For Catholics and mainline Protestants, the weekly Sunday texts are assigned through a lectionary, with readings arranged in a three-year cycle. Thus, on any given Sunday, millions of Christians hear the same passages of scripture in their congregations. Although some Christians find this a constricting spiritual practice, I am often surprised at how relevant the texts can be—even in a moment of crisis.
In September, a few days after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson first started crafting a bailout for the spiraling Wall Street crisis, the assigned texts were Exodus 16:2-15 (God giving manna in the wilderness to Israel) and Matthew 20:1-16 (the parable of the generous landowner). As they were read from the pulpit, I literally gasped as the stories told of a God who provides for God’s people in the most trying of circumstances, giving food enough for the day.
As I glanced around the suburban parish, I saw plenty of worry on people’s faces. On the surface, these were comfortable churchgoers. But, after the last several months of economic battering, I knew that there was anxiety enough to go around. Soaring gas prices have cut into our paychecks, falling home prices cause us concern about equity nest eggs to pay college tuition bills, and never-ceasing cutbacks in insurance coverage are surely at the basis of our prayers for good health.
Now the stock market collapse threatens whatever money these nice Episcopalians have saved for retirement. I know how easy it can be to poke fun at suburbanites. But these are the people whom my grandmother always called “good Christian folks,” those who have played by the rules and lived with integrity. Now they are watching their security and future disappear. I leaned over to my husband and said, “I am really glad I’m not preaching today.”
The pastor faced the questions straight on. “These are difficult days,” he affirmed. He reminded us of God’s provision of quail and manna, of God’s generosity with the daily wage. But then he pointed out that God does not just provide for us as individuals: God provides for the whole community. All of Israel was blessed with food; all the laborers were paid—not only those who deserved it or worked particularly hard. “We are in this together in suffering and reward,” he proclaimed. “We are not alone. We are a community who welcomes God’s provision.” We care for one another, we work side by side, and we share in the bounty of grace.
It was a profoundly political sermon. Not in the sense that the preacher told the congregation whom we should vote for. But he reminded us that we are God’s polis, a holy city—one not governed by the stock market or housing prices, but by grace, generosity, and goodness. This alternate city, the community of grace, is ultimately strengthened by worldly hardship because it reminds us that our spiritual investment is in a realm not seen. Our community is one marked by holy insecurity—the sure knowledge that our wisdom is not an economic strategy; our power is not financial; and our trust is not in princes.
I can’t say that I welcome any of the recent developments in our national economic life. But I can say that I left church that Sunday feeling part of a larger community of faith—knowing that so many Christians across the country had read and listened to the same texts. We are all laborers in God’s vineyard, working side by side in the scorching heat of these blistering days, as we cultivate God’s mercy and justice.
And, for the moment, that is oddly comforting.—Diana Butler Bass
Diana Butler Bass (dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us. She recently finished her new book, A People’s History of Christianity, scheduled for release next March, and blogs at godspolitics.com, from which this is adapted.