Sunday, September 24, 2017

Phil Kniss: Beyond bellyachin’

What’s right and what’s fair
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

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Today’s scripture readings trouble me.
They make me second guess my decision
to preach from the lectionary schedule this fall.

As a matter of fact,
I looked back over all the sermons I preached
since coming to Park View,
and I have not preached any, from either one of these two texts.
None. In 21 years.
Not one sermon on these two well-known stories
that I learned in Sunday School when I was a kid—
and that we continue to tell our children.

One is the story of the Israelites complaining to God in the wilderness,
and God providing manna and quail from heaven, to feed them.
The other is Jesus’ famous parable about laborers in the vineyard,
who all got the same pay,
even those who started work near the end of the day.

I’m sure there must be a rational explanation
why I haven’t preached from these texts.
Probably, because they only show up in the lectionary in September,
a time of year that we’re usually off lectionary
and doing some thematic series.

Yeah, that’s it—I haven’t preached from them,
because I haven’t had many opportunities.

But probably a more honest answer,
is that I don’t much like these stories.
They annoy me.

And I think I was pretty young,
when they first started annoying me, or at least puzzling me.

You don’t need a lot of life experience
to see the problem in these stories.
Any young person old enough to appreciate logic,
would see the troubling puzzle in this story from Exodus.

The people of Israel, many thousands of them,
making their way in the desert,
need a reliable source of food and water.
They can’t live without it.
Understandably, they let God know about their situation.
And yes, they get a little whiny.
They do some bellyachin’, you might say.
They remind themselves that back in Egypt,
even though they were slaves,
they also had a pot of beef stew simmering nearby.
In the words of Exodus 16:3,
“we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.”

So the Lord sends them manna from the sky.
In this act of God,
we get the distinct impression that God relented,
and capitulated to their demands,
only because they complained.

Some problems of logic come to mind right away.
If you are in the desert
you are in constant need of food and water.
Without them, you will die.
So if you are in that situation,
and responsible for children and babies and animals in your care,
and you have neither food nor water,
it’s not too big a surprise, is it,
that someone remembered the fact,
and mentioned it out loud,
that a few weeks ago,
they were lounging in the evening
beside steaming pots of beef stew,
and had plenty of bread to dip in it,
and water to wash it down.
Is that not a normal human response?
Would not an all-knowing and compassionate God
be anticipating exactly that response,
and exhibit some empathy for their perspective?

Now you might argue that God did, in fact,
respond with compassion,
and provide the manna for food.
There is no explicit mention of God’s anger here in this text.

No, we aren’t told God is angry right here in this chapter.
But there is a lot of implied impatience,
both on the part of Moses and of God,
impatience toward the people and their grumbling.
In the version of this story in the book of Numbers, chapter 11,
after some complaining by the people,
fire fell from heaven on some of them,
and they were consumed.
And a few verses later, a group referred to as a “rabble”
started complaining about having no meat,
since for months their only food was a white powdery bread.
So the quail were sent, not as a compassionate gift—
as you might think if you only read Exodus—
but, sent by God in an act of sheer desperation,
to quite a noisy and ungrateful people.

So, taken as a whole,
these texts that tell of a people who complain
because they lack the very basic necessities of life,
and God semi-reluctantly, if not angrily,
caves in to their demands and gives them what they need.

You can see the problem.
What if the people did not mention their dire straights?
How long would God have let them wait patiently in the desert,
dying for lack of food and water,
before providing some relief?
If God could have rained down manna at any time,
why didn’t God take the initiative to provide,
before their situation got so desperate?
And why would God be so angry at a legitimate complaint?

These are things I didn’t understand as a Sunday school child in Florida,
and I still don’t understand as a senior pastor in Park View.
Hence . . . my first sermon on this text.

But let me leave that story for a moment,
and go to the troubling parable of Jesus.

I think everyone feels, on a gut level,
the disturbing message of this parable.

