September 24, 2023

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 20:1-16

“Enough for All”

There’s a stand-up comedian that I’ve been following lately online. Ismo is a comedian from Finland, and I find him hilarious, especially when he’s talking about his Finnish experience of North American English language and idioms. There’s one video in which Ismo explains that he has a kind of a strange relationship with food. He says,

When I was a kid, my mom always said that ‘You have to eat everything from your plate. You have to eat all the food… because there is starvation in Africa.’
And then I ate… everything.
And then I grew a bit older, and I started to think, ‘How have I helped?’
‘How have I helped… the situation in… Africa?’
I’m now a little bit overweight…. I hope they are happy.
I have done my best… eating so much.
If I ever go to Africa and they look at my belly… I will say that ‘I did it for you!’

I can’t replicate Ismo’s comedic timing and manner in relating this little story about food and hunger and international relations. But I expect that many of you remember a parent saying something similar to you when you were young, or maybe you remember saying it to your kids or grandkids.

It seems to me that the awareness of our privilege is important. We want to cultivate gratitude within ourselves and our children, rather than a sense of entitlement. We want to recognize that what we have to eat is a gift, and be aware that not everyone is in the same situation.

But it does raise the question of “what is the next step?” How does that awareness lead to changes in our behaviour that lead to something more significant than us just growing fatter and fatter with thankful hearts?

The overall theme for the Season of Creation 2023 is “Let justice and peace flow like a river.” And one of the areas of great injustice in our world is the global food crisis. It is estimated that 345 million people around the world are food insecure, yet 17% of all food produced is dumped between harvest and retail.

Agriculture has a large footprint both on the landscape, through monocropping, which often leads to habitat destruction, as well as the impact of factory-style animal husbandry on increased greenhouse gases. Our modern food production practices are leading to increasing biodiversity loss, the alienation of people from food sources, and at the same time increasing global hunger. The impact of climate change and war have also driven people off the land and have made more people food insecure.

The story of the Hebrews in the wilderness shows us a little about God’s attitude towards hungry people. The “Season of Creation” preaching resource for this week, summarizes it in this way:

As desert wanderers, the Hebrews were unable to provide for themselves since they were unable to farm or hunt given that they were people on the move, thus they were completely dependent on God to provide for their every need. So God “rained down bread from heaven” (v. 4) for them, “thin flakes like frost” (v. 13). This substance was so different compared to the food that they were used to, that they asked, “what is it?” (v. 15).

The story also tells of the glory of God in the presence of the Israelites and that after they beheld this glory, God promised to provide them with meat, and “that evening quails came and covered the camp” (v. 13). Moses and Aaron reminded the Israelites that God provided enough for everyone, and that each person was only to take as much as they needed.

A decade or so ago, I remember that the theme for Presbyterian World Service & Development’s campaign was “Enough for All.” It was rooted in the conviction that God has provided a world for us – a beautiful and wonderful Creation – that has the capacity to produce enough food for everyone.

I’m sure there would be some people that would debate this premise, arguing that over-population has taken us beyond the number of people that the Earth can sustain. But if we believe that God loves us deeply and provides for us fully, then we need to believe that there is enough for all. If only we can transform the ways that we live so that we only take as much as we need and share with others.

The parable from the Gospel of Matthew today suggests to us that Jesus was not a capitalist. When he described the Reign of God – that coming state of the world in which God’s love reigns supreme, and the human community lives in peace with justice and enough for all – he describes it as having an economic system that doesn’t sound fair at all.

The landowner in the story hires workers at the beginning of the day and offers to pay them the usual daily wage. That sounds reasonable. But when others come a few hours later, and then again a few hours after that, he hires them as well. But rather than paying them by the hour, he gives them the usual daily wage as well. They haven’t worked nearly as long, so it doesn’t seem fair.

As might be expected, the ones who worked all day get pretty upset about the landowner’s payment scheme. Although they received what they needed, they grumble about the others who got paid the same without putting in the work.

But the landowner replies: “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?”

One of the ways to interpret this parable of Jesus is to spiritualize it. On one level, the story is about workers and pay and fairness and generosity, but maybe on another level it’s about the gift of salvation and grace. Although some of us may put in many years of Christian service throughout our lives, the last-moment convert receives the same grace and eternal salvation as the most hard-working, self-sacrificing saint.

The last time I preached on this text, I talked about Martin Luther, the Reformation leader who realized that no matter how hard he worked, how much he prayed, or how diligently he served God every day, he could never do enough to earn salvation. God’s grace is a simply a free gift offered to all without reserve.

But I think this parable might also just be about work, and pay, and everyone having enough.

The world as God would have it be does not have people left hungry or homeless because they didn’t have an opportunity to work or to work enough. It doesn’t include communities starving because of a climate-change induced drought. It doesn’t have refugees suffering with insufficient provisions because of war or oppression that has forced them from their lands.

The world that God wants for us, and the world that Jesus said was coming soon and getting started through his life and ministry and teaching, is not one with a small number of super-rich people at the top and a massive number of desperately poor people at the bottom. The Reign of God is like a generous landowner who provides work and daily wages, and ensures that there is enough for all.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where some of these Christian principles of justice, generosity, and sharing are part of the fabric of our society. We can thank Christians of generations past like Tommy Douglas, for example, who advocated for systems that help us to share and ensure that there is enough for all.

We have universal healthcare. We have social assistance. We have employment insurance. We have child benefits, disability programs, CPP, and old-age security. During the Pandemic, we added additional programs to assist people who found themselves suddenly unemployed. And although the specific programs and criteria used probably weren’t perfect, they were rooted in a conviction we want to make sure that there is enough for all. That’s the kind of country we wanted to be. That’s the kind of world that God wants us to be.

Ismo’s silly little video reminds me that gratitude for what we have and awareness that others have less is not enough. God calls us to participate in creating a world in which food and other resources are shared generously so that there is actually enough for all.

I think that means advocating for the protection of our social programs in Canada and their expansion so that people are no longer falling through the cracks in the system. I think that means making personal choices not to take and to consume more than we need. Instead of wasting food, buy less, and give more – to food banks, food programs, and agencies that both feed and equip struggling communities locally and around the world. Instead of spending more on things we don’t need, passing those resources along to others who have less than they need.

Although a potluck supper may just seem like a simple and convenient way for a church family to have a meal together, I think it’s more than that. I think it’s like a parable for what the Reign of God is like.

Everyone is invited. Some, who have an abundance of time, resources, or skill will cook and bake and bring enough to feed many. Others will bring a more meagre contribution, according to their ability. Some will show up with only their personal presence as their gift to the community. And all will be welcome. All will be embraced. And there will undoubtedly be enough for all.