September 22, 2002
First Presbyterian Church, Anchorage
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Exodus 16: 2-15
Matthew 20: 1-16
Content with Enough
Good Morning. Thank you so much for having me back. I enjoyed my time with you a couple three weeks ago and have been looking forward to seeing you again. Last time it was a rainy Labor Day weekend. This time we have a little sun. Cool and crisp, but blue skies. Lovely time of year.
In the "Outside" world, where many of us came from, it is moving up on harvest time. Not yet, but almost. A time when we bring in the fruits of our labors and store up enough to get us through the winter. Our culture praises the busy squirrel who literally "squirrels" away all those acorns before the snow flies. And we cluck and fuss at the foolish rabbit who made no such preparations - and found himself cold, hungry, and homeless at the end of the childhood fable.
With stories such as these as part of our cultural heritage, this morning's scripture lesson from Exodus is somewhat disconcerting. How do we make peace between the call to be prudent, work hard, plan for retirement, and pile up those acorns - with this morning's message that the Israelites were told to be content with enough - just enough manna to get through one day?
And the Lord God was serious about it. Don't take more than you need! Otherwise, the extra will just get wormy and rotten - except on Friday. On Friday, you can take enough for two days, to cover the Sabbath.
What have we got here? The Israelites had just been delivered from total slavery in Egypt, and now when things are getting a little hard, they look back on their previous lives as being pretty good - their memories conjuring up visions of plenty of food and a life, if not easy, at least predictable.
Uncertainty is scary. Sometimes it can be challenging and a little exciting. But most of the time, it is down right scary. And most of us start to worry. And when we worry, we start to murmur. And when we start to murmur, others start to murmur - and a low, disturbing hum vibrates through the land.
We are told that the Lord decided to test His people. The scripture says God's motive was to see if they could follow directions - go out and gather enough for that day, for that day only. But such a test is more than following directions - it is a test of faith.
The quails came up, and covered the people's camp - So tame that the people could take up as many of them as they pleased. Next morning God rained manna upon them, which was to be continued to them for their daily bread.
How would the Israelites react to such an occurrence? How would we react?
Okay, I see the manna this morning; I see the quail tonight - but what about tomorrow? What happens if the quail don't fly and the manna don't fall?? What will we do then?
Not unlike our own contemporary concerns - I can pay the bills today, I can feed the family tomorrow, but what happens NEXT month?? What if the quail don't fly? Valid concerns, I'm here to tell you. But debilitating emotional dysfunction if such concerns degenerate into chronic worry.
The Exodus passage goes on. Some of the people just couldn't NOT go out to collect the manna on the seventh day. Was it greed? Was it chronic worry? Was it force of habit? Was it lack of faith? Whatever it was, sure enough, there was no manna, no quail. Scary, bad day.
"Momma said there'd be days like this…"
"I told you to REST," God said. "Try again tomorrow. And try to obey this time - try to believe!" And the birds and the bread returned the next day.
That's one message we can take from the Exodus reading this morning, but there is another one, too.
"What is this stuff?" asked the Israelites. This manna stuff certainly wasn't anything they'd seen, prepared, or eaten before. I have a feeling they knew what to do with the quail. But the manna, this was something different. Sometimes the Lord answers our prayers, but we don't immediately recognize the blessing before us. We have to take time to recognize it, value it, learn to use it, gain sustenance from it.
Personally, I can see why the Israelite had a difficult time getting used to this daily "living by the seat of their pants". Would make me nervous, too! Even as slaves, they were still an agricultural people. When they arrived at the Promised Land, they were an agricultural people. You plant, you work, you nurture, you wait, you harvest, and you store up more than you need. You store up enough to get you through the winter. You store up enough to pay your taxes. And sometimes you are even able to store up enough to sell to others. This is right and good. It's the way we live. It is the way we MUST live in our society.
What's this take just enough for today?
Those living in a hunter-gatherer society may understand this way of thinking a little bit better than those of us from farm families or even urban families with large cupboards of canned goods and frozen goods and dried goods - as well as bank accounts and credit cards with which to buy more when there is room to stuff more in.
We have made a sacrament of squirreling stuff away. When is enough, enough? How can we loosen up a bit here, let go of our fear that maybe just maybe, tomorrow the Lord will NOT provide? Or maybe not provide as much as we have become accustomed to receiving? When should we be content with enough?
But we are not subsistence hunters! you might say. Or, at least, most of us in this room are not subsistence hunters. Some of us may be. Some of us may have family members who are, or were. There are a whole bunch of Presbyterians who do, indeed, live a subsistence lifestyle.
