The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15
August 5, 2018
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our great chef and manna baker—who provides in the wilderness. Amen.
Isn’t it interesting when the stories we remember from when we were all kids as “Bible Stories” have almost nothing to do with the actual stories we find printed in the Bible? This happens so often! Christmas, Easter, Noah, Jonah… all are not what we expect when we actually read Scripture, but today’s story of manna particularly deviates from the actual text in the way we popularly tell it.
When we think of the idea of “manna,” we think of God’s blessings, of easy bread falling (pre-baked) from the sky, and we think of something appetizing, delicious, and obvious. We tell ourselves a story about ease, about answered prayers, and about grateful community living in abundance. All of these things come to mind with the utterance of the word “manna.” This is the myth that has been derived from our Scripture this morning: a myth of contentment and the image of the manna story looking something like a Panera Bakery counter. Croissants, banquettes, and pastries… O my! When we think of manna we think of fulfillment, but the real story is a lot less delicious. There is blessing and there is abundance, but it comes at a cost and it comes in the form of a surprise from God. God rarely behaves in the way we prescribe or expect. God loves surprises.
The reality of the story goes more like this: God leads the people out of servitude in Egypt and into an extended period of discernment, of wondering, of aimlessness and starvation (physical and spiritual) in the wilderness. This feels like a betrayal of the people by God. Have any of you ever felt betrayed by God? All of us have had that experience in some form or time. A job/ opportunity that wasn’t what you expected? A spouse who didn’t live up to covenant? A family member who died too young? A home that was flooded out or burnt down? That is the kind of feeling of “WHY GOD!!?” that we are talking about today. The Israelites have a rightful sense of frustration with God, and so they cry out for meat, for bread, and really for survival.
They wonder what all of this freedom and liberation business is about anyway when it only leads to death in the dessert! What is the point of being free is there is nothing to eat, no help, no sustenance? Amen? Often, when we tell this story as a happy narrative, we get mad at the congregation of the Israelites for daring to complain so soon after liberation, but in my reading of the story—they had every right to complain to Aaron (their minister) and to Moses (their tour guide). While we cast ourselves as Aaron and Moses in the story with a righteous indignation about the complaining, really, we are more like the crowd than we know! All of us for our own good, deeply personal reasons. It is only human to cry out, “Why God?”
What in your life needs a surprise from God right now?
What makes you cry out, “Why God?”
We are all Israelites in this story.
The people need food, need support, need manna. They took a leap of faith to leave Egypt, the Status Quo, the norm, “the way its always been done,” and now the new adventure isn’t providing better results as promised. They are tempted to turn back. The word found three times in this text, translated as “complaining” in Hebrew also means murmuring or nervous talking. If read in Hebrew, one can almost hear the people shaking. They are literally quaking in fear. What we find in this story is a people in the midst of confusion, starvation, and estrangement from God… all for good, valid reason. The repetition of that one word shows us that through Biblical form analysis. The repetition makes the text itself seem unstable.
We really shouldn’t blame them for being upset, for that is where it gets interesting! What is God’s response to our worries, our fears of change, our murmuring for our lives? How does God respond? Does God simply end the time of discernment and lead them out of the wilderness. No, God provides nutrition in the time and place of the unknown. This is where we start to learn something.
Aaron and Moses intervene with God, and God sends manna from heaven to sustain the people in the wilderness. Let’s look to the text because this is the part I want us to focus on this morning in our own time of great change: “In the evening, quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew [slime] around the camp. [If I didn’t know better, I would think that we were reading an excerpt from the screenplay for movies like The Fog or The Mist… its creepy!! We can call this a hermeneutic of Stephen King.] Anyway, “When the layer of slime lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flakey substance, as fine as the frost on the ground. When the people saw it, they said to one another, “What is it??” [Can be read either in a grossed-out voice or a fearful, trembling voice.] For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Bon Appetit! O Manna!
What is it? For they did not know what it was?
