Grace that Sustains You: Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16
In my reading this week, I came across this quote from Margaret Atwood's book, A Handmaid's Tale: "Girls, I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary." These few lines are spoken to the women who have been enslaved and forced to bear children for heterosexual couples who are unable to reproduce on their own in the theocratic dystopia of the novel. This is said to the women early in their confinement, before they have become adjusted to their lack of freedom and self-determination, when they are still learning what is expected of them as slaves. This portion of the book shows the harrowing process by which the women are broken down and reshaped into the handmaids their government intends them to be. During their capture and "reeducation," they are consistently told, yes, this is strange, but it will become ordinary.
The troubling thing about ordinariness is that sometimes what is ordinary, what is common, what is expected can be mistaken for what is right or what is holy. That is certainly what has happened in this book. Slavery, not for the first time, began to be called holy. Sometimes, even when people know that just because something is ordinary does not make it good, it can still be terrifying to do something new. Ordinary risks becoming a place of comfort because doing the ordinary can be easier than doing something new and better. Even though humans are capable of adapting to so many difficult situations, a new situation can be terrifying. Some would choose the ordinary, even when it is slavery, rather than reach for the extraordinary, even when the extraordinary promises liberation and grace and new life.
When we encounter the Israelites in the desert in our reading in Exodus, we learn that many of them would choose a terrible ordinariness over extraordinary uncertainty. The story tells us that these people have experienced the great power of God. They have seen the plagues that rained down upon Egypt at God's behest. They had run across the floor of a sea, with the waters churning safely at their sides, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army was unable to do the same. They had followed a miraculous pillar of fire and cloud towards freedom. And, yet, they had grown deeply afraid. In their fear, they began to complain. They will complain about alot of stuff in the next 40 years in the desert. The very first thing they complain about is the food... or the fear that they won't have enough of it. What is the use, they say, of escaping Egypt if we are just going to die of starvation here in the desert? Who cares about these miracles? Are we going to be able to eat?
You hear them? In the midst of the wild and unknown desert, they crave the ordinariness of their lives of slavery. As a slave, at least they knew what to expect in their days. Back- breaking work, abuse by overseers, food enough to allow them to work, and a little sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Day in and day out, they understood what was expected of them. Life was hard. They even cried out to God to save them from it. But, as the overseers in A Handmaid's Tale knew would happen to the enslaved women in their society, the Israelites had grown accustomed to it. Oppression had become ordinary. In fearful times on the road, where nothing seemed ordinary or even like anything that had ever happened to them before, the fear would overcome them. They looked at one another and they looked at the desert, and decided slavery had to be better than this.
One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training is that at some parts of our lives, we develop coping skills to survive adverse situations. Spiritual maturity comes when we learn that the skills that were able to help us in one situation aren't always the best skills to use in other situations. Maturity is being willing to learn newer, healthier ways of living. When I read about how God responds to the people's complaints, it reminded me of that lesson. God doesn't lash out at the Israelites and call them big whiners. God doesn’t say, hey, if you don't like freedom, you can turn around and go back to where you came from. Instead, God constructs for them a new way to order their lives, a new rhythm based not on the Pharaoh's whims but on creation and God's recreation of life within their people.
God promises to feed the people and asks them to harvest their food on a particular schedule, so that they do not begin a cycle of hoarding that can be tempting when people believe resources are scarce. God assures them that there will always be enough. I read an article by the scholar Anathea Portier-Young that I think offers a beautiful connection between the rhythm of the first creation story in Genesis and the rhythm of the Israelites' harvest. Genesis repeats the glories of each day's creation and finishes with the statement, "there was evening and there was morning" and counts the day. Exodus gives us different words to similar beat. There was quail and there was bread. There was evening and there was morning and there is another day. There is even a reminder of the special nature of the seventh day, the Sabbath Day of holy rest. On the sixth day of their food gathering, there will be extra so that they don't have to gather food on the Sabbath.
Slowly, their habits shifted from away from the life they learned in slavery. Slowly, they began to move with God's creation once again. Their lives shifted from oppression into provision. The meaning of their labor shifted. All of their work was their own once again, oriented to their well-being and needs, not pharaoh's. Each family was able to gather all they needed. If they tried fell back into scarcity thinking and tried to hoard food, the extra they collected would rot. They had constant reminders that there was enough, that work can be for the good, and that rest and worship are necessary. Their sense of the ordinary became readjusted, this time for the better.
For what it's worth, I think kind of "ordinary readjustment" is happening in the reading from Matthew, too. The parable is rooted in real life agricultural practices, practices that were not only in Jesus' time, but also our own. Landowners, both ancient and modern, show up to places where people gather to work and hire day laborers to work. They hire the number of people they need, usually picking the strongest looking and hiring only as many as they need to do the work. It is important to keep costs down, you know. It is a system where a worker can show up every day willing to work, and still leave with no pay if they don't get chosen, or minimal pay if they get chosen towards the end of the day. It is a system that is mostly oriented around the employer's needs: how many people? What kind of work? But, Jesus shifts things around in this parable. Here, it's about the workers' needs, all the workers, and everybody ends up with enough cash to make it through the day.
The scholar Thomas Long points out three shifts that changes this story about day laborers into a parable about grace. First, the story never says that the employer keeps hiring people because he needs more help. It says he hires people, even the last few who will only be able to work an hour or two, because he sees that they are idle. He hires based on their needs, not his. Second, there is a significant amount of trust between the later hires and the employer. Only the first employees negotiate their wage. The rest simply trust the landowner when he says he will pay them. Plenty of employers prove themselves unworthy of such trust. It is interesting that these day laborers, knowing that they might be cheated, go on to work anyway. Thirdly, everyone is paid a full day's wage. Everyone, from the one who worked one hour to the one who worked eight will leave the vineyard with enough money to survive. While those who worked a long time may feel slighted, the ones who were hired last can only feel grateful and say, "How extraordinary!" Hopefully the folks who got hired first will learn to praise the extraordinary work of this landowner, too.
We don't have to stay in our ordinary patterns of living simply because they are familiar. God's pattern of living invites us to so much more. A life that is marked by creativity, daily provision, meaningful labor, and extravagant grace, a life informed by these two scriptures, seems to be a life most closely aligned with God. We are ever invited to see if our own patterns of living actually reflect this divine rhythm. Are we living our lives as though we are confident that there is enough for today and there will be more for tomorrow? Are we willing to be gracious to our coworkers when they receive a wage that allows them to live, even if we think we might have worked harder? When we recognize that our ordinary is actually oppressive, are we really ready to push into the uncertain but extraordinary possibility of new life? May we never mistake comfort for faithfulness. May we continue to boldly travel with God, even when we aren't sure how our lives will change. There will always be another harvest in the morning.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Nancy Rockwell: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/money-manna-marriage-mercy/
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3433
Thomas Long: https://www.onscripture.com/imagining-economic-justice
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1986)
Catherine Gunsalus González and Justo L. González, "Proper 20," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds. Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.