mumblings and grumblings

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

In our Old Testament text,
the children of Israel are in the wilderness again.
Having first left Egypt, they’ve now left the oasis of Elim
and are on the move into the wilderness of Sin—
which doesn’t mean in Hebrew what it means in English,
but is kind of coincidentally fun!
They’re on their way to Sinai,
and, as they leave what’s comfortable and what’s safe,
they’re complaining against their leadership—
blaming Moses and Aaron—
because we’d often rather stay safe and comfortable
than risk the journey to where we’re God-called to go.
And they grumbled to the point
not just of wishing they were back in Egypt, did you notice this?
They grumbled to the point of wishing they had died in Egypt—
wishing they were already dead.
Now that’s some serious grumbling!

And on the one hand, we might say we don’t understand these whiners.
I always have.
How could anyone who had experienced what they had experienced
of God’s power, presence and provision,
possibly question God’s power, presence and provision?
But you know that old Janet Jackson song,
“What have you done for me lately?”
There’s something powerfully true and human about that.
We require consistent assurance,
and we require recent assurance.
So there’s that.

Then we also need to take very seriously
the importance of the assurance of daily bread.
Maslow’s hierarchy of need reminds us
that it’s only after the most basic needs are met
that we think—that we can begin to think of other elements of life—
other dimensions to life.
So when basic needs are not met—
when they’re threatened ….
is God a luxury only those who have eaten can contemplate?

The fear of not having what we need
is not a fear most of us live with,
but most of the world does.
And we don’t get to underestimate its power or impact.
So we don’t get to question their grumbling.
It’s interesting, the word grumbling occurs seven times
in five verses of our text (2,7,8,9,12)—
indicating perhaps not just a perfect amount of grumbling,
which is how I had always kind of read it,
but maybe a perfectly good reason for grumbling.

And do notice in the story as it unfolds,
though the children of Israel complained to Moses and Aaron,
it is God who responds and who responds with the assurance of provision—
not with anger—no frustration—no questioning the grumbling.

Now somewhat oddly, God responds to Moses, saying,
“Of course they’re scared; remind them they don’t need to be.”
So Moses and Aaron then reassure the people.
Now notice how they do that.
“In the evening you shall know it was God who brought you out of Egypt,
and in the morning you shall see the glory of God
because God has heard your complaining,
and God recognized that complaining
as not being about me and Aaron here, but about God!”
So this is Moses not understanding—
not offering the words of comfort—of assurance needed.

They weren’t grumbling about God, after all.
They weren’t expecting God to deal with the daily provisions.
They expected that from their leadership.
In the one previous story about water,
when they only found bitter water and complained,
God told Moses what to do, and Moses threw the wood into the water,
and it was made sweet (Exodus 15:24-25).
They looked to Moses.

Now Moses did go on to tell them what they wanted to hear:
“The Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening
and your fill of bread in the morning.
But then repeated the affirmation
that God had heard their grumbling
and heard it as not being about Aaron and him
but about God.
it’s a way of reminding the people, this isn’t our fault!
we’re not the ones, ultimately, in charge here!
it’s a way of joining in the grumbling!
it’s a way of passing the buck

Whereupon God says again, notice,
“Say to all the Israelites,
(which would include who? Moses and Aaron, right?!)—
say to all the Israelites, I have heard your complaining.”

And the people looked into the wilderness
to behold the glory of God in the cloud.
That’s out of order.
The glory wasn’t supposed to happen until the next morning.
But there it is: the glory of God in the cloud.
Remember the one they’ve been following?

Which is to say, is it not? though it doesn’t say explicitly,
that between Elim and Sinai,
they turned their backs on Egypt.
They turned their faces toward God.
They left behind the fleshpots that they said they were longing for
and trusted the provision of God.
You see it not in what they say,
but in what they do.

And God said to Moses again,
“Tell them at twilight you shall eat meat and in the morning, bread,
and you’ll know that I am the Lord your God—
the Lord your God who does care about you—
down to the daily provisions you require for survival.”

But though the quails came at twilight
and in the morning there was that flaky substance,
the people of Israel did not say,
“Oh, this is the Lord our God, taking care of us.”
No, they said rather, “What is this?”—
a question perhaps indicating as much uncertainty, still,
about God
as uncertainty about this unusual food substance.

