Sermon for 16th Sunday after Pentecost - Sept 24 2017

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, A
September 24, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

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

Didn’t I tell you the Israelites would be complaining about leaving Egypt?  They recalled – with fondness – “the fleshpots of Egypt…where we ate our fill of bread….”

As if bread were all that important compared to freedom.

When you’ve never had it, freedom looks pretty scary.  I know it’s not at all the same thing, but the first time I went overseas and then returned home, I was overwhelmed by the choices I was offered … in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.

Well may you laugh – I know I did, but I still found it disconcerting, and even rather appalling, to tell the truth.  This is where we put our treasure?  In fifty different versions of breakfast cereals made of sugar and puffed wheat and additives and junk?  None of which are actually good for us?  Seriously?  Talk about flesh pots!

For us, consumer choice seems to be like some kind of fetish.   50 kinds of cereal, none of them edible.  500 TV channels, but nothing to watch.  1000 automobile models, all to do one thing – carry us and our families and our possessions from one place to another – but all of them different and unique and personal and personalized….

No, I’m not advocating that everyone should drive one kind of car or only be able to watch one or two channels on TV, or even be restricted to just five kinds of cereal.  But I do think we might, from time to time, reflect on the choices we do make – many without thinking, from force of habit or the persuasion of advertising – and ask ourselves what’s important in life?

The Israelites’ lives did not improve by being free – did you notice that?  They were stuck out in the desert with this madman and his brother, dawdling from place to place, never seeming to get anywhere, thirsty and hungry and tired and confused.  They never got to go up on the mountain and talk with God.  They never got to vote on which road to take or what direction to go.  How was this better than the life they had left? 

They were smart enough to realize it, but Moses took their opinions as disloyalty.

And how did God respond?  God fed them.  They had meat every evening and meal every morning; they ate the food of angels.  God also defended Moses and Aaron from their complaints, and took the burden of blame from them.

I’m touched by the psalm – is it simply praise, or is it more? not just praise but a reminder that in all times and all places and all situations, we still must praise; God is always worthy of praise.  Psalm 105 lists reasons for praise; it reminds of all that God has done for the God’s people.  

If you care to turn to page 738 in the BCP, you can see a long list of the acts of God to free Israel from slavery in Egypt – all the things that were wrought among the Egyptians, and God’s acts of mercy in the desert.

Freedom is hard, but it is what God desires.

But what is unique about the freedom that God desires for us?  Is it easy – I think we can see it is not.  Does it mean richness and comfort?  Not necessarily – remember that not one of the individuals who left Egypt were included in those who crossed the Jordan River; not even Moses.

The stated reason for this was the constant carping by the people, and their questioning of God’s methods and purpose, and their desire to have it easy. 

They often didn’t realize what their pilgrimage was about.  They didn’t realize they needed to let loose their ideas about being in control of their lives; they needed to let go of the idea that they could plan for tomorrow; and they needed to realize that they could trust God to look out for them, but they also needed to look out for one another, and keep covenant as beloved of God.

They were, in a sense, suffering, out there in the wilderness, never knowing what would come next, never sure there would be an end to their wandering:  tired, hungry, thirsty, scared, weary to the bone of never arriving anywhere. 

It would seem that God’s idea of freedom was not theirs.  They thought they ought to be able to choose 50 kinds of breakfast cereal; but they only had one.  They thought they ought to be able to watch 500 channels of TV, but they only had Moses.  They thought they should have nice cars, but all they had were their feet and a few donkeys.  All the same sort of donkeys, probably.  Or maybe a few camels.  No SUVs, no Teslas, just plodding along with a beast that is famously cranky and spits on people.  Great, right?

No wonder they were restive.

BUT … this time in the desert, this suffering, this solitude and weariness and unsettled life, became, in later years, their touchstone – they would tell the story over and over again every year of how God had rescued them from slavery and led them, as God had led Abram, into a new land, a land of milk and honey – and Moabites and Canaanites and Edomites … from whom they had to wrest some land to settle.

For Christians, the defining events in our common past are the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection.  Paul has no hesitation in telling the people of Philippi that suffering allies us with Christ.

But we tend to assume that all our suffering is imposed from outside – Christians are, as we all know, persecuted – although not all those who claim to be persecuted are persecuted in the same ways.  Or suffering is just part of the human condition – not confined to Christians, and not because one is Christian.  Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods – all the natural disasters can cause suffering, and injury or even death.

But we forget that some suffering is self-imposed.  Jesus chose to spend 40 days in the desert, alone and without food.  He chose to face whatever the devil might throw at him.  And he chose to go to the cross when being the Son of the Most High God would presumably give him the option of refusing that particular honor.

People fast and abstain from food for a number of reasons – political or economic or to seek spiritual awakening – even knowing that going without food could lead to their death. 

And people sometimes put themselves in harm’s way to help others.  Soldiers are one group that spring to mind, but EMTs and rescue workers and medical workers who go where epidemics rage, or those who stand against tyrants in an effort to establish justice also stand between harm and humanity.

So when Paul talks about suffering, we should not conclude that it is only because the Roman state or the Jewish authorities – or anyone today – wants to end your religion.

So when he talks about suffering, it might also refer to our human condition.  He would prefer that it end … that he could “depart and be with Christ,” but he accepts that staying alive is better for those he loves, that they benefit from his continued presence among them.

Why might that be, do you suppose?

Because despite the hard times, the suffering, the unanswerable question, we are invited to be part of the kingdom, to work in the harvest.

Were you wondering how I was going to work in the Gospel message?  Here goes – all these guys were hired, some early, some late, to work in the harvest – and then when they were paid, they all received the same pay

Do you think that was right?  Do you think that was fair

Or is it possible that the vineyard – the kingdom of heaven – is not “fair” and being fair is not the point at all?

What are we offered by God?  What is it that Jesus has secured for us?  Salvation.  Freedom.  Eternal life.  Whatever each of those means.

And that offer extends to all of us – two thousand years ago, or yesterday, or even today.  We all are given the same pay, as it were, no matter what time we show up. 

But we do have work to do, just as the laborers in the parable had work to do: and you know what that means!  Love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our might, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  And in doing so, even our suffering acquires meaning and cannot end our hope.

Chins up, kids, and hold on tight: we’re in for a wild ride!  Let’s just hope it’s not as boring as wandering around in the desert for forty years…

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