“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
With all the complaining going on in the Exodus reading this morning, I like to imagine there had to have been at least one woman in the Israelite camp who wasn’t complaining. She knew what she’d signed up for. She was faithful. All during their Egyptian captivity she believed that freedom was coming and when she first saw this new kid standing up to Pharaoh she knew that God had sent him. Of course the Red Sea parted for them. Of course they had a long journey ahead. That’s what she’d prepared for. She was responsible for a family of six and even though their departure had been hasty she had gathered their provisions, bare essentials but also tools for foraging in the wilderness, and not only tools but a mentality bent on survival, a rationing of just enough for each day they were on the road. And so her heart filled with bitterness when she heard her friends complain. She could have told you these women would be in trouble weeks ago. They hadn’t prepared. After the Egyptians had been crushed they celebrated for days with elaborate feasts which cleared out half their stock. And now they were complaining about not having enough. “What do you think he brought us out here for,” one mumbled at the entrance of her tent, “to die?” “I heard his parents aren’t even Jewish,” “oh yea well you know they found him in the river, can you imagine? Probably why he mumbles so much.” The last straw was when one showed up after the kids had been put to bed one night and said, “There’s going to be a revolt tomorrow at noon, join us in the camp square, we won’t stand for this starvation any longer, we’re going home.” She didn’t say a word in reply. She waited for the woman to leave, found a quiet place to sit down, and prayed. “Oh God and Ruler of the Universe, Awesome in Renown, Worker of Wonders, how much longer must I tolerate these fools? Let your strength be known. Punish them. Teach them that they can’t just do whatever they want and waste their lives away and expect everything to be handed to them on a platter! Amen.” She was sure that God would make himself known. So the next day she did not go to the protest. And she waited patiently for the next day after that and for the end to come. She imagined her friend coming back to the entrance of the tent again, tearful, repentant. She imagined herself being gracious but also firm, not so much of an “I told you so,” as a, “well our choices do have consequences, don’t they?” When her friend finally flung wide the tent flap she was not prepared to see her standing there with a platter full of perfectly rotisseried golden quail. “The Almighty has provided! Quail appeared, we can eat again, we can make it after all!” She rushed back out as quickly as she had come, the sound of exultation could be heard in the camp once again. The woman stands and walks to the entrance and looks out across the feasting just as one of her own young boys comes running up to her, half eaten quail leg in hand, “momma, we can eat again!” She doesn’t say a word in reply. Her face only goes blank with rage.
I imagine it wasn’t easy for the day laborers who came late in Jesus’ story. I imagine one of them showing up to a bar after the shift had ended and the whole business about each worker being paid an equal wage no matter how long they had worked for had been settled. When he walks in, a hush falls over the room, all eyes on him. He finds a seat far removed down the bar from everyone and it seems like an eternity before the bartender takes his order and when she does she barely speaks. It’s not like he planned to be a total slacker. He didn’t mean to con anyone. He’d been passing through town, he’d slept late that day, he’d been asked if he could work and obliged. He hadn’t asked to be paid the same as everyone else. “Hey,” suddenly one of the other men is towering over him. He recognizes him from the field, face burnt and covered in dirt from a full day’s worth of work. “The rest of us were talking and it seems like you owe us one. Seems like you could buy the next round of drinks. Maybe the next couple of rounds.” This is not an option. The man has a mother he needs to take care of. Unfair as it may have been he’s going to use that money to help her, she’d been rationing out what little they had all year and if there was going to be any good fortune he was determined to bring some of it her way. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he tells the tall man. What happens next he can’t remember. He wakes up the next morning bruised, bloody and empty-pocketed on the outskirts of town. The day laborers meanwhile have unionized, if you don’t show up by 6am you’re not working that day, period. No matter what some crooked landowner says.
Fast forward two thousand years. I’m yelling at a computer screen. On it is a clip from the Emmy’s in which the former Press Secretary of the President of the United States is rolling out on stage in an imitation of an imitation of himself, one that had satirized the farce he had made out of the press during his brief tenure. “No,” I’m yelling, “No, this man does not get to redeem himself. No, this man does not get to laugh at his own ridiculousness. This man is in cahoots with the end of western civilization as we know it. This man is responsible for the unraveling of truth. This man is a part of what threatened to jeopardize the future of 800,000 dreamers, the healthcare of millions of Americans with preexisting conditions, and may or may not lead us into nuclear winter on the basis of personal insults. He does not get to laugh at himself. He does not get to be redeemed.” This is the point at which Jesus gently takes the mouse out of my hand and clicks the window closed and asks, “Why are you mad, though? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I wake up as if from a nightmare. I am utterly mystified by the generosity of God. I am confident that the generosity of God has nothing to do with who gets struck by hurricanes and who gets to sit in air-conditioned offices, but beyond that my confidence begins to wane. I gather from scripture and the stories Jesus tells that God is someone generous beyond all human measure, antithetical to human measurement, even, but I really only have human terms to compare that to. I only know that generosity is hard for us. I only know that generosity can get mired in human envy and comparison and judgement. I know that most of us love the feeling of being generous but are also confined by a sense of what is just or simply reasonable. I know that Father John used to say, “never resist a generous impulse,” and that that maxim has led many members of this parish down paths of self-offering that have often led to God. But I do not know what to do with the unfairness of it all, with the resentments that arise when grace collides with human standards of what someone does or does not deserve. When God asks, “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” I only know that it feels like a fight waiting to be picked if I say no, but that thankfully, by God’s standards, most of the folks who do all the complaining still end up getting fed anyway.
the Rev. James Michael Joiner
Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16
Last Sunday was pretty great. The choir was back in session. Familiar and fresh faces alike settled into pews, and the kids streamed out from them. We sang joyfully to God and our singing felt good. Psalm 149 was on tap and seemed to describe the exuberance we were experiencing.
