The first time I went to the Arizona desert was a little over ten years ago. My mother had moved from Cape Cod to Arizona when she retired a year or so before my first visit. I went out there because I had just left my marriage and felt like I had lost everything. My mother hoped I would decide to move out there after visiting. I hoped that I’d find some peace of mind in the drastic change of scenery. What I found in the desert was not enticing.
I remember looking around and being able to see for miles in all directions, all the way to the mountains that encircled the desert. The flatness, the heat, the barren land. And in this foreign landscape lived all the creatures I was afraid of – rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions. If sharks lived in the desert, too, I don’t think I could have stepped off the plane in Phoenix. As it was, I was afraid to sit outside or walk down the road, and the lizards that ran over my toes when I stepped out on the porch didn’t help. In my mind, deadly creatures were everywhere. Given the state of my being in those days, it’s a wonder any of the beauty and wonder the desert held penetrated my thoughts.
A year later, I went back for a second visit. Life was a little better for me, but I was still struggling to find fulltime employment and recover from the loss of my marriage. The desert was a distant place that I returned to, hoping for some insight. I spent a lot of time staring at the horizon during this trip, hoping that the secrets of thriving in the barren wilderness would be revealed to me. All that happened was a looking back over my life with lots of questions about the decisions I had made, wishing things were different, and yearning for a future time when I would feel settled and whole.
My third trip to the desert was three years ago, six years after my previous visit. I went out to Arizona in a completely different mindset. My life was good. I had married again and was happy. I had fulltime, meaningful work and felt balanced and whole for maybe the first time in my life. But I returned to the desert because my mother was dying. I went out there to help her get her paperwork in order and to enter hospice care, and to say goodbye. While I was reluctant to acknowledge it at the time, I knew the nine days I spent there would be the last time I saw my mother. I did a lot of looking back and wishing things had been different. And I spent a lot of time grieving for a future that would not happen. These emotions contributed to both a fondness for and a dislike of the desert. On my last trip, I appreciated the austere beauty of the desert and the tenacity of all that lived there. And I hated its heat that harbored deadly creatures and constantly whispered of human finitude.
I think this was the problem the Israelites faced after they left Egypt behind. No matter how unhappy they were under Pharaoh’s rule, they had food and shelter enough. They knew the routine of their days. Life wasn’t great but it was familiar and, to an extent, predictable. Then they followed Moses across the Red Sea into the harsh, unfamiliar wilderness of the desert. They found themselves unable to gather enough food to feed themselves. They started to question their decision to leave behind the old, oppressive life with its bread and meat. They wondered if they would ever experience a sense of security in routine ever again. No wonder they cried out to God. Their lives were on the line, their fragility underscored in scorched sand and lung-searing breath.
God heard their cries and saw their distress. God gave them what they needed. Quail and manna enough for each day. Of course, they didn’t really trust these gifts so much and they would soon grow tired of eating the same thing day after day. Yet, their disgruntled response to God’s generosity did not change the power of the gifts. Those early Israelites were saved by God’s presence with them no matter how they felt about it.
So, too, with the parable of the vineyard owner. The strength of God’s generosity is not diminished by our failure to notice it. Just like the workers in the vineyard, we can complain when we do not receive what we perceive to be fair or deserved or someone else gets “more,” but the blessings we’ve received don’t go away because we aren’t grateful. Our own inability to perceive God’s abundance in our lives doesn’t mean it’s not there.
My inability to see the beauty and strength in the Arizona desert doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The Israelites failure to recognize God’s presence with them in their wilderness journey doesn’t mean God wasn’t there. The vineyard workers who failed to recognize the astounding generosity of the vineyard owner didn’t negate the truth of it. Often our own pain and fragility prevents us from recognizing the abundance God offers to us. Our desire to be more, or do more, or have more makes us confuse fairness and justice.
God remains present with us whether we wander hungry and thirsty in the wilderness or remain in the safe familiarity of our daily routines. God yearns for us to recognize the grace offered and to stop worrying about who’s got what so that we can truly be free to love our neighbors as ourselves. The truth is that we all wander in the desert from time to time in need of sustenance. We all experience jealousy and resentment when we think someone receives something they shouldn’t have. God invites us into a life overflowing with goodness and mercy, all the sustenance we need, all the strength we need to leave oppressive ways behind. God invites us into this life of abundance in spite of our fragility and fear of finitude and waits for the day when we will share equally in the work of bringing about the kingdom of God. May that day be soon…
RCL – Year A – Sixteen Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Photo: CC0 image by Julia Phillips