Sermon, September 20

(This sermon was preacher by the Reverend Thomas McAlpine an associate priest at St. Dunstan’s)

When the pollsters aren’t covering politics, they have other questions to ask. They regularly ask: “Do you believe in God?” And so we learn how the numbers are trending in various regions or countries. All this without bothering to find out which God people believe in. We don’t know if God’s existence is a good or bad thing until we know which God we’re talking about. And that’s one of the things the lessons from Exodus and Matthew invite us to chew on.

In the Exodus reading the people have left Egypt (the good news) but find themselves without food (the bad news), and begin to complain. It’s easy to feel superior to the Israelites, but up to this point their primary experience has been one of oppression. In Egypt the powerful looked after their own interests and needs, and the interests and needs of the Hebrews were way down the list. Why expect anything different from the new regime? (Recall the line from the rock opera Tommy: “Meet the new boss—same as the old boss.”) Having had to work themselves to exhaustion for Pharaoh, now that they’re under YHWH, even more powerful than Pharaoh… So what’s at issue is not simply whether the people will have something to eat, but the character of their new lord.

And YHWH provides them with bread and meat, manna and quail. In the middle of the desert they live and do not die. Further, there are two additional surprises. First, what they gather doesn’t have much to do with what they measure at the end of the day: those who gathered a lot don’t have more than those who gathered less; each has what they need. Everyone gathers enough; no one gathers too much. Second, on the sixth day they discover that they’ve gathered double the daily ration and on the following day there’s no manna. That is, they discover the Sabbath.

Who is the God they encounter in these events? A generous God. A God more interested in the results of the work than in its intensity. That’s good news, for there were undoubtedly families in no position to gather much of anything. A God who provides seven days of food for six days of work.

What we have here is a model. In the middle of the desert God is showing Israel—and us—how things ought to work. There is enough for everyone. The arrangements that we refer to as “the economy” can and should satisfy the needs of everyone. Those who attempt to hoard their manna, their share, discover that it goes bad. And six days of work produces seven days of food. God is generous.

We knew nothing of the week with this day of rest before Moses. For the slaves in Egypt, it was seven days of work, then another seven days of work, then another seven days of work… But now, in the hands of a God more powerful than Pharaoh, they have to work not more, but less. After every six days of work, a free day. Everything that we’ve been observing here doesn’t amount to a full theology of work, but it does have some of the crucial elements: there is enough; everyone has access to what they need; work is set in a regular rhythm of work and rest.

And we can draw a direct line between this manna model and multiple laws in the Sinai tradition in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Life happens, and over time various combinations of bad choices and bad luck move some to the margins. So laws redress that. Debt slavery? Yes—but only for seven years, and with a generous send-off. Loss of ancestral land? Yes—but every 50th year a massive reset. And yes, the Sabbath is a day of rest also for slaves.

And since Israel is God’s model for human well-being, both the manna story and these Mosaic laws challenge our economic practices. “In God we trust” is on our currency: but which God are we talking about? Whether we look at the minimum wage or the growing astronomical gap between CEO and average worker pay or our care for “essential workers” in food processing plants here in Wisconsin, or human resources scheduling software that destroys any possibility for a family sabbath, it’s reasonably clear that we’re not talking about Moses’ God, that is, Jesus’ God.

Jesus. The parable in the Gospel speaks of a householder who at the end of the day pays all his laborers the usual daily wage, those who’d worked 12 hours and those who’d worked only an hour. The parable focuses on the reaction of those who’d worked 12 hours and the response of the householder to this group: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong… Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

What is this parable about? Why tell it? As a model for how householders ought to deal with day laborers? Any householder who followed this model would have great difficulty finding anyone willing to start earlier than mid-afternoon! Nevertheless, in light of the Exodus story, this parable does view work in relation to the satisfaction of human needs, for the usual daily wage represents the difference between a family with food and a family without food. And the householder acts so that the maximum number of families will have food. In other words, in the vision of this parable and of the Bible, to have resources implies a social obligation with regard to the needs in the community. It can never be the case that my only question is “How much can I get for my family?”

The parable is about Kingdom Economics in another sense as well: what it takes to enter the kingdom. In Jesus’ time the Jews had served God for more than a thousand years, many times suffering persecution, bearing “the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” And the gentiles are about to enter into the service of this God. Are they going to receive the same reward, coming in at the last minute? Again, some individuals have served God from a very young age, bearing “the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Others encounter God on their deathbed. Will these two groups receive the same reward? According to Jesus, yes. It’s about—again—the character of God. God wants the maximum number of folk with Him in eternity, and it is enough to respond to Jesus’ invitation, no matter the hour.

Some people believe that there’s too much in their past for them to turn seriously to God at this late hour. Our parable is also for them: God continues to seek us until the last hour. And if God is seeking us out, He’s also seeking me out.

I started out by noticing that which God we’re believing in is an important question. From the manna story and Jesus’ parable: how we do economics is a pretty good indicator of which God we believe in: the God of Moses or the gods of Pharaoh.

This being an election year, it’s tempting to end on this “to the ramparts” note! So I really need to remember one of Jesus’ most consistent and annoying themes: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Do I love or hate those whose economics witness to a false god, and so authorize a ghastly alternative to the manna story? The prophet Micah describes their practitioners: those who “tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron”? Do I love or hate? That too—that particularly—shows which God I’m trusting.