If you worked hard from sun-up to sun-down,
for standard wages,
and find out at the end of the day,
that those who arrived at noon,
and those who arrived an hour before quitting time,
avoiding the heat of the day altogether,
got paid exactly the same as you did,
and every other worker who worked all day,
wouldn’t you cry foul?

Such a situation is by definition unfair, and unjust.
Justice requires a basic fairness, a reasonable equity.
Less pay for the same work,
or more work for the same pay,
has started labor movements,
and industry strikes,
and motivated the whole civil rights movement.
Lack of basic fairness equals injustice,
and demands response.

So this parable is profoundly disturbing,
especially to those of us who have put in the time.
And we are even disturbed on behalf of the oppressed,
those who work longer and harder,
but don’t get any more pay for their labors.
We are disturbed that such a thing could happen,
and we are even more disturbed
that Jesus’ point in the story seems to be,
“Hey, put up with it!”
I have the right to pay whatever I choose.
If you agreed to the terms at the beginning,
you can’t complain.

The way we have learned to soften this disturbing message,
is to spiritualize it,
to make it not about any actual injustice.
So I get the spiritualized message.
I can see myself as one who arrived at daybreak, spiritually,
and worked all day long.
I’m the born and bred Christian,
the good Mennonite Christian,
who was raised to work hard for the Lord, live a good life.
I’m the good worker.
I’ve put in the time.
So I understand Jesus’ point, and I’m okay with it.
I’m not supposed to begrudge God’s love and grace,
given to those who joined late in the game,
those who may even have spent years living the high life,
and sobered up only recently,
who don’t have my middle-class faith-oriented upbringing.
I realize God loves them, just as much as me.
I get it.
I can even muster up some joy
at God’s good favor shown to people less deserving than I.

But maybe this puzzle is not to be so quickly solved.
Maybe it’s about real-life injustice,
and not just about spiritual heritage.
And maybe, just maybe,
I’m not the one who started early in the day.

Maybe I’m the latecomer,
who is enjoying a wage greater than I deserve.
Maybe my wealth, influence, and privilege
came to me on the backs of those who arrived before me.
Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t have to work as long and hard,
because others have done the grunt work,
and I reap the benefits.

Now this parable is getting a bit close for comfort.

This angle on the parable was suggested by a pastor friend last week,
during our ecumenical lectionary Bible study.
It rang true to me.

Maybe this parable even has something to do with the price of bananas.
Underpaid Central American laborers work in the heat of the day,
cultivating, fertilizing, fighting pests, picking, packing, shipping.
After the middlemen get their cut,
and the fruit ships to Costco and Wal-Mart and the like,
I can buy bananas for 59 cents a pound.

Or . . . what about technology that keeps getting more sophisticated,
and keeps getting cheaper.
Do we ever think about who mines the minerals overseas
that make up these devices,
and what their wages, and living conditions, and health are like?

Or think about the economic and cultural and moral residue,
that still remains today,
from enslaving millions of African men, women, and children.
The generational wounds hurt everyone.
But African-Americans still pay a higher price,
than the white majority does.

And think about all the work still being done on the cheap
in our own community . . . today,
by the immigrant labor force,
in our poultry plants and apple orchards.
It happens all over the country.
  It benefits those of us who like cheap fruits and vegetables.

I’ve seen the impact of white privilege up close.
In college, I worked summers at a Florida tomato packing plant,
inside, on the maintenance crew, for decent wages.
I practiced my limited Spanish with some Mexican migrant workers
who worked the fields, or the packing line.
Even superficial conversation with them about their daily lives,
and living conditions,
made it impossible not to notice my privilege,
as a 20-year-old white college guy
who was friends with the boss’ son.

If I read Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard,
through the eyes of migrant tomato pickers in Florida,
it’s pretty clear which characters in the story
look more like the migrants,
and which look more like me.

So if I give the parable this kind of reading,
how am I supposed to respond to it?

