The Burden of the Day

For the Long Haul

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

God provides. It seems clear that this is one of the messages from our texts this week. But it would also be clear that God provides for our needs in unusual and sometimes confusing ways.

Sure, let’s begin this week with grumbling. Take your pick; there’s plenty of it. Maybe you could survey the grumbles in the congregation to start. Everything and anything that people have complained about in the past few weeks, just lay it out there as a launching point. It’s a human thing, a common, constant thing, isn’t it? Grumbling, comparing, misremembering the past – making it better than it really was. Just go with it; everybody does it. Right.

Well, maybe not. No one likes to have their grumbles tossed back at them in such a public way. Better start with the text then. Take your pick: a gospel parable of grumbling and misunderstanding or a text from Exodus with real live grumbling about real-life concerns and hyperbolic whining.

The Exodus story is rife with complaints. But if we’re honest, we kinda understand. Sure, we have centuries worth of hindsight to tell us they didn’t need to worry, that they were cared for and protected. Sure, we can see where they went wrong, where their trust was too shaky, and their choices were less than optimum. But in their moment, it is hard not to understand their panic. They were about six weeks into the wilderness wandering, which doesn’t seem so much, given that they had almost forty years to go, but it is long enough to run out of the things you managed to carry with you when you fled Egypt and to realize that the living off the land thing was better in imagination than in reality. So, of course, they were hungry and afraid and pretty sure that they had made a big mistake launching off on this journey.

Granted their complaint, at least as recorded, was a bit over the top – “if only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread…” (Exodus 16:3 NRSV). You know how it is, when things are bad, you look back and what was bad before doesn’t seem as bad now. They were conveniently forgetting that they were slaves back there in Egypt. And here’s an interesting thought: they sat by the fleshpots – which scholars tell us were big pots of simmering meat – but ate their fill of bread. So, there was meat, but they didn’t get it. And yet, that memory is better than their current reality, or so they thought.

“OK,” God says, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll rain bread from heaven.” I’m sorry, what? Bread that rains. This is kind of unusual, wouldn’t you say? There have been various attempts to describe this phenomenon from a scientific point of view. And maybe there is a rational explanation. But that’s not the point here. We don’t need to explain this miracle, only accept it as a sign of God’s providing for those who are called. Even those being fed by it didn’t understand it. While the rained-down bread doesn’t get named in our text, a few verses later, we get the label. And, as we know, it is called manna, which translates as a question, “What is it?” This is the question that they asked when they first saw it the morning after the complaining. And that is in our text, v. 15, “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “what is it?” For they did not know what it was.”

That means that the exodus people are now sustained and nourished by a question, “What is it?” Maybe this is an incomplete question. Maybe it should be, “What is it that God is doing?” Maybe by paying attention to what is happening around them on a regular basis, they could learn to see God at work, even when things get difficult. And they certainly will for those folks wandering in the desert. And for us too, come to think about it.

As an aside, you might note that while the whining spoke of remembering bread in the presence of meat, God decided to provide meat in addition to the bread: meat at twilight, in the form of quail that would settle within their reach, and bread in the morning, formed like dew on the ground. “What is it?” seems a perfectly logical question.

Perhaps it is an implied question in Jesus’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel. What is it that God is doing? The kind of economic policy and worker’s compensation Jesus trots out in this parable would be cause for a violent overthrow of the government, one might think. We are quick to translate this parable out of the economic world in which it is set and make it a spiritual exchange that is somehow more palatable for us. This is about, we say, accepting new people. Realizing that when anyone joins the fellowship of believers, they become inheritors to the whole promise. Even though there are those of us who have labored long and hard for our reward, these new folks get the entire blessing, even though they haven’t put in their “pew time” or church service time. And like the all-day workers in the story, we resent that generosity. We have borne the burden of the day; we have worked in the hot sun; we have endured long sermons and tedious lessons and have labored hard to walk the straight and narrow path. We should get a bigger reward, shouldn’t we?

That is a proper interpretation, to be sure. And there is plenty of work for the church to be doing here. But let’s not assume that Jesus wasn't trying to change our whole monetary system at the same time. Maybe he was asking us to consider what our economics are based on and how we go about determining the worth of employees and managers both. Maybe he was really trying to turn our assumptions about the good life or about how the world ought to work upside down. This is risky talk, to be sure. The truth is, we don’t like change. We’d rather just adjust to the way things are and continue to complain, of course, than work toward a change that might make things better for everyone, ourselves included.

What if we shaped our world and the way we live in it according to grace and generosity? How might that change what we do and how we do it? What might that world look like? Is it even possible? It requires a different way of measuring, of not comparing, of setting aside jealousies and envy. What is the burden of the day? How do we labor in the Lord’s vineyard without feeling like we are owed something, but simply enjoying the service and the connections that it brings us? Settling in for the long haul, in this faith journey, is to acknowledge that much of what we’ve learned about how the world works doesn’t fit us anymore. Jesus comes along and turns everything upside down. And what a glorious way to live it is. For the long haul.

In This Series...

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes