Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA, 21 Sept. 2014, Proper 20
Year A RCL: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
How can we balance our lives between earthly things & heavenly things?
Paul reminds us in today's lesson from Philippians that “to live in the flesh means fruitful labor for us” & that we are “to live (our) life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (We are to stand) firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel...”
In our Gospel parable, Jesus asks if we are jealous because God is generous. Jesus tells us the love with which we do God's work counts more than the amount of work we do.1 The “payment” we receive is God's grace, a free gift we cannot earn.2 We may see a gift of God's grace & respond with curiosity & wonder like the people in Exodus when they see the manna: they ask “What is it?”
What is that grace of balance we ask God for in our Collect? We ask not be anxious about earthly things that are passing away so that we can love & hold fast heavenly things that endure. What is that balance?
Think of a tight-rope walker high above the ground, holding a long pole, that shifts a bit to help maintain balance. We stay focused on our goal, on what's important. We have to adjust our movements, our responses as breezes blow around us. We keep looking forward. We don't look down on anyone.
How do we develop this skill? Like most skills, we work at it: do it, reflect on how we did, adjust & work on it more. We practice & hone our abilities. We do this in our work as the Body of Christ. It is essential work to keep ourselves embraced in this holy fellowship, centered in God's love.
God's love feeds us like manna in the wilderness. God's love feeds us at this Holy Table with bread & wine that God invites us to share as Beloved Sisters & Brothers in Christ.
Today's scriptures tell us what it is like when we get off balance in our relationship with God & each other: We complain. While we may focus our complaint on an individual, we are really complaining against God like the people in Exodus. We complain against God who gives us life & relationships to share in this life.
In Exodus people complain that they were better off with their old life: Why did you have to go & change things, Moses? In Matthew the workers complain that they should be paid more than the latecomers: Why did you not change what you promised to pay us so we'd get more?
Exodus speaks of real human need: hunger in the wilderness. God satisfies that need & gives the people the opportunity to adjust their attitudes, to trust & obey God. Testing gives us the opportunity to grow & see for ourselves how we have grown or can grow in God's grace & love.
Using natural phenomena, God sends quail & bread from heaven. Bread & quails still fall from heaven in the Sinai.3 The difference is, for the people in Exodus, they come in the quantities needed & at times of year in addition to the usual months they are there4. As the Jewish Study Bible notes: great numbers of quail migrate between Africa & Europe. Exhausted, some drop to the ground where people easily collect them.5
As for the bread, the people say “What is it?” They say in Hebrew “manna”,6 which means “What is it?” They have not seen this flaky stuff that is “still called 'manna ' in Arabic” & which Bedouins use for sweetener.7 It comes from insects that ingest tree sap & excrete it on branches, where it crystallizes into solids that fall to the ground.8
So the Creator of all that is uses the natural processes in Creation to provide people what they need. Is it any less of a miracle & blessing from God when what we need comes from a natural phenomena?
Is it any less of a miracle when what we need to sustain our lives or our livelihood comes in the form of an unexpected gift, a generous donor?
Is the kidney a man in Washington needed any less of a miracle because a young South Carolina medical student had gotten on a general donor list, was the perfect match, & said to this stranger: “Take my extra kidney. I want you to have it. It's yours.” She does this knowing she will suffer physical adjustments.9
Will you miss seeing the miracle if an employer hires you late in the day & pays you more than you expect? Will you complain if you've worked all day & receive what you agreed to with the employer & then see latecomers receive the same?
Remember the Wolf of Resentment & the Wolf of Peace from last week10: The first wolf represents fear, resentment, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, inferiority, jealousy & lies. This is the wolf of those disgruntled workers, who are arrogant & self-pitying. They see their worth as greater than late-comers. They are jealous of & envy that extra money & are indulging in self-pity about not having more than they were promised. They are angry. They regret not bargaining for more.
They do not know what Peter Marshall tells us: “If you hug to yourself any resentment against anybody else, you destroy the bridge by which God would come to you.”11
The other wolf, the Wolf of Peace, maintains that bridge. This is the wolf of joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, compassion & truth. The Wolf of Peace stays centered in God's love through the practice of serenity, through compassion, a sense of “if I were in their shoes, I'd be grateful for that extra pay”. This benevolence of spirit makes generosity possible. The Wolf of Peace knows he or she will suffer no lack because God gives abundantly to others. This wolf celebrates your good fortune, your blessings.
How can you stay centered in God's love like the Wolf of Peace so that you can see the miracle of generosity that a human would offer a full day's wage to latecomers? Notice: The latecomers trust the landowner to pay them something. They go to work without knowing what they will receive. Do you have that strong trust?
How do you develop it? What is strong trust?
Is strong trust like manna, something we see & ask: What is it?
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew: Vol. 2 . Revised Ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1975.
Book of Common Prayer. New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., and The Seabury Press. 1979.
Harper’s Bible Commentary. General Ed.: James. L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1988.
Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 4 Aug. 2014.
The New American Bible for Catholics. South Bend: Greenlawn Press. 1986.
Voyle, Robert J. Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. Hillsboro, OR: The Appreciative Way. 2010.
Voyle, Robert J. “The Art of Resolving Resentment”. Forgiveness Forum: Teach Your Congrgation How to Forgive. www.appreciativeway.com. 2014.
1 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew: Vol. 2 . P. 226.
3 Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. P. 140
9 Note: I have known this young Christian since she was born. She was baptized & brought up in the Episcopal Church.
11 Quoted by Robert J. Voyle in “The Art of Resolving Resentment”. P. 73.