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September 20, 2020 is Pentecost 16A/Proper 20A/Ordinary 26A

Exodus 16:2-15 – The Israelites complain against Moses. They receive manna and quail.
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 – Nineveh repents and YHWH changes his mind. Jonah gets angry.

Psalm 105:106, 37-45 – A song celebrating delivery from Egypt and quails in the wilderness.
Psalm 145:1-8 – God’s providence. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Philippians 1:21-30 – For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace: Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Open our | hearts, O Lord, to give heed to what is said | by your Son, Alleluia.

Bread for the Wilderness

We have just finished four weeks in the first part of Exodus, the liberation of the slaves, and a series entitled, “Set the Oppressed Free” (August 23-September 13, 2020). Now we move into the wilderness, for about 40 years. Don’t worry, for us, it will only be five Sundays, not even 40 days. Since we are in a wilderness time of sorts with this pandemic, I propose a five-week series, with extended reflection on what it’s like to be in a wilderness time, and how one can survive it, and even grow from it. The new series is called, “Bread for the Wilderness.”

ComplaintExodus 16:2-15September 20God provides manna/quail as people complain
ProvisionExodus 17:1-7 September 27Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
LawEx. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20October 4Moses receives the Ten Commandments
IdolatryExodus 32:1-14October 11Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
GloryExodus 33:12-23October 18Moses sees God’s back, not face

Exodus 16:2-15

[The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.] The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

The lesson appointed for today begins at verse 2 of Exodus 16. It might be wise to include verse one, which gives us some context, by telling us when and where we are in the story:

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.

The congregation sets out from Elim, heading into the Wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mt. Sinai. Sin is the Semitic moon deity. It has nothing to do with the English word “sin” as breaking a commandment, or as a broken relationship with God. The location is unknown, but if we take Mt. Sinai/Mt. Horeb to be Jabal Mousa, the wilderness is the narrow plain of el-Markha, along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Frankly, the actual location is irrelevant. The wilderness can be anywhere. Moses had his. Jesus had his. We all will have ours. This pandemic is a kind of wilderness.

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In verse one we also learn that it is the 15th day of the second month since they Israelites had departed Egypt. Our Bible passage gives us some insight into the people’s state of mind. You would think they would be rejoicing at their freedom, only six-weeks old, but no:

  • The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron…
  • “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…”
  • “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

My professors called this the “murmuring motif.” Most people recognize it as complaining. Having just been set free from slavery, the people are already having buyer’s remorse. Freedom is scary. I got what I wanted, but now I am responsible for whatever happens from now on, unless I can find someone else to blame. Anyone who has experience managing change knows this is normal. Resistance is not always antagonistic. Often it is a normal response of grief and fear.

Experts in managing change point to this story often. It is a great passage to understand change in a community, a family, or a congregation. William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, says there are three stages to a transition:

  1. Letting go of the old
  2. An empty or fallow time in between [the wilderness]
  3. A new beginning

Bridges calls the second stage “The Neutral Zone.” The Bible calls it the wilderness. There is important soul work that takes place in the wilderness, in-between period, which I have often referred to as “liminal space.” Many of the great leaders of the Bible have gone into the wilderness. In a way, Midian was part of Moses’ wilderness experience. Jesus went the wilderness after his baptism, before he began his new, public ministry. Paul went into the wilderness after his conversion on the Road to Damascus, and before he began his missionary work.

The time of engagement is the Neutral Zone. No longer single: Not yet married. Adolescence is the Neutral Zone: No longer a child. Not yet an adult. These in-between times are risky, but also filled with new potential for becoming. We often don’t know how long they will last. Sometimes it depends on how long it takes us and those around us to be ready – fully prepared.

Gilbert Rendle points out in Leading Change in the Congregation, the Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness. They could have made better time had they taken a more direct route, but that’s not how change works. It’s not linear. It takes time, and often a circuitous route for people to let go of the old and embrace the new, before they are ready for the beginning of the promised land. A shift must take place. It happens in God’s time (Kairos) not our time (chronos).

It is only the 15th day of the second month of liberation and the people are restless and fussing. Six weeks into their 40-year journey, the people are already asking, “Are we there yet?” If you are managing change, either self-imposed change to spark renewal, or outwardly-imposed change like that of a hurricane or a pandemic, expect complaining. We might have been slaves in Egypt, but at least we had bread. It would have been better if we had died in Egypt rather than endure this wilderness. Many individuals would rather die than change their habits in this pandemic. Some are even willing to risk the well-being of others. Many congregations feel this way. They would rather die than change. Indeed, many congregations are dying for change.

