A sermon preached at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Norwalk, September 25, 2011. Year A, Proper 20. Exodus 16:2-15; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
There is a story told – which may or may not be true – that when Captain Cook first arrived in Australia, after wandering in the wilderness of the world’s oceans and encountering wonderful and dangerous lands, he and his crew were bewildered by the appearance of some of that continent’s animals. They described a large, grey creature, which, legend tells, Cook pointed out to a local guide, asking, “What is it?” The guide replied, “I don’t know;” but in his language, “I don’t know” was pronounced, “Kangaroo.”
When the people of Israel, afer their complaints and carping and genuine hunger, were given bread from heaven, their first response was, “What is it?” In Hebrew, we are told,* the words are pronounced something like, “Manna.”
Manna. What is it?
The story we tell today begins with the whole congregation united in their complaints against Moses and Aaron. Why, they ask, have they been brought to the wilderness to starve? With breath-taking selectivity, they choose to remember Egypt as a land of plenty, flowing, one might say, with milk and honey. Only weeks ago, we heard the stories of the Pharaoh killing infant children in order to keep the Hebrew population down. Ethnic cleansing, we would call it today. Genocide. Only weeks ago we heard of forced labour, of slavery and exploitation, of fear and death. But already, it is forgotten. Hunger for today’s bread has wiped out the memory of how much yesterday’s provisions cost the Israelites.
And what was God’s answer to all of this complaining and forgetfulness and downright ingratitude?
According to Psalm 78,
[God] commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven.
24 He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven.
25 So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.
26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens and led out the south wind by his might.
27 He rained down flesh upon them like dust and wingèd birds like the sand of the sea. (BCP, 696-7)
According to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, this story is about the contrast between the economy of grace offered by God to God’s beloved people, and the economy of exploitation which the corrupt systems of slavery, oppression and forced productivity exemplified in Egypt. The generosity with which God provides for the needs of the Israelites, the abundance and superfluity of provision which is offered, must surely overwhelm the habits of fear and anxious hunger, of mistrust and precariousness which they learnt in captivity!**
In the gospel this morning, the contrast continues between an economy of grace, of generous provision, of mercy and kindness, and one of strict legalism, of quid pro quo, of the measure of a person being the ability to work and to produce. Instead of measuring out the deserved reward in terms of a notion of productivity, the landowner recognizes that each person is valuable enough to deserve the means to live, their daily bread. Beloved of God, each person receives enough.
Some respond with envy and anger; we do not hear the response of the lucky ones who were paid first. Perhaps they asked, “What is this?”, then left quickly in case the manager changed his mind.
We find it so difficult to receive what we think we do not deserve, and we find it even more difficult to see someone else receiving what we think they do not deserve. Like the Israelites, we look with suspicion as well as wonder upon acts of unprompted kindness and generosity; we ask, “What is it?”
We are so used to the ways of competition and mutual exploitation that we are bewildered by the free gifts of grace. We are so used to stranger-danger and learned fear that we find the call to community, the example of embracing the outsider, that we hear in the gospel challenging and unnerving. Freed from slavery to sin, to envy and judgement, oppression and condemnation, we look with astonishment on the grace that God offers: forgiveness to the unforgivable; salvation to those beyond hope; peace to the unreconciled; love to the lonely and lost; hope to the broken-hearted.
We are so used to practicality and pragmatism that when we are faced with the poetry of the Eucharist,
Christ’s body given up for us, bread for the world,
we ask, “What is it?” Manna. Bread from heaven.
When we pray for our own daily bread, we may think that we know what it is we are asking for. A job. A fair day’s wage. Health. Hunger satisfied. And those things are good things to ask for.
The Israelites asked for food, and when the quail came into their camp, you’d better believe that they knew they were going to feast tonight.
But sometimes, when we are hungry, and lost, and complaining, God takes us by surprise, and it may be that it is in those moments that we least expect to find grace, when we are most bewildered and confused, bleary-eyed, morning-breathed and weary, when we are moved to cry out,
“What’s going on?”
“What is it?”
it is in those moments that God reaches out to us and rains down bread from heaven: mercy so abundant that we barely recognize it, grace beyond our imaginings.
* Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 183
** New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 812-5