Weekly Preaching: September 24, 2017

September 18th, 2017

Typically I pick one text from the lectionary options, and then occasionally I will allude to another text for the day. But sometimes the pairing of two texts can stagger me with the way they illuminate one another. Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 do just this. They feel different: one is a legendary kind of moment in historical time, while the other is a made-up story that no one would conceive as a real happening (although we’ll ponder this later on).  Both are about food production, one miraculous (sort of) and one by the labor of hired hands.  

And both are, at the end of the day, about what it means to have “enough.” If I titled my sermons, this one might be called “Enough”; I’m straying already in my mind to Flannery O’Connor. Once, after blurting out to a friend, who spoke warmly of communion as symbolic, Flannery said “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it” — but then added more graciously and theologically, “It is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” That is, the Eucharist is enough.
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Exodus 16 answers the question posed by Psalm 78:19: “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” Maybe the harder question is, "Can this freed people stay free?" Photos of the Sinai can give you the feel of the region. Not making a beeline for the Promised Land, but detouring far to the south through daunting terrain, the people had to wonder Are we being led? Or are we merely wandering? If they sang “I am bound for the promised land,” it wouldn’t have been bouncy and enthusiastic the way we sing it, but more of a dirge.
With what will become monotonous whining, the people murmured — and God answered their murmuring, not with a curse or thunderclaps from heaven, but with bread. This is sheer, unadulterated grace: God replies with mercy, not to prayerful repentance, but to doubt-riddled whining. God gave them Manna, a wonderful word whose Semitic origin means “What is it?” Well, if heaven isn’t really up, this bread that came down... what was it? 
Josephus the historian described the Sinai’s honey like deposits of the tamarisk (packaged and sold as souvenirs today!); insects suck off shrub’s sap and deposit the surplus on the branches; the residue crystallizes and falls to the ground; but this manna, not very tasty but rich in carbohydrates and sugars, succumbs to ants not long into the heat of the day.  
Questions abound: is it not a miracle? Or is it the miracle of the tamarisk and insects? They saw this provision as a divine gift. And clearly the story begs us not to get derailed with the murmuring of historical questions. Flannery O’Connor resisted the idea of Eucharist-as-symbol, but there is much symbolic in this story. The double portion on Friday to cover the Sabbath… although the Sabbath commandment hasn’t been given just yet! No wonder devotional guides play on this ‘daily bread’ image; did Jesus have the manna in mind? You have to look out for it every morning; you can’t save up for a few days. You have to love the way God not only responds to the murmuring with mercy, but, when God gives them the bread, with conditions. I admire B. Davie Napier’s phrasing (in Come Sweet Death, pondering the tree in Genesis 3, but it fits the manna as well): 

   Behold, God’s wondrous gift is given

    – with strings.
   All glory be to thee, uncertain giver, 
   Who wants to have his gift 
   and give it too.

There are plenty of theological ruminations to be made on this scene. Brevard Childs (in his commentary which is unfailingly brilliant) points out that Exodus 16 does precede Exodus 20: “The sign of divine grace preceded the giving of the law of Sinai.” And then the riveting, profound scene narrated in John 6, when Jesus not only feeds thousands but explains his mission. I heard Fred Craddock, in an elegant sermon, summarize the plot of the entire chapter: Jesus gave the hungry bread, and they certainly were delirious with delight; they expected the Messiah to do such things.  
But then Jesus basically said You can’t live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Some who’d been excited begin to drift away. Then Jesus ratcheted up the stakes further by explaining that “the bread I give for the life of the world is my body.” He’d gone from feeding them, to pushing them toward Scripture, and now he’s dreaming of crucifixion. Plenty flee at this point until not very many at all are left. Jesus asked, “Will you also go away?” and Peter rather pitifully and yet with immense commitment responded, “Lord, to whom would we go?” 

