Proper 20A: Manna and Cod Liver Oil

457px-Gathering_of_the_MannaOLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 16: 2-15

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The passage begins with a typical scenario. Things are not going well. Discomfort and now even fear has set in. The Israelites are convinced that Moses has led them not to the Promised Land but to despair. “Surely we are all going to die out here in this desolate wilderness!…And it’s all Moses’ fault!” Boy, how quickly things turn. Last week, they were celebrating that they had traversed the Red Sea and lived to tell the tale. They could taste freedom. But now they’re out in the desert and things are not what they envisioned they would be. It’s hot; it’s dangerous; and there is nothing to eat. They were convinced that they were going to starve to death. And so they blame their leader. If only…it is a familiar tone. In fact, it’s a pattern in the Bible and in life. (Chaos–Grumbling–Deliverance…) How quickly we forget! What happened to the initial excitement of actually being released from slavery? What happened to the exhilaration of being set free? (What happened to that excitement after the Resurrection when that tiny band of Jesus’ followers began to increase its numbers by multipliers that we can only imagine?)

But God steps in, promising that bread will rain from heaven. The Lord will provide. But there are specific instructions. This is not something that you go out and collect and hoard for the future. God will provide what the people need that day and for that day only. And on the day before the Sabbath, God will provide for two days. So implicit in this tale are several points. First, you should only take what you need. And it is a base assumption that you shall remember the Sabbath. The manna is a gift; it is also a test. God offers freedom. God provides. Do we really trust that? Do we trust it enough to know that it’s going to happen again and again in our lives?

There’s another point too. As the dew lifted and the manna from heaven was revealed, the people didn’t even know what it was. “What is it?,” they asked. It wasn’t what they had envisioned; it wasn’t what they planned. (Many scholars explain manna as a surplus secretion from insects. It’s sort of like honey, but loaded with carbohydrates and nutrients. Nutritionists would call it a “super food”.) But it wasn’t what the Israelites put on their menu when they were dreaming up dinner!) Perhaps that’s part of the story! I mean, what would you have thought if there underneath the dew was a seven-course meal—maybe starting with a choice between a soup or a salad and then ending with a vast array of extravagant desserts? Yeah, I think that’s sort of over the top too. Manna is as much about gratitude for what is as it is about just opening our eyes to see what God brings into our lives.

In fact, manna was downright surprising on every level—unexpected, undeserved, uncharacteristic. I guess that sounds a whole lot like grace! But this manna was so small, so minute, so fleeting. It was definitely an exercise in trust. It was an exercise in self-control. And it means that we have to believe that God will always provide what we need—at the very least until tomorrow!

 Francis once visited a hermitage at Monte Casale, where the guardian reported that some thieves had just made off with a stash of bread. Francis said, “I must apprehend them!” So he took off down the road, caught up to them, and revealed he was carrying bread and a bottle of wine. “You must be hungry and thirsty, so here: eat, and drink, and come back to Monte Casale where there’s more.” The thieves, once they recovered from their shock, came with him, and became friars, friends of Francis and of Christ. (From “Small and White, Clean and Bright”, by Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, available at, accessed 13 September, 2011.)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why do you think this story is so significant?
  3. How good are we at being grateful for what is?
  4. So what lesson does this story provide for us today?


 NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 21-30

To read the Lectionary Epistle, click here

Paul is writing this letter from prison and does not know whether he will ever be released or see the congregation to which he writes again. But he is not feeling a sense of despair but rather a real freedom. He knows that they are praying for him and regardless of what happens, this will all turn to abundance. In the letter, Paul turns toward the congregation and encourages them to live their faith. He tells them to “live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

The Greek word that is translated “live your life” here is politeusthe, with the same root as polis, Greek for “city”, so the implication is the directive to “live as a free citizen.” Obviously, Paul’s meaning is the call to live in freedom within the order of God, rather than the order of Rome. And then he exhorts them to witness to that freedom by, first of all, showing a spirit of unity. He calls them to be strong, implying that the imprisonment that has been thrust upon him might be the same thing that happens to them in the future.

It is interesting to think of this possible suffering as a “privilege” when one talks about his or her faith. That notion is completely counter to what our culture thinks. But Paul is talking about a way of life that is completely counter itself. And in that way of life, it is indeed a privilege to call oneself a child and follower of God. The privilege is that we are given a faith so deep and so broad that it fills our lives in spite of any suffering that this world in which we live might thrust upon us. It is, according to Paul, a privilege to live a life that challenges and questions the pervading order of our world.

