Tag Archives: wilderness

Expectations, Envy, and Complaint [OR That’s God and That’s Good] Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:2-15

**sermon art: Manna in the Wilderness by Paul Oman

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 20, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Psalm is at the end]

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Matthew 20:1-16 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

[sermon begins]

What does it look when you’re fragile and whiny? My own pity parties are inelegant at best and downright annoying at worst. Even I get tired of myself when I’m in the depths of one. In our family, we have an epic pity party that we still talk about. I have our 21-year-old daughter’s permission to share it with you. Taryn was little, maybe three or four years old. She had developed an escalating habit of inconsolable meltdowns. We instituted a family policy that meltdowns could happen in the privacy of her room and she could come out of her room anytime she was ready to be around people. Her door was wide open. My sister was over one day, and Taryn had a meltdown. Off to her room she was sent. From the kitchen we could hear Taryn crying, “Anybody loves me…ANYBODY LOVES ME!” Critique of our parenting aside, Taryn was onto something true. When we’re in the throes of a pity party, we can wonder if anybody loves us. Taryn’s meltdown subsided enough that she and I could do the needed mop up and reassuring loves and snuggles.

The Israelites complaints weren’t as epic as Taryn’s in this mother’s eyes, but they were substantial enough that they would rather have died as fed slaves in Egypt than continue another day hungry in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron had listened to their complaining without the luxury of being able to send them to their room to regroup. That’s okay though, because God heard their complaining and arranged for manna to collect like frost on the ground every morning. To which the Israelites asked, “What is it?” It’s their question that captures me.

“What is it?” is an appropriate question when you get what you need but not what you hope for or expect. The Israelites were nostalgic for their slavery and full bellies after a month of being free and hungry in the wilderness. They were in uncharted territory both literally and metaphorically. Their identity as a people had undergone a seismic shift that would take time and learning to navigate.[1] In the meantime, they complained…and complained…and complained…and complained. They threw an epic pity party blaming Moses and Aaron. God heard their complaint and responded. God showed the Israelites that they did not travel alone through the wilds of the wilderness and neither do we. It’s just that in the wilderness, it becomes more difficult to believe that God’s giving, sustaining, and prayer-hearing are true.[2]

One of my seminary professors tells a story about a friend of his.[3] She was going through an incredibly hard time sustained by the grace of the church around her. Their love, prayer, and encouragement didn’t make the situation any less difficult. When he asked her how she was doing she said, “Well, the Lord’s given me manna.” Closer to home in real time, we had a Church Council meeting this past week. Our meetings open with a devotion from a member of the Council and last week’s was led by our youth representative, Grace. She briefly described her experience since the pandemic began, her needed break at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp this summer, and the daily devotions from her week at camp. How God sees the good – the good in us and the good in other people that we have a hard time seeing. The campers were challenged to take the week’s messages back down the mountain. For Grace, the message lasted more than her usual week or two after camp and it’s still percolating in her as she’s able to see things like a sunset in her rearview mirror on a frustrating drive to soccer practice and say, “That’s God and that’s good.” She then asked Council to share moments when we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.” As I listened and shared, it occurred to me that Grace had answered the Israelite’s manna question. They asked, “What is it?” When Moses replied that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” he could just as easily have answered, “That’s God and that’s good.”

My professor’s friend described her experience of being sustained by the grace of her church people as the manna in the Bible story. “The Lord’s given me manna,” she said. She was sustained by what was needed even if not wanted or expected. Our expectations can catch us by surprise as they escalate unconsciously. Sometimes we’re not even aware we have expectations until they’re dashed. Take the workers in the vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew reading. Why did the workers who’d been in the vineyard all day expect that they would get paid more than their peers who came to work at the end of the day? They were filled with envy and complaint rather that being able to say, “That’s the manna that the Lord has given me,” or “That’s God and that’s good.”

This isn’t about ignoring injustice and using the name of God in vain to justify inequity. This is about what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us about ourselves and about God’s radical grace that defies our expectations – especially in our daily wilderness walk through pandemic, politics, and race. And maybe more specifically, what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us in our experience of being the church in the daily wilderness walk of being separated for now to keep each other healthy and well. Is our manna a few brief weeks of outdoor worship – masked, silent, and distanced during worship together? Is our manna weekly online worship with monthly communion at home if we have that access, or a weekly mailing of scripture, sermon, and a monthly home communion liturgy if we aren’t online?[4] Is our manna the online One at 1:00 devotions recorded by staff every Tuesday and Thursday? Is our manna talking over the phone to check-in with each other rather than in-person to keep each other safe? Is our manna conducting ministry meetings online with Zoom to continue the ministry of the church?

Manna can be a term to describe anything that’s a gift yet feels insufficient because a year ago our lives looked very different whether we’re in school, working, unemployed, retired, or in our last years. We’re in that slog of in-between time, squeezed between the departure from those old norms and arrival at our destination post-pandemic. Much like the Israelites who left what they knew behind when they departed Egypt and had yet to arrive at their destination.[5] We’re challenged as a faith community to see the manna and say, “That’s God and that’s good.”

We’re similarly challenged as individual Jesus followers praying for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pause to identify what God sees as good in our neighbor rather than meticulously cataloguing our neighbor’s faults. Maybe just as important, we can pause to glimpse what we can describe as “That’s God, and that’s good.” And as a faith community, we can help each other, our children, and our neighbors do that too so that we can say from our own experience and with the confidence of the Psalmist, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[6] Thanks be to God, and amen.

Song after the Sermon

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy – ELW Hymnal #588

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[2] Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 for September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573

[3] Rolf Jacobson. Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[4] Online worship with Augustana can be found at AugustanaDenver.org/worship or https://www.facebook.com/augustanadenver/

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

_____________________________________________________

Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de- | clare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.

Football Sidelines and Neighbors – Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality.  I’m talking football sideline.  There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players.  Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling.  The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level.  Up their game when they get on the field.  So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock.  There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.

Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people.  Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season.  Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment.  There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.

The sideline is a bit of wilderness.  There is wandering around. Sitting down.  Very little appears organized.  But those are appearances.

Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game.  Take a gander at those sidelines.  Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.

John is worked up.  He’s a wilderness guy.  This is his terrain.  And the crowds come.  Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats.  The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?”  John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats.  John’s answers are nothing earth shattering.  The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”

In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation.  It is a sincere question.

John tells the riff-raff what to do.  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.[1]

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us.  We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence.  For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself.  And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.

Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side.  For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism.  And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.  John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus.  Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:

16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[2]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.

We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free.  And once that happens, look out!  It is a salvation day in the here and now.   Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.

God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]

In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?”  We shall worship.  We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.”[4]  The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.  Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people.  This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving.  Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.

The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

[1] Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world.  Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.

[2] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Revelation 1:8

[4] Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while.  We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.

[5] From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.