How do you help people get through the Wilderness? How do you make the most of the Neutral Zone? It was hard enough to convince people to leave home. If the wilderness gets unbearable, people will return home, and the new will be aborted. The journey to the Promised Land will be cancelled.

Bridges offers helpful suggestions for responding to the inevitable distress, complaining and resistance people experience in the Wilderness/Neutral Zone, whether it’s a congregation, a country or a family. 

In Matthew 4, Jesus is ministered to by angels, but he also faces tremendous temptation. In the desert, Jesus is tempted to abandon the ministry to which he is called. The temptations come in the form of good things: wealth, safety and power.

  • Wealth: Command these stones to become bread.
  • Safety: Throw yourself down. Won’t the angels protect you?
  • Power: All the kingdoms of this world I will give you.

The wilderness will come with temptation at every turn. We will be tempted by false gods. We will be tempted to abandon the inconveniences of the wilderness for the comforts of the familiar. We will be tempted to give up and return “home.”

Other very human dangers arise in the wilderness. Bridges says anxiety rises and motivation falls. Our existing weaknesses will become more pronounced. People become overloaded. Many will feel time is being wasted. Some will become highly polarized, as a way to respond to the ambiguity and disorientation of the Wilderness. People will be tempted to follow anyone who provides certainty, however illusory. Polarization can lead to chaos.

If we are going to make it through the wilderness, we are going to need bread for the journey. In some ways, this is the beauty of the wilderness. Unless God shows up, we will probably not be able to make it. The good news is, God promises to show up.

Feed your family, your people, your community.

Feed them with compassion.

  • Don’t argue. You need community in the wilderness. People will not commit to the wilderness or follow the leader if they don’t believe you have their back. Acknowledge the loss. Even if it doesn’t feel like a big loss to you, those leeks and onions along the Nile meant something to them.
  • Don’t be surprised at overreaction. The wilderness can be trying. Change is unsettling. Transitions mean losses. Even if the outcome is better, a piece of people’s world has been lost. Frustration is to be expected.
  • Recognize the signs of grief and respond appropriately:
    • Anger is an understandable response. Distinguish between acceptable feelings and unacceptable behavior.
    • Bargaining: Distinguish between unrealistic attempts to escape the situation and realistic problem-solving.
    • Anxiety: Empathize.
    • Disorientation: Respond to confusion with support. Reassure people that this is normal.
    • Depression: Respond to hopelessness with compassion and hope. Remind people why we had to move from there to here.
  • Compensate for the losses. Presumably the sacrifices give birth to new possibilities and advantages. How can people be recognized for their efforts? What opportunities might compensate for the losses?
  • Mark the endings. Throw a party to celebrate something that is ending, for the great good it accomplished in its time and context.
  • Treat the past with respect. Do not trash your predecessor. Do not ridicule or trash the old way of doing things. Honor them. Do not alienate their champions. Credit them for bringing us to where we are today.
  • Let people take a piece of the past with them. I still have my old Augsburg appointment books, and even my first Palm Pilot. Their time is over, but they served me well.

Feed them with communication.

  • Name the losses publicly. Don’t pretend the loss doesn’t exist. Own it. Let them know you are aware of the emotional field. Show compassion. Say things like, “I’m sorry we’re having to let go of this or that. I know we’re having to make a difficult adjustment…”
  • Give people information. Tell them again and again what is happening. Orient them. This will dispel uncertainty, myths and misinformation. Without good, constant information, worries bubble up and rumors multiply.

Feed them with vision

  • Revisit the mission and vision. Write the vision on tablets. Make it so clear even a runner can read it.
  • Define what is over. If people believe the old will come back, they will cycle back through grief. Be clear about what had ended. Be clear about what we are no longer going to be doing, and also what we will always continue to do.
  • Show how the endings ensure the continuity of what really matters. Connect the change to mission. This will make the inconveniences and disorientation of the wilderness tolerable.
  • Give people the 4 P’s: Purpose, Picture, Plan and a Part to Play. Clarify the purpose for doing what we are doing right now. Paint a picture. What will the outcome look and feel like? Purposes are abstract. Use visual aids to promote the Promised Land. Give people a plan. The wilderness is serpentine, but give them an idea of what information, resources, training and manna they might receive. Then give them a part to play. People need to know what their role is. How are their gifts important to getting through the wilderness?

Feed the people with creativity.

  • Make space for new ideas to emerge. Encourage and support experimentation, even if the experiments fail. Reward innovation. Capitalize on the break in the routine. Embrace losses.
  • Set short term goals. Identify some low-hanging fruit. Give people some wins. 
  • Look for opportunities to brainstorm new solutions to old problems. 

Feed the people with the gospel of resurrection and new life.

  • Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
  • And the one who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5)
  • He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:3-6)
  • So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
    30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
        and the young will fall exhausted;
    31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
        they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
    they shall run and not be weary,
        they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)
  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The good news is that God shows up in the wilderness times. Expect to be surprised by grace. When you think you are at the end of your rope, you will find sustenance in ways and places you never expected. Bread and quail from heaven.

Matthew 20: The Laborers in the Vineyard

Believe it or not, there are only 10 weeks left in our year of walk through Matthew’s gospel, Year A: to in September, including this Sunday, four in October and four in November. The Gospel readings will cover major portions of the last of the five major sections of Matthew. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, so Matthew’s Gospel is organized into five sections just like the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy).

In the early 20th century, B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. One could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:

Introduction: Matthew 1

  • Section 1
    • Narrative: Matthew 2-4.
    • Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
  • Section 2
    • Narrative: Matthew 8-9.
    • Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse)
  • Section 3
    • Narrative: Matthew 11-12.
    • Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)
  • Section 4
    • Narrative: Matthew 14-17.
    • Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community)
  • Section 5
    • Narrative: Matthew 19-22.
    • Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse)

Conclusion: 26-28 (Death and Resurrection)

September and October our gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary come from Section 5: Matthew chapters 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church: Life in Christian community.

Here’s an overview of our RCL gospel texts:

  • September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • September 27: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

I have discovered that people don’t like this parable very much. It offends their sense of justice. Why should everyone be paid the same, regardless of how long they worked? This is a story of uncompromising grace. Sometimes grace is too much for us.

Prior to this week’s gospel from Matthew 20, the Scribes and Pharisees gave Jesus a hard time for eating with sinners and not keeping the letter of the law. He responded with stories about lost sheep and an unforgiving slave. The message seems to be that God forgives, and cares about those who are lost, much more than keeping score. Now, Matthew 20 begins with The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which might also be called The Parable of the Day Laborers.

This is a great story, but it drives people nuts, if they really grasp its message. The justice of God does not seem just.

At dawn, a landowner goes looking for workers to help with the harvest. Here’s the timeline:

6:00 a.m. – The landowner finds some people to work and negotiates with them a fair day’s wage. They agree and begin working.

9:00 a.m. – The landowner, still in need of more help, finds people standing idle in the marketplace, hires them on, and puts them to work. He agrees to pay them “whatever is right.”

12:00 noon – More workers.

3:00 p.m. – More workers.

5:00 p.m. – The landowner goes out and finds people standing around. When asked why, they say no one has hired them, so he puts them to work as well.  

6:00 p.m. – Quittin’ time. Stop working and collect your wages, the last first.

Each time the landowner looks for people who are standing idle to work in the vineyard. At the end of the day there are five groups of workers:

  • The 6 a.m. folks have worked 12 hours.
  • The 9 a.m. folks have worked 9 hours.
  • The 12 noon folks have worked 6 hours.
  • The 3 p.m. folks have worked 3 hours.
  • The 5 p.m. folks have worked one hour

Let’s say the daily wage is $15/hour, for a 12-hour day. That’s $180 for the day. We can assume a 12-hour day because at the end of the parable, the folks that arrived at 6 a.m. complain that the folks who arrived at 5 p.m. “only worked one hour.” So, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. $180. The 6 a.m. folks heard this, agreed and shook hands on it at first light.

Now it comes time to collect their pay at the end of the day. The 5 p.m. folks are paid first. Lo and behold, the 5 p.m. workers get paid $180. The 6 a.m. folks at the end of the line are watching carefully.

The 6 a.m. folks think, “Holy smokes! The boss just paid those folks $180 for one hour of work. That’s $180 per hour!” 

Robert Farrar Capon has an excellent treatment of this story in his book Parables of Grace. He says we’re all inveterate accountants/score-keepers.

The 6 a.m. folks immediately begin calculating. (C’mon, we’ve all done it.) 12 hours, at $180/hour is, well, let’s see, over $2,000! We’re having prime rib tonight!

The 3 p.m. people step up. $180. The noon folks: $180. 9 a.m. folks: $180. When the 6 a.m. folks step up, they stare down at their paycheck: Only $180. “That’s not fair!”