This passage obviously depicts Paul’s great and intense faith. But it is not a blind faith. There is nothing here claiming a God that will “fix things”. There is nothing here about God rewarding faithfulness with ease and prosperity. Instead, Paul has faith in the greatness of God, faith that God is beyond all we see and all we know, faith in a God that rather than blindly fixing or repairing our world leads us to a freedom from it, to a life that sees beyond to a life promised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul recognizes that suffering will happen. It is a normal and even expected part of life. But we’re about something bigger. We have the privilege of believing in something more. And that, Paul would say, is worth sharing the Good News.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is difficult about this passage for you?
  3. How do we look upon suffering in this world in light of our faith?
  4. What does it mean to you to say that we are “privileged” to belief in Christ? How does that call you to live your life?


GOSPEL: Matthew 20: 1-16

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

When I was little and started whining about something, it usually included the words, “That’s not fair!” No, it probably wasn’t. But often my mom would respond with the words (which, I will tell you, I hated at the time!), “Well, Shelli, life is not fair!” What kind of answer was that? I wanted pastoral compassion and I got shocking realism. Maybe that’s what Jesus is going for here.

The story, of course, has elements of exaggeration, but maybe the shock value is intended to get us to look at life differently. This is really a very ordinary setting. A landowner goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day in his vineyard. You know, we can easily put this story in our own context. Let’s say a person goes out early to hire workers and contracts with them for work that day replanting our dying grass in our yard. About mid-morning, the person sees others standing near the property. Well, it’s logical that the more laborers you have working, the faster the work gets done, right? So he puts them to work. More workers are added to the ranks around lunchtime and again in the middle of the afternoon.

When evening comes, the work is done and the yard is planted. The owner calls all of the workers together and begins handing out paychecks. He starts with those that had been hired last. They receive a nice wage, a full day’s wage, in fact. The workers who had been there earlier become excited. Wow! I bet I’m going to receive a bonus for being here earlier. This is going to be great!

But the owner paid everyone the same. After all, that’s the wage to which they had agreed. The owner can be as generous as he or she wants to be to whomever he or she wants to be. And even those that came to the setting last received the same generous spirit as those that came first. Now the owner could have alleviated a lot of the problems and consternation between the workers if he had just paid them beginning with he first hired. Then they would have gone off happy with their day’s wages and never have known that the latecomers got the same thing. But then they would have missed the lesson. The point is not that the owner treats some better than others. The point is that he treats them all the same.

We often have struggled with this story. Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is “a little bit like cod liver oil: you know it must be good for you, but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” After all, for us, it’s a question of fairness. But remember, “life is not fair.”   In fact, God never promised fairness. God promised unconditional and infinite mercy, and compassion, and justice. God’s grace is there for those who have been righteous all their lives. And God’s grace is equally showered upon those who have messed up their lives. And, if you really think about your own life, would you really want God to be fair? Thank God, God is not fair.

But this parable is a question of fairness. And the answer is that life is not fair. You see, when you think about it, fairness is pretty subjective. I mean, very few people will shout “unfair” when they are on the winning side. What is “fair” to us may not be “fair” to others? We need to reframe our reading of this passage and at the same time reframe our reading of life with a different set of values, the values that God’s Kingdom holds. People are treated according to their needs, not according to what they deserve. And for that, I am very thankful!

Life is not fair. We know that all too well. But Jesus told this parable to shake us out of our complacent view of a neatly ordered life based on what we think we deserve. This parable jolts us into remembering what is important. This question of fairness is answered by God’s promise of justice and mercy for everyone. And once we realize that, no matter what our own circumstances, we cannot help but be motivated to change the world or, at the very least, to begin to look at it differently.

The parable challenges Jesus’ disciples in their spiritual arrogance. It challenges Matthew’s Jewish Christians who oppose the entry of Gentiles into the blessings of the kingdom. It challenges us today in our churches as we begrudge the joy of the gospel to those whom we deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of it than we are.

The character(s) with whom we identify when we read a story tells us a great deal about ourselves and our self-conceptions. I suspect most of us identify with the workers who started out early in the morning and, on grounds of economic fairness, feel uncomfortable with this parable. What if the truth was that we ought to identify with those who started last? Only when we shed our spiritual arrogance can we experience the good news of this quirky parable, rather than being offended by its economics.

