A Working Relationship with God
A sermon by Meighan Pritchard
Prospect United Church of Christ
Seattle, WA September 17, 2017
When I was nine years old, I went to Camp Sealth on Vashon Island for a whole week. One day we headed up into the woods for an overnight of camping, all these nine year olds and some counselors. It was late June, so of course it rained the whole time. We had to schlepp our sleeping bags and these heavy packs. We had to set up shelters. We had to figure out how to get a fire started with wet wood. None of us kids knew what we were doing. We lived on Pop Tarts and Bisquik dough wrapped around a stick and held over the smoky wet mess that was our fire. The Bisquik got black and crusty on the outside, but inside it was still raw dough. We were homesick, wet, and miserable. The allure of camping eluded me for years after that. Could I just please have a bowl of Campbell’s soup and a grilled cheese sandwich? And how about a hot shower?
I think that’s what the Israelites are going through in spades. Thank you very much for saving us from slavery and what do you mean there is no plan?
When we last left our friends the Israelites, they were slaves in Egypt preparing for the tenth plague. They slaughtered the Passover lamb and ate it in haste, fully clothed, sandals on their feet and staff in their hand, because God was about to call them out to do a new thing, and they needed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Since then, they have crossed the Red Sea. They dance with elation on the far side, looking back toward Egypt. They are no longer slaves! They are free, free, free!
And then they turn around and face … the desert.
So in today’s reading, the rejoicing is done, and reality is setting in regarding the logistics of plopping a bunch of people out in the desert with no infrastructure. There is no steady water supply, no steady food supply, no plan for long-term shelter. These days we might also say no cell-phone service, no internet, no showers. I mean, what was Moses thinking, bringing us out here in the middle of nowhere with no plan? At least when we were slaves in Egypt, we knew where our next meal was coming from.
So they’re complaining, and frankly, I can’t blame them. They’re scared. I’d be complaining too, because what they’re doing is very scary and very risky. They are living right on the edge. They want some assurance that things are going to be all right.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s what they’re asking for: Some kind of structure, some kind of form to their days, some plan for making sure that everyone eats on a regular and predictable basis. Give us the things that we need to make it through the day.
And God does. Here is a flock of quail flying right into camp: go catch and eat them. Here is manna showing up like dew every morning: go and gather it and make it into some kind of bread. It may not be the diet you’re used to, but it will nourish and sustain you. For forty years. That is, for the rest of your life.
Rhythm, structure, assurance—daily bread.
Maybe you’ve known times in your life when it felt as though you were wandering in the desert. When you didn’t know where the money would come from, where your next meal would come from, where you would sleep that night. Most of us find that terrifying. We want a steady job, a home to come back to every night, three meals a day. But maybe the job evaporates, or a big medical bill wipes out the savings, or a relationship ends, and suddenly your whole life is up for renegotiation. Start over. And you don’t even know how to begin.
Once upon a time I was an elementary music teacher. I worked really hard trying to do a good job. But one year it all just unraveled, and eventually it became clear to me that this thing I thought I was supposed to do for many years was actually coming to an end. God was calling me out of this setting, and I didn’t know yet what the next setting would be. I was in my own time of wandering in the desert, and it was hard. I was depressed; I was scared; I felt like a failure.
I was looking for God everywhere. Help me, God. Sustain me. I don’t see the path forward. I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m lost in the desert.
And this is what we get to ask of God when we’re wandering in the desert:
Give us this day our daily bread.
Give us a job to do that has meaning.
Give us some form and rhythm to our days.
Give us your love, your presence.
Give us your guidance, because we can’t see the way forward.
Notice that in this reading from Exodus, God can send the quail; God can drop manna like dew from heaven; but the people still have to work for it. They have to catch and prepare the quail, gather the manna and make it into bread. It’s a working relationship. Both parties have to show up. We don’t just open our mouths and God drops in bonbons. God invites us to the labor, to the relationship. We find meaning in the work of our lives in this relationship with God.