When the geese fly, they eat geese. When the caribou arrive, it's time for meat. Sure, they can store up more berries than they need for one day - but it would be foolhardy to take way more geese, way more caribou, or pull up the berries by the root - and not leave enough to replenish God's cupboard, the natural way.
What kind of faith it must take to see the herds of animals leave - knowing, believing, that they will return when you need them most, the following year. It takes a whole lot of faith to hunker down for the winter, be ye a white man or a brown man, knowing and believing that God will, indeed, provide again, come spring. To be content with enough, today.
But the truth is that daily provisions DO come in different packages for the subsistence family and the agricultural family. And provision comes even more differently for the industrial/business family. And sometimes, it just doesn't seem fair.
When I sit down to prepare a sermon, I like to use the Lectionary. For each Sunday of the year, there is a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, one from the Gospels, and a third from the Letters. There is supposed to be a common theme among the readings, and sometimes it is quite an intellectual and spiritual challenge to identify it. It is part of the fun, however, at least for me.
When we turn to the reading from Matthew this morning, we find an agricultural metaphor, hmmm, seemingly quite different from the subsistence story of Exodus.
Now I took the time to look up some things about the Gospel of Mathew, itself. The Gospel of Matthew is usually ranked "first among equals". Placed first in the New Testament, it has been called "the authoritative account of the life of Christ" and the "fundamental document of the Christian religion." I suppose we could learn something from such a book.
We are told that the Gospel of Matthew was often placed in the hands of a new convert to Christianity as sort of an instruction manual on "how to be a Christian." The parables of the Kingdom were especially instructive. And that is what we have this morning, a parable of the Kingdom.
Matthew says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire folks to work his vineyard. He hires a few people in the early morning and agrees to pay them a denarius. He hires a few more later in the morning and agrees to pay them a denarius, too. Again, he hires a few more every few hours as the day goes along - all for the agreed to amount of one denarius.
At the end of the day, each worker is paid one denarius.
Well, as you can imagine, the early morning workers are up in arms. We did twice as much, three times as much, maybe four times as much as these late comers - and we only got a measly denarius.
But God, or the landowner, says "But you AGREED to work for a denarius. It was enough this morning. It met your needs this morning. It only became too little when you saw that someone else got more."
And the story ends with the statement, "so the last will be first, and the first will be last."
This last line has been the focus of many commentators through the years: the last will be first and the first will be last. Some have said that the story was written to show that the "first who were called" to be God's people, the Jews, would now be last. Somehow those of us who were called later, those not of Jewish descent, would become first in the favor of God.
Somehow, I don't think this is what God meant. Or, at least, it's not the message that speakers to me.
But if not, then what DID God mean? Somehow the story does seem unfair. Each one of us knows that no matter how hard we work, how diligently and consistently we work, somehow, if we look around someone seems to have more - without working nearly as hard as us.
To get any perspective on the problem at all, I have to stand back. Get out of the worker role, and try to look at it from God's point of view. It helps if you are a parent. It also helps if you have more than one child.
I have three. Three children and two step-children. And they are each special in their own way, with their own individual talents and their own individual challenges. Being a mother to each of them, a step-mother to two of them, requires entirely different approaches, as I am sure you know.
And it doesn't always seem fair. I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on my relationship with each one of them in relation to this passage from Matthew and it was revealing to me.
Where one might need a cash advance this month, another may have plenty of cash for the time being, but certainly needs a phone call or a hug. Another may need, not a call from me, but would rather have a call from their dad - and it's my job to put the phone in his hand and the number in his lap.
One needs clothes, another needs a friend. One needs acceptance, another needs encouragement, another needs a lesson in humility. It's all quite interesting, and on the surface, not at all fair.
But the basics, my husband and I agreed to provide for all. While they were growing up, each got their denarius. Each got their daily quail and ration of manna. But the rest sort of was tailored to the individual and the situation. Right or wrong, upon reflection, that's how it seemed to work out.
And, just like the landowner in the Matthew story, it really was our decision to make. We made the best decisions we could, but unlike God, I'm sure we made some big mistakes along the way. Each of our children turned out to be very different people. I do not believe that they would have all turned out to be alike if we had meticulously rationed out the denarii, quail and slices of manna on an absolutely equal basis. And frankly, I wouldn't want them all alike anyway.
I also hope, I truly believe, that if you asked our children if they "had enough" growing up - enough love, enough food, enough encouragement, enough of what makes a worthwhile childhood, they each would say - on a good day, at least - yes. We had enough. Most of the time, we were content.
