A strange generosity: sermon for Sunday 21 September 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 21 September 2014: Year A, Proper 20

SERMON

A strange generosity
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Old Testament reading: Exodus 16:1-15

The people of Israel are now in the wilderness. Finding the water undrinkable, they have complained to Moses, and God has made it potable. He has tested their faith: will they accept him by trusting that he will feed and rule them? Now the Israelites grumble once again.

1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim, and on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt, they came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai. 2 There in the desert they all complained to Moses and Aaron 3 and said to them, “We wish that the Lord had killed us in Egypt. There we could at least sit down and eat meat and as much other food as we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve us all to death.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Now I am going to cause food to rain down from the sky for all of you. The people must go out every day and gather enough for that day. In this way I can test them to find out if they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to bring in twice as much as usual and prepare it.”
6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. 7 In the morning you will see the dazzling light of the Lord’s presence. He has heard your complaints against him—yes, against him, because we are only carrying out his instructions.” 8 Then Moses said, “It is the Lord who will give you meat to eat in the evening and as much bread as you want in the morning, because he has heard how much you have complained against him. When you complain against us, you are really complaining against the Lord.”
9 Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole community to come and stand before the Lord, because he has heard their complaints.” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole community, they turned toward the desert, and suddenly the dazzling light of the Lord appeared in a cloud. 11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them that at twilight they will have meat to eat, and in the morning they will have all the bread they want. Then they will know that I, the Lord, am their God.”
13 In the evening a large flock of quails flew in, enough to cover the camp, and in the morning there was dew all around the camp. 14 When the dew evaporated, there was something thin and flaky on the surface of the desert. It was as delicate as frost. When the Israelites saw it, they didn’t know what it was and asked each other, “What is it?”
Moses said to them, “This is the food that the Lord has given you to eat.

It has been quite a week. A week of conversations- not all about the same subject, but many of them were. A week when we suddenly realised that history was in the making.

When I went into the polling booth and looked at the form, I surprised myself by suddenly being overcome by the immensity of the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

On Thursday night, a colleague of mine commented, ‘It’ll be like going to bed on cruise ship tonight. I’m not sure which country I’ll wake up in tomorrow’. Some people woke up disappointed. Some people woke up relieved. My overwhelming reaction is that I was not surprised it was no, although I have been surprised by how close it became in the last few weeks. But I think we did wake up in a different country on Friday morning. When I left the manse on Friday, the first person I knew whom I met- a member of this congregation, as it happens- told me he had voted no. ‘But I didn’t vote no for nothing to change’, he said.

Change is in the air. Exactly what kind of change we do not know. But something has to happen when we have come through the sort of national experience. All those thousands of people who voted for the first time- not just the youngsters, but people of all ages who have felt that their votes didn’t matter before. All the people- in both campaigns- who discovered that they were interested enough to get involved in campaigning, who talked about it all with family and friends, who went to public meetings for the first time ever. A turnout of 86 per cent. It remains to be seen if people continue to be so interested- I hope so, for that’s healthy for a nation. In many ways, it has been a good week for democracy. We needed to have this vote, and on the whole, we’ve done it very well. I think we should be a bit proud of ourselves.

I always thought that the time after the referendum would be an uncertain time for us all, and I don’t think I’m wrong about that. Neither a yes or no was going to take us into the promised land. Funnily enough, in the Old Testament text set for today we meet the people of Israel, just escaped from Egypt, and starting out for the promised land. They are complaining to their leaders- you’d think they were Scots- that they have nothing to eat. It is going to be a long, hard slog across the desert, and there will be plenty of complaining ahead. And yet Moses is able to tell them that God will provide for them. They are fed with manna and quails, and they discover that the food from heaven will appear each day, and that there will be just enough for everyone.

After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites faced long, wearisome years of wandering in the desert before they got to their promised land. Just leaving slavery behind didn’t end it. We have may thought we had done something decisive on Thursday- that cross in the box seems to foretell so much. Yet now we know that, however we voted, it was just the beginning.

Many of us today are used to having our desires met immediately. We find it hard to be patient. We, too, demand a lot from our leaders, and of our God. And yet God promises that he will sustain us, even- especially- when we seem to be in a desert. Parched and hungry we may be, but there will be food, manna to keep us going. Jesus referred to this story when he said, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6.35; John 6.48). For those of us who follow him, Christ is indeed the one who sustains when we find ourselves in a wilderness of confusion, uncertainty and doubt. Whatever lies ahead, may Christ continue to be for each of us the bread of life, the spiritual food we desperately need as we wander in the wilderness.

