Sunday, August 14, 2011

Proper 20 Year A

Proper 20 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 16: 2-15; Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45


Jonah 3: 10 - 4:11; Psalm 145: 1-8

Philippians 1: 21-30; Matthew 20: 1-16

Just two months after God's spectacular deliverance of God's people from slavery, they complain to their leaders, Moses and Aaron: "If only we had died in Egypt, where we... ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger."  But the Lord tells Moses, "I am about to rain down bread from the heavens, and the people shall go out and gather each day's share on that day, so that I may test them whether they will go by My teaching or not."  And, on the sixth day, the Lord will provide enough for two days.  Moses and Aaron deliver the news to the people, telling them also that their "murmuring" against them is actually complaining against the Lord who has heard them.  Moses instructs Aaron to tell the Israelites the news again, when "they turned toward the wilderness and... the Lord's glory appeared in the cloud."  And again the Lord instructs Moses to tell the people they have been heard and they "shall have your fill of bread, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God."  "That evening, quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp."  When the dew lifted, there is a "stuff fine, flaky...."  The people say to each other, "'Man hu, What is it?' For they did not know what it was."  Moses tells them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you as food."

This psalm reviews in poetry Israel's memory of God's powerful, generous "deeds" and "wonders" in the past, including the wondrous gift of "quail"and "bread from heaven" and water from a rock in the wilderness.   These appointed verses mention the crisis in the wilderness when God not only saved Israel, but promised more than just what was needed. God "opened the rock and water flowed/ it went forth in parched land as a stream."  All this was the continuing fulfillment of the Lord's "holy word" to Abraham.


Although Israel's narratives traditionally privilege Israel as God's
favored, this story says God's favor can be shown even to Israel's enemies ! Jonah is angry, very angry, angry enough to prefer to die rather than play any role in God's favor to an enemy.  God challenges Jonah:  "Is it right for you to be angry?"  Jonah walks away to sit under a bush and seethe. God causes the bush to wither and die. Now Jonah is also angry about the bush that has abandoned him. But God reminds Jonah that he had nothing to do with the appearance or disappearance of the protective bush, alluding to the fact that only God decides when, where, how and on whom God favors gifts.

The psalmist vows to exalt/bless the Name of the Lord "everyday."  God's "grandeur," "wondrous acts," "great goodness," "grace" and "loving-kindness" inspire her and "one generation to the next."

Paul claims that
sometimes he would welcome death as release from his complicated and sometimes dangerous life and the opportunity to "be with Christ." But he labors on for the communities of believers like this one, the Philippians. He offers himself as an example of the way they should welcome adversity when it accompanies their "salvation."

As Jesus and his followers get closer to Jerusalem, Matthew increases the tension and, alone
among the gospel writers, has Jesus tell this unforgettable -- and somewhat disturbing--story. An employer unfairly pays all his workers the same. Those who have worked all day in the scorching heat are paid the same as those who worked only a short time after 5:00 PM ! When those who have worked the longest and hardest protest, the one who pays their salary says: I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

What is familiar in the story of Jonah and Jesus' story in Matthew is human jealousy based on a legitimate sense of unfairness; what is shocking is the real nature of God's love, which shatters our sense of fairness. God's love is unfair, excessive, extravagant, seemingly arbitrary even moody. It is outrageous ! It comes out of nowhere (like water out of a stone) and sometimes seems to flow more to those in need rather than the deserving.

Jean-Luc Marion's 2002 study,
Being Given, has become a significant and fecund contribution. He states early that his sole purpose is to show that everything we experience as human beings is best understood "under the jurisdiction of giveness." (p. 40) In step by step detail that produces a sheen of brilliance, he says we will understand ourselves and our world better if we see our selves first not as givers but as "gifted." This status is not something we earned or even deserved, it is the essence of life, the force that sustains life. Among the many implications of this insight, Marion demonstrates, we discover that we are not so much "producers" of meaning as "witnesses" to what existed before we were born, sustains us everyday and will continue after we die. We do not "grasp" so mush as we "receive." We do not "define" life so mush as we are "witnesses" to its wonders. We are sustained not as much by knowledge as we are by "surprise" and "wonder." Finally, and perhaps surprising to those not familiar with Marion's work, he says we are guided not so much by "ethics" as we are by "love." We understand ourselves best not so much by "self-positing" as by "surrender."

This notion that we know
ourselves best when we see ourselves as "gifted" is not new with Marion. Husserl and Heidegger introduced the suggestion at the beginning of the last century and the works of Karl Barth and Hans urs von Balthasaar, among others, are seen as  theological expansion of the notion. But Marion has renewed the earlier work of others and given it greater clarity and excitement. And once again it is opening fresh ways to understand the extravagant claims made throughout the biblical texts about the radical nature of God's love. "God's greatness cannot be fathomed." "I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you." God's goodness is like "water out of a stone"-- its unidentifiable source, sheer abundance and where it flows startle us and leave us gasping. We come to not so much fret about its seeming arbitrariness as the wonder of it all and our delighted discovery that we are "gifted."

Lent in the year 387 was a time of crisis for the church in Antioch.  While away, the bishop asked an assistant, John, to lead the people in his absence.  Throughout that Lent, John preached fervently.  By the time they got to Easter, John preached a sermon that contributed to his earning the nick name, "golden mouth," or Chrysostom.  With this story of Jesus that is unique to Matthew in his heart and mind, John preached:  "Whoever is weary of fasting, let him now receive his earnings.  Whoever has labored from the first hour, let him today accept his just reward.  Whoever has arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not fear the delay, for the Master is gracious: He receives the last even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that has labored from the first, and to him that delayed.  Therefore let everyone enter into the joy of the Lord!  The first and the last, receive your wages.  Rich and poor, dance with each other.  The temperate and the slothful, honor this day.  You who have fasted and you who have not, rejoice this day!  Let no one bewail his transgressions, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.  Let not one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free."

When something goes wrong, we ask "O God why me?" When life is rich and full why
then do we not ask then "O God why me?"

God's love is outrageous!  Live with it!