Psalm 31:10-20: Exodus 6:13-7:24; Matthew 20:1-16

No photography this morning.  Sitting here in the coffee shop at the Monterey Plaza and the usual view across the bay is obscured by wind and driving rain.  What we’ve all been praying and waiting for, but I hope it lets up a bit before Susan and I begin our drive home later today.

Psalm 31:10-20  No matter our physical weakness– “my strength fails because of my misery,/ and my bones waste away” — or our personal circumstances — “terror all around!—as they scheme together against me,/ as they plot to take my life.”– God is the rock, the faithful One. “But I trust in you, O Lord;/ I say, “You are my God.”/ My times are in your hand.”

I don’t have my Alter with me, so I don’t know how he translated what the NRSV renders as “My times are in your hand,” but I’m pretty satisfied with those six words, which say it all.  Our lives, and the time we’ve been allotted to live out those lives, are a gift from God.  This phrase acknowledges what it took me so many years and a bout with cancer to learn: Regardless of what I may think, I am not the all-knowing master of my destiny.  My times are not defined by what I think they should be.  There are simply too many outside forces impinging on my life.  I cannot be safe on my own power and intelligence.  As our psalmist writes, all that we achieve and are is “accomplished for those who take refuge in you.”

Exodus 6:13-7:24  Once again, Moses implores God to get him off the hook of public speaking, “Since I am a poor speaker,why would Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:28).  And God gets the message, redefining Moses’ role, and making Aaron his mouthpiece, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (7:1) God is very clear, though, to Moses, “You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land.” (7:2).  And finally, “Moses and Aaron did so; they did just as the Lord commanded them.” (7:6)

Moses has clearly gotten the message (so to speak). God also warns them that it will not be an easy task to convince Pharaoh.  He gets the rod-to-snake demonstration and the water-to-blood plague.  But his heart remains hard.

Words, as important as they are, will not accomplish the goal alone; they must be backed up with action.  And in this case, God’s action. There’s an important lesson here for us (and for some politicians I could mention). Words, even words dictated by God are not necessarily enough to soften other’s hearts.  To have meaning, they must lead somewhere; otherwise it is merely empty rhetoric.  When we think we’re witnessing and someone responds, it’s not because of the power of our words, but the Holy Spirit working through those words.  As Moses and Aaron do not save the Israelites, neither to we “save” others.  That is God’s work.

Matthew 20:1-16  Jesus continues to turn accepted wisdom upside down and inside out.  Even today, we believe that labor should be compensated based on effort expended.  It just makes common sense.  But common sense is not an operating principle of the Kingdom.  Here, workers are compensated for merely showing up–and showing up late at that.  And those who worked hardest and longest grumbled at the obvious unfairness of the owner.

It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to extend this parable right into the church.  Those who work hard in a variety of volunteer (or even paid) tasks look around and see that others are not expending as much effort.  So, the dedicated workers start to feel superior, more worthy of God’s blessing, while they grump about others “not pulling their load.”  Leaders start to feel a little smug about their self-sacrificing nobility.  But it turns out that working in the Kingdom is not about us or our perception of our virtue.  There is no ranking, no ordering.  And again Jesus points out the hard truth: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (20:16).

Of course, this has not prevented the church from creating hierarchy, investing power and respect in church leaders.  But as the recent scandal of the Catholic church, where bishops transferred deviant priests in denial of reality, or the fall of various megachurch pastors demonstrates so well, the truth of Jesus’ words are immutable.  There may be rank here on earth, but there is no human rank in the Kingdom.

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