“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people!” it says, always a nice reminder,
“and adorns the poor with victory,” which I am totally on board with,
“let them praise his Name in the dance!” something I believe we totally corner the market on here at St. Michael’s,
“let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp,” I mean, I’ve definitely seen Amy with a tambourine in hand at times, so I guess that counts;
“Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two edged sword in their hand!”
A sword, huh? But maybe it’s like a sword of the Spirit, you know? To go with the helmet of Salvation and Breastplate of Righteousness.
“Oh no,” says the psalm, it’s “To wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.” At this point I have to look over at Chris, “this is starting to sound less church friendly.” It only gets worse.
“To bind their kings in chains and their nobles with links of iron; to inflict on them the judgement decreed, this is the glory for all his faithful people. Hallelujah!”
Suddenly, chanting this, it feels less like we’re in church and more like we’re at a sporting event, say, the kind that might have taken place with lions in the Flavian Colosseum. I kid, but to a certain extent it’s not funny. This is the kind of language militants and extremists thrive on. Glossing over these words in four-part harmony belies their history as battle cries. Why are we still singing them? Do we worship a violent God?
This morning Moses and all of Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land. And when their captors and tormentors try to follow them God whispers a secret in his ear, “stretch out your hand again and I’ll take care of them.” Moses consents, and with a single, cacophonous woosh the bad guys are gone. Anyone who has ever been bullied can get the appeal of cheering at this scene. Anyone who has ever found themselves under the thumb of an oppressor knows the fantasy of seeing a strong man drown, or choke, or at least humiliate himself in front of others. It’s the stuff of truly satisfying entertainment; sometimes whole season-long narrative arcs build up how bad a person is just to reward the viewer in the final hour with the glee of watching him fall down. But the life of faith is not an entertainment, and something about this story fits poorly with the way we have come to know God in this tradition and this community. Even if the aim is for a greater good God is planning for, like the liberation of God’s people from slavery, scripture presents us with the question of whether God uses violence as a means for achieving that end. This question follows us all the way to the cross, and to the way many Christians have talked about the cross for so much of our history. So much of Christian history paints the cross as God’s necessity, God’s only answer to a violent human problem. By this account, God is not only not above killing enemies for his own good ends, he’s not above killing his own Beloved, either. Do we worship a violent God?
At times, Jesus would appear to say that yes, we do. “Forgive each other as often as you have to, as many as seventy times seven times” Jesus says in the Gospel this morning, “or my Father in Heaven will hand you over to be tortured until your own debts are paid.” Jesus! Let’s presume that he actually said this, that it’s not just some Gospel writer or editor’s later addendum to help strike fear into the hearts of new believers. The truth is, the Gospels frequently find Jesus speaking of a God who gives people up or hands people over or casts people out to some darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A quick glance at these passages reveals a not-so-hidden truth: humans don’t actually require that much help from God to get stuck in a really dark place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth! The utter isolation this turn of phrase speaks of is nearly always man-made! It is a place exclusively created by and reserved for people who don’t want to show up to the party, don’t want to receive an act of generosity or don’t want to give back something which never belonged to them in the first place. It is a corner we stubbornly put ourselves in when we refuse to participate in the embarrassing fragility of a graced human experience. In today’s example it is a man who took his good fortune and ran with it but refused to play it forward to the next person who begged for the same mercy from him. His stubborn stinginess is torture enough. Is speaking of a God who hands him over to such torture violent? It reminds me of Al-Anon. In the desire to help a friend or loved one who is struggling with addiction many family members find that no amount of coercion will save them, the only way to help is by letting go. It is excruciating, watching someone self-destruct, but often our holding on is only more destructive. This surrender is painful, sometimes fatal, sometimes transformative, and utterly non-violent.
Maybe God lets us go sometimes, and maybe this is violently terrifying. Maybe God surrenders us to our own destructive appetites knowing that we will only ever escape them if we learn to surrender in return. In the Jesus story, though, it seems the only thing at God’s disposal to surrender is God’s own self. In the Incarnation, God surrenders far-removed transcendence for human flesh and blood. On the cross, Jesus surrenders his life to our blood-thirsty cries for execution. The revelation of God in Jesus is fundamentally non-violent, yet intimately bound with our own self-destruction. Of course it looks violent. God stoops so low as to come to us on our own terms at first, and the terms of humanity have been steeped in blood from the beginning. As we learn God’s terms, we begin to find another way. Years after Moses heard God speak of his plan for the Egyptian soldiers, he hears God say, “thou shalt not kill.” Who had changed their mind, Moses or God?
I have to confess, though, I actually enjoy the more aggressive psalms. And the despairing psalms. And the fearful ones. For some reason, I’ve enjoyed them more and more ever since last November. When they cry out against wicked rulers who oppress the poor, the injured and the foreigner in our land, I cry out, too, often loudly. “Take down these wicked good for nothing rulers, God! DO something!” This is my unabashed prayer. In praying it, I believe that I surrender some of the wrath that would otherwise eat me up alive. In praying the retributive violence my heart longs for, the Spirit removes the brunt of it to a power higher than my own, sparing me some resentment whose only effective target in the end would be myself. In the process God even leaves me with just enough fire and heat to do my part to make the world a more just and peaceful place …with just a little bit of grumbling on the side. Because seriously, can anyone forgive the same person seventy times seven times without their thoughts getting stuck in the outer darkness at least once or twice along the way?”
-the Rev. James Michael Joiner, Exodus 14:19-31, Matthew 18:21-35
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