Which sort of brings me to the Letter to the Philippians, and the third reading for this morning:
Philippi was an important city in Macedonia, originally founded as a military settlement by the Romans. For some reason Paul had particular success in proclaiming the gospel in this area, and the church he established had taken deep root. Its members were particularly generous, sending money to help fund missionary efforts throughout the region.
Paul's last letter from prison was written to the church at Philippi, the first church he had founded in Europe. It was also the church strongest in loyalty to him and deepest in his affections. These are the last words we have from him, written to his closest friends.
The letter was written toward the close of Paul's Roman imprisonment, which ended either in 62 AD or 64 AD. It is an informal letter written for the purpose of expressing gratitude and encouragement. One central theme dominates the entire letter - Christian joy. The Philippians were worried about Paul, but they had also been having troubles of their own: persecution, confusion, and dissension among themselves. Paul's chief aim is to encourage them:
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice."
The crucial thing to note about Paul's joy is its foundation in Jesus Christ. Here is no superficial peace of mind or positive thinking that we achieve by telling ourselves that things will turn out for the best. On the contrary, Paul is facing death. When we have discovered and accepted the "one thing needful," joy is inevitable.
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell, I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better."
In accordance with our theme this morning, Paul is Content with Enough. Enough life, enough challenge, enough promise through Christ. If he is further needed by God and is permitted to live, there will be more "fruitful labor" for him, and he will, of course, accept it. But for his own part, his own desire, being with Christ is far better - and enough.
As said before, this letter is probably Paul's farewell utterance. Facing imminent danger, Paul shares a joy beyond sorrow, suffering, and even death. Perhaps, it is a quiet, contemplative joy - contentment. And, in the passage for us this morning, he leaves some last instructions: "Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."
As many of you know, I was a hospital chaplain for many years. Sometimes, I was fortunate to be present for the birth of a new baby, or shortly thereafter - but most of the time, I was called at the close of life. I was present with women and men who knew that their lives were coming to a close. They wanted to tell me about themselves, their lives, their work. Most frequently, it seemed, they wanted assurance that their life had meant something, something to someone. They wanted to tell someone that they were grateful. It had been a good ride. To tell a chaplain, was sort of like telling God - and I was very much honored and awed when someone offered the story of their life to me - and I treated it with dignity.
Chaplains are also called to be present with the family and friends of someone who is dying or has died. I also ran grief groups for parents whose children had died from illness or accident or worse.
The need was much the same - please let me tell you how important this child was to me, to others. Let me tell you that my husband or my wife or my mother was a really special person. And, of course, each and every one of them was special.
In the midst of the stories, however, was often the lament, no matter what the age - he was too young; it was too early for her to go; my child never got to live. Ever so often, the chaplain would hear, it's been a good life and I'm ready to go - but seldom when the deceased was a child or a relatively young person. And it was too soon; they were too young. At a time like this, the quiet joy of having lived at all is often elusive.
Sometimes, in the parent grief group, for instance, I would quietly ask, "How much is enough? How much makes a good life? Would it have been better had your child not lived at all?'
These are questions one asks very quietly, and very respectfully. It is very painful to even contemplate the answer, especially when you most need an answer. But after a pause, the answer was always - No, I am glad that my child lived, thank God. My child's life was important, was meaningful, no matter how short.
Paul was lucky. He had lived a good life. He had had time to correct some of his earlier wrongs. He had engaged in many "fruitful labors" for his Lord. He'd be willing to work on, if called, but frankly, he knew he had been given an ample portion of life - and it was, indeed, enough.
Paul was not a wealthy man. He was not even a respected man - among the powers at that time. Paul did not have a family or many of the things that make life worth living for some of us. In fact, he was about to die a martyr's death - not a pleasant prospect at all.
But Paul was a joyful man. A content man. He wasn't worried about whether or not the quail and the manna would be there in the morning - he knew his God would provide just exactly what he needed, in this world as well as in the next.
The Apostle Paul had a long enough life. Paul had enough "fruitful labor". He had enough denarii to get by. But most of all he had faith in his God and in his Christ. He had enough faith that he knew his life had been well-lived and that the Lord God would be with him now and forever more.
And my friends, that is one of the major the Goals of Life: To Be Content with Enough.
May the Lord bless us and keep us, make his face to shine upon us, be gracious unto us, and bring us acorns and quail, a basket of manna, a denarius or two - but most importantly, the Joy of Christ, right now, throughout our whole lives, and forevermore.
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