This sermon is based on a theme gleaned from both the day’s Old Testament [Hebrew Bible] lesson and the Gospel lesson, so we begin with both and with the introduction I provided for the former, which Tom Harmon somehow linked to a Tennessee Ernie Ford Gospel song album, but which song, I do not remember.
because of the passages from the Bible called for by The Revised Common Lectionary, which John says he would be happy to explain, we begin not with our Call to Worship, but rather with a story to which our Call to Worship is a response. We begin with our
*Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Lesson: Exodus chapter 16: verses 2-15
in which we continue the story of Moses and of the Israelite experience coming out of Egypt. Despite having been saved by God through the parting and then closing of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites grumble about food (as we shall see next week, their grumbling was not a one-time happening) -- the Israelites grumble about food and God provides!
2 In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”
4 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion — that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. 5 But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “By evening you shall know it was the LORD who brought you out from the land of Egypt; 7 and in the morning you shall behold the Presence of the LORD, because He has heard your grumblings against the LORD. For who are we that you should grumble against us? 8 Since it is the LORD,” Moses continued, “who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the LORD has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the LORD!”
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community: Advance toward the LORD, for He has heard your grumbling.” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud, appeared the Presence of the LORD.
11 The LORD spoke to Moses: 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the LORD am your God.”
13 In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. 14 When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” — for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat. [Tanakh Jewish Bible]
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16
The wonderful parable of the landowner who at various times during the day hires additional workers for his vineyard. A powerful story of grace -- and of how we can fail to grasp its significance.
NRS Matthew 20:1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
I told — actually, included in an email — one of my favorite jokes this past week, about the young woman who joined an order of nuns who had a vow of silence: every five years they got to go before the Mother Superior and say two words.
At the end of the first five years, the young girl came before the mother superior who said to her, “You have two words you may say.” “Hard bed,” said the young nun. Five years later, again, the still but not quite-so-young girl came before the mother superior and said in response to her, “Bad food.” Five years later, the now young woman came before the mother superior and said, “I quit!” To which the mother superior said, “I’m not surprised; you’ve done nothing but complain since you arrived here.”
Complaining and grumbling are pretty closely related. As we are about to share the elements of the Lord’s Supper for the first time since February, if some of you want to grumble about the way that it is being done, well, your grumbling will put you in good company. As Tom read from the Book of Exodus as we started worship, the Israelites, having been spared when God parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds, began grumbling about the food, and as the Psalm we read in response as our “Call to Worship” alludes, they also grumbled, complained, about not enough water to drink — we’ll read that next week.
Now that grumbling probably was not what led God to feed them, and I say that because the story is clearly about a generous God: these Israelites had only to gather their food; they did not have to plant and nourish; they did not have to hunt the quails. They did not have to work; they were just fed.
And in our Gospel reading today in one of my favorite parables Jesus uses about “The Kingdom of God,” we get more grumbling:
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'
If the ancient Israelites were grumbling because they did not grasp God’s generosity, God’s graciousness, the earlier-arriving workers were grumbling because, sell, they resented the vineyard owner’s generosity — and by the way, as you will have noticed over the years, the image of God as the owner of a vineyard and the people of Israel, and by extension ourselves, as the vines, always raising the question: What are we yielding to serve the “owner”?
My favorite aspect of this parable is that it shows both the smallness to which humans can descend and the generosity at the heart of God. I frequently re-interpret this parable as the grumblers saying were they an individual: “It’s not fair, I don’t drink or gamble or run around with scandalous women, but he does, yet God loves him as much as God loves me!”
To which I always answer, “Yes.” Our God is so loving that God waits for the last arrival before figuratively “shutting the door.” In practical terms, it is never too late for a person to turn to God. Stated another way, Jesus’ death on the cross for humankind was a really big deal; so big that we can fail to comprehend that even our own benefit when we think ourselves deserving is a sign of how great is God’s love, our hubris notwithstanding.
And so we come to the table. I hope the wafers do not crumble as we take them from the plastic; I hope we do not have difficulty removing the tops of the little cups of grape juice; but if you want to grumble, do so, just remember that this, like the dew we call “manna” and the quail are gifts from God; we did not work for them, rather, they are good to energize us to take into the world the Good News of a God who is generous and gracious beyond human understanding.