Here’s the text of the homily The Revd Rob Morpeth delivered at Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on Sunday, September 18, 2011. In it he refers to three of the lectionary scriptures for that day:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to 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.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him– what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Like the early Israelites in our story this morning, I have traveled across the Sinai … across the wilderness. I made my journey several years ago during a lull in the fighting that seems never ending in that region …However, I traveled from east to west …from the promised land to Egypt rather than in the opposite direction as the recently freed Israelites did in the story this morning as they fled from captivity in Egypt.
Oh, and also I did it in a day on charter bus with an Egyptian driver named Monty … I was the bus leader so I guess I was the Moses of our small band of pilgrims.
Even in our air conditioned, espresso equipped coach some of us grumbled as the day wore on … the terrain … stark and barren …. is interesting for only so long…then the trip becomes just tedious… at first you remind yourself of how this extraordinary place shaped the people of God, but after a time you just want the trip to end…you long for the lights of Cairo.
So forgive me if I go a little easy on the Israelites who grumble as they cross the Sinai on foot … seeing the same terrain, minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day … feeling the rocks and sand underfoot and the hot breeze on their dry skin … at this point they know very little about this god who has sent Moses and called them out of slavery … indeed they left behind everything they knew … even the certainty of food and water and a place to sleep…at this point in their story the encounter at the mountain still lies ahead … at this point there are no commandments … no stone tablets … there have been a couple of times when extraordinary things have happened … there was the bitter water at Marabah …water that turned sweet when Moses threw a tree into the water … was that God or did the tree just absorb the bitterness? … and indeed there was that lucky break back at the Reed Sea when the winds blew all night pushing the water to the south so they were able to walk threw the waters while the heavy Egyptian chariots sank into the mud … there was some debate even about that … was it a lucky break or was it the hand of this mysterious God who has so recently reentered their lives claiming to have been the god of their ancestors? All this they turn over and over in their minds as they walk on and on. The one thing it seems that they now have in abundance is time and the luxury of worry.
And in this they are not much different from most of us…though their circumstances are different and though 27 centuries separate us … the core question they face is the same as ours … shall our lives and the choices we make be grounded in and responsive to our relationship with God … or is that relationship merely a mirage leaving us to fend for ourselves making the most of whatever lot fate has dealt us?
For them this question was articulated in the choice between continuing on their journey through the Sinai or in returning to the security of Egypt. For us the question seems to take many forms but is essentially the same. The dollar bill proclaims that it is in God that we trust but the recent history of that dollar and its investment suggests that at least some of us are more like those Israelites who wanted to reject the trust implicit in a relationship with God and instead fend for themselves back in Egypt. Jonathan Edwards said during the great enlightenment that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry geod. I think it’s pretty scary choosing to fall into the hands of God no matter what the divine temper. That’s why it remains such a struggle for us. The choice that is… that’s why stories such as this still speak with such power.
We learn also in this reading of their embarrassing scramble to gather more manna than would be required for one day. The implication of their gathering was clear enough … this god could not really be trusted so you had better gather all you can while it is available … there is really no miracle in this manna, of course … to this day God feeds us each day …we eat manna from heaven everyday … for not one of us can make food from thin air … we use what God has given us … there is not enough for everyone because not all of us have learned the lesson of Exodus, to gather only what we need … instead we hoard, creating shortages … and so some starve while others throw away food that, like the manna in the story, has gone bad. At the heart of it all lies this same question about trust … about the fundamental orientation of our lives. … whether it is toward the promised land or whether we continue to look back to Egypt. Whether we dare allow ourselves to fall into the hands of God or continually snatch ourselves back from God’s embrace.
The apostle Paul is powerful because he has answered that question once and for all … his life is focused in a way that will elude us so long as we hold back and grumble …his path less traveled has brought him to a place of confidence that is worthy of envy. His confidence exudes in his letter to the Christians in Philippi. For to me, he proclaims, living is Christ and dying is gain. It is incredible when we remember that he writes some 30 years after the crucifixion and nearly that long after his own conversion … he writes from a jail cell but his spirit soars so that you cannot detect his incarceration in his writing unless he mentions it.
This is a man whose life is not dependent upon the peaks and valleys of the Dow Jones … or for that matter on any other worldly measure of success. But neither is he the fierce individualist so often exalted in the American mystique … he is utterly dependent…dependent upon God … he has fallen hook, line and sinker into the hands of God and has stayed put. Though his time at the hand of the plow has been long he asks only his daily wages for he knows that his employer is able to provide…and more important …he knows who his true employer is.
And so it is that we travel on in our journey having left the confines of our personal Egypts – some more recently than others…. We now find ourselves in varying degrees struggling to permit our tumble into the hands of God … to take up the trust that is both the way and the goal … struggling to learn to gather only manna enough but knowing that gather and labor we must … struggling to stay turned toward the land of promise when Egypt beckons safe and secure. We yearn to know how much is enough and when too much becomes just another Egypt. Can we set our hands upon the plow without looking back? Do we mind too much that others may seem to make the journey with greater ease than we?. Can we trust enough to know that all may at last arrive?
We prayed just a few moments ago that we not lose our way as we pass through things that are themselves passing away. Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence argues that we are living in such a time … a time when more than the usual number of things are passing a way … a time, she observes, that seems to come around about every 500 years … a time when it is especially important to have your bearings …. A time to know what is really worth holding onto and what must be left on the side of the road. … . A time for traveling lightly.
A good time to remember our spiritual ancestors who once traversed the Sinai leaving what they had known along the way and finding that the real journey was within …a journey in which they learned to trust in more than themselves …a journey whose destination was not really a place but rather a way of living no matter the place … a journey whose end is also its way. An English king and Christian 500 years ago expressed it this way:
“To see thee is the end and the beginning, thou carriest me and thou goest before, thou art the journey and the journey’s end.”