Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 24 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil 1:21-30; Mt 20:1-16

Last week’s parable, as I mentioned, was introduced in a somewhat ambiguous way, with Jesus saying something like “the kingdom of heaven has been compared to this.” Today, he is much more straightforward—introducing this parable, he says that the kingdom of heaven is like this. And it is a fine illustration indeed of the way that the kingdom violates all the common sense of the world, even those priniciples, like paying people for the work they’ve actually done, which are in the normal way of things good advice. But in this parable, a vineyard owner, who seems to be not very good at forward planning, gradually hires more and more labourers over the course of a day, and at the end of the day decides that he will simply pay everyone a full day’s wages, whether they’ve actually worked since dawn or only been there for half an hour. This makes no economic sense for him, and not a great deal of sense according to any known social code, and it is hardly surprising that those who’ve put in a a full day’s work are less than pleased.

But this is not the logic of the world but the logic of the kingdom, and the logic of the kingdom is always a bit mad—because it is the logic of radical equality, a vision in which we are all of equal importance, and all have precisely enough. It is a principle which is almost unknown in the world, only glimpsed in a few utopian moments. But it is the entire principle by which God operates. A kingdom in which we are all, every desperate needy one of us, of exactly the same, exactly infinite value.

Those labourers who come at the end, those men who’ve been, to put it in contemporary terms, standing in the parking lot of the temp agency all day, hoping that someone will come with an offer, and just about out of hope as the sun goes down, are given, not the worth of their labour, but the worth of their being. Hungry and desperate, probably, they expect a few coins which might buy them a bit of bread and nowhere to sleep. But they receive what everyone else receives. This is the kingdom, the kingdom of the out of luck and overlooked, the kingdom where everyone has enough, and no one has more.

We see the same thing in the story of the manna. As many commentators have pointed out, the children of Israel could have gotten from Egypt to their promised land in a short and efficient hike. They did not actually need to spend a whole generation walking around in circles eating mysterious bread from the sky and complaining to Moses about it. But there is a pedagogy of the wilderness. The years of lost wandering are a part of the long narrative of God trying to form a people who would be different, a community based on values as distinct and as strange as the behaviour of the vineyard owner. God’s people must be made and re-made, displaced and confused and given new stories. The lectionary, unfortunately, partly obscures this story by where it chooses to end the reading. If you go on for a few more sentences, you learn something crucial—you cannot stockpile the manna; it will simply and rapidly rot. No one can have more than anyone else; the very nature of God’s gift will not allow it. But nor can you fall short, because you don’t have as much strength to gather as the next person, or as many hands to help you. There will always be enough, and never too little or too much. The manna will provide each person with the food they need.

We live in a society which encourages us to think that there is never just enough, an economy which depends upon us in our identity as “consumers” never being satisfied, always finding something else to want; I remember once I riding a bus in North Toronto past some kind of retail establishment which had, prominently emblazoned in its window, the slogan “INVENTING DESIRE.” That is, in some ways, the motive force of our whole society. But this story is about the end of invented desire, about a fulfillment that does not depend on more and yet more. It is about the creation of a community in which enough is, precisely, enough, in which the strong do not chase endless empty desires at the expense of the weak. We begin to undo the stories we have been taught, to give up the endless quest for more at the expense of the vulnerable, and to enter the pedagogy of the wilderness, the pedagogy of enough.

Of course, we all have days when we feel like the labourers who arrived early. We have given all that we have to give, and been unrecognized. We are tired, we are spent, and we want to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be loved. And we want this to happen not indiscriminately but preferentially. This is that hard knot in human nature—that, all too often, we can only feel valued if we are valued more than someone else, rewarded more than someone who seems not to be trying nearly as hard. There is that part of us which keeps on whispering that infinite love is no good if everyone gets it infinitely. It is this impulse which drives almost everything in our economy and our politics, the determination that there must be winners and losers, that there is something fundamentally wrong if people who are less economically productive are given the resources to have good and decent lives, that there is something inherently right about certain people accumulating piles of wealth vaster than they can even really count, that if everyone has enough then someone is somehow being shortchanged. We can twist the human realm to function that way, though it does awful damage. But we cannot make God work that way. Infinite love goes on being infinite and indiscriminate, and challenges us to try to turn the human world in that direction.

For everyone will, at some time or another, also be like the workers who arrived at the end of the day. Not very useful, not expecting much, too close to falling off the edge. We are too sick, too sad, too old, too young, we do not have the right abilities, we may be too confused or traumatized or resentful, we may believe even in ourselves that we do not deserve enough to live, don’t really deserve life or love. But there is in God’s love never lack nor wavering, and the failures in the eyes of the world are exactly equally precious in the eyes of God. And some days, we must be those eyes.

Of course, reading the story of the manna in a Christian context, we cannot help but think of the eucharist. And one way in which our desires and our perceptions can be re-trained is in the astonishing equality of sacrament. For no matter what, we come to the table as equals. Newly baptized infants and bishops of the church, drunks and crooks and whores, the sick and the grieving and the joyful, people with profound intellectual disabilities and people with doctoral degrees, those with nothing to their name and those lost in the wilderness of their own many possessions. We all come helpless and hungry, we all hold up our hands to be fed. And we all receive the same thing, the infinity of God’s love. You cannot have more or less than infinity. God cannot come to us in the eucharist as less than total love; and you cannot have more of this love than the person beside you. This is the bread which the Lord has given us to eat.

Every now and then we glimpse it, that vision. In the sacraments, and in those rare and amazing moments in all our lives when we manage, for a few moments, to be part of a beloved community, a place where everyone, really everyone, is really at home, with no need to invent desires, to accumulate tokens of status or pretty toys stained with blood. In a protest camp or a parish hall, with another person or with God alone; for that too can be a part of community. Sharing food, sharing play or work, creating art or music, in a warm place or by a green tree, simply speaking, or not speaking but only being, a part of the general dance. When we understand, a little bit, the foolish extravagant welcome of God. It is transient, messy, strange, and when we know it, we usually know it poised on the cusp between discomfort and joy. But it is the place to which all our loves are turning, whether we can recognize it or not. The wilderness, the kingdom.