Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Exodus 16:2-15+Psalm 105:1-6,37-45+Philippians 1:21-30+Matthew 19:1-16

Last week, we heard the great story of the Exodus, liberation of the people of Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. More than a million people with all of their household goods and their animals and all the rest followed Moses and Aaron and Miriam through the Red Sea and into the wilderness beyond. There is a reason this story is so foundational to Jewish identity and its incorporation into the freedom story of enslaved people in this country. God will make a way out of no way.

Today, we are a month into this journey. I don’t know how many of you have been on a long or even not-so-long road trip with children, but it doesn’t take long until those words rise up from the back seat: Are we there yet? I’m hungry. I need to go to the bathroom. It’s like a rite of passage for parents and their young travelers.

So, it should not be surprising that the newly freed Israelites, setting off from Egypt with fear and trepidation mixed with joy and hope, should find themselves bogged down in the monotony and difficulty of a journey through the desert. They are tired. They are hungry. And they let Moses know about it.

Why did you bring us out here to die? At least in Egypt our bellies were full. We could have just died there.

It seems to make no sense, but really, it makes perfect sense. For some of us, it might be a journey out of an abusive relationship (which enslavement certainly is) and only getting so far before deciding that the challenge of setting off alone is greater than the fear of abuse. Of maybe you’ve entered a therapeutic relationship to try to get a handle on the unseen psychological forces driving you to make decisions that end up hurting you, but once you dig into that pain, you back out because you just aren’t ready and the work is too hard.

The people of Israel were leaving behind their home, such as it was, and moving into an unknown future, and they got scared. And food was scarce. And so, they took it out on Moses. But God heard the grumbling and let Moses know that he would take care of it. And God did. Because that is was God does. God gives us our daily bread. God gives us enough. Any of the people who did not trust this to be true wound up with moldy, bug-infested food. But the next day, there was more manna to be had whether they trusted it or not.

This is not the kind of trust the laborer’s in the vineyard were looking for when they came to receive their wages. Those who worked all day expected a day’s wages. Those who worked only a few minutes probably expected just enough to buy a little bread, maybe. And when they all received the same pay for vastly different quantities of work, well, let’s say conflict ensued.

It is helpful to remember that just before this parable, at the end of chapter 19 in Matthew, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30), and those words come again at the end of today’s reading. The parable of the laborers is what that looks like in God’s economy.

Since I first watched the classic film “On the Waterfront,” set right here in Hoboken, I have not been able to forget the desperation of the men trying to get dock jobs each day, the mad scramble for “work tabs” that entitled them to work for a single day. If they did not manage to snag that work tab, that golden ticket, maybe their family would not eat that day.

And it isn’t just in the movies. Day laboring continues in farming and construction and manufacturing. The instability of that kind of life, of not knowing if work is available, or if you’ll get one of those work tabs, or if you’ll be able to feed your family, can be demoralizing and anxiety-producing. It might even lead you to hold back, to wait a little later in the day so you know you’re needed.

So, the workers in Matthew’s story need the work. They need to be able to buy food and pay for shelter. And this landowner needs workers. Apparently he needs even more as the day unfolds and even right up until the end of the day.

And this is the part that the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, earn your keep, get what you deserve crowd cannot stand. Everyone gets the same paycheck.

Now, in Matthew’s time, this was clearly a slap to the Jewish leadership who traced their heritage all the way back to Moses and beyond while these new Gentile converts would benefit equally from God’s love and mercy. But rather that just see it as a “the Jews got it wrong and the Christians got it right” message (which many have through the centuries), we have to recognize that God’s ways are not our ways and we cannot define who is and is not worthy of God’s care and provision or who gets the blessing and who does not.

God doesn’t send manna from heaven just to those who walked along without complaint. No, God gave it to the grumblers and the whiners, too. God gave daily bread to the ones who pulled their own weight and the ones who let everyone else do all the work, and you know there were plenty of those amongst the Israelites.

For those of us, and I’ll put myself here, who deep-down believe that our talent and efforts and good deeds will earn us God’s favor, this parable tells us otherwise. And we really don’t like it. But I worked harder than he did. But I got here before she did. But I have done more than they have. Thank God we don’t receive what we really deserve for our endless jealousy and apathy for the poor and petty arguments and judgmental and violent ways.

Last week, I said that we need to be dispensing forgiveness with a firehose rather than an eyedropper.[1] The same holds true for love and mercy. Only God’s love and forgiveness and mercy are perfect, but what might this world look like if we were all a bit more extravagant with our generosity and love or mercy? We can’t earn it from God, so why are we so intent on others earning it from us?

Paul tells the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). This parable of the laborers in the vineyard might just be what that looks like.      

[1] Riffing on Tom Long in his commentary on Matthew.

ASEPSermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas