September 20, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The 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.”
Then 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. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So 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, and 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?” And 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.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And 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. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “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.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When 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.
I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your Name for ever and ever.
Every day will I bless you and praise your Name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness.
One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power.
I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works.
They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, and I will tell of your greatness.
They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Gospel- Matthew 20:1-6
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And 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?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When 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.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Sermon: George Porter
Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (mii-TAH-koo-yay oy-YAH-siin):
‘All my relations’; ‘We are all related’.
Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (mii-TAH-koo-yay oy-YAH-siin): ‘All my relations’; ‘We are all related’.
I’ve been referring to this Lakota phrase since we have been in this Season of Creation (Creationtide). In Christian circles, we, following biblical precedent, often address one another in the language of family – sister and brother, sometimes father or mother. I think most people I know are pretty comfortable with this convention.
In the sense in which this prayer, this phrase, is used among Indigenous peoples, however, it goes much further than recognising one another as related in that we are children of God - even much further than relating to others in the whole human family. It refers to the inter-relatedness of all creatures within creation, as well as to the realm of the Creator. This tends to be something that we are a bit ambivalent about.
I don’t mean in a scientific sense. Most people, I suspect, are comfortable with the concepts of a complex web of life and inter-relatedness, on a sort of cosmic or even universal level, that we are increasingly coming to recognise as we observe, theorise and experiment. Our experience of the changes to ecosystems, climate and environment has been – and is – compelling us to recognise the reality and complexity of intricate systems of symbiotic dependency. So most people, I think, are pretty much ok with this understanding at this level.
As people of faith, however, I think we perhaps have a bit more trouble coming to recognise and embrace the spiritual implications. As I said last time, Christians have latched onto some inaccurate – or perhaps anachronistic - translations of the creation accounts, which have given rise to a very human-centred view of creation. Whether articulated of not, we have tended to see everything non-human in creation as secondary or background to the ‘real centre’ of it all: the great God-and-humans drama. In doing so, although we rightly recognise the importance of the God-and-humans dynamics – I would even say, the centrality of these dynamics – they aren’t the whole thing.
This primary focus on the God-and-human-creation relationships in our spirituality can’t be allowed to blind us any longer to the importance of the realities of Creator-non-human-creation dimensions – to eclipse everything else. In the biblical story, God is who God is not only in reference to people. God is Creator in relationship to all creation.
And, in light of this, non-human creation isn’t just a stage set. Non-human creation doesn’t exist just for our sake – for our use, or abuse, as we please. This is so, first of all, as I noted last week, because ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’
At this point we need to be clear that I’m not just talking about the kind of sentimental, romantic ways in which we see ‘nature’ – the beauty and the intricacy and the majesty of the natural world – as reflections of the Divine Artist. It is true, of course, that creation does reflect the Creator. Both the psalmist and the Apostle Paul went so far as saying that the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth God’s handiwork - that in a sort of speechless language creation testifies to the awesomeness of the Creator.
The Hebrew Scriptures and the stories of Jesus abound in nature images and symbols. They seem to be almost everywhere. We resonate with them because there is a way in which the things of nature touch us and call forth in us things of the spirit, even if we acknowledge that the poet Tennyson was partly right in saying that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’.
One of the things that I have been doing during this time of COVID distancing is to try taking time to spend most of a day each week walking alone in the incredible natural surroundings where I live. I do it in large part because of this resonance. Martin Luther said that ‘God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.’
Yet, all this is only part of understanding creation and the relational dynamics of both Creator/creation and human creation/non-human creation. Even though there are several creation stories in the Hebrew scriptures and Christian teachings built on them – as well as creation stories in most other cultures - we, of course, naturally think of Genesis when we start talking about creation. Why wouldn’t we, since this is what we first find in the Bibles we use? The word ‘genesis’ itself means ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’. It is a small ‘a’ aboriginal story – ‘aboriginal’ meaning ‘from the beginning’ – even though this isn’t the oldest writing in the scriptures (just as the four Gospels aren’t the oldest writings in the Christian scriptures, though they are what we encounter first in the canon we generally follow).
