The Adventurous Lectionary – The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
The times are in upheaval for persons and congregations. Many congregations are considering returning to public in-person worship and are feeling overwhelmed by details and concerns about congregants’ health. We are also concerned about our congregational health – most congregations are struggling with budgets and pondering reducing staff in the next few years.
One of the most important questions persons of faith ask in times of stress is “Will God provide for our deepest needs?” This question begs other theological and spiritual queries such as: “Are we alone in the world or is there a gentle providence working through our lives, giving us guidance, energy, and sometimes surprising manifestations of grace?” Moreover, “What do we really need in the confusion of want and need and materialistic desire and spiritual necessity? What does our congregation need and can we trust God to augment our own efforts?”
The Exodus reading contrasts doubt and faith among the children of Israel. Now in the wilderness after their miraculous liberation from Egyptian tyranny, the Israelites are experiencing a failure of trust. After all they have seen in terms of God’s deliverance, they want to return to normalcy in Egypt at the first signs of trouble. How could they have forgotten God’s care so quickly? But then again, you’re only as good as your last miracle! Moreover, freedom is risky. It involves surprise and adventure with few guarantees and known realities are often more comforting than an unknown land. New lands require new duties, and when you are on the road, you can’t depend on yesterday’s certainties. Certainly we are seeing a failure of nerve on the part of our nation and its leaders – trying to turn back the clock, deny systemic injustice, justify police brutality, and downplaying the pandemic. Such behaviors ultimately lead to death of all that we love even as we attempt to protect our nation and way of life.
On the pilgrimage of life, there are no certainties, but plenty of adventures. With the first signs of hunger, the Israelites dream of their slave rations in Egypt. They doubt both God and Moses. Yet, their doubts and complaints don’t nullify God’s care. God hears their complaints. They appear to alter God’s initial plans – the shape of God’s care – and so God sends bread and quail to satisfy their hunger. Despite their lack of faith, God continues to act; this was true of the Israelites and it is still true for us. A relational God is not at our beck and call, but responds to our deepest needs as they emerge and as we articulate them. God does not have to be prodded to seek our well-being, but a relational God adjusts to the quality of our faith or lack thereof, providing us with what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes as “the best for that impasse.” (For more on divine relationality, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
Manna and quail in the wilderness, a miracle? Yes – it was miracle of grace as well as perception. Could God have diverted a wind and changed atmospheric conditions? Perhaps, it was in God’s power to create a meteorological tipping point. Or, could the quail and bread been all around them, hidden only by their fear and faithlessness? That too could be the case. The Israelites succumb to scarcity thinking, when divine abundance is all around. They believe they live in a closed system, with no possible divine energy to sustain and nurture them, when God has provided for their deepest needs with each new morning. Like them, we live by scarcity, denying the interdependence of life and God’s movements in history and our lives. We have enough – to respond to food insecurity, to choose to alter our behaviors for national wellbeing and planetary survival – but will we open our eyes to God’s inspiration and energy or live by scarcity and isolation?
Surely, the Israelites’ fears are often recapitulated in our congregations and personal lives as we limit what is possible to the obvious the pandemic and financial and numerical limitations we face, forgetting the divine energies all around us. The scriptures invite us to trust God’s abundance: the creative wisdom that brought forth the universe will respond to our needs. God’s abundance provokes and inspires our own creativity and agency in responding to the evils we face?
hat is our congregation’s greatest fear? What is its greatest need? What deep spiritual desires hide behind our anxiety about the future? Could there be manna and quail in our neighborhood about which we are unaware? Could there be untapped and unnoticed resources that will inspire mission and vitality?
Psalm 105 invites us to live by God’s abundance. Sing forth – celebrate – God’s protective and sustaining care. In recalling God’s deeds, in giving thanks for God’s presence in our lives, our songs open our eyes to a world of bounty. In praise, we find fullness and see the world with new eyes. The Faithful One will continue to be faithful. Life is an open door to possibility, not a dead end. As the author of Lamentations 3:22-23 proclaims, God’s mercies are new every morning; God’s vision constantly emerging in the circumstances of our lives. Our praises and recollections of grace contribute to an ongoing ecology of grace, and may open the door to greater manifestations of God’s presence. Praise widens our vision and opens our hands to give and receive out of God’s bounty.
I appreciate Paul’s situation. Like many of you with risk factors, I have been aware of the fragility of life during the pandemic. I realize that normal activities from March 2020 could now put me and others at risk. I ponder the wisdom of returning to public worship and worry about my own health as we leave the bubble of self-protection. Writing from prison, Paul longs for God’s heavenly realm. Yet, despite his desire for full companionship, without persecution, with God, he realizes that his primary and overriding vocation is to nurture the Philippian community. Following his calling reminds him that heaven can wait, and that earth with all its trials is the place he must now serve God. He reminds the Philippian Christians that this same vocational vision is at the heart of their lives. Live faithfully, he counsels. Live by God’s grace, following God’s ways, and the good work that God has begun in the Philippian community will be brought to fullness and it will be a harvest of righteousness. (Philippians 1:3-11) We can experience heaven on earth when we are faithful to our Creator and live our vocations with great love and sacrifice. (See Bruce Epperly, “Philippians: A Participatory Bible Study.)
In light of God’s presence in our lives, we can experience God as much in suffering as in comfort. The ever-present God is revealed in struggle as well as peace. This is surely at the heart of abundant and affirmative living, later revealed in Paul’s proclamations to the Philippians: we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us and God will supply all our needs. External scarcity need not stand in the way of experiencing God’s resources for personal and community transformation. We can live abundantly regardless of our apparent scarcity or challenge. This time of protest and pandemic is the time of our lives, not lost time, but an opportunity to be faithful and active in transforming our lives, congregations, and the world.
Jesus’ parable presents the vision of divine generosity. While such business practices, giving workers varying hourly wages and bonuses, might lead to a class action lawsuit today, this is the way of God’s realm. God responds to our needs and this isn’t always fair in terms of rational calculations. Everyone needs a day’s wage to feed the family. Yet, some are only hired at the end of the day. A mere pittance will leave their families hungry and anxious. Grace is given to respond to our deepest needs, regardless of when or how we enter God’s realm. While the realization of divine possibility may vary according to our behaviors, which limit or expand God’s provisions for us, God still bestows grace upon grace. We are always receiving grace in terms of energy, possibility, insight, and intuition.
Once again, we are presented with a manifestation of God’s abundant life: we receive more than we deserve. This passage invites us to consider the quotidian graces of God. Opening to grace moment by moment changes our vision and may eventually change our circumstances. Trusting God’s bounty expands rather than contracts our agency and creativity. Recognizing resources all around, we can do new and creative things, take risks, and trust that even apparent failure can provide a pathway to wholeness. In this time of pandemic, protest, and food insecurity, this passage invites us to be like God in providing for the needs of others, beyond survival and beyond transactional calculations. In giving we receive, and in generosity, our world expands and our hearts find joy even in difficult times.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, CHURCH AHEAD: MOVING FORWARD WITH CONGREGATIONAL SPIRITUAL PRACTICES, and PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM.