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Grace in the Wilderness - 17th Sunday After Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 20A: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

September 24, 2023



Good morning, St. Aidan’s. And welcome back to the wilderness. Yes, I know it is neither Lent nor Advent, seasons of the Church Year that frame our journey together toward the good news of Incarnation and Paschal Mystery through the imagery of wilderness terrain. Yet in this season of Creation, on the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, we are given a reading from Exodus that, paired with our passage from the Gospel of Matthew, invites our imaginations to be shaped for God’s kingdom, God’s just reign, God’s dream, through the frame of wilderness. Note: not by the Promised Land, the other side of the Israelites’ forty years journey. But in the midst of that journey, a vineyard thicket, arduous, ambiguous, and unfolding. God spreads a kingdom table there, meeting our struggle and strife, receiving our exhaustion and complaint, and responding with wildly abundant, absurdly generous, nourishing Grace.

Our first reading comes on the heels of a series of wonderfully iconic passages from the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. We began with the Genesis creation accounts much earlier in the season, made our way through Abraham and Sarah’s sojourn, through Joseph’s exile and forgiveness, to the story of the Exodus, the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. After the high drama of the water wall that had opened for their escape, the community finds itself wandering in the wilderness. It now becomes apparent how risky their leap into freedom had been, in the absence of a clear step by step plan, including the basics of food and length of journey. The trouble they knew suddenly seems a lot more appetizing than the yawning uncertainty ahead of them. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger,” they moaned (Exodus 16:3). The book of Numbers’ rendition of the story lends more culinary detail to their drama: “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic...” (Num 11:4b-5). Or as a classic 80s Keith Green song puts it: “eating leeks and onions by the Nile / ooh what breath from dining out in style….”[1] As divine glory appeared in the wilderness cloud, Moses and Aaron combined forces to convey God’s reply to this grumbling: quail would cover the camp in the evening, providing them meat; in the morning the rising dew would reveal a “fine, flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” which was…. technically, the excreted globules of scale insects that infest and eat the sap of the tamarisk bush, native to the Sinai area; a substance high in carbohydrates, able to sustain a traveler in dire straights. Which is to say: manna, the bread of heaven. Aren’t you glad you asked? I love how the term manna literally means “what is it?” preserving in query form the communal grumbling that inspired God to deliver this saving substance.[2] Because, however bizarre, manna was the bread God had given them to eat. Not perhaps the bread they wanted. Definitely not the bread they expected. But ultimately the bread they needed. A fabulously weird example of what Christians came to call Grace. Grace arose seemingly out of nowhere to meet a struggling people in the midst of the wilderness. It provided kingdom nourishment to sustain them while subverting their expectations, collectively reshaping their imaginations for the sake of God’s dream.[3]

Our gospel passage shares a story of this dream. “The kingdom of heaven is like,” it begins, unfolding a scenario of workers in a vineyard overseen by its owner (Matthew 20:1-16). A vineyard is not the wilderness, I realize—its fertility defies the desolation endemic to desert terrain. Yet it is a place in which workers are successively invited to make their way, a place of journeying, of laboring for a promise. Only, as in the Exodus story, the end result turns out to be ambiguous and surprising, not what some of the workers had bargained for. Laborers brought on toward the end of the day end up being paid the same amount as those who had worked all day. It seems patently unfair, perhaps even unjust, if one assumes that God’s justice is fair and predictable. You work more, you make more. You play by the rules, color neatly inside the lines, make sure you’re the early bird, and you get the worm. God rewards you more than those who were late or didn’t play by the rules or maybe made a royal mess. But this is where Grace comes in again and turns the tables. However much they grumble, the vineyard owner in this kingdom story is not taking anything from those who have worked longer. Rather, he is choosing to be generous to those who wish they could have worked longer had they been given the chance. As the vineyard owner asks at the end: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 16:15)

Ooh, that one stings. Because I imagine some of us can indeed get jealous of such generosity. To extend this challenge beyond our parable, we could just as easily be asked if we are angry along with the older brother in Luke’s Prodigal son story (Lk 15:25-32). Or if we seethe in resentment as Jesus rewards Mary for having chosen “the better part” while Martha runs around doing all the dinner prep (Lk 10:38-41). Yet I can also imagine some of us sighing with gratitude at how generosity can catch us when we fall, sustain us when life won’t give us a break, fill our hunger with good things and rebuff our tormentors. Grace flows in all these ways: meeting us with abundant, nourishment, mercy, and forgiveness; challenging us to receive divine generosity in all its excess. Unshaken by propriety or deference, unbound by expectation, Grace receives our reactions – of gratitude, and thankfulness, of confusion, of complaint or grumbling – and reminds us of our shared humanity, our deep need for a divine love that cannot be earned by our labor or gained by our grasping. Grace mercifully renders God’s justice which is so much more vast and unfathomable than any of us can imagine. It is the coinage of God’s kingdom, the current of God’s dream, meeting us in the fields, sustaining us in the wilderness, always giving us the bread we need to be active agents in God’s unfolding dream in which the last are first, the lost are found, the hungry are fed, the lonely are met.

Years ago, one of my first priest mentors, the Reverend Dr. Anne Minton, taught me about Grace. It was – and I imagine remains – her core language for proclaiming the Good News. Grace had powerfully sustained and renewed her at various points in her life, she shared in sermons and conversations alike, and she never ceased to wonder at its abundant healing gifts. Even to evoke her witness to Grace is to fail to do it justice. But for me, its most memorable expression came as we would sing the hymn “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing.”[4] When we got to the verse that begins “Oh to Grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be,” I would always look across the chancel at her as we both sang, and her eyes would sparkle. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, oh take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” That sense of being in debt to Grace points to its sheer, unbounded excessiveness, always maintaining an upper hand in our logics of exchange.

I think too of my friend Iain who asked for this same hymn to be part of his funeral. (“I know it’s really traditional,” he said, “but I like it.”) And as we sang it not even a month ago, that same line evoked how someone who knew he was not long for this life could yet give thanks for the abundance of Grace in it. Here was his heart, O take and seal it. In a recent recorded conversation we did, Iain had also used the word Grace to describe how trans studies scholar, Susan Stryker, had been incredibly generous with him at a coffee one late semester afternoon years ago, in a long conversation at the end of which Iain had finally come out to her, and to himself, as trans. What she did, the way she held space for him that day, “was sheer grace,” he said.

O to Grace how great a debtor daily we’re constrained to be. O to Grace that nourishes us in the wilderness, that upends our reasonable expectations and releases our control. O to Grace through which God shapes our imaginations together to receive and share with lavish abundance, to labor in the divine vineyard as participants in God’s unfolding dream.

[1] Keith Green, “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt” (Pretty Good Records, 1980) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BQkBdRWxrs [2] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. “Exodus” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, 2000), 135 [3] My use of the phrase “the dream of God” is much influenced by Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (New York: NY: Seabury Classics, 1991, 2006). [4] Robert Robinson (1758) https://hymnary.org/text/come_thou_fount_of_every_blessing

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