There are two or three issues with the Genesis creation story (or stories) where we need to re-think what’s going on. As I said last week, I’m not referring to the issues involved in the clash between creationism, intelligent design and various evolutionary theories. Those may be very interesting debates for lots of people, but they can distract us from some of the primary things which I believe are actually going on. Although I know it’s probably controversial, I would even suggest that the usual approaches are adventures in missing the points – at least the main points.
So, smarty, what are these ‘main points’ that commonly get missed? I pointed out one of them last week. In this story, the Creator doesn’t take a bit of God’s self and start from there – expand from there in a sort of way that creation only exists as an extension of the Creator. Neither is it ‘birthed’ as an offspring – a child – of the divine.
Rather, in the story as we read it, the Creator creates that which is not-Creator; God brings into being that which is not-God. Philosophically and sociologically, we would say that the Creator creates the ‘other’ – the Thou (You) which allows for reciprocal, interpersonal relationship, and therefor allows for an expression of love: from God’s perspective, there is a creature-You to be loved, just as from our perspective, there is a Creator-You for us to love in turn. (Remember the phrases in 1 John: ‘God is love’ and ‘We love because God first loved us’.)
That can sound rather complicated, and it is itself something controversial for many people in our society. I don’t want to get side-tracked, so let’s just leave that sit as something to either keep you awake or put you to sleep.
The second key thing, almost universally overlooked, is the structure of the narrative itself. The story is told in a sequence of 7 ‘days’ – 6 of shaping the formless and chaotic into order, and 1 where God is said to ‘rest’. From this obviously come the concepts of the 7-day week and the idea of the 7th day as the Sabbath.
Why 7 days? Why not 1? (Get it all over with at once.) Or 2, or 3 or 8 or any other number? Why 7? Seven is, of course, a significant number in many biblical writings – a number most often associated with completeness – with fullness and totality. So 7 days of creation could signify that everything that is comes from the Creator – something we see confirmed in other places – e.g. John 1:3: ‘Through him was everything made and without him nothing was made that has been made’ – and this is reaffirmed in the Creeds (‘of all things, seen and unseen’). Creator God is Creator of all creation.
There is another significance of 7 days, however, which ties into a biblical answer to why God created. The pattern of the 7 days in Genesis parallels the form found in middle eastern cultures for the consecration of a temple. There are 6 days of preparation – of getting everything ready, so to speak – and on the 7th day the divinity comes to ‘live’ in the temple – more commonly expressed as coming to ‘rest’ there, signifying divine presence.
Creation would, therefore, be the first temple of God – the place where God’s presence and glory are known and encountered. This would later be said of the Tabernacle and the Temple of Solomon, both recognised as the designated meeting place with God – places where God’s presence rested in a special way. This was where God could be encountered.
This temple image is picked up by Jesus who tells those who were marvelling at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem – rebuilt on the orders of Herod: ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’ The Gospel writer then says that they didn’t understand that he was talking about his own body. Jesus referred to himself as the true temple of God – the true meeting place, the true place of encounter – with God.
This comes back again in the last part of Revelation where the new creation is said to have no temple because ‘the dwelling place of God was with humans’ – the place of encounter with God would be everywhere, not in a building.
So, both creation and new creation – at the beginning and at the end, so to speak – serve as the true temple of God. It is there that God ‘rests’, God’s presence and glory are known and encountered.
All of this may sound very ‘theoretical’ or perhaps even irrelevant. But, if this is the case – if the Creator has created the universe to be God’s temple – if all this is was intended to be the place where God’s glory and presence are encountered, what ought to be our relationship with all creation? If it truly is the temple of the Lord – the God who ‘doesn’t dwell in houses made by human hands’ – how are we to conduct ourselves in this place of the presence of God? Is the rest of creation something we can use or abuse as we please? What does that say about how we regard the rest of creation (with which we really are related)?
So rather than being some theoretical speculation, entertaining for theologians and the like, this reality enters into how we live, how we shape our cultures and societies, how we interact with our environment. It impacts how we view human contribution to climate change, resource use and distribution, and so many other related dimensions of everyday life on ‘this fragile earth, our island home’ – this reality in which the presence and glory of the living God can be everywhere encountered.