Craddock’s sermon’s title was how he ended his sermon: “I’ll stay.” After observing how many leave the church or even the ministry, he offered his humble, simple affirmation in solidarity with Peter: “I’ll stay.” Great preaching.
Jesus gave them enough: not just enough bread, or just enough Scripture, but his own crucified body, which really is enough; just as the manna, the commandments to come and the promise really were enough. Which lead us to Matthew 20:1-16, today’s Gospel lection. 

This text about laborers in a vineyard is a splendid example of Jesus’ teaching, which is the antithesis of conventional wisdom, the kind of thing Clarence Jordan called a Trojan Horse: you let it in and Bam! 

Preachers typically preach to people who’d say I’m a 12-hour or a 9-hour kind of guy… but maybe they really are just one hour people, or maybe they aren’t in the field at all. It’s about the miracle of grace — and not last minute conversions. Grace is for everybody, and it’s enough for everybody. And there might even be a bigger surprise in the story as I discovered when researching my new book coming out this month, Weak Enough to Lead.  

I’ll share this excerpt, which passes along a framework for how to read Matthew 20 that I find to be entirely persuasive, and alluring.  Here goes:
Jesus made up a shocking story about a vineyard owner who hired laborers in the morning, then some more later in the day, still more in the afternoon, and finally a few with only an hour left. When they lined up for their pay, he gave every last one of them a denarius. Quite fair — for a full day’s work. Not surprisingly, the guys who put in more time were furious. We are tempted to put some clever spin on the story, as if it is about late in life conversion, or even the magnificent bounty of God’s saving grace.

But Amy-Jill Levine, rightly pointing out [in Short Stories by Jesus] that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get into heaven,” asks an intriguing question: “Might we rather see the parable as about real workers in a real marketplace and real landowners who hire those workers?” Our gut reaction is No way! But wasn’t Jesus the kind of guy who wanted everyone to have enough? If the guys who were hired late, through no fault of their own, only got one-twelfth of a day’s wage, their family would starve. This is the same Jesus who told a rich man to sell everything, who directed party hosts to invite those who couldn’t invite them in return, who spoke of lenders forgiving massive financial debts, who included despised and untouchable people in his close circle, who visited Zaccheus and left him so staggered he gave his hard-earned money back with interest to those he’d earned it from.

Shares of stock in a company run by Jesus would plummet in value. But he is our leader, the childlike one who never tired of asking hard questions. Could we his followers lead in very different ways, in weaker ways? Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms and creator of the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible, was a bold, no-holds-barred Christian, one of those once in a generation believers radical enough to dare to do what’s in the Bible. One Sunday he preached at a gilded, high steeple church in Atlanta. After the service, the pastor asked him for some advice. The church custodian had eight children, and earned a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”

Jesus was like the child who can’t stop asking questions, like the child who sees a homeless person by the road and asks Mommy, can’t he live at our house? Maybe a leader can’t pull off the vineyard wage maneuver, or even the salary swap. But is there a way to lean in that direction, to engage in something dramatic to veer a bit more toward Jesus than business as usual? Jesus asks leaders, not merely to obey the law or even to be kind, but to be different.
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In my preaching, I want to explore this concept of “enough.” Often it’s a turning point, like “I’ve had enough.” Sometimes it’s when we feel a keen lack: I’m not good enough, I don’t have enough money. Douglas Meeks (in God the Economist) was right when he described our culture’s sense of scarcity: no matter how much you have, there is this lingering fear it might not be enough. Enough for what? Fill in the blank.
Sometimes it is contentment, a holy, divinely-purposed goal: it is enough. Gratitude is believing It is enough instead of It’s not enough. Grace, being God’s child, living as one in God’s image, etc., is enough. Enough describes divine intent regarding resources: God wants everyone to have enough. There’s the old Haitian proverb: “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” The idea is that God has given us enough — enough food, enough water, enough of all the basics of life. It’s up to us to share, instead of hoarding or blocking the sharing.
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