Food for the Journey
I almost titled this sermon, “Stop Your Whining,” because both of our texts for today involve people who think that what they’re experiencing is so much less than what they deserve. What kind of God leads them to a supposed freedom that turns out to be a desert where they’re hungry and thirsty all the time? How can it be okay that a landowner pays the same daily wage to a guy who starts working at 9 a.m. and a guy who starts working at 4 p.m.? Where is fairness here? The world is unfair, so we turn to God for some sort of cosmic justice that must be bigger than the failed moral compass of our peers. If we can’t find fairness in this world, then our vindication has to be in the next. But wait – if eternity is God’s realm, but God is also creator of thisworld, how can I know that God won’t be soft on bad people in heaven as on earth?
Happily for you, my pastoral sensibilities kicked in, and this sermon will not be on “Stop Your Whining.” First of all, life is truly hard, and some here are enduring such great challenges with no whining that such a title would be obscene! And secondly, while human whining happens (and happens a lot) it’s really not the bigger point of either of our texts. The point isn’t our human behavior, even our bad behavior; the point is the generosity of God.
“What generosity?” the Israelites might say. “I went from all the food and water I needed to crawling across a dangerous desert with my belly aching for sustenance and my dry mouth craving any fluid. I shouldthank God for this?” Last week, I noted that the road to freedom is often very challenging. The addict who gives up her substance longs for the time only weeks ago when her pain was eased by a drink or a smoke, or so she thought. How much harder it is now just to get through every day? This is me healing, getting my life together? Freedom from a violent spouse means living in a shelter with the kids and losing, at least for now, all that I’ve built, the security I want for us, normalcy for the kids, knowing where we’ll live and how we’ll eat? This is all the generosity of God? The Israelites aren’t buying it either.
It is easy, even when we are on the road we know is right, to succumb to an idealized vision of the life we are leaving. The Israelites do it; they throw themselves a massive pity party. They say, on the freedom road, “I sure do miss the stew and baguettes of Egypt.” They say, “Death or slavery would be better than this!” That’s nottrue, and they know it, but they, and we, become drama kings and drama queens. Unhappy with where we are now, we make our past enslavement into a not-so-bad time. At a campus conference this past weekend, sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, I heard a young Baptist minister refer to “the Pharaoh that can get stuck inside us.” The Pharaoh that can get stuck inside us. Yes, he can! The terms of our past enslavement can get such a hold in us that they keep us captive – to old beliefs, practices, creative comforts: stew and bread. When Pharaoh gets stuck inside us, we reenact our own hurts on other people, and/or on ourselves. The Israelites thought in their moments of worry that their previous enslavement had to be a better deal. When Pharaoh gets stuck inside us, we struggle to trust that God is working. We think, “Really, this desert is where God means me to be right now?” We are certain that we don’t deserve the desert, so God must not be at work. Whenever we find ourselves comparing our sense of comfort and worthiness with God’s acts of redemption, let’s step away from the question! So often, the road to freedom is challenging not because God is unavailable or only mildly interested but because our own actions, or those of others, set us back so deeply. And Pharaohdoes get stuck inside of us. He hisses to us to come back to slavery, or to make sure others go there, lest we return ourselves. It’s always in our own best interest, says Pharaoh.
Yes, the food was copious back when the Israelites were in Egypt, the food was constant when they were slaves, but they were slaves. The food that now is discovered by them at first light each morning seems so vulnerable, so weird, so miraculous. Can they count on it?
The Pharaoh inside them says no – says we had it great as slaves, if you think about it – stew and fresh hot loaves of bread. Yum. What a challenge it is in any situation to step out boldly into our freedom, having to trust God at every turn, having to understand setbacks and disappointments as just the necessary road to redemption. The order that comes to our lives from chaos may be decades in the making. It is not cheaper or smaller, only later in the delivery. And God is always at work.
God is at work in the hiring, for the same wage, some workers who started at dawn and those who started at the end of the afternoon. Why wouldn’t an employer want to hire good people whenever they show up? Good labor is good labor. Why wouldn’t God invite everyone to join the gospel procession, whether they caught the fire at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry or decades after Christ had been executed? A life of faith and meaning versus a life of wasted time – of course, God welcomes all persons to the former just as soon as they are ready to make the commitment. The flipside of God’s marvelous generosity is our human stinginess – God can’t wait to welcome the latecomer. We can’t wait to tell them that they didn’t share our values early enough in the game to be considered part of our community.