This came home to me when I was asked to perform a funeral recently. It was the funeral of Bill, the father of a church member. I knew his daughter and her husband and family but had only met Bill a couple of times at social gatherings at their home. He had been a vital man with a good sense of humor. He had been a successful salesman and made an excellent living, enjoying his retirement and frequent golf games until he had been stricken with Alzheimer’s two years before. Since I had not known Bill well, I asked if I could meet with the family and find out what their loved one had been like firsthand.

So I sat around a kitchen table one Saturday afternoon with Bill’s three children and their spouses, his niece, and nephew. I began by asking, “If you could express in one sentence what you learned from Bill, what would it be?” Nobody had to think about the question very long. “Give without counting the cost and without expecting a return,” one of them said quickly. And that sentiment was echoed all around the table.

Then they started giving examples. “He put me through school,” said his niece. “I didn’t even ask; he just knew my folks couldn’t do it.” “He bailed me out of jail,” said his son. “He never gave up hope in me,” said his nephew. “He gave me the gift of somebody believing in me.” Example after example of a man who knew how to give without counting the cost, without expecting a return. “He always made sure his children’s needs were met,” his daughter said, “but sometimes, I admit we felt jealous when he would give time and money to people who weren’t in our immediate family. Now I realize that his example of giving was his greatest gift to us.”Do you think that someday all of us who find this parable objectionable will say the same thing about Jesus? (From “Sheer Grace: Reflections on Matthew 19:27-20:16”, by Alyce McKenzie, available at, accessed 14 September, 2011.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is difficult about this passage for you?
  3. What, for you, is the difference between justice and fairness?
  4. Why do we have such a hard time distinguishing between these two meanings?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…We must not…assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)


Our inner happiness depends not on what we experience but on the degree of our gratitude to God, whatever the experience. (Albert Schweitzer)


If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)




O give thanks to the Beloved, and open your hearts to Love. Awaken! Listn in silence for the Voice of the Counselor. Sing praises with glad voice, and give witness to the truth with your lives! Glory in the radiance of the Beloved; let the hearts of those who call upon You rejoice! Seek the One who is Life, your strength, walk harmoniously in Love’s Presence! Remember that you are not alone, for through Love doubt and fear are released; O people of the earth, ever bear in mind the unity of diversity in the Divine Plan! Amen.


 (From “Psalm 105”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan C. Merrill, p. 217.)

Proper 19A: Beginning Again


Parting of the Red Sea, Chagall
Parting of the Red Sea, Chagall

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 14: 19-31

(OK, first of all, clear all images of Charlton Heston out of your mind.) Keep in mind that main themes of the Book of Exodus—liberation, law, covenant, and presence. Chapter 14 comes near to the end of the narrative of liberation. Once again we have an angel in the story, which has not happened since the burning bush. The cloud is both before and behind Israel as a sort of “protective screen.” The cloud takes the place of the fire of the bush, providing light as well as covering. Then, just as the Lord had commanded, Moses drives back the waters and creates a dry path for the escaping Israelites. Just as the waters were parted in the midst of Creation, they are parted here in this newness of recreation. In this moment, the Israelites are being liberated. And on top of that, the Egyptians are also forced to know that which even the Israelites had in some way doubted before. As Egypt comes to this confession, God is indeed acknowledged as the sovereign one. Then, also as God commanded, Moses unleashes the waters and chaos returns. They Egyptians are helpless against it.

According to this narrative, Yahweh has broken the power of Egypt and the power of slavery. The story is told in order to summon Israel to faith, even in the face of one’s enemies.   And faith points to liberation and transformation. Jewish interpreters understand that Moses had asked for a three-day pilgrimage for the people and Pharaoh obliged. It wasn’t until they didn’t return at the end of the three days that the Egyptians began pursuing them. Perhaps even these people , enslaved for centuries, had a hard time imagining total freedom. Perhaps they needed to imagine it in what could be characterized as a tiny sound byte.

The truth is that this is a hard Scripture to stomach on many. We struggle with the image of one’s own liberation and freedom coming at the expense of others. Maybe that’s part of the point. Darkness is everywhere in this world. And so is beauty. There is an almost poetic juxtaposition of the two at every turn of our lives. And because of that, sometimes our salvation comes in the midst of another’s exile; and often our own exile comes in the midst of another’s salvation. I mean, how many times have you heard someone proclaim praise that our area was “spared” a hurricane? And yet, the hurricane grounded itself somewhere. The fire burned down some path. The waters closed over someone. There was someone that was not spared. God is not only present with those on the side of salvation. God is also present in the darkness. Don’t you think God was there in that water with the Egyptians just as God was there in those crumbling towers? We do not have to be “good” or “right” or even “spiritual”. God is always there. But true freedom, true liberation only comes with that realization.

