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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-15 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11 AND Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

 

Isaiah 56 (not one of this week’s readings) speaks about the inclusion of foreigners and strangers (vss. 3-5), declaring that God’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (vs. 7)  In the middle of the previous chapter God has said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

God’s vision of inclusion is so much bigger than that of many human beings.  That larger vision, as well as human chafing against it, is evident in this week’s readings.  We so often want God to do things our way rather than lifting up our heads and opening our eyes and minds to a larger vision.

 

I thought about making “complaining” the theme of this week’s blog.  When God does something unexpected, like extending compassion to someone we think should be punished, we complain.  When life is difficult, we complain.  When others flourish, especially those we think of as enemies, we complain.  Well, not everyone.  I actually experience Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ as a place with a broad and inclusive vision where there is little complaining.  Still, I wonder if there aren’t those among us who would be happier if we thought God would make everything go according to our bias.

 

Jonah’s encounter with a big fish is a widely known story in our culture.  Jonah, one of God’s prophets ended up in the belly of a big fish after he ran away from God.  God wanted him to go preach to the Ninevites, whom Jonah looked upon as enemies not worthy of being called to repentance.  (Jonah 1:1-17)  While in the belly of this fish, Jonah had a change of heart.  (Jonah 2:1-9)  After the fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (vs. 10), Jonah hastened to Nineveh and delivered God’s message.  (Jonah 3:1-4)  The people repented (vss. 5-9).

 

The story is more of a parable than a history and science lesson.  I believe it was a story performed as a four act drama in a time when many of God’s people needed their vision of God’s inclusive love stretched.  This week’s reading brings us into the story at the beginning of the fourth act.  God has compassion on the Ninevites and Jonah is upset.  (Jonah 3:10-4:1)  He tells God that this is why he fled in the first place, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  (vs. 2)  You didn’t do it my way.  You didn’t rain down revenge upon my enemy.

 

Within this story we find a couple of phrases that are worthy of note.  “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10) and was “ready to relent from punishing.”  (Jonah 4:2)  Certainly challenges some of our ideas about God.

 

God isn’t finished with Jonah yet.  Jonah is outside the city pouting. (vs. 5)  A bush grows up and Jonah is happy to receive its shade, but God sends a worm who attacks and withers the tree.  (vss. 6-7)  Again Jonah is angry.  Twice in this reading he says, “ . . . it is better for me to die than to live.” (vss. 3 &8)  Sometimes it seems like we would rather die than accept changes that challenge our sensibilities.  I once served in a congregation where a powerful member opposing a proposed action stood up and said, “I’ll bring this church down before I let that happen.”  God takes note of Jonah’s compassion for the bush “for which you did not labor and which you did not grow.”  (vs. 10)  God points out that Jonah seems to care more for the bush than the people of Nineveh.  Those are not the ways of God.  “ . . . should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  (vs. 11)  God is concerned about every bush, person, and animal.

 

Nineveh, by the way, was one of the largest cities in the world at that time.  It was located in what is present-day Iraq, near the city of Mosul.  Ancient lessons about God’s compassion are a vivid reminder of the reach of God’s compassion today.

 

The Gospel reading is a parable about workers who put in varying hours of work and all receive the same wage.  “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.”  (Matthew 20:8)  Those who had worked the longest “grumbled.”  (vs. 11)  Who wouldn’t?  It offends our sense of fairness.  The landowner reminds them that they have been paid exactly according to what was agreed upon, telling them that he has chosen to give the others the same.  (vss. 13-15)

 

The parable is probably not primarily about economics.  In the context of early church discussion, it is about newcomers into the ranks of the faithful, about God’s love for all people, not just those who have followed him for centuries.  It may also be a challenge to how religious leaders of the day perceived and dispensed justice.  Evangelicals have often used it as a parable about who gets into heaven---although heaven and hell are never mentioned.  Deathbed confessions, they say, will still get you in, even if the idea offends those who have lived an entire life of faithfulness.

 

The punch line is another instance in which first and last are turned topsy-turvy. (vs. 16)  We have our way of viewing worth and rank, but God looks at things with a different eye.  Our attempts to rank one another---including ourselves---are blown right out of the water.  Too often we try to measure our worth by putting someone else down, but the point of both these readings is that God is much more generous with divine love than we are inclined to be.  “ . . . are you envious because I am generous?” the landlord asks. (vs. 16)

 

The focus of the other reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 16:2-15) is slightly different, but begins with complaining because God isn’t doing things the way some of the people had hoped.  I find the word “complain” or “complaining” six times in this reading, sometimes twice in the same verse---vss. 2, 7, 8, & 9.  They’ve escaped from Egypt and how here they are out in the wilderness, tired and hungry.  (vs. 3)  It’s not the way things were supposed to go.  We might as well have died back there in Egypt.

 

God promises and provides quails and “bread.”  (vss. 4-15)  Many interpreters feel compelled to “explain” this “miracle,” particularly what earlier translations call “manna.”  Here it is described as “a fine flaky substance.”  (vs. 14)  The Hebrew word actually means, “What is it?”  In the New Revised Standard Version we read, “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, ‘It is bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’” (vs. 15)

 

Maybe we need to pay more attention to the mysteries God leaves us with.  “I am who I am.”  “What is it?”  Such mysteries may open the door to wider visions and understandings.  God and the works of God cannot be confined to our tiny boxes or our narrow cultural biases.

 

If we were to continue further in the story, we would find that they were to collect only enough for one day at a time.  Those who defied the instruction and tried to hoard food ended up with something rotten and wormy.  Trusting does not always come easily to us.  We want everything to go smoothly.  We want to be surrounded by abundance, but God’s ways are not always our ways.

 

The Psalms often celebrate the ways in which the Hebrew people experienced God’s liberation at work in their midst.  Psalm 105 is one such psalm, remembering, among other things, the quails and manna (see vs. 40).  No complaining now---just celebration and praise and thanksgiving.  The other Psalm is more generic in its celebration, speaking of God’s “works,” “mighty acts,” and “awesome deeds.”  (Psalm 145:4-6)  Such phrases would have evoked memories from the Exodus stories among those who first sang these words.

 

Paul never experienced a smooth road, nor did he offer one.  He could identify with Jonah and with the Israelites in the wilderness.  He struggled with questions of living and dying.  “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain . . . I am hard pressed between the two . . .”  (Philippians 1:21-23)  In the end, he chose sharing life in community with his fellow travelers.  (vss. 24-26)

 

Paul never complained about suffering, nor did he expect to be free of it.  At the end of the Philippians reading, he tells his readers that God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well---since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  (Philippians 1:29-30)

 

God’s ways are not our ways.  We might expect God to build us a four-lane freeway that never has any traffic jams.  Sometimes, though, we get stuck in traffic.  In Paul’s theology, God does all things “graciously.”  When we’re in what seems like the wilderness, when our sense of what is of worth is challenged or turned upside down, maybe God is trying to get us to see things from another point of view.  Maybe such times are times to look for the wonderful inclusive ways in which grace may be at work.

 

Psalm 145, in celebrating God’s liberating work among God’s people, ends with these words:  “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  (vs. 8)  Would that our ways were more like God’s ways!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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