Friends, manna, relief, and God’s blessings in the wildernesses of our lives never take the form we ask for or expect. Additionally, the manna (the relief the new sustenance for the new emerging church) we are looking for might already be all around us, but we haven’t yet identified it as the bread of God. We haven’t named it manna yet. The solutions are here already, but we haven’t named them as our manna.
For example, we haven’t claimed the manna of the heart, mission-driven patterns, change-focused character of the millennial generation as manna yet. It has that potential energy to change us for good and the better! We likewise haven’t leveraged the full potential of data systems and online communication yet as manna for a new and different reality of church.
Sometimes, manna looks to us, at first, like bird (poop) shit. Yes, that is what the story shows—sometimes manna is not at all what we want—like an election that really wakes us up and alerts us to the seriousness of our cultural issues and apathy, like a rain on a wedding day that eventually yields rainbows, like church pledging pattern changes that makes us pay more attention to theology and mission than history and status quo. Manna is what we get -- not what we ask for.
This is such an important theological lesson for our time—maybe the most important! God is alive and active with us, but the manna we seek (the relief, the blessing, the affirmation, the resources) are already here, and we simply need to name and claim them as such. This is a tough time and a difficult process. The manna might not be easy to swallow or understand, but the needs of the people of God are being met in new and unexpected ways.
Here at Plymouth that means new relationship with the campus next door. It means new apartments being built all around us. It means seeing the changes in attendance as something to celebrate as church goes from a Sunday social sport to an everyday lived practice. The manna is here, and it is abundant, but it isn’t like the bread in Egypt. It isn’t the flesh pots of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s of the church. It is new and looks and tastes different.
Personally, as individuals, this might look like God having brought you a new friendship (potential manna) that still needs an infusion of time and care to nurture into the sustenance it might become for you. Institutionally, it might look like the process next month of implementing the new database portals for the congregation members.
One more note is that manna is also mentioned in the Book of Numbers in chapter 11. The story in The Book of Numbers picks up the story a little bit later after the Israelites have been eating the manna for a while, and it reads, “ We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8 The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.”
So, two more lessons about manna that are different from our childhood remembrances. First, manna isn’t always exciting, and it isn’t delicious, but most importantly--manna and blessings sometimes come with hard work. Manna is like buying something awesome from Ikea, but then learning that you have to assemble the darn thing. Batteries not included. In Numbers we learn that the manna wasn’t pre-baked. In fact, the manna was simply a ground coriander-like powder meal on the ground that took the work of the community [again, the full and engaged effort and work of the community to turn from the preliminary blessing of God into something actually sustaining and useful.] Manna won’t save us, even in abundance, unless we do our part to make it into food.
Let me make a prophesy of sorts: God is sending manna again in our time. We are living in the age of the second coming of the gift of manna. The technologies that connect people offer so much blessing for community and the Gospel, but it won’t be easy. Thanks be to God! We are living in the age of manna, but the blessing and renewal and hope of God in our time and in the time of children and our children’s children won’t be easy, it won’t always be tasty, and sometimes it might appear unappetizing.
It takes work to transform the grains and flour from heaven into a bread of community and communion. It takes work of everyone living with purpose to overcome the wilderness places in all of our individual and collective lives. It takes coordinated work to identify, transform, and stomach the changes in our world and to bear witness to those changes as potential blessings rather than curses.
What is it when the nominating committee asks you to join or chair a board of the church? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when a new opportunity emerges in you or your spouse or partner’s life? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when we are asked to connect with the campus in new ways that change our normal relationships? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when the church launches a new online portal for the church database (as we will be doing in September)? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when a new and challenging neighbor moves in next to your own home [and immediately violate all of the HOA covenants]? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
What is it when you are forced into conversations with conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists? It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat!
Isn’t it interesting when the stories that have become so familiar to us, still have something new and different, weird, and life affirming to teach us? It is weird, but O Manna, it is also reassuring that God provides manna yet today, yet in our midst, yet in ways we are still striving to understand! Oh Manna, I know, feel, and sense God is sending manna in this place here and now. Look around, find it, taste it, and live into the promises of God.
What is it? It is the gift of community grounded in the Word of God. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.