Before we get to the landowner’s response, let’s stop for a moment and ask: Why is Jesus telling this story? How might the Scribes and Pharisees be hearing this story? Why would Matthew choose to retell this story? (This parable is peculiar to Matthew. Mark and Luke only have some version of this phrase: “The last will be first and the first last.”) Could they all be measuring their status before God? Their righteousness? Their place in heaven? Are the Scribes imagining themselves as 6 a.m. folks, and the Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners as 5 p.m. Johnny-come-latelies? Who is more righteous? Who will God reward the most? Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

Consider this. The cutting edge of this story, which only appears in Matthew, is not much different than the cutting edge of The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which only appears in Luke. The older brother in Luke’s parable followed all the rules, and was working hard while the younger son was goofing off. When the lost son returns home, the older, hard-working son discovers that the father loves both of his sons the same, regardless. In today’s story, the landowner seems to pay all the workers the same, regardless. Though our work is sacred, perhaps God’s love is not contingent on how much we work.

When the early birds get upset, the landowner’s response is classic. He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Capon suggests that this word for friend (Ἑταῖρε, hetaire) is edgier than the usual (φίλοs, philos). Herzog (Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend.”

If he’s right the sense is more like, “Listen pal…” or perhaps “Look buddy…” This is my vineyard. You agreed to work for $180, right? (Marlin Brando voice.) I’m sorry. Do you believe I have I been unfair with you? Perhaps you wish to lodge a complaint? Shall we alter the terms of the agreement? Do you really want to mess with me, pal? I paid you what we agreed upon at the beginning of the day. Take your paycheck and skedaddle. Am I not free to throw my wealth around as I please? Or are you envious because I choose to be generous?

I remember a small group at my home congregation discussing this passage. The group discussed how difficult it was to find reliable hard workers. One businesswoman said she didn’t pay all her workers the same amount. Some jobs are harder than others. Some people work harder than others. But she’s the boss. It’s her business. They can take it or leave it. She pays what she agreed to pay. Period.

This story is similar, but different. In this story everyone is paid the same, even though they didn’t work the same amount. Not even close. Some worked 12 hours throughout the heat of the day. That’s a pretty tough sell here in triple-digit Texas. Some worked only one hour. This story makes no sense to the bean-counters of religious purity. It only makes sense in light of a gracious God.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the landowner says, “Or are you envious because I’m generous?” Perhaps those on the score-keeping plan, who are “winning” (in their own eyes), don’t really want a gracious God. It’s like the frontrunner of the marathon being told everyone is a winner. Wait. What?! But I won!

The Evil Eye

The phrase that is translated “Are you envious because I am generous,” literally says, “Is your eye evil, because I myself am good?” (ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;). This “evil eye” phrase is loaded. The evil eye has a long history. Translators don’t render it literally, because most modern readers won’t recognize the image. There is more here than can be dealt with in this short reflection. Look it up: (especially evil eye in Judaism).

One with an evil eye is so envious, so covetous that they are distressed when others prosper, and wish to do them harm. When your neighbor gets a raise and prospers in any way does it upset you, or do you celebrate over their advantage?

What if, while working in our vineyards of life, we didn’t worry too much about how hard those next to us were working? What if, while working on becoming righteous people, we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how righteous or unrighteous others are? What if we left judging to God, and focused more on the log in our own eyes? (Matthew 7)

Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay as those who came in first in this story. The first are last and the last first. Those who think they should enter the kingdom first because of their righteousness, moral superiority or religious heritage are in for a surprise. The righteousness contest is bankrupt. This is a shot across the bow to the religious leaders of his day, and perhaps ours too. It’s a truly distressing parable for score-keepers, and all who think Christianity is about personal moral purity.

To make matters worse, in case they missed the point, in next week’s gospel Jesus will really pour gas on the fire by saying to the chief priests and elders: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I like this story. I really like it. It shows a loving God who is like hopeless parents that love all their children, underachievers and overachievers, those who score and those who struggle. This is a fun story to read with groups. Don’t miss the opportunity.

If we weren’t in a pandemic, you could invite some actual day laborers to join the conversation. You would, of course, pay them (quite fairly – a day’s wage, perhaps) to be with you for the morning of study and worship. Read the story together and get their take on it. You might hear a different story. They will tell stories of being underpaid, not paid at all, verbally abused, and treated as trash. We might gain a fuller understanding of the text if we listened to reflections of those who are most likely to appreciate the reality of the story.

Some have suggested this story subtly illustrates Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, and his awareness of the vulnerability of the poorest day laborers in the barter economy of his day. Today we see the same problems. The laborer really has little choice in the matter of payment. The subsistence-level laborer is utterly dependent on the generosity of the exploitative urban elite. Jesus becomes the model of the broker between the rich and poor. He symbolizes the coming of a new economy, an economy of the kingdom, where all are equal in the eyes of God. Jesus truly embodies the prophetic vision of “good news for the poor.”

Jesus ends the parable with his enigmatic statement, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “This saying should be taken as a word of warning to disciples who are the spiritual firsts.” (David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary)