Pentecost XV – Proper 20 – September 21, 2014
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Manna for the Journey
Once upon a time there was a whole lot of grumbling and complaining going on. The people of Israel were wandering in the desert of Sinai having made a harrowing escape from Egypt. They had made it to the far shore of the Red Sea. Dripping from exhaustion they watched as the parted sea, that had allowed their passage, came crashing down on Pharaoh’s army. Six hundred sword-wielding charioteers and their horses “sank like lead in the mighty waters.” When God and Moses had finally worn down Pharaoh, Pharaoh told the people of Israel “Go!” “Get out of here!” And the people headed for the border. They dropped their tools, grabbed some fire stained pots, some scraps of food, some flour, they bundled the babies, and ushered their elders out of the only homes that they, and their parents, and their parents-parents had known. The people fled towards freedom. There was no time to bake bead for the journey, no meat preserved and ready for a long trip. They headed east toward their ancient homeland and into a vast wilderness and into a future that they could not begin to imagine. What they did know was that they would be leaving slavery and servitude behind. In the frantic moment of Exodus what loomed large was a bursting need to know relief from the harsh sights and sounds of a life that was not their own… relief from the snap of whips, the sweat of unrelenting toil, the experience of being at the bottom of the heap… marked as foreigners… as being different. What loomed large was the possibility of a different life… a better life… but the screen was blank about how this life might look. What the people of Israel would soon come to realize was that they were also leaving behind the roofs over their heads, and the availability of food…meats and grains and fruits and vegetables… and a way of life that, though harsh, was familiar and known… What lay ahead was the wilderness… no longer would the dawn bring a trip to the well, meetings with neighbors, and a bowl of porridge. For them sun would now rise over the barrenness of the Sinai desert. They would be on the move wandering by day, resting by night… day after day. …and they couldn’t begin to know that this journey through the wilderness would last 40 years… a generation and more… and many would not make it to the promised land.
Two and a half months later the people had passed from one wilderness into another….and the murmuring… the grumbling… the complaining was getting louder. They were tired and they were hungry and they let Moses and Aaron know it! They longed for the bad old days when, at least, a pot of stew and a loaf of bread of was close at hand to fill their bellies. These thoughts were consuming. Would it not have been better to die back in Egypt than to endure this gnawing hunger a minute longer? Would it not have been better to have some meager place to call home rather than wandering this drab dusty landscape … tripping over the occasional scrub plant that tenaciously survived in the parched, rocky soil…making camp in a different place each night…
God heard the rising murmurings of the people and God felt their pangs of hunger, and God was going to provide food. Though the food was going to be a free and abundant gift, God wanted the people to be mindful, and to take only what was needed for the day. More would be provided the next day. There was no need to hoard, no need to store up more than was needed. In the evening quails appeared and covered the camp. In the morning a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, appeared under a blanket of dew. The people said “Manhu” which literally means “what is it?” ….what is it this white flaky stuff that we know it as manna? Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” He told them to gather only what was needed. The white manna reminded them of fragrant coriander seed. When it melted on their tongues it was like eating a wafer with honey. Many took just the right amount, but some others took more than they needed. By morning the manna that was kept over night was foul with worms. Don’t take more than you need! However, on the sixth day they were told to take twice as much as usual so that there would be no need to do any gathering on the Sabbath. No more, no less. Of course there were those who did not listen and who neglected to collect twice as much before the sabbath. They had no manna on the day of rest. They went to find some but came back empty handed. God had provided for the great day of rest.
Manna and quail was sent to the people of Israel. The bread of heaven filled their bellies enough and sustained them in the wilderness… day after day…. week after week… until the 40th year when they entered the land of Canaan. God provided what was needed. God asked that the people be mindful of what they were taking… not too much… and to live more harmoniously with the heavenly rhythm… and there was enough.
Jesus tells another story in which there was grumbling and dissatisfaction. A landowner hired laborers in the morning. When the boss went out at other times during the day…. each time he found even more folks in need of employment. He asked them why they were standing idle all day. “Because no one has hired us” they said. At the end of the day, when it came time to pay the days wages… the landowner could have started by paying those who had begun work in the morning. They would have received their wages and gone on their way with no inkling that those who had begun working later in the day were getting paid the full amount. But that is not how the story goes. The landowner, in plain sight of all of the workers, paid a full day’s wage to those who were hired last. The cry rose up “that is not fair!” To which the landowner replied “Friend, I am doing you no wrong” …did we not have our agreement? Why are you questioning the generosity that I extend to all… There is more than enough…. this is the economy of my realm… abundance… for all.
Times can feel tough right now as we struggle to navigate a new world… a new wilderness that is before us… Even as we fret over the need for change we are tempted, at the same time, to gaze fondly backwards… to a past that we remember as being more safe and secure… though it is a past in which fairness and justice was, most certainly, not known by all… We face a journey into an unknown future. As God’s people we need to rally and to be part of the change that will shift systems of consumption, to rally in care of this planet, to do our part to move this complicated, interconnected and troubled world toward ever greater justice and caring… for one another and for the precious creation of which we are a part. There is grumbling, discontent, and fear. We have kindred who know sickness and starvation. Mahatma Gandhi has said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” It is for us to share our bread and our abilities… to give as we have been given.
We come to this table to partake of the bread of heaven that we know in Christ… and we will go forth from this place fed and renewed… to do the work we are given to do… to be good stewards of the gifts we have been given… and to share the abundance that is not ours to squirrel-away.… We are not to go forth to murmur and complain and obsess about all that is not right. To do so is to miss out on the true generosity that has been showered upon us. It is to miss out on call for healthy balance, and the justice, and to miss seeing the vision of peace on earth that is beckoning to us from heavenly realms. To obsess about what we don’t have is to dampen the awareness of the great gift we have in the timeless Word made flesh in Christ Jesus. This life we have been given… through the waters of baptism… at God’s table… provides us with true food for the journey.
In her book “Bread of Angels” Barbara Brown Taylor has written:
…Jesus is God’s manna in the wilderness, the one who reminds us day by day that we live because God provides not what we want, necessarily, but exactly what we need: some bread, some love, some breath, some wine, a relationship with this ordinary looking man [Jesus], who comes from heaven to bring life to the world.
…and so it is… …Amen…