Reflection for September 18, 2011

Rev. Naomi King


  • Exodus 16:2-15 Psalm 145:1-8 
  • Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45 
  • Jonah 3:10-4:11 
  • Psalm 145:1-8
  • Philippians 1:21-30 
  • Matthew 20:1-16


When was the last time you lost your temper? Or found yourself dissolving into tears and a string of bad words? Or were so frustrated you said or did things that could hurt and, in calmer moments, might horrify you? Or were so seized with the unfairness of a situation you shouted inwardly or outwardly with indignation? Or were so whelmed by wanting, so overtaken by hurt, that you took issue with God and rebelled?

Me? That was probably today. Or yesterday. Or some time in the past week. I can sigh, and grab my humility, upon which I am regularly tossed and upon which I sit in awe of the Beloved, because I can trust I will meet this unrighteous indignation and idolatrous wanting again in myself. I am continually amazed at my own capacity to resist the promises I make with an open heart, the liberation I am offered free of charge, and the abiding love that is our birthright. I don’t have to worry about reacquainting myself with my failings and with how much I have yet to learn in becoming full of love in emulation of the Holy. I meet that every day.

That’s why I am grateful for the lection this week, during this month of Elul, the time of turning away from our every day idolatries and back toward God. The lection this week is gift from the Scriptural Librarians’ Council recognizing our very human preferences to be both God’s special ones, saved from iniquity, on our terms, not God’s. In the scriptures of children’s literature, we can look to Judith Viorst’s Alexanderbooks, to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and to Won-Ldy Paye’s retelling of the Liberian folktale, Spider and the Palm Nut Tree. They are complements to the themes herein, and, for some of us, these stories will help us live into the graciousness of this week’s lection.

On the one hand, this lection is a huge gift to the Universalist, because all of the texts remind us of God’s graciousness for the whole world and that God loves us still, even on our whining, jealous, temper-tantrum crummy days. On the other hand, this lection is a huge gift to the Unitarians, because our characters twisting toward idolatry are called to turning back – to repenting – and giving thanks for God. Unitarian Universalists can rejoice. Like the diverse communities Paul is writing to, there’s something in this lection for us all. So let’s give thanks for these good gifts, in our turning to God’s graciousness, and then settle into our common human wanting of what we want, when we want it, as we want it, even when that wanting violates our promises, our principles, and our trust in and love of God. That is my definition of idolatry: turning to our wants as and when we want them with vinegary petulance because submitting to God turns out not coincide with our wants of that moment….or perhaps, any moment.

The exegetical question before us this week is: 

Where are you in the four stories offered in this week’s lection? What idolatries are you in need of turning from so you can turn back to God’s generous and abiding love?

(Exodus 16: 2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45) 

In the first story, we are returned to the story of salvation in the Bible – the Exodus. 

Now, I know some of you will want to argue with me, that the Exodus isn’t the story of salvation, but hold on, for the first psalm returns us to this first story, as the really important one. In the Christian tradition, too often, we’ve learned to consider the gospel reading as the most important story each week or the epistle as the most important reading, but in so doing we fall away from our promises to God and create two idolatries of our own. We end up teaching a supercessionist way of being, which denies the way God created our diverse and amazing world. And we fail to appreciate Jesus and Paul as continuous with Jewish traditions and theologies. Both have proved dangerous practices, life-taking practices, and we have a responsibility to make sure we’re not slipping into these habitual ways of interpreting, just because it is comfortable like that easy pair of sneakers that can’t be worn in company, because their reek stifles all breathing. We’re in the lection and the lection is in us in all kinds of ways, even in how we interpret and prioritize these stories and songs.

We return to the Exodus, where, in the wilderness, we bemoan our slavery because at least we could count on the time and type of rations we’d receive. Sure, there was slaughter of the children, and back-breaking labor, and terror filled our days only to be exceeded by the terror that filled our nights. But we’re hungry now, and what kind of salvation is this when we agree to head off into it, but then are fighting our growling stomachs? What kind of salvation is this when we’re lost? What kind of leaders are Moses and Aaron? What kind of grace is it that picks one up from the frying pan of slavery and dumps us into the campfire to be consumed, because, God apparently knows, there isn’t anything else to be consumed out here in this desert?

Who are you and when are you in this first story? How are you being called to turn?

(Jonah 3:10-4:11) 

Our second story provides what would be comic relief, if only it didn’t reflect so clearly our own easy resentments. Here’s Jonah, in full tantrum with God, furious because…..the Ninehvites repented. Ninehvites aren’t supposed to repent! They’re not supposed to care enough about God to turn after a prophet zips through town whispering “repent!” and then flings himself under a shady plant and shouts in rage at….God’s mercifulness. Have you ever caught yourself sliding from “yeah, God is love; we’re the love people” to “those stupid cruel so and so-s will never change, yeah, they’re awful” with barely a heart-beat between? That’s Jonah, the one who didn’t wanna, who ended up barely fulfilling his duties and is furious that even doing an unacceptable job, it was sufficient, and who, in his fury, sees everything as a slight against him and a favoring of undeserving people. I’ve been there. I don’t know about you, but it is the kind of place where someone gently reasoning with us does little good. We need time out.

