A sermon by Duncan Macleod, Uniting Learning Network Director, at St Andrew’s Chapel, Wednesday 17th September, 2014. Readings are Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-6.
In 1988 I joined the work of the J.E.T. Friendship Trust in Katikati, a small town in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. The trust was established by a couple with a dream of using their land and their skills to build capacity in the emerging generations of young people in the area who were facing unemployment and all the issues that goes with that. A group of Christian business women and men joined them to establish an operation that contracted with the government’s work skills and education funding program, to take on job seekers for months at a time. We developed a salad vegetable market garden, looked after a thornless blackberry plantation, and tended flowers and bulbs for export markets. At the same time, we were working on life skills, budgeting skills, relational skills.
The Just Enough for Today concept was embedded in the philosophy and theology embedded in today’s readings. The Exodus reading gives us insight into a community whose leaders learn to take seriously the need to provide for the basic needs of people as they travel. The manna and quail, appearing each day, are provision in the wilderness – just enough for today. They are not to be accumulated for another time. They’re not to be squandered either – we’re looking at a sustainable everyday provision. In the same way, the just manager in the parable told by Jesus recognises the needs of the unemployed for a living wage. Not a wage based on an hourly rate. But a wage based on the needs of those he employs, and their families. In God’s economy, radical generosity and compassionate justice go together.
I learned a lot in that year as a tutor in the Just Enough for Today program. I learned first of all that I had to find ways to communicate that were appropriate. The language and accent I’d developed in four years of university studies, and working with middle class white kids as a youth worker for two years, I had to let some of that go. It wasn’t long before I’d be coming home talking in the local Maori accents, eh! And I learned a new skill at lunch times. I’d grown up playing ruby union. These guys were rugby league fanatics. I learned a lot about poverty and small town thinking. Some of these people I’d known through the local youth group I was co- leading. Despite their capacity to do well with their studies I saw them choose to play that down so they wouldn’t show up their parents or their peers.
Together we learned something about recognising and receiving blessing – without building a sense of entitlement. As we sowed, tilled and harvested through the seasons we discovered again and again the gift of life in a fertile soil, even when the weather ruined our plans or unexpected personal issues challenged us to work patiently with one another. Two of the young guys got really excited about their capacity to grow stuff from seed they asked if they could raise their own crop in the shade house. Weeks later the seedlings came up, with five green fingers each. I guess they hadn’t thought we’d recognise marijuana when it appeared. As a team we had the challenge of working out what to do with that blessing!
We learned about sharing, taking responsibility for each other in our needs. That ranged from pooling transport, preparing meals together and listening to each other’s stories. As we prepared food for the markets we had a sense we were helping to feed the nation. I learned about sharing possessions. Two of my jackets were “borrowed” during that time in Katikati, once at the end of a youth group night by a young guy who told me later that he liked mine more than his, and another navy great coat I lent to one of our trainees on a cold night heading back home – I didn’t see him again for a another month.
The next year I headed to Dunedin to for my formal theological education and training for ministry. We got to learn to speak Maori, not just English in a Maori accent. And in our Pacific Island studies we explored the value of an economy based on distribution around need, not accumulation around greed or fear. My jacket went missing again while studying at Knox Theological College. After hearing about the culture of distribution according to need I put a note in the weekly college newsletter saying I was going to need my jacket again. It turned up the next day, back on the coat rack where I’d left it. There’s something about acknowledging our own self interest in this kind of economy, that’s sometimes hard for us to get used to.
I learned something about generosity in the ways we read each other. This guy in the photo here with his finger extended for the camera – what would you think he was trying to communicate? The first reaction could be taking offense at a symbol of aggression and defiance. However if you knew the context, you’d discover this was a form of play, a friendly hello. I acknowledge that we need to develop our crap detectors, our hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly when it comes to dealing with power. However I get a sense that this can be overplayed, interfering with our ability to learn from each other and grow. We need to leave space for each other in our conversations to try things out, to enquire, to change our minds. That Just Enough for Today principle applies in our one to one conversations, our team meetings, and to the way we engage with each other on social media like Facebook.
Can we make space for others at the table? God’s Just Enough for Today economy calls us to connect extravagant generosity with radical hospitality. I grew up in a Calvinist, Presbyterian culture in which participation in the Lord’s Table was carefully guarded. There was a long history of discernment around who was worthy or unworthy in terms of doctrine and behaviour. But we see in the life of Jesus that he constantly invited people to the table that didn’t fit the definitions of his hosts or his companions. This month is Interfaith September, an initiative of the Assembly Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths. I encourage you to check out their resources, particularly the section on peace and generosity. Maybe we could take Jesus’ lead in opening our hospitality up to those we consider to be outsiders.
A proverb, and a prayer.
The Maori proverb, often used around hospitality in New Zealand, “Na to rourou, na taku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi”, is translated “With my basket, and your basket, the people will thrive”.
And a prayer from David Grant’s book, Grant Us Your Peace, based in Psalm 105.
Lord God, it is all gift, amazing gift.
All we have and all we are is astonishing gift;
so we will sing your praises.
You brought our forebears out of weighted oppression
and you bring us out of burdened past.
You enriched our ancestors in the faith,
and you enrich us with sufficiency.
You protected our Hebrew parents,
saving them through each stumble,
and you protect us in our stumbling.
You give enough light for our next step;
You provide enough food for today and adequate water for life;
All because of your remembered promises to our faith father and mother, Abraham and Sarah.
Remembered, chosen ones we are, in the family of faith.
So we sing your praises, we glory in your glory;
We remember because you remember.
And now we would remember whose we are,
and pledge to behave in ways consistent with your guided instruction,
as given by our faith forebears.
In the name of our chief mentor we pray, Amen.