Manna September 18. 2011
First Reading: Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm: Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Who are we? What is it that defines us a nation? What is it that defines us as a community? What is it that defines us as a church? What is it that defines us as families and friends? We are told, especially here in this cosmopolitan city, that whom we are is defined by the things we have and the size of the audience we can attract. We are taught to flit around like moths going from one glittery signpost to another finding the next best thing in our search of the brightest star in the sky. We avoid misery and hardship as if they were blights on our character. We live in a society of self-comfort. Everywhere we turn we are offered any number of new gadgets to make our lives easier and more comfortable. When the speakers of our elaborate entertainment systems aren't filled with the entertainment of our generations, endless voices try and convince us of a "once in a life time sale," "a new and improved" this or that, "which we can't live without." Walk down the bath aisle of any store and you will find row upon row of chemicals to increase our comfort as we soak in one of the tinier rooms of our living spaces. Somewhere it has entered the American psyche that self-gratification is the highest goal to be obtained and it is honorable to obtain it at whatever cost. Suffering is seen as a burden only carried by those that don't try hard enough or are lazy. You see tons of new-age self-help books nowadays, and even sometimes preachers, preaching a gospel of prosperity saying, "if you aren't prosperous, healthy and comfortable you are doing something wrong."
Fortunately for all of us life is a lot messier and complex than simplistic proclamations of American prosperity. "Why God won't you rid me of this disease?" "Why God won't you produce food for my family to eat?" "Why God won't you cure me from this addiction?" "Why God did you let that woman beat me and break my back and put me in the hospital?" These questions and many, many more much like them were asked of me every week while I was serving as chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Things only got worse as I finished my chaplain's education. The economy visibly tanked, millions have lost their jobs and livelihood, families are choosing between feeding themselves and healing themselves because they can't afford to do both. The list could go on and does as each one of us has our own personal storms that we are dealing with every day whether it is physical, mental or spiritual. What defines us as a community?
Denial, despair or even guilt are most often the ways we as individuals and as communities react to suffering and hardships. It doesn't fit into our elaborate theologies of comfort and ease. Our Exodus reading today paints a surprising similar picture of a people wandering in hardship and despair seeking a promised land. Just one chapter earlier they are celebrating their dramatic escape from bondage in Egypt and now they are pining for the better days they had in slavery. They have no food and are understandably hungry and worried about their future.
The elders of the people take their concerns to Moses and in turn Moses speaks with God. Now, one needs to be very careful when navigating God's response to the people's complaints. If we choose the easy path our interpretation will be like seed on a rocky path: quick to sprout but lacking root. We could easily say that God, because of the people's faithfulness, provided for them a bountiful harvest and comfort. If we did, we would fall into the trap of the gospel of prosperity our western culture is all too willing to accept. If that were true then the people wouldn't have wandered for another 40 years in the desert having their story of struggle, pain and redemption take up the next 3 books of the bible. No, God's response was not some miraculous bounty appearing out of thin air but rather God points the people to a naturally occurring phenomenon that still occurs today. God shows the people the migration path of quail and the production of manna. The people aren't living in luxury; they are barely surviving by eating what they brought from Egypt and having it supplemented by quail and the excrement of insects covering the plants. What defines them as a community?
The story here is not "be faithful and live in ease," the story is about a community struggling to survive after a long captivity seeking the place where God would have them go. The story is how this enslaved people became a nation that brought blessing into the world despite their struggles. The story is that the community trusted God to show them the way out of suffering and that they would have to do the hard work to get themselves out of it and follow God's path for them. God did not carry God's people out of the desert the people had to walk and they walked for 40 years. What defines them as a community is that they trust that God has a plan for them and that they are willing to work out that plan with God even in the midst of suffering.
This is the labor that Paul talks about in our Epistle reading today from Philippians. When Paul was writing this letter, he was sitting in a jail cell waiting for his trial and execution. We would expect Paul to feel helpless, caged; at the mercy of a capricious and corrupt empire, yet he writes with an extraordinary sense of freedom. Paul trusts that God has a plan and that no matter what the outcome of his imprisonment that plan will be fulfilled. Paul doesn't deny his suffering but rather lives out his faith through his suffering knowing that he will be able to continue his work whether he continues to suffer or is freed from prison.
Paul's defining aspect is his perseverance and faithfulness no matter if the situation is filled with joy or suffering and death. There is no difference between the two because either way he will work towards glorifying God in any way that he can. This may not seem like a fair and just situation but that is just the point of all of our readings today. Our notions of fairness are tainted by our own desire for selfish gratification and the truth is is that life is sometimes a struggle and it is how we respond to that struggle that has the potential to fill the world with blessings.
Jesus paints for us the model we are to emulate so that we can fill the world with blessing. In the parable today Jesus compares God to a landowner that gives generously to his hired hands. Each worker does a varied amount of work but the outcome is the same and all are paid the same wage. God does not look at how long or the quality of their work but just that they have done work. It may seem unfair to us that God has implemented a system that does not reward people based on their merit but what a joy that God hasn't. Our lives are not defined as our society has taught us by the things we have or the celebrities we hang around with or even the size of a congregation. Our community is not defined by how well we keep ourselves safe from suffering.