So, as we remember a devastation much closer to home this coming week, it is good for all of us to remember what happened after the well-known parting of the sea: the waters returned to normal, crashing into each other as the Israelites realized that the chaos of life is always there. But just as the waters come together, we find ourselves standing on the other shore—transformed, liberated, free to move to a new place, to open up a world to the miracle of infinite possibility.


A few days ago I came across a note from a friend, an Episcopalian priest who had been run out of his parish by its leaders, the punishment voted upon him as a result of having faithfully done his job. “Your sermons are too political. We don’t want to hear what’s wrong with the world. And we don’t want to hear what’s wrong with us. Just tell us God loves us and leave it at that,” they told him. When he couldn’t leave it at that – anymore than Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus could have before him, they insisted he resign. And his bishop supported their decision.


Being faithful to the gospel, having faith in himself meant heading for the Red Sea, not knowing what would happen next. Standing firm for the man he was and for the God who had called him – between the devil and the deep blue sea.


There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes. That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future. When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option. When no one can see a way for us to the other side. When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity. The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.


It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into that new day that God alone can provide.  (Excerpt from “Keeping the Faith in Babylon”, by Barry J. Robinson, available at, accessed 8 September, 2011.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How difficult is it for us to imagine “total transformation”? What, for us, does that entail?
  3. From what “exile” is it hard for us to leave? 


NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 14: 1-12

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage continues with the theme of God’s call to worship, holiness, and unity. The opening implies that Paul has become aware of disputes and dissensions within the community. He begins with the issue that probably lay at the heart of it all—the argument over whether or not the rules of Torah, the dietary laws, should be set aside. For Paul, these laws were probably no longer necessary. But he still warned against judging those who adhered to the laws. Rather, the Lord embraces all.

The next section has to do with the observance of special days, time-honored holy days. There seems to be an underlying warning against observing special days for the wrong reasons, something Paul would have attributed to paganism. He resolves that if anything is done to glorify God, it is rightly done. That is what living as a Christian means—to do everything that you do to honor and glorify God. The world will not know us by our perfect harmony; the world will know us by our love.

Paul is writing to people who despised each other, who judged each other based on their religious beliefs. They argued about holy days; they argued about proper food; they argued about whose belief was the “right” one. Can you imagine? But also keep in mind that, compared to us today, they were in the minority. Christians could lose jobs, become estranged from their families, and be vilified by the community. So fear was rampant. You know, fear does things to people. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when you don’t trust each other. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when rules and right beliefs become more important than our neighbors. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when we can’t talk to each other or be with each other. In a sermon entitled “From Commandments to Commitments”, Rev. Ignacio Castuera tells this story:


A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest were sitting next to each other at an Inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham in the Rabbi’s plate. The Rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things his faith and physician permitted. The Roman Catholic padre leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said. “Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork meat was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking. Of course trychinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?” The Rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “at your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding” (From “From Commandments to Commitments”, by Rev. Ignacio Castuera, available at, accessed 7 September, 2011.)


Essentially, Paul is saying, “Fine, do what you want to do; Live out your faith in whatever way is best for you; Live by whatever rules you want to live by. Just remember that those are not your faith; they are window dressing, ways that we order our own understanding of who God is. They are fine for you and we applaud your commitment. But faith is about relationships. Faith is about being the Body of Christ.” No where in this passage does Paul proclaim a “right” or orthodox theology by which we should live. He just tells us to get out of ourselves and back to God. He just tells us to get back to being the Body of Christ.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean for you to “be the Body of Christ”?
  3. To what issues in today’s religious world could this speak?
  4. How do you hear this in light of our 09/11 remembrance of this week? 


GOSPEL: Matthew 18: 21-35

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage continues the broad section of the writer Matthew’s version of the Gospel that has to do with life together as a new community. First the writer reflected on the consideration of those who are “young in the faith”, then church discipline, and, now, the idea of forgiveness and grace. At the beginning, Peter’s proposal to forgive seven times sounds pretty generous, especially since there is not even a mention of repentance by the other party. But Jesus goes far beyond that. The Greek number hepta can be understood as “seventy times seven” or four hundred ninety times. The difference between the two proposals is not merely mathematical; it goes beyond that. It is a matter of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. Whoever counts has not really forgiven at all. The forgiveness called for here goes beyond all calculation. Jesus then continues with a parable.

