told me he was satisfied with his life, giving me a very similar impression, of soul-deep peacefulness. The goodness of God is becoming more apparent to me as time goes on, so I don’t have such a hard time understanding what St. Paul was describing.

     Psalm 16 says, “My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.” When we know that God has made secure a pleasant land in our minds and in our hearts, creating great fortifications of love and affection against all the hardships of living, an infinity of love comes to dwell within us.  I can guess at its extent, reaching throughout my life to embrace me and lead me, saving me in the process. Throughout life this love pursues me, even into death to raise me to life again on the last day. There is no time when God’s love ceases its good work. It is more reliable than sunrise and sunset. When I invite that love to dwell in me day by day, it gradually encompasses a pleasant land. If I stay or if I go, I am the Lord’s. This is the end of the Faith Journey. I believe St. Paul is describing the Peace of the Lord.  I have a reason for using that closing line every week.  “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.”  Peace comes to dwell with us near the end of our long journey of Faith. Israel is marching by stages in the Wilderness from the mindset of slaves to that of free men and women ready to take up responsibility for their own lives.  Knowing the love of God, St. Paul lacks nothing and knows that he will have all he needs for all of time.  

      The Faith Walk is a journey from the anxiety of having to continually work to turn things to my own advantage.  In the walk with God we may find that love encloses a pleasant land that is all our own. That love will help me make my way so that I don’t have to be anxious about what I will eat or drink. Even Death has no sting where Jesus is all in all as in the Philippians reading. The peace of God means resting in the love that made us all.   

     Then we have this remarkable parable from Jesus.  Are you jealous because I am generous?  I have been, haven’t you?  My Sister is tall and slim, blue-eyed and blond.  She’s smart, too. The gene pool was much kinder to her.  I’m the one who was built “solid” from birth.  My legs have been “chunky” since childhood. God was generous to Marie.  Sometimes it’s good to know when you’re sincerely jealous, so that you can choose not to be.  She has turned out to be a great Sister.  

     If I work longer and harder like those who started at dawn in the parable I would expect to get better pay.  This parable is for me.  I can’t say I’ve made much progress with it, but it gives me something to think about.  I rather suspect that this parable, like the other lessons today, is about taking the Egypt out of the girl.  If we understand living and dying as St. Paul did in today’s passage, we are not anxious because we believe that God will take care of us.  In Jesus’ parable today, the landowner is taking care of all the workers equally.

     Now I want you to think about the problem that Jesus created when he included sinners in the Kingdom of God.  There was a popular community project in Jesus’ time among the Pharisees and Essenes to keep the law perfectly.  God would be so moved by this great work of piety that God would bring the Kingdom of Heaven in their time.  The gospels tell us that Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and then started inviting sinners and ne’er do wells, having dinner with them and healing them.  I have thought for decades about the coincidence of these very different, very powerful projects of the Pharisees and of Jesus in the Jewish community. The vineyard is an ancient metaphor for the community of Israel, God’s chosen people. The Kingdom is brought near through perfect goodness in the one, while in the other the proximity of God’s Kingdom makes it important to call sinners to repent. In today’s parable, the first called and those called at the end of the day receive the same reward.  This was millennia before the advent of pluralism, and syncretism was both hated and feared in the Jewish community of Jesus’ time.  The influence of the powerful Greek and Roman cultures were perceived as threats by Observant Jews.  How much more strongly would they respond to a new project accepting sinners into community with them? What would it do to the whole perfect law-keeping project? 

     St. Paul is describing the peace of the Lord which I believe is the destination of our spiritual journey.  The vineyard workers are enlisted early and late, from dawn until 5pm.  It seems more important to the vineyard owner that they went right to work in the vineyard, regardless when they were called up to do it.  Those offended by the generosity of the owner fall short of that peace that passes understanding. Pharisees were anxious and probably angry about what Jesus was doing. Why would God invest so much in sinners?  Why would God love sinners? Surely God would love the chosen more? Those who have always worked the vineyard?

       Jesus held God’s generosity up for our consideration. Why did the landowner pay all of them the same wage?  I take the vineyard owner’s generosity in this parable as a good sign.  I need it every day.  The simple image of farm laborers hired to work the harvest is easy for anyone to understand.  The generosity of God who pays everyone the same wage at the end of the day is not so easily understood.  Think of a different image.  Hurricane Harvey has moved through the countryside.  Some people stranded by the storm are rescued early, some late, but all who can be found will receive shelter from the storm and be fed.  Just as rescuers would try to save everyone as soon as possible, God would want to continue to call sinners until all were saved, rewarding all of them with the same gift.

      Maybe this parable is meant to warn them, to warn us.  Jealousy is a sure sign that “we’re not there yet” on the Faith Walk.  The vineyard owner’s generosity is only offensive if we consider the reward to be a resource in short supply.  God is not going to run out of love, out of will, out of energy. God will be saving us until the end of time.  Our jealousy is not so much wrong as wrong-headed. I believe Jesus is trying to point that out with this parable. The vineyard is an ancient metaphor for the community of Israel, God’s chosen people. Those called to work later were called by the vineyard owner, just as surely as those who were chosen first.  So long as they are doing their work, who has a right to complain? Yet we know the Pharisees and Sadducees complained loudly to Jesus.  

          The Wilderness is a place with narrow margins of safety.  There is little water, less food or shelter. It is a place where men and women must focus their intent and energy on the business of living and surviving.  Looking back with sadness and loss at what they had in Egypt, longing for it will cause them to fail.  Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for a similar offense.  So, at the beginning of the journey we have people looking back at Egypt with longing.  If they are to survive, if they are to be saved, they are going to have to look forward and learn fast, to follow the instructions for gathering the manna and the quail so that they have enough to eat.  There will be another riot at the waters of Meribah, and many will die.  The Wilderness Journey traces an erratic path from slavery and bondage to freedom.  Many die along the Way.  A few learn the ways of faithfulness, moving into the Promised Land.  

      Jesus understood the nearness of the Kingdom of God as the reason to call sinners to repentance, to save and to heal.  He did not waver from this work which put sinners to work in the vineyard with those first chosen by God.  He believed that God would reward all of us with salvation. That gift would be all we ever need.

     You may not think of salvation as a matter of life and death, but I do.  Cheats and liars meet the destiny of those who bilk others.  Those who persist in hurting one another will live with hurt in endless supply.  God’s love picks up the pieces and saves us by breaking the hold of sin over us.  We are asked to live into the peace and love that characterize the Kingdom of God.  If we do this we will live.

Sermon for 16 Pentecost 2017 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin