Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quit Your Belly-Aching -- A Lectionary Reflection

Exodus 16:2-15

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

Quit Your Belly-Aching

            You know the type – you can never please them.  No matter what you do, they have something negative to say.  They’re a bit like Eeyore, who might say something like:
No gaiety, no song and dance, no "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush". But don't worry about me, Pooh. Go and enjoy yourself. I'll stay here and be miserable, with no presents, no cake, no candles. 
Yes, there are those among us who always seem to have a cloud hanging over them.  They fill our homes, our churches, our communities.  They might even be us!  In politics today we seem to have two major parties – the party of anger and the party of whiners.  I’ll let you, the reader, decide which is which!

            In both the passage from Exodus and from the Gospel (a parable of the workers in the vineyard) complaining and grumbling is present.  In the Philippians text, on the other hand, we hear Paul express a sense of contentment.  So the question is – how do we get from grumbling and complaining to contentment?  In my ponderings on these texts I’m going to take the trail from Exodus 16 through Matthew 20 and on to Philippians 1, so that we might go from hearing the congregation complain against Moses and Aaron through the parable of generosity that leads to grumbling and then to the contentment that Paul experiences as he considers the prospects of life and death.  In whichever situation he finds himself, Paul will find joy in his faith.
        The Exodus story is an interesting one.  They people had been enslaved, and had been crying out for deliverance, but when deliverance came they weren’t all that sure that this was the way to go.  The cure seemed to be worse than the disease.  And so they complained, it seems every step along the way.  Now they are in the wilderness and they begin to snipe against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (don’t you hear the constant sniping against Washington in the tone of this passage).  If only they would do their job correctly all our troubles would go away.  Here the complaint is that Moses had led them out into the desert where they were going to die of hunger.  At least in Egypt they could sit by the flesh pots and eat their bread.  So, if God was going to kill them, why not do it in Egypt.  It is good that God is a loving and patient God, because instead of wiping out Israel and starting over, God promises to “rain bread from heaven for you.”  And so Moses and Aaron offer instructions for the people to go out each day and gather enough of this bread from heaven so that they might eat that day.  And on the sixth day they were to gather double the amount as they were to rest the seventh day.  Not only that, but God sent quail to provide meat.  As for the complaints directed against him and his brother Aaron, the ultimate recipient is Yahweh, for are Moses and Aaron in the grand scheme of things.  Despite the whining and the sniping, the glory of the Lord appeared among the people and they were fed by the Lord – manna in the morning, quail in the evening.  Thus, the message is delivered in the midst of the abundant provision of God in the wilderness:  “you shall know I am the LORD your God” (vs. 12).  Yes, it is in the bread of heaven that the Lord has given to us to eat that the glory of the Lord is revealed (see Luke 24:28-32).  This despite their – our – constant complaining!
          Matthew 20 seems to be a text written for a day such as ours.  An employer goes to the town square every couple hours and each time finds idle workers – day laborers – who are unable to find work.  No one is willing to hire them, so they wait.  Yes, this is a text that speaks to the economic and employment crisis of our day, reminding us of the great need in our midst.  But it is also a word about generosity.  Yet, in the midst of the generosity there is grumbling, because some of those hired feel put out because they’re getting paid the same as those who work far less than they did.  There is this question of fairness, and whether that is God’s criteria.  Those workers whom the landowner hired first feel it’s unfair that they get paid the same amount as those hired at the end of the day.  They’d worked harder and longer hours in the beating sun.  If those hired at the end of the day got paid the going rate for picking grapes, then surely they should get a bonus.  And so they grumbled.  They might have reason to grumble, if this was about fairness, but that’s not the message of Matthew 20.  In fact, at a time like this, when so many are out of work and under employed, it would be nice if an employer chose to be so generous.  It would be wonderful if those with the means of employing people would go out and continue hiring people throughout the day and not worry about the cost – especially those who sit on millions of dollars sitting idle.  It would be wonderful.  There are so many wanting jobs, but the odds are against them.  Many will do whatever they can to get a job, even taking jobs that are not on the same level as the ones they once had, and so former white collar workers, managers with six figure incomes, find themselves wishing they could get a job at Wal-Mart stocking shelves.  The system conspired then and tends to conspire now against them/us.
           The kingdom of Heaven (God) is like the landowner who went out to hire laborers, and continued to hire them throughout the day.  It appears that the landowner does this not because the ones hired first needed more help, but rather because they needed the work.  We might say that the landowner is working from the basis of grace, bringing in people because they were in need, not because of a need for more workers.  And it didn’t matter – doesn’t matter – when you start.  There’s no special prize for being the first in line.  It really doesn’t matter if your name is written on the cradle roll or that you have three sets of perfect attendance pins on your jacket, each extending to your knees.  Yes, the landowner is gracious and generous, and that is the way of the kingdom.  So don’t complain, but instead rejoice in the blessings that God has bestowed.   God is a God of abundance who pours out upon us the fruit of generosity.  And in the kingdom the first shall be last, and the last first.  God simply is in the business of turning things upside down.
         In the epistle to the Philippians, Paul offers the contrast – the word of contentment.  Whether in life or in death, Paul seeks to exalt Christ.  It is his reason for living or dying – it really doesn’t matter.  He has a calling and a vision that pushes him to serve the needs of the other.  To live is Christ, and to die is gain.  Paul believes that death would usher him into the presence of Christ, and thus the greatest of joy.  But he is content to remain living – not because he hasn’t checked off every item on his bucket list, but because he is concerned about the Philippian Christians.  Because it is necessary, for their welfare, he will remain alive, and will continue with them in spirit and find joy in faith.  That is his calling – to live for Christ and for those whom Christ has called.  And to them, whom he loves and is willing to live for, he calls on them to live lives that are worthy of the Gospel.  Therefore, whether with them in person or not, he will know that they are standing firm in the one Spirit, and striving side by side with one another with mind for the gospel and will not be intimidated by their opponents.  This doesn’t mean that Paul expects that they will live without pain or suffering.  This isn’t a prosperity Gospel, but it is a Gospel of divine abundance and generosity, whatever the situation one finds oneself in, so that Christ might be exalted whether in one’s life or in one’s death.    
         And such is the way of the Kingdom – it is life in the abundance that is God’s provision.  Yes, God is generous, perhaps to a fault, so that whether one is new or old in the community, one receives the same blessing of grace that is God’s presence.  So, quit your belly-aching and rejoice that God is in our midst!

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