Notice the rhythm, in the evening and in the morning—
repeated three times,
reminiscent of the it was morning and it was evening rhythm
to Genesis 1—to creation—to God’s vision of creation.
It’s still good.

And God’s work constitutes a weird combination
of the natural and the miraculous too, doesn’t it?
And neither should undermine the other.
God works through the natural world:
quail fly in. There’s some flaky residue of sap and dew.
But it arrives on schedule.
It arrives every day.
It’s enough for all.
And if they collect too little,
it somehow ends up being enough.
And if they collect too much, it still ends up being just enough.
They all end up just with what they need (Exodus 16:18).
It goes bad if it’s kept past the one day (Exodus 16:20),
except on the sabbath—
when it doesn’t go bad (Exodus 16:24).
It’s this combination of the natural and the miraculous.

So we have concern—
we have fear and grumbling.
And God understands the dailiness of our fear.
We are offered the assurance of enough
which is linked both to the goodness of God’s creation
and the presence and the work of God with us.
And we have our escape from what is,
and the journey into that goodness of God
somehow being created in the process.
That’s our Exodus story.
It is good. It is still good.

Then we have a parable of Jesus—
one of the familiar ones—
that strange and wonderfully bizarre story—
an elaboration on the last verse of the preceding chapter
“but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In chapter 19, this comes in response to Jesus’ assurance
that those who sacrifice on his behalf will be rewarded.
One hundredfold.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,”
he concludes—apparently suggesting
that those who give up much will get much more—
which sounded really good to Peter
because that’s exactly what he wanted to hear.
But then Jesus goes on.
You’re always in trouble when Jesus goes on!

Then he tells this story of the landowner
who hired day laborers early in the morning
negotiating with them the usual daily wage.
Then he returns to the place where day laborers gather
at nine o’clock, at noon, and at three o’clock,
hiring those available, saying, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”
Finally he returns at five o’clock to find still more workers
to whom he says, “You also go to the vineyard”
with no mention of payment.

Now when the grapes are ripe,
it’s important to get them picked as quickly as possible,
and laborers at that time of the year would work from dark to dark—
which in harvest times would have been between 6 and 7 o’clock.
So while this is an unlikely hiring scenario,
it’s not completely inconceivable.

Though this parable pretty much explicitly indicates
that “the landowner’s concern is always on the laborers,
not on the crop or on his own profit”—
which, sad to say, puts this story squarely back in the more inconceivable.
so “one would expect the story to say
that the landowner hired some harvesters early in the day,
but, when he found out that there was more crop
than these first workers could handle,
he went out to secure extra help.
But no, the story says that the owner hired more
because he found them standing around out of work (Matt. 20:3, 5, 6).
In other words, the landowner is motivated by their need for work,
not his need for workers”
(Thomas G. Long, Matthew
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 224-225).

And then there’s that paying out at the end of the day—
in the dark.
And the last are paid first, and are given a day’s wage.
Which makes the first, the ones who worked all day—
through the heat of the day—think, well?—
made them expect more.
They began to daydream about what they’d do with their unexpected bonus,
and I want you to imagine them,
the ones hired first,
looking to the ones who are receiving with joy—
and calculating.
I want you to imagine the ones not yet paid
looking at the surprise of those paid first—
their gratitude,
in terms of what it means for them.
Not sharing in joy.
Not participating in gratitude.
Calculating.

After all, fair’s fair, right?
There was a rabbinic story about a landowner
who paid workers who had worked all day
and workers who had only worked two hours the same amount,
but the tag line was, “They accomplished more in two hours
than you did all day”
(quoted in Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 374).
That’s a completely different story.
That’s fair. That’s about the output, not the people.
And these, in our story, are all paid the same for very different work.
Now remember, the amount paid
was precisely what had initially been agreed to.
It’s only in comparing, that the grumbling begins.

And the landowner asks them,
well, a literal translation would be,
“Is your eye evil because I am good?”
So you see wrong in my generosity?
So you see unfairness in my grace?
What is your understanding of good—
more for you? or enough for all?

We as the people of God cannot ignore
the consistency of the imagery in Old and New Testaments
of everyone having enough—
of everyone having what they need.
We as the people of God have legitimate call to raise questions
about those who have so much
when too many don’t have what they need—
to question the vast inequalities in our world and in our culture.

