The texts for this sermon are: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45,
Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16.
Did you bring us here just to die?
The Israelites have been through a lot at this point in the Exodus story. They’ve watched as their old homeland, Egypt, descended into the chaos of terrible plagues all around them. They left behind everything except what they could carry on their backs. They’ve trusted in a prince turned prophet, a column of cloud, and a mysterious, splitting sea. And all that has landed the chosen people here, in the desert. Lost. Starving, and afraid. So they want to know. Did God put us through all that just to have us die? Maybe we should have stayed put, kept our heads down, and made ends meet the way we knew how.
Not too long ago, I moved to live in the desert not far from where the Israelites were wandering. I had gone there on a research grant to figure out if this whole academia thing was for me. The problem was that I had my answer pretty quick. And that was a loud, resounding “No.” At first, I struggled with the motivation to write and research, set up interviews, study the language. But soon I found myself struggling to even get out the door, or to feed myself. And I knew I was losing more than just weight. It felt like essential pieces of me were wasting away. The excited parts of myself that loved to learn, that wanted to achieve something to make this whole year worthwhile—I could feel them withering in the dusty, desert air. What was I doing here? Did I leave everything behind just to fade away?
In the Exodus story, when the Israelites cry out to God, God provides. Bread from heaven, in the exact amounts they need. But what God provides in Exodus seems so simple: food to fill hungry bellies. What happens when our needs are deeper, more complex, maybe even impossible to articulate? Maybe you’ve been there, too. At some point in your life, crying out to God for the inexpressible. Maybe you’re there now.
I’m not sure what I was longing for back then. Maybe it was longing for a purpose, a life-giving path out of the desert, maybe it was just a way home. In any case, it was certainly not something that can just fall from the sky. Or even, I realized, something I could discover by looking deeper and deeper into myself.
Now this was back before the word “discernment” was part of my regular vocabulary, but looking back that’s exactly what I realized had to do. I had to stop, reassess, and yes, let go of making sure I got the big, bright future I thought I deserved. I had to move from keeping my head down and making ends meet to looking around and noticing the world outside of myself. Even if in that moment all that meant my neighborhood outside my door.
See, larger purpose I was looking for turned out to be right down the street, in a little old Melkite Church where God was already doing amazing things, bringing Jordanian Muslims and Christians together during a contentious time. I stumbled upon God providing for others, and found I had a role to play there, too. And through that work, and subsequent partnerships with chaplains, I began to hear again the call to ministry I had given up on for so long.
In Jesus’ parable this morning, we find God again making sure everyone is provided for. Granted, God’s provision for God’s people isn’t as easy as dropping manna for the people to gather. The workers receive their daily bread as wages for back-breaking work, all day in the scorching sun. Each batch of new recruits is understandably focused on staying in the vineyard, keeping their heads down, and making ends meet.
Yet, at the end of the parable, it’s also clear that in doing so they’ve missed a huge part of the story. It’s not about you! God chides the first group of workers when they complain they deserve more than the laborers who worked fewer hours. The real story is my version of justice, says the landowner. The real story is my generosity, my grace. The real story is what I was up to, this whole time, while you were busy.
Because here’s what God, the landowner was doing. God was looking out of the vineyard and seeing the unseen. The lost, the starving, and the afraid. God was going out into the streets hour after hour finding the left behind and bringing them in. God was making sure everyone God came across got that daily bread at the end of day, disconnecting the fulfillment of basic needs from the value society places on the last and least. So I wonder, how might the story have gone if the workers stopped to notice what the landowner was up to, this whole time?
As Christians, the life we are called to is far more than making sure that we’ve gotten what we deserve. God calls us, the church, to a larger purpose—loving our neighbors as ourselves, to seeing the unseen, the unfed, the unhoused, and the unemployed, and inviting them in. The last shall be first. And here’s the thing. God’s already out there, showing us the way.
This morning I want to wonder with you, what does it look like to lift our heads up and look around to see what God is up to in our neighborhood? Who is left standing empty-handed on our streets today? It might involve pausing in what we’re busy doing. It might even take setting something down or letting go of big dreams. Taking a break so that we might better listen for how God may be inviting us to lend a hand.
In a way, that’s what my new mission is, here at St. Aidan’s, as your seminarian. I’m here to listen and look for what God is already doing in your midst. To eavesdrop on neighbor checking up on neighbor at the Food Pantry on Fridays. To listen to the hard work of moving from denial to reality to hope in Christian Ed. To pull back the layers of discernment about what our neighborhood needs sanctuary to mean.
The good news is that God hasn’t brought us here, to this point, to just spiritually wither away. Here, at this table, is the bread of heaven. Here, in this neighborhood, the life-giving, justice-making, death-defying work is already underway. Are we ready lift our heads up and see it?