And the New Testament give us another tale- a parable of Jesus- to live by and to help sustain us. It is, for us, a strange story, both in its setting, and in its meaning:

Matthew 20:1-16

Peter has asked Jesus about who has priority in the kingdom of heaven. He has suggested that there must be greater rewards for himself and the other disciples, who have left everything. Now Jesus explains what the kingdom of heaven is really like.

1 “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard. 3 He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing, 4 so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’ 5 So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. 6 It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them. 7 ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them.
“When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’ 9 The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each. 10 So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each. 11 They took their money and started grumbling against the employer. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ 13 ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. 14 Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’”
And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”

We hear of landowner who hires men for the day to work in his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace early in the morning and hires some men for the day. And because, presumably, he needs more of them, he goes back at nine o’clock and twelve o’clock and three o’clock and even at five o’clock.

This seems a strange situation us, but it is probably how things were done in Jesus’ day. As usual, he’s telling a story based on what his hearers were familiar with. How come there are all these men standing around in the marketplace, waiting to be hired? Because Palestine in Jesus day was a poor country, and so this is perhaps what Jesus saw- unemployed agricultural labourers, waiting where employers would come to find them. For the landowners would hire men when they needed them- perhaps for the harvest, or to dig ditches or do whatever work was needed done that day. Within living memory, farm workers in this country were often hired and fired in this way. And perhaps its coming back, with the zero-hours contracts, where employers pay people for only the time they need them. Maybe this isn’t such an unfamiliar concept to people today after all.

But what will seems strange to us is the conclusion of the story. Regardless of what time they started, the landowner pays each of them the same. In the evening, the men who started at five o’clock are paid a silver coin. And so is everyone else. Those who worked all day- from early in the morning- complain to the employer (there’s a lot of complaining going on in today’s Bible readings!). ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun- yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ And there is absolutely justice in that complaint- why shouldn’t they get more for all the extra hours.

But the landowner had contracted at the beginning of the day with the early morning workers that the pay would be one silver coin. It happens that he said the all of those he hired, at whatever time of day. ‘”Listen, friend,” the owner answered one of them, “I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?”‘ Seen from that point of view, the landowner seems, indeed, generous. The men who worked for an hour still had to wait for work all day. He’s given them enough to live on. This is no zero-hours employer, but someone who thinks everyone deserves a full day’s wage.

And after telling this story, Matthew says that Jesus said: ‘So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’ (a phrase he’s used before (Matthew 19.30). God’s grace is not given out in different quantities. God makes no difference between us. But it is a generous grace, more than enough for us.

I once went to make a pastoral visit in a block of flats. Just as I rang the bell, another door on the landing opened, and one of the neighbours came out of her house. She was surprised to see her minister standing at her neighbour’s door. I explained I was there because her neighbour had just moved into the area and had come to our church for the first time the previous Sunday. I was visiting him because that’s what I do when new people turn up at church- I try to visit them right away to welcome him and to encourage him to keep coming. But the lady drew herself up straight, and looked at me rather fiercely, and said, ‘But I’ve been coming for years, and you’ve never come to visit me’. I was flabbergasted, and I have no idea what I said to her, but afterwards I thought of the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son, and of the labourers who thought they should have been paid more for working longer in the vineyard.

Why is it that when God is good to us, we can’t just accept it? Why is it we must always be comparing ourselves to others? How do we come to think that, for whatever reason, other people are worth less than us? We may passionately disagree with one another. We might even be quite sure that we were right and they were wrong- whether it was in a political vote, or even in a church matter. But we must never forget that each of us is worth exactly the same to God. When people start to think that their god thinks some people are worth more than others, terrible things can happen. At the extreme end of that way of thinking are people who drive others out of their homes, shooting and raping and beheading those they believe that the heretics and unbelievers are worth less to their god.

But God has no favourites. And ours is a good and generous God. He treats us all, not as we deserve- because we really don’t deserve very much from God. But God treats us with generosity- that unfailing grace which is like spiritual food, the bread of life, to we who believe. We stumble in the wilderness, unsure what to say yes or no to, unsure what the future will bring. But regardless or our yes or our no, God says yes- not to a question on a ballot paper, but yes- an unexpected, generous yes- to each one of us. Thanks be to God for his boundless grace.

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible © 1992 American Bible Society

Introductions to readings from Comments: Commentaries on the Revised Common Lectionary

© 2014 Peter W Nimmo