Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nineteenth after Pentecost, 2008

Dieric Bouts the Elder. Gathering Manna, c. 1464

September 21, 2008 XIX Pentecost (RCL Proper 20A) Exodus 16: 2-15; Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16

During our Sacraments Class and First Communion preparation in the Fall we do a series of Bible Studies with the children, using story-telling and art work to bring out some often wonderful theological reflection--and one of the most popular and interesting always centers on this story from Exodus, which we usually set in dialogue or conversation with the gospel stories of the Feeding of the Multitudes. The emphasis and theme: the generosity and compassion of God, who meets the needs of his people in the abundant and miraculous outpouring of gifts unexpected and undeserved.

The point is that the Israelites don’t do anything to earn their “daily manna.” It falls freely from the heavens and satisfies their needs, blessing and sustaining their lives through the wilderness and assuring them of God’s continued companionship along the way.

Nor of course do the crowds following Jesus do anything special to deserve the miraculous meal they share with him, as he lifts up the contribution of the little boy and then breaks the bread and has the disciples begin to pass the baskets among the crowd.

It is all just gift: generous, abundant. Images folded in with the mystery of the Cross to foreshadow the Eucharistic miracle of God’s generous and abundant self-giving, death and resurrection, body broken, blood poured out, the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation, and anticipation and foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet and the assurance of life and life eternal. Generous, abundant gift. Unearned, undeserved, freely given, more than enough to nourish us and sustain us and for strength forward along the way of daily life and discipleship. Like—well, like manna from heaven.

In that context the reading from Matthew 20 and the Parable of the Improvident Employer rolls along into the same theme and assurance. Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, of course, and with all our history of the Homestead Strike and the Steelworkers and in some sense one of the principal birthplaces of the modern American labor movement, the story has some interesting edges. Interesting to think what might happen if the negotiating sessions of the Port Authority situation were to begin with a time of Bible Study, and to reflect on this parable.

But the idea of the parable of course is to contrast two perspectives, two systems of value and meaning. To contrast a strictly quantitative view where we get what we deserve, where we deserve what we’ve earned, hour by hour, regular time and overtime, with benefits--with another view, where what comes is not defined by what we have done, by how productive we have been, by how hard we have worked, by how many hours we’ve put in on the clock, but instead by the surprising, abundant and generous compassion of a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and whose deepest impulse is to shower us with unexpected gifts, to fill our lives, to meet our true and deepest needs, to lift us up and equip us in every way to be the people he has created us and called us to be, fulfilling the dream he had for us, for each of us, in that first moment of creation.

That we would know this morning his desire to bless us, to fill us with all goodness, to feed us with the spiritual food of his own living presence. Generous and abundant. Unearned, undeserved.

Some of you know that one of my favorite sayings is a little quotation, something Mother Teresa of Calcutta said. “Jesus doesn’t ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.” And just to say that there are plenty of opportunities all around us to adopt the point of view of those workers who want to be rewarded according to what they deserve. To know that to travel that road is to find the way of guilt and brokenness, anxiety and humiliation, false hope and false pride and devastating loss. To get what we deserve. It’s the way we live, most of the time in this world of ours, but if it becomes not just what we do but who we are, it is certainly the way not of life but of death. Not the way that can ever free us to sing the wonderful song that Paul sings in the reading from Philippians this morning. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Which is to turn the values of this world upside down.

But the invitation to us this morning entirely the morning of a new world, of new life, of hope and promise. Here are his gifts. On the altar, in the pews, all around us. Precious treasure, freely given. In the transforming reality of the Bread and the Cup, and life renewed and fulfilled, daily, as he walks the way forward with us. This Jesus, who stands beside us. His generous and abundant love and care, falling down upon us like a gentle rain on the mown fields, like manna from heaven.

Bruce Robison

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