Gleaning the Harvest

Exodus 16:2-15 Matthew 20:1-16


Both of this morning’s scriptures are about a form of harvest in one way or another. The Exodus reading tells of the time when Moses and the Israelites were wandering in the desert. They had escaped Egypt, but they had not yet found a place to settle down and call home. It was difficult to find enough food to keep everyone fed, and so they complained to Moses who in turn went to God and asked for help. The next morning the Israelites woke up and found a strange substance on the ground and were told that the flakes were a form of bread from God and that they should gather just what they needed. It would satisfy their need for nourishment. There was an interesting caveat, however; they were only to collect what they would use up in that day. They were not supposed to take any extra to store for later. It would only rot and go bad. The Sabbath was an exception to this; the day before the Sabbath they were to collect enough manna for two days, so that they did not have to work on the Sabbath as Jewish law ordered. The directive that they only collect what they needed was a message of sorts, that the people needed to trust God in the midst of their wandering. God would take care of their needs if they trusted and let go of trying to control things by taking too much manna and storing some just in case God somehow forgot to give it to them the next day.

In the Exodus reading, we see people collecting food from the earth, a gift that was given as it was needed, and in the other reading, the gospel according to Matthew, we have the story of a vineyard owner who hires workers throughout the day - morning, noon and late in the day - and then pays each the very same amount. The workers who had put in a full day’s work were furious and complained about this injustice. They were reminded that the wage they received was exactly what they had agreed to work for at the start of the day, and that it was a generous wage. They had to come to grips with the fact that their anger was directed at the generosity of the master and at the fact that he gave workers of just a few hours the same wage as he did those who had worked many long and hot hours in the sun for him. They could not complain about how they, themselves, had been treated because they had been treated with utter fairness. Most interpretations of this passage say that the generous land owner represents God, and that this scripture is trying to help us understand what God’s generosity looks like and feels like as it plays out in the world. It is a generosity that can be uncomfortable for us because we still harbor the idea that generosity should really be in response to something in the recipient, not just a random act of kindness. The fact that it might be deserved or undeserved doesn’t really matter in God’s perspective.

It is strange, how we can be angry when we think someone else is getting a better deal than we are. Even if we have everything we need, even if our life is pretty good, we tend to compare ourselves with others. The comparison often leaves us feeling deflated and unable to fully enjoy what should be ours to enjoy. Our mind wanders off to think about the other person and how they have more than we do, and perhaps we even go so far as to imagine that they didn’t really earn what they are enjoying. In moments like this we think that we want justice to be served, and yet if the world was exactingly just we would most likely not be happy. Justice is not really what most of us are looking for in our daily lives. An easy way to see what I mean by this is to think about being stopped by a police officer for speeding. In that moment as we wait to find out what is going to happen, we don’t really want justice. We want the officer to come back to us and say that we are just getting a warning and not a ticket or fine. If we are honest with ourselves in that moment, what we really want is grace. We want generosity. We don’t want what we deserve.

The Bible stories this morning, when taken together, bring up the idea of God’s generosity and grace. They also make me think of the efforts that have been ongoing since tropical storm Irene and the flooding that affected so many communities. The people who were hit by the flood, many of whom lost so much, had layers of difficulties piled on top of the most obvious losses. One of these added frustrations was that those who had gardens or even full scale farms, were told that even if their produce could be salvaged, if the flood waters had reached them, the produce was not safe to eat. I imagine that must have been painful to hear, and even worse to follow through with. Gardens take a lot of work, care and patience. To not have anything to show for all of that work is rough. And yet, this disappointment was not the final word. Before too long, relief efforts rolled into various communities with supplies including food and even fresh produce from neighbors, friends and strangers whose own gardens had not been damaged by Irene. If God does provide for us in our time of need, and I believe this to be true, then those who are able to give might well be the hands of God doing the providing. Generosity came out in full force through the hands of people right in this community. Grace, in the midst of the disaster had the faces of the people driving trucks, sorting food donations and picking up buckets, scrub brushes and shovels. It was amazing to see folks jump in to lend a hand, and to simply do what needed to be done. It was especially wonderful to see so many great efforts when I know that people are busy and they have their own lives to think about, their own concerns to take care of. But this didn’t stop the countless caring people who stepped forward to do what they could.

It feels good to be on either side of the equation when true generosity is involved. When the giving is done from the heart, then the receiving is easier somehow. There is an openness and honesty that is called forth from each one of us. The Gospel account of the vineyard workers who complained that other workers got paid the same as they did, for far less work, strikes a chord in our consciences. We have to admit that we do have a tough time when faced with generosity. Even when someone is trying to be kind to us by giving us a little something extra, we can feel uncomfortable accepting it. Until I realized that it was common practice, I tried to say “no thank you” to the 13th ear of corn in a farmer’s dozen. I didn’t feel right taking something that I had not paid for. There was some part of me that felt I needed to keep careful track and only take what I truly earned or paid for, no matter what the commodity. It seemed as if that was the right and proper way to go through life. But generosity is something that does not comply with these rules. Generosity slips in and offers us a touch of grace, often when we least expect it and almost always when we think we don’t deserve it. God’s generosity is even worse at playing by the rules of cause and effect, the rules of the workplace and it’s pay scale. God’s generosity wants to give us what we could never earn and what we clearly do not deserve, in abundance, so that our cupboards bulge and our root cellars have to swell just to fit everything in. God wants our lives to be full of every good gift so that we do not have to worry ourselves about tomorrow; but all we have to do is give thanks for the good that is in our lives, and perhaps share the wealth a bit with folks around us who might need to know that someone sees them and someone cares.

Loving God, you shower us with so many blessings that we cannot keep up. We can’t count the gifts of love and care that come to us every day. All we can do is ask that our arms and our hearts might be opened to receive all you want to give to us. All we can ask is that we, in turn, might share the abundance in our lives with others. Teach us, show us the way. In the name and love of Christ we pray, Amen.