Where is God’s generosity in our lives? Maybe we’re in a desert and we know we are lucky to be there, because it really is better than the morass we used to live in. Maybe the desert is very hard, but it is better than our former servitude. Maybe the desert is very hard, and we aren’t yet articulating why we feel glad that we should be there. Where is God’s generosity in our lives?
For the Israelites, God’s gift was freedom – how about that! With it came fresh food, water, deliverance, protection, guidance, and the promise of a home in which they would be servants to no one. From slavery to all of this – generosity! To the workers of Matthew’s parable, there was waiting around a few pre-dawn hours before getting work, there was waiting around for a number of hours before getting mid-day work, and there was waiting around all day for late-day work – every worker knew that he or she was blessed to get a penny, yet the early workers felt jilted in getting the same pennies as the late workers. Jesus asks us all why we should feel jilted when any other person receives what we want for ourselves. If we want it for ourselves, it must be fair (for we are fair). If we deserve it, others deserve it. He turns our ideas of deserving on their heads: the claims we make for ourselves, we must - as Christians - make for other people. Oh! That’s not what we’d intended. If we are to be fair, the claims we make for ourselves must be claims we make for other people. If we are to hold God to standards of fairness, we need to practice them ourselves. Since we are equals in human value, we should want for other people what we want for ourselves. And we should work for it. If wewere the late-employed, we’d be grateful for a full-day’s wage, since we sat around a full day waiting for a chance to work. Since we love the families for whom we earn a wage. Since we’d have been working all this time if we could not have.
Which is to say, if we are to accept God’s gracious generosity to us, we must practice that generosity with others. How can we accept a gift we would never ourselves give to others? If we are able to receive generosity, we must give it out as well. Where is God’s generosity in our lives? Is it food, water, deliverance, protection, guidance, kindness? Is it a day’s wage for daily bread? How do we not whine about what we want for ourselves, but think we lack, but rather thank God that we are on the road to deliverance while in happy possession of all that we really need? Where is God’s generosity in our lives? Is it in the friends and family that ground us, the dreams that sustain us, the material well-being that keeps us sheltered and fed? Is it in the holy visions for justice that shape our days and all our ways? Is it the simple, revolutionary reminder that “One day, God will be all in all?”
Where is God’s generosity in our lives? Even – or especially – if our lives are not everything we had hoped for them now? How are we on a road to holy freedom that may be very hard, or that we never asked for, but is the only way to wholeness? Pharaoh can get stuck within us. How do we shake him off and keep moving forward, even through grief, disappointment, loss, betrayal?
We can look at all the things that come our way and we can see unfairness, challenge, curse, or we can see what happens to us as blessing – food for the journey. When we really need it, God answers our complaints with superabundant grace – meat and bread spread across the ground, just like all the things we miss from slavery. We could subsist on other things, but God knows that the road to freedom is hard. God heard our cry, and gave in to our wailing. We can look at the things that happen to us and see unfairness and hideous challenge, or we could see food for the journey. “What’s that flaky stuff I see when I wake up?” It’s an ecological nuisance or God’s answer to your prayer. Where is God answering your prayers?
Food for the journey. It lands on the ground all around us, a divine gift. In these days, I am talking with a family who is losing a member to illness. They are heartbroken, but they focus on their loved one’s faith, strength of will, and character, and they hold fast to his belief and theirs that when he dies, his suffering will be over and he will flourish in the life beyond life. They have moved beyond this death as an abominable unfairness, which in human terms it is, while they hold fast to the promise of God’s generosity in the fact of our salvation.
Our texts for today call us to let go of all that keeps us from being grateful. We can long for the guaranteed tasty treats that secured our former servitude, or we can struggle to walk the path that God has laid out for us toward our very salvation. The choice is a no-brainer, but the implementation is so hard.
www.workingpreacher.org , 9/21/14, Commentary on Exodus 16:2-5, Callie Plunket-Brown; Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16, Emerson Powery.