When do you find this you in the second story? How is God inviting you to the generous table of love?

(Psalm 145: 1-8) 

The second psalm gives us the grateful response we can struggle to hold on to, which is, perhaps why we make the promise again to meditate upon God’s wonderful works. Beginning this psalm our shoulders are beside our ears with the indignation at God that Jonah feels – and perhaps the shame that sometimes we, too, find ourselves acting just like Jonah. But if we take these words slowly enough, we meet the blessing of turning away from the idolatry of our wants and our understanding of fairness and turning back into the blessing of God’s mercy, graciousness, and goodness. Both this psalm and Paul’s letter to the Philippians also tell a story, even if they’re in a form that feels unfamiliar to us. They should feel unfamiliar; both reflect worlds that we do not live in, cultures that are at once part of us and not at all part of us. Where are we in the story these two texts relate? How is God inviting people and congregations to turning?

(Philippians 1:22-30) 

Philippians is one of the seven undisputed letters, so this is really Paul instead of faithing under the flag of Paul because he was so cool, and the signal will distract folks from the reality what we’re writing in the pseudo-Paul undermines real Paul. The theology of the seven undisputed letters are vastly different from the disputed letters, so we need to know which one we’re listening to each week. 


Now Paul was always writing to congregations with particular issues. His letters are like an advice column, the Book of Proverbs, and a congregational consultant’s memo reminding us of the issues we’ve covered. Like the advice columnist and the teacher of proverbs and the congregational consultant, Paul is speaking in the meeting ground of several cultures, to ordinary people grappling with ordinary persecution, pain, privilege, oppression, fear, anger, grief, hunger, and loss. Paul is speaking to people suffering, to people who are giving Paul the hairy eyeball and saying disbelievingly, “this? This wilderness of sorrow is salvation? This hunger is the good news? The exploitation of our people is God’s graciousness? Where is the graciousness in having to accept these people who’ve profited by our grief? Where is the graciousness in having to accept these people who’ve threatened us, resent and hate us, when we’ve come to be part of God’s love, too?” Paul appeals to unity, so even without looking at the rest of Philippians, and without the letter that prompted Paul’s memo, we can know there’s a story here about two cultures of expectation and understanding meeting and clashing. One of those cultures – the one Paul is very much part of us – knows well the story of salvation in the wilderness and also the one of having to go places to people you’ve learned to detest and offer them God’s graciousness and love. But even when, like the Ninehvites, the Gentiles accept God’s love and turn toward God, there’s a whole lot of resentment going on among other members of the congregation, like Jonah. The dynamic reminds me of the cries in many contemporary congregations, “this faith was more for me in the old days; I don’t want to change.” We don’t necessarily like those stories when we’re hurting. Paul is telling the Philippians not to succumb to the temptation of breaking their promises to God, but instead to turn away from idolatry back to God – what Paul calls “living in Christ”. The Philippians, it turns out, were having their own questioning of what it meant to be faithful, just like so many contemporary congregations. Where are we in the story? Where do we need to turn? What does this mean for individuals, families, congregations, communities?

(Matthew 20: 1-16) 

The parable of the workers in the vineyard is about who’s going to make it in God’s favor and the gnashing of teeth and weeping that happens when we resent others being treated with generosity. That we ourselves have experienced generosity no longer matters when we go to that resentful hurt place. No, what matters then in our turning away from God and toward our own pettiness is our specialness and the weird notion of fairness and equity that comes from the perspective of privilege. In that turning, we stop our own journeys of becoming and sit down in the wilderness and shout with anger about wanting a different deal. It is the very opposite of graciousness, the very height of inhospitality, and yet, year after year, we can meet this behavior in ourselves and in the wider world, in people of every age and stage. Being jealous of someone else being received with graciousness, with generosity and with kindness, is perfectly human, and it perfectly violates our promises to be full of love like God is. So when we meet this resistance, whether we’re the ones recently offered God’s gracious hospitality – oh, thank you! How wonderful! Are you serious? For ME? Alleluia! - or the ones who’ve been laboring here some time - thank you very much, who do you think you are – we have a chance to turn again, as one people made so through God’s gracious generous love. We have a chance to drop the resentments, to make amends, to ask forgiveness, and to turn again, away from the idols we’ve made and back to God, in thanksgiving, in humility, in mercy, and with love. 


Wherever we recognize ourselves in these stories and songs, we are reminded that turning into goodness is a lifelong journey. When we meet petulance and resistance in ourselves and in others, we are invited not to pause and worship the idols of self-importance and peculiar specialness, but to turn again, to be delivered from the slavery of fear and hatred, and to meet with wonder, awe, and gratitude, the graciousness of God.