Now do I question that some deserve more than others?
work harder than others?
have more responsibility than others?
Absolutely not.
Do I question how much more some have?
Based on our texts today, tell me how I can’t?
And that is in no way
the promotion or rejection of any particular economic model,
that is simply the statement that the way things are in our world
and in our culture
is ungodly.
It is not good; it is not healthy.
And not because it’s ultimately not sustainable.
Not because it undermines an economy for the benefit of a few
until the whole thing crashes,
but because, as those who follow in the way of God,
we are to be about a way of being
that creates sufficiency for all.
That’s our Old Testament story;
that’s our New Testament story.

What do you think it means that four states in our country
call themselves commonwealths?
that commonwealth is one translation of the latin
from which we also get the word and idea of a republic?
that the etymology of our word “wealth”
originally goes back to well being.
And what does it do to us—
what does it do to our soul—
to not to be who we say we are?

In both our Scripture stories, the grumbling—
of the children of Israel and of the ones dissatisfied with their pay,
the grumbling serves to remind us
that God’s will
is not one of hoarding and accumulating, but of trust—
not of pride in what we’ve earned,
but of thanksgiving for what we’ve received—
not of scarcity, but of abundance.

A quick word about grumbling.
It’s not always necessarily all bad.
It can indicate what’s important.
What is it you grumble about?
What does that reflect?
What does it indicate about what’s important to you?

Sometimes it’s very true that our grumbling needs a bigger picture—
a bigger perspective on what is,
that calls the grumbling into question.
I’m going to send you a link this week (if I have your email)—
I’m going to send you a link to a youtube video some of you may have seen.
First world problems read by third world citizens.
It does something to you when you see someone
in a poor african village
squatting outside the ruin of a house
saying, “I hate it when my house is so big
I need two wireless routers.”

But sometimes our grumbling illuminates a bigger picture
that calls what is into question.
Righteous grumbling, maybe.
All a matter of perspective.
Still don’t want to get stuck there.
For no matter how important it is, you can get stuck there,
and getting stuck there is a problem.

Either way, grumbling can offer us a window into our fear,
that predominant characteristic of our time.

It is amazing to me,
in our culture of abundance
(it’s quite a trick),
how those who want to sell us things
have created a spirit of scarcity—
within our abundance created a spirit of scarcity.
And that includes preachers!
It is amazing to me
how many peddle fear,
and how we let them get away with it.

That fear based mentality:
there’s not going to be enough;
there’s not going to be enough for me—
not enough food,
not enough money,
not enough grace,
not enough forgiveness,
not enough love.

I’m not naive enough to assure you you will never lack for what you need.
Our culture’s not geared that way.
We have not geared our culture that way.
We’ve ungeared our culture from that way.
But I assure you that’s how God created.
That’s what God wants.
That is the story of God in the world.

Think with me here.
We have a story that illustrates the first will be last and the last first—
which in the introduction (back at the end of chapter 19),
meant those who sacrifice much will get even more back, right?
But then, within the parable,
the first shall be last
simply refers to the order of work and pay, right?
It has nothing to do with how much is paid.
For the first receive the same as the last and the last the same as the first.
So our story illustrates, in truth,
the affirmation that the reward is the same for everyone.

Alright.
So God’s grace is sufficient for all.
True.
Yes.
But that truth is given to us in the imagery
of a world in which God’s provision is enough for all.
If we say it’s just about grace,
what have we done?

This is a story in which we have the assurance of enough—
enough for what we need today—
enough for everyone to have what they need today—
somehow linked to the goodness of God’s creation—
somehow linked to an escape from what is
on a journey into that goodness
somehow being created in the process—
in the assurance that God cares,
and thus that God’s people care,
about the basic needs of everyone.
That’s our Exodus story.
That’s part of our Matthew story.

When you go out to eat after worship
and you’re at a restaurant,
or when you’re talking to someone at work,
is that the story they would recognize as our story?
When you meet people out in the world,
do they identify our story as church
and God’s story
as one in which we want everyone to have enough?
What do you think it would do to the church if they did?
What do you think it would do to the story of God
if people around us began to think,
“Oh, you know what that story’s about?
That’s this story about everyone having enough to get by.
That’s a crazy story about taking away fear.”

You know all those stories about how irrelevant
institutional religion is becoming?
That would turn those upside down.

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