Here, the “servant” is not a household slave, but a subordinate official, perhaps a sort of supervisor or foreman. The debt, here, was incurred through mismanagement of the king’s resources, not by personal expenditures. The figure used is not a realistic one. A talent is the largest monetary unit, approximately equal to the wages of a laborer for fifteen years. The term for “ten thousand” is the largest possible number. We could translate it as “myriad”, something that can’t even be counted or calculated. The combination of the two (ten thousand talents) is the largest figure that can be given. The amount is beyond all calculation. The debt, then, is essentially unpayable. The servant’s situation is hopeless. He asks for mercy and beyond all expectation, the king shows him compassion.

The debt of the fellow servant, though, is microscopic. If you want to take it literally, a hundred denarii is about 1/600,000th of the first servant’s debt. The point, though, is that there is an infinite contrast. It’s still about 100 days labor and the servant cannot pay it. But the servant who had received such infinite compassion chose not to show even a tiny fraction of the same.

So the king takes back the forgiveness and condemns him to torment. The point is that in order to receive full forgiveness, one must be willing to forgive; otherwise it is invalidated. You could say that if one does not forgive, they have never really received forgiveness in the first place.

So what is the deal with all this math? It is because math depicts wholeness. In a book that he wrote about mathematical archetypes found throughout nature, art, and science, Michael Schneider contends that mathematics can be divided into three levels or approaches.

The first he calls “secular” mathematics. It is the math that is taught in school, that even within our limited scope, can be proved as true. It includes 2+2, calculating the amount of your change from a purchase, or telling time. This is the math approach that Peter was proposing: just count them—seven times.

The second approach is what Schneider calls “symbolic” mathematics. It is the understanding that numbers and shapes relate to each other in harmonious patterns. It is those patterns that make up all that is life.

The final level, as Schneider lays it out, he calls “sacred mathematics”. It is those things that move us beyond our own consciousness, beyond what is expected, beyond what we have been able to prove, or plan, or lay out as an accepted expectation. This is what Jesus was using. You see, seven is one of the most venerated numbers. In sacred understandings, seven is used to comprise completeness, a whole, a reconciliation. Think of the seventh day of Sabbath or the seventh year of Jubilee. And then on top of that, the multiplier of ten represents a new beginning, a new being beyond all limits. Seventy-seven times? It is a way of completing and beginning again. But you have to let it go to do that.

…What is forgiveness without reunion, or at least the possibility of reunion? And yet there are consequences to our actions. I was fascinated to speak with a Hindu colleague of mine about the concept of karma in her faith. “Every human choice has moral fallout,” she explained. “If you harm me, then there will be consequences for you as well as for me. You may have a change of heart later and ask me to forgive you, but even if I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, I cannot change your karma. You made a choice, which has had its effect. Eventually, you, too, will experience its full effect.” 

This is a scary idea for some Christians who like to think of forgiveness as a giant eraser on the blackboard of life. But there is biblical precedent for the lasting effect of sins that have been forgiven. God forgave David for his murderous affair with Bathsheba, but their firstborn child still died. Jesus came to forgive the sins of the whole world, but according to this parable in Matthew 25, he will come again to separate the sheep from the goats.

 Forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place. It is God’s gift to those who wish to begin again, but where we go with it is up to us. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 89-90)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What impact on your understanding of forgiveness does this make?
  3. How do you reflect on this passage in light of our 09/11 remembrance? 


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)


In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)


There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning. (Louis L’Amour)




We prattle about your sovereignty; all about all things working together for good, all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.


And then we are drawn up short; by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane; by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being; by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality; by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.


We are bewildered, undone, frightened, and then intrude the cadences of these old poets: the cadences of fidelity and righteousness; the sounds of justice and judgment; the images of Sodom and Gomorrah; the imperatives of widows and orphans.


Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty. We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread, that you are lord as well as friend, that you are hidden as well as visible, that you are silence as well as reassuring.


You are our God. That is enough for us…but just barely.


We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.


(“Even On Such A Day”, by Walter Brueggemann, written September 11, 2001, in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 37)