Bible Study: 15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A)

September 21, 2014

Nancy J. Hagner, General Theological Seminary

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16: 2-15

Often people are quick to mis-characterize the God of the Older Testament as a “wrathful God.” In today’s passage from Exodus we see again the seemingly tireless patience God continues to bestow on his “chosen” flock who so quickly return to fear and accusation even though they have experienced God’s salvation and mercy over and over. In chapter 14, the Israelites have been miraculously delivered from the army of Pharaoh. Then at the end of chapter 15, they have been camped at Elin in a desert oasis with palm trees and bountiful water sources, provided by God when they were thirsty. Today’s text tells us that they are only two months into the journey (which we know will last 40 years), and are complaining to Moses and Aaron; lamenting that they would have been better off dying in the land of Egypt rather than suffer the fear and hunger they are experiencing in the wilderness.

Moses correctly points out that “your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” He then reminds them to “draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” God then appears in a cloud, assuring Moses that he has indeed heard the complaints, will provide meat and bread sufficiently, and that perhaps this time the people will know that the Lord is present.

Moses’ steadfast faith that God will provide is inspiring, but it is often much easier to relate to the Israelites as they hesitantly and with great grumbling journey further into the desert. Who does not know the fear of the wilderness? The unknown landscape of setting out on the first day of a new school, or the first days of sobriety, or returning home to an empty house after the death of one’s life partner? The wilderness is a scary place, and we are people who require “earthly things” like food and water, comfort and companionship. How do we trust that God will provide? We know the doubt that settles in after the initial exuberance of a courageous decision to escape a bad marriage, an abusive relationship, a boring job, a house too big and too much for an aging widower? Even happy decisions involve risk and a sense of the unknown: to go on a blind date, go back to college as a second career student, take a vacation alone, step into a new ministry, reach out to a stranger.

It is always our human tendency to say, “It was better and safer to stay home, to not risk being vulnerable.” Today’s passage reminds us that God loves us, hears our cries and provides what we need in mysterious and unrecognizable ways. When faced with the food with which God had covered the ground, they still asked, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

When have you been in the wilderness?

How has God provided for you in the wilderness?  Did you recognize the “food”?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

The psalm is a reminder that it is always “right and a good and joyful to give thanks” to God. It is necessary to do this not because God needs our thanks, but we need to “sing praises to him and speak of all his marvelous works” to remind ourselves of what God has done and is doing in our lives. Verses 36-44 recount the story of the Exodus and God’s provision for the Israelites. It is important to say the words aloud, for that is how we remember the story of our faith and the actions of our God. Also note verse 45: God has done all these things so “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” God’s mercy, blessing, and salvation is for a purpose – so that we may live.

Think about writing your own version of Psalm 105. What praises can you sing today? What “marvels” can you recount?

How have you been “satisfied with bread from heaven”?

Philippians 1:21-30

Paul is writing from prison, thinking about death, which is, of course, a possibility. His words are focused, his confidence that he will be with Christ, robust. We have the sense that he is intentionally distilling a few important things; that he wants to convey to the Philippians what matters, in case he does not have the chance to see them again. We infer from Paul’s words that among the congregation there is conflict, divisiveness and persecution. Paul exhorts them to be unified and to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and not to be “intimidated by opponents.” These are challenging words, but Paul issues them with confidence that unity, courage, and faithful lives, worthy of Christ, are possible.

Paul tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”; and suggests that “striving side by side with one mind” (i.e., unity) is one way to do that. In what ways is our church realizing this or not? Is the unity Paul describes possible? Desirable?

Matthew 20:1-16

The familiar story of the workers in the vineyard is a wonderful parable about God’s sovereignty. The landowner represents God, who, when confronted with the unhappy day workers who started work early and yet received the same wage as the 5 p.m. latecomers who barely worked at all, asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” He then follows up with a second question: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” which implies to the early workers that they are not exhibiting any generosity, but are only concerned with getting what they have calculated to be their due.

We think we know how the world works, what is fair, what is right, who is deserving of work, of inclusion, of love, or respect, and who is not. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God – God’s vision and plan – is not organized in the ways we, as earthly humans, expect. Everything belongs to God, and God will do what God will do. God will be generous beyond our ability to comprehend.

We receive glimpses of the Kingdom and participate in it when we can let go of our anxiety about earthly things and set our hearts to love things heavenly; not eschewing our lives and the very real concerns of our world, but letting go of our rigid and anxious desire to control. Heavenly things such as love, generosity, forgiveness, grace and peace are available through the love of God and his son, our savior, Jesus Christ.

What would be on your list of heavenly things you would like to help realize on earth? In what ways could these gifts be used to bring about the Kingdom of God?

Comments

  1. Gerald Blaquiere says:

    I needed a kickstart for this weeks sermon. I had an idea of where to go, but Nancy’s excellent exegesis of the passage put into words what I was trying to get at. Now I have a direction.
    Thanks so much Nancy and “Sermons that work”.

    Gerald

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