Monday, September 22, 2008

The Proper of Yesterday: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 20A RCL 2008
Ex 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil 1:21-30; Matt 20-16
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

In the name of Him who leads us to say, “What is it?” Amen.

Think outside the box!

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to wonder if that phrase has overstayed its welcome. We’re constantly encouraged to “think outside the box,” to use unconventional thinking to solve the problems that face us, especially in our corporate and political lives. For a long time I thought “the box” referred to those cubicle farms that so many of us have lived in. Those are the cubicles that Dilbert often makes so much fun of in his famous cartoons. They’re small and confining and lend themselves to sameness of not only décor in the office, but thinking as well. They can be a problem because they divide people up into individual cells and inhibit the creative thinking that can arise when people come together in less structured settings. Thinking outside the box meant getting together with others to figure things out – many heads are better than one, and all that.

In actuality, though, “the box” refers to a puzzle that the management gurus of the early 70s used to illustrate a point. It’s pretty easy – I’ll show you how it works. There should be some pens or pencils in each pew. If there aren’t enough, look on with someone else. Now on the front of your bulletin draw nine dots in three rows of three each. Like this: Now the challenge is this: Using only 4 lines, connect all the dots together without lifting your pencil from the paper.

How many have done this before? If you know the answer, don’t give it away. Everyone else, keep working, but keep one ear open up here too!

When we have problems that arise, we usually try to solve them using the experiences and education we already have. What distinguishes us humans from other animals, among other things, is our ability to consciously learn. And so when faced with something new, we look to what we already know to see if its similar to something we’ve already done, and we tend to try that first. If it worked previously, it’s likely to work again, right? And in many cases that’s true and it will work again. In some areas we know it will work. 2 + 2 will always equal 4. If the computer isn’t plugged in, it won’t work. Touching a hot pan will give one a burn. These things are certain.

There are lots of uncertain things that we need to deal with though. Take the Israelites for example. Here they are, having miraculously fled from Egypt in the Exodus, and now they seem to be lost in the desert and worse, they’re running out of food and water. So they do the natural thing and start thinking about what worked for them in the past. For them, what was certain was they were well fed in Egypt, even though they were slaves forced to work under pretty awful conditions. So, as Scripture records, they complained against Moses and even God. “If only we had died!” they said. They kept thinking about what worked on the past, about the things they knew, even though they were in a completely new situation from what they – or anyone – had ever been in.

And what happens? They think about the usual answers, but God doesn’t. God does something completely new. God thinks outside the box and gives them manna, the famous “bread from heaven” from the Psalm for today. It’s so new that the Israelites have no idea what it is, and they ask, “What is it?” That’s why it’s called manna – it actually means, “What is it?”
It turns out that this strange flakey thing was food! You could bake it or boil it or do other stuff with it, and it’s what fed the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. So although the people could only think inside their box – what they had to eat as slaves in Egypt - God invited them to think outside the box by giving them this new thing to eat.

Notice something important though. We usually concentrate on the miracle of the manna as a type or a prequel for Jesus, the bread of heaven in the Eucharist. And in fact in a few minutes we will all receive the Body of Christ, the true bread of heaven. But I think just as important as the gift of manna itself is the reality that God answered the prayers of his people. They were hungry and they complained. Not a very gracious prayer perhaps, but it was prayer. And as you’ve heard me say in the past, God has broad shoulders and can and does take all our prayers, including the snarky ones or even worse. And what does God do? He answers them. He feeds the Israelites. He knows they are hungry and addresses their need. It’s not in any sort of a way they expected, but nonetheless, they aren’t hungry any more. God thinks outside the box of human experience and provides for his people. Listen to the excerpt from Exodus next week too – he’s going to do it again in another remarkable way.

And I think we need to work to recognize outside-the-box opportunities even today too. I don’t think anyone here is unaware that this week was the most tumultuous week for our nation’s financial health since the Great Depression. I never thought I ever would have said that in my lifetime, but it’s true. We won’t know the full extent of everything that is going on for weeks and months yet, but one thing is for sure: the old ways of thinking, the thinking inside whatever boxes we have, aren’t going to work to get us back on a financially whole path. All of us know or perhaps are experiencing some of the effects of the whole housing market collapse. I’m experiencing it first-hand myself. I have a house to sell in Indianapolis, and after this week I have no idea what price I will be able to sell it for. Governor Corzine noted this week that there are five NJ jobs supporting every job on Wall Street in the City. Even for us way out in Sussex County, it’s possible, even likely, we will be affected.

And it’s not just our national and global financial situations that will require outside-the-box thinking. Right here in this community of St. Thomas’, we’ve got some financial challenges as equally as critical as the ones facing our nation as a whole. The Exec. Comm is committed to transparency about where we’re at, and I’m pleased to note that as a community we’re coming together for events such as our Carnival on the Mountain to raise the critical funds that we need. We’ve got an Art Auction coming up in November as well. As I hope you are all aware, it’s our pledges that are the most important and the largest contributor to our financial stability, and I encourage everyone to continue to contribute to the basic fabric of this parish as you can. All of us will have to look even harder outside the boxes of our own expectations and assumptions in the weeks and months ahead.

You know what, though? It’s not just thinking outside the box. It’s praying outside the box that’s even more important. God gives us brains and that’s good – we have to use them. But just like the Israelites in the desert, we’re in a bit of desert too. And how did the Israelites begin to move forward? They prayed. And God heard them. God answered their prayer without something completely outside their knowledge and experience. So let me ask you. Are you praying regularly for this community of St. Thomas’? And not just on Sundays during the Prayers of the People. How about at other times? If you aren’t, I encourage you to do so, with daily prayer for this parish as your goal. Prayer is powerful and dynamic and it matters. Jesus encourages us to pray for what we need. God listened to the prayers of the Psraelite people in the desert. And it’s important for us too. For all we know, there may already be manna for us, already being showered on us like the manna that the Israelites received every morning, but without prayer to open our hearts and our minds and our souls, we may simply be missing it. “What is it?” was what the people asked in the desert. What is it in our lives, in the life of this community, that is God’s gift to us to satisfy the deep and very real needs that we have? As we prayed earlier this morning, even know, while so many things seem to passing away, let us hold on to those that shall endure.

So, have you figured out the puzzle yet? Connect all the dots using no more than 4 lines without lifting pencil from paper. How many people are still challenged by this? Here’s the answer: You actually have to move your pencil outside the box of the lines of the puzzle to make it work!

My friends, I don’t know what thinking outside the box will mean for us. I have to face it with my house in Indianapolis. You may have some problem you’re wrestling with in your life. Certainly our nation has a lot of boxes we have to get outside of. And we do in the community of St. Thomas’s does as well. But if, in all these situations, we do only two things, then I am convinced that by the grace of God all these things will pass away. If we pray and bring what we need to God, God will answer. And if we continually look around in our lives and in the life of our community and ask, “What is it?” then we will find what we need. That may take discernment on our part to recognize the new things God is providing. “Behold, I make all things new” God promises us. But the Good News is that We don’t actually have to think outside the box. God will do that for us. We just have to be opening to recognizing the manna as it falls from heaven. It might well not be what we expected, and in fact, that’s probably the only thing we can expect. But God does provide. God will provide. God starts by giving us Jesus, the true bread from heaven, and then invites us to look around and ask “what is it?” Let’s starting looking!

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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