Should I thank God for the grace God has shown me,
by blessing me so abundantly,
even though I arrived late in the day?
Or might I notice the injustice, and be humbled by it,
see all that I have as undeserved gift,
and be recklessly generous with all that I have?

Have you ever wondered how the 4:30 p.m. arrivals felt,
when the paychecks were handed out,
and they got a full day’s wage?
Do you think they jumped up and down,
waving their checks in the faces of the 8-o’clockers?
I don’t think so.
They probably snuck away quietly with their heads down.
I expect their response was more shame, than gratitude.

In fact, this kind of humility in response to undeserved pay,
might give us a window into how to understand
both these troublesome stories.

These stories are really not primarily about fairness, per se.
When we hear the stories,
that’s where we go right away,
because we pay a lot of attention to fairness.

No, I think both stories are about God’s extravagant mercy,
that is never deserved by the recipient,
is always a gift,
and its worth is not measured by laws of mathematics.

Fairness is an abstract principle—that of equality.
God’s justice operates in a different realm altogether.
Sometimes, in this life, the first really is last, and the last first.
God is present in times of plenty and in times of want.
God is offering us all a beautiful gift—it’s called “enough”—
and it’s available to any who recognize it as gift,
and open themselves to the joy in receiving it.

It’s not about how much we get,
it’s about how we orient ourselves toward what we have.
The failing of the Israelites in the desert, in Exodus 16,
was not that they worried about dying of thirst and starvation,
It was not the bellyachin’ itself.
Their sin was beyond bellyachin’.
They got caught up in the comparison game.
They gave in to anxiety.
They obsessed on, “We are worse off than them.
And it’s not fair.”
They looked around and saw only scarcity,
They were not able to see as gift,
what they had already received from God.

In fact, in this gift of manna, was embedded a second gift
that many of them failed to recognize.
It’s found in verse 4 and 5.
It was the gift of Sabbath.
It was the gift of enough.

Here’s what it says,
“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,
and each day the people shall go out and gather
enough for that day.
In that way I will test them,
whether they will follow my instruction or not.
On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in,
it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

In the later part of the chapter, which we didn’t read,
it tells what happened to those who failed to see the gift.
Every day what they would gather, whether little or much,
always turned out to be enough for that day.
If they didn’t quite trust it would happen again the next morning,
and put some away overnight to eat for breakfast,
it would be crawling with maggots when they got up.
And on the sixth day, the day before Sabbath,
they were permitted to gather two days’ worth.
Those who trusted in the gift of Sabbath rest,
saved half for the next day, and it was still good.
Those who couldn’t see the gift of grace,
and operated on the assumption of scarcity,
went out on the Sabbath Day to get some more,
and there was nothing there.

When understood rightly, both these stories—Exodus and Matthew—
remind us that real joy comes from seeing all the good we have
as a gift from God’s hands, undeserved and unearned.
Joy comes from the risk of not stockpiling treasure for ourselves,
but sharing freely with others.
Joy comes from watching God give good and generous gifts to others,
without rising jealousy or resentment.

We live in a culture that has buys fully into the myth of scarcity.
That there is not enough to go around,
so get all you can for yourself, and hold on tight—
be that wealth, or possessions,
or power, or security,
or religious orthodoxy,
or even . . . love and friendship.
Gathering and clinging is what we are socialized to do.

These stories turn all that upside-down.
As the prayer of St. Francis puts it,
it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

One way to rediscover the joy God desires us to know in life,
is to approach God in humble confession.
Let’s do that now...
one God of perfect justice, God who sees rightly,all Forgive our narrow minds and short When we are blinded by privilege,all Forgive us, When we are controlled by self-interest,all Forgive us, When we burn with resentment or jealousy if we don’t receive our due,all Forgive us, God of justice, continue your work of making things right in this worldall Give us the courage to join you in your work. Help us embrace the wideness of your mercy. Amen.

(HWB 145  There’s a wideness in God’s mercy)

—Phil Kniss, September 24, 2017

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