Sermon – 18 September 2005

I ask you. Which sounds more fun ? the fleshpots of Egypt or wandering aimlessly in the desert?

It is not hard to have some sympathy with the children of Israel. Moses and Aaron have led them away from a life which was unfair though one which was mundane and familiar. And they have led them ? not to the promised land ? not yet anyway, but to the desert.
The wilderness. The desert. The place where there is emptiness.

The desert is a place which is empty and hard. It is important that we do not bring romantic illusions to stories like this. It is a hard, hot place. It is a place which people have consistently gone to and found God but it is a hard, hot place nonetheless. Is there any wonder that the wandering people hankered after life in slavery?

The grumbling, mumbling, muttering people are familiar to many preachers the world over. How easy it is to say ? oh, give us the old times back. Give us that old fashioned religion. Give me back the liturgies of my childhood. Give me back the feeling of security I grew up with. Give me back what you have taken away, Rector and all will be well.

The story of the Israelites leaving slavery in Egypt and moving into freedom is a growing up story of course. They wandered around the desert for their symbolic 40 years. And why? Could they not just have moved on to the promised land straight away.

No, first they had to grow up. They had much to do in order to be a people who had grown up ? people who did not rely on the shackles of slavery for protection ?people who could exercise their own self-determination. In those 40 years, they became knitted together as one people of the Lord. In those 40 years they became transformed from a rag-bag collection of former slaves into a people who could look after themselves. And they saw that transformation in terms of being blessed by God.

The truth is, the fleshpots of Egypt were not good enough for God?s people. There were better days to come. God had new ways in which to bless the people. God always does.

Growing up is hard. Working your way though desert times is hard. No-one ever said that life with God is an easy life. Indeed, someone who knew more about it than most people told us we would all have crosses to carry if we were going to walk with him.

I?m not sure what you make of the story of the quails and the manna from heaven. Is it a miracle story ? God providing for a hungry people in a miraculous way? Or is it miraculous to see a hungry people thank God for the food that they found in the desert along the way? Or is it something altogether more mystical ? news embedded in an old myth that told the people then and now that God has ever more to offer us day by day? Or is it all about living in the present ? telling us not to hanker for what is passed, but to be thankful in the present?

It could be any of these things. I?ve no definitive answer for you.

I do know however that sometimes our life with God goes through a desert time. A place which is hard and where there seems to be no refreshment. I know that is real ? it happens to most people who think about religious things. Indeed, it seems to be unavoidable for those who do commit themselves to taking seriously a life of prayer.

Praying is spending time with God. Not for pay, not for gain, as our gospel reading teaches us. It is simply living with God. Being with God. It is all about knowing that the generosity of God is true.

The story of the workers in the vineyard seems to be quite unfair if it is thought about in human terms. It is unfair ? those workers needed a good shop steward to sort out this unfair nonsense of everyone being paid the same no matter how much work they had been done.

However, from God?s perspective, God can do nothing but bless us with more than we deserve. And I think that is what this parable is trying to get at.

God has more to offer than the fleshpots of Egypt, more to offer than quail and manna from heaven, more to offer weary workers than what the world thinks they are worth.

Someone once said that being in love is not a matter of give and take, it is a matter of giving, and giving and giving again. People know this sometimes through human relationships though sometimes there are desert places there too.

God?s being in love with human beings has always been a matter of giving and giving and giving again.

A good life lived with other people always means giving more than ever we might think they deserve. It is the nature of love. It is such love as this that Jesus proclaim in his vineyard stories. The workers are not treated fairly. God promises never to treat us according to what we deserve but according to who we are and what God thinks of us. Giving and giving and giving again.

The fleshpots of Egypt stand for all the easy answers in the world. Wouldn?t it be easier to have a spirituality where we did not have to think about hard things? Wouldn?t it be easier if we never had to go through desert times? Wouldn?t it be easier if relationships with one another were all about what we stood to gain from them? Wouldn?t our ideas of God be easier to take if God rewarded the virtuous rather than the merely human? Wouldn?t religion be that much easier if people would leave alone the things that I like and stop mucking about with newfangled liturgies and ways of worship.

The temptation, the desert temptation is to answer yes. The answer that we will give to God and to one another when we start to grow up is more complex.

For the answer that we give to God will only satisfy us when we allow our eyes to roam around the world which we are passing through with inquisitive eyes.

At communion we come with empty hands and the Lord fills them with bread. As we walk through the world, the Lord challenges us to look around. And to see bread already there. Ready to share.

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