Which brings us to our second reading, about the laborers in the vineyard. If any of you have ever worked for an hourly rate or belonged to a union that had to negotiate fair working contracts, you see right away that this parable has some problems. The landowner is not paying a wage based on hours of work. And as the first workers point out, that hardly seems fair. So there’s an issue here.
And I’m going to invite us to not get hung up on that issue, because if we do, we miss the larger point. If we know anything about God’s preference for the poor, we know that our God is a just and generous God. So what gives? Let’s unpack this parable.
I think we have to look at what the work actually is. And that the landowner goes back again and again to find more workers. Normally someone looking for workers would go out early in the day to the market square, hire his crew, and off they would go for the day. I’m thinking the modern equivalent would be to drive up Aurora to Home Depot and hire the fellows hanging around at the entrance to the parking lot, looking for day labor. You hire everyone who’s there early in the morning. But then you’re usually done—you don’t come back and hire more throughout the day. The rest of those guys are left standing there, hoping that someone else pulls up looking for workers.
The point is less about paying them all the same and more about making sure every last one of them is hired. Everyone is invited to work in God’s vineyards. Every last person who shows up. God will make room for us, whether we are male or female, gay or straight, black or white, able bodied or disabled, five years old or 105, early or late. God doesn’t forget anyone. Even we, with all of our flaws and shortcomings, are called into the vineyard to work for God’s harvest. As we are. With our whole selves. God wouldn’t have it any other way.
The payment we receive from our work in God’s vineyards, whether we start early in the morning or late in the day, is not money. It’s a relationship with God. And we have that same opportunity no matter who we are, no matter who has told us that our presence is not required or even desired.
Several of us were talking the other day about the work that God invites us to. We observed that in the Progressive Church, we may not ask enough of people. We are so happy to see people sitting in the pews that we think that is enough. But the reality is, those who put more into their faith journey and their faith community—by singing in the choir, serving lunch to the hungry, renovating the third floor—often get more out of it than those who just sit in the pew. God invites us to show up and do work that is meaningful.
We all know that the Christian Church has an image problem these days. Too many people have been told, by Christians, that God does not love them. Those Christians have taken it upon themselves to make that judgment, as if they are the ones with the keys to God’s kin-dom. Maybe those Christians are like the workers who started early and worked all day. They feel they may have earned their way into heaven, into God’s good graces.
But what we see is the landowner going back to make sure every last worker has been hired. Every last one. The LGBTQ one. The one in the wheelchair. The one with a prison record. The one with an addiction. The one who has no working papers. The one who hasn’t showered in a month. The one who shouts at people no one else can see. The one who believes in a different religion. The one who doesn’t speak the language. They are all invited to this work. And they are all invited to the pay, which is a relationship with God, an awareness of God’s presence in their lives.
How do we nurture this relationship? Even when we are wandering in the desert, we can practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude. And sometimes this does take practice. Like the Israelites, we might be tempted to complain, to be frustrated, angry, scared. Or we could choose, even in such moments, to count our blessings. Look—quail! Look—manna every morning that we can make into bread! It is not Campbell’s soup and grilled cheese or bonbons, but it will keep us going. We will learn how to live in this desert environment, where to look for good water, how to make ourselves shelters. We can do this, with God’s grace and abundant blessings.
There is joy and meaning in working in God’s vineyards. Life has meaning. Our work has purpose. We are paid in love that builds our own souls and that strips away envy of others’ situations. We find our own individual callings that make our hearts sing even as they help to build God’s kin-dom.
When we look at God’s vast vineyards, we know we cannot do the work alone. We need everyone. So even we, the workers, can spread the word that the landowner is still looking for more workers, that everyone is invited, and that the pay is just right, by which we mean just and right.
God loves everyone. Everyone. This is not meant to be a secret. Part of our work in God’s vineyards is to spread that good news—that life-saving, spirit-filling news. God is our rock, our strength, our joy, our light. Why would we keep that good news to ourselves? There is plenty of God to go around. May we be strong workers in God’s vineyards, building a realm of abundant love, fueled by manna from heaven. And sometimes even serving grilled cheese and bonbons. Amen.