Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16
God has brought the Israelites out of Egypt, defeated Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea. Now they begin their journey through the Sinai. I've been in the Sinai twice and I can understand the grumbling of the Israelites. The Sinai is the deadest, driest place I've ever been. I remember driving for miles without ever seeing a living thing. Not a living animal, though there may have been insects or creepy crawlies that I didn't see. Not a living plant. Not even a dead plant. Red rock and sand. Nothing for miles and miles and miles. Not a single living thing. I've been in deserts in the southwest, in other desert areas. I’m sure some of you have traveled in the American southwest. You know what the desert is like. Dry, but usually there is some plant life: scrubby plants, cactus, something. But not in the Sinai.
So I can understand why the Israelites are complaining. At least in Egypt they had something to eat. They were not in danger of starving or dying of thirst. They may have had to work in the hot sun, but there was water and some food; they had shelter and warmth at night. So here they were in the dry, red rock Sinai wandering around. Heck, I'd be complaining, too.
So God tells them that God will send them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Now God wanted to test them. He sends them bread for each day. If they gather two days' worth of bread, it rots so they can't eat it. Except on the day before the Sabbath. Then they can gather two day's worth, because no bread comes on the Sabbath. There is enough for each day. Enough to be filled. Enough to be satisfied. Everyone has enough. This is, I believe, God's plan for the world: to have enough, enough for everyone enough for everyone's stomach to be filled.
Walter Bruggeman points out that the Bible begins with God's abundance. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation. Each act ends with the words "it is good." God tells Adam and Eve to go forth and be fruitful: to multiply. God is there giving humans what we need in abundance. Abraham and Sarah are told their descendents will be like the stars in they sky and the sands of the earth: abundant, numberless. Bruggeman says that the idea of scarcity comes in the Bible in the first time with the Pharaohs, when the Pharaoh of Joseph's time dreams of the seven fatted cows and the seven lean cows. Pharaoh says, for the first time in the Bible, "there is not enough."
We seem to be a country that lives by saying "there is not enough." There is not enough oil, there is not enough food, there is not enough water. Television, magazines, the movies, everywhere we look tries to convince us there is not enough. Only by having more will we be OK, only by buying more will we be safe. We are in economic turmoil right now simply because of the idea that there is not enough and the only way I can be happy is to get more and more. We demand bigger and bigger houses, larger than we need (I’m not immune from this.) Lenders lent more and more money, more than borrowers could afford. Real estate agents convinced people that they could afford bigger houses than they could afford. Wall Street traders sliced and diced those loans into investments no one could evaluate. More and more and more and more. Only more and more and more could make us happy. And now, suddenly, the house of cards has collapsed and most of us are afraid about the future. For you who are retired, for those of us looking forward to retirement, we watch as our nest eggs diminish. We wonder whether our safe investments will evaporate, leaving us destitute. Some of you may be wondering if you can find a job, if your job will be cut. Right now is a time of great fear. There is reason for fear, for trying to be prudent. It is not a time to be consumed with fear though.
Jesus teaches that we must choose between trusting God and trusting in ourselves, in the world's material goods. God's ideas about economy and abundance are so different from ours. The gospel lesson for today is one of the strangest of strange parables in the Bible. It is, though, a reflection of God’s economic system. Many of Jesus’ parables have lost their power to startle because we live a long way from the time and culture of Jesus time. Many of Jesus’ parables have lost their power because we have heard them so many times. But this story, the story of the laborers in the field continues to startle us. The owner of the fields went out at dawn and hired workers and agreed to pay them the going rate for a day's work. Then he went out again and again, later and later in the day. When sunset came, he had his manager pay the last first. When they received a day's wage, the ones who had worked all day thought they would be paid even more. They were disappointed when they received only a day's wage. As in many parables, there are many lessons we can learn. Among the many lessons from this parable is the idea that God wants us to have enough to eat, enough for a place to live, enough. God's abundance is enough. Enough for everyone. The owner pays the workers, each one of the workers a living wage. Enough. Enough for food. Enough for a place to live. Even though some workers worked harder and longer than others, everyone received enough. The owner did not distinguish between those who deserved the pay and those who came late and may have lollygagged through the hour or so that they did work. God provides for our needs. We can trust in God. Having enough is not the same as having as much as we want. God’s economic plan is dependent on us, though. We have to understand that God’s plan is for those who have much to share with those who don’t have. In the Hebrew scriptures, God tells landowners to leave part of the fields unharvested so the poor can come along and gather food for themselves. In the New Testament, we learn that the members of the early church shared all their material goods. God’s plan is that those who have been blessed share with those who have not.
When he visited Africa in 2002, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was astonished to find that for only $25 to $30 million dollars, a well providing clean fresh water could be drilled for every village in Uganda. For less than 10 cents from every person in this country, every child in Uganda could have clean water to drink. The health of every person in the country would improve markedly. Ten cents. Just ten cents. When he returned to this country, he found that we simply did not have the political will to embark on such a project. Ten cents and we couldn't do it. Or wouldn't do it.
On top of the economic crisis, our country has endured a spate of natural disasters. Our charitable and relief organizations are stretched to the breaking point, with hurricane damage throughout the eastern half of our country. I was in Cleveland this weekend and some areas had been without power for almost a week. Ike had roared through the city, its devastation cutting through the center of our country. I can’t imagine what is happening in Haiti which has endured four hurricanes this season. The poorest country in the western hemisphere, the people of the country have little to fall back on in times of crisis. The leaders of our denomination sent a letter this week asking churches to consider aid for those in our own country and for the people of Haiti.
Just a little from what we have can go so far. Some of you may remember that I told you about hearing about Presbyterian Disaster Relief in Iran after the devastating earthquake there in 2003. I mentioned how our guide had been so impressed with the Presbyterians, how they truly cared about the people they were treating and how appreciated the toys for the children were. This is an opportunity to share our abundance with others, to be a part of God's plan that all people have enough.
And we have more opportunities. Soon, we will begin our stewardship campaign. This year will probably be a tough year for all of us. Gasoline prices have skyrocketed. Prices in general have risen, reflecting the increased costs of transporting goods. The economic crisis have left all of us feeling much poorer and frightened. Our economic woes will hit the poor in Memphis hard as they try to make ends meet, to decide between buying food for their families and gasoline so they can get to their jobs.
Our response to stewardship should not be how much does this congregation need to operate the church, but how should I respond to the abundance God has given me. How much is enough? How much do I spend on myself and my family and how much do I share with those who have been given less than I have? Am I like the Israelites who collected all the manna they could, who hoarded the manna, only to find it rotted the next day? Or do I respond, knowing that God has given me enough, more than enough, for today and trust that God will continue God's generosity.