The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2023
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
The realm of God isn’t a labor union, nor is it free market capitalism. In this week’s passages, we read about the abundant generosity of God in our physical sustenance and spiritual growth. God’s good work plants seed in our lives that grow into a harvest of righteousness, abundant enough to nourish ourselves and others.
One of the most important questions persons of faith ask in times of stress is “Will God provide for our deepest needs?” This question is asked not just by persons but by congregations in this post-COVID, postmodern, and post-Christian? This is a question of survival as well as flourishing. This question leads to 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 traveling 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 many of its political leaders – trying to turn back the clock, deny systemic injustice and American history, silence LGBTQ+ voices, and act as if climate change is fake news. 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,” “Taking a Walk with Whitehead,” “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
Is 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. Certainly, it was in God’s power to create a meteorological tipping point. Or, could the quail and bread have 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 for us 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.
What is your 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 is faithful and 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. Paul is living with severe limits in terms of his geographical freedom, and his life is at risk. 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, it is possible to experience God as much in suffering as in comfort without denying the risks and problems we face. 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. Our era of congregational limitations is 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. People start their journeys unequally and at different economic points. Still, everyone needs a day’s wage to feed the family. Yet, some are only hired at the end of the day. Their compensation, 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. 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.
One last note: this passage is profoundly political and economic. While it doesn’t prescribe public policy, it recognizes that economic inequalities, often a matter of family of origin, parental wealth or lack thereof, race, and nation of origin advantage some and disadvantage others. In God’s realm – and among God’s people – these accidents should not determine children’s future. In God’s realm, we strive to equalize the resources for children everywhere, which at bare minimum means a healthy diet, shelter, adequate health care, economic stability, and resources appropriate to flourishing in their particular context. There is no privilege accorded to those who are born with all life’s resources in relationship to those who are born in modest circumstances. In the biblical world view, a community is diseased until all of its members have sufficient resources for survival and the hope of flourishing.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including JESUS – MYSTIC, HEALER, AND PROPHET; THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent books are PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE REVIVAL WE NEED and TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.