The Basics: Food
For the next few weeks, we are following the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. And as we do, we are contemplating what this story has to teach us about what it means to live in the wilderness – both life itself, with its complicated imperfections, and our own contorted character, with its temptations and stumblings.
When we set out on an exploration like this, our culture tends to nudge us toward individualism: what does this lesson have to say to me and me alone? I don’t think that’s completely off course, however; we do have considerable agency and choice as individuals.
But we can never lose sight of the bigger question: what does this lesson have to say to us as a community? After all, last week the entire nation of the Israelites crossed theRed Sea on dry ground. Some of them may have been the nicest people you’d ever meet; and some of them probably wouldn’t get invited to your wedding. Even so, God saved them as a community, as a people; not as a righteous and self-righteous subset.
And that’s what makes today’s text particularly galling in some ways. Last week, we read how the people have been freed from slavery, have crossed the Sea as walls of water stood on either side, watched as their pursuers were wiped out.
The interlude between last week and this week contains a little celebratory dance, three days walk in the desert, and the transformation of bitter sludge to potable water.
With all they’ve been through in this short time, how in the world can they stand there now and complain? “We had it great back inEgypt,” they say; “Sure, we were slaves, but we ate until our bellies were swollen! Now we’re in the desert for God knows how long, and your plan seems to be to wipe us all out with hunger!”
It reminds me of the story of the man standing in line at the post office when a gentleman approached him and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind writing a letter for me? This weather is so bad that my arthritis is acting up.”
“Sure thing,” replied the other. And as the one dictated, the other dutifully transcribed it into letter form, signing the man’s name, and addressing the envelope as well. When he finished, he said, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
After a pause, the man said, “Yes, now that you mention it. Could you please add, ‘P.S. Sorry for the sloppy handwriting?’”
Does this feel familiar, perhaps uncomfortably so? Do we ever find ourselves forgetting the multitude of blessings we have received in the past, only to complain about the one that’s not in front of us at the moment? Are we at all like the ancient Israelites, complaining of hunger when two weeks ago we couldn’t have dreamed of the freedom we now take for granted?
Now let’s be fair: food is necessary. We might have an issue with their complaining, but we can’t be too upset with the fact of their hunger and the need to address it. The desert may be better than slavery in Egypt; but when you get that craving for waffle fries, it’s awfully hard to find a Chik-fil-A.
All of which brings us to the quails and the manna. In the evening, the Israelites ate meat; and in the morning, they ate the bread they baked from this miracle substance, a mysterious stuff that got its name from the question it prompted in the Israelites: “Man hu? What is this?”
Now as the story continues beyond today’s reading, we learn that on Fridays, there was twice as much, so that the people could hold some over for the Sabbath. And we also learn that some tried to hoard, but any extra they kept spoiled over night, leaving them as empty-handed as everyone else when the morning’s manna supply arrived.
Which returns us to our initial question: how much is enough?
It feels like an odd question to be asking right now. For the first time in a long time, the overall economic growth and prosperity of our nation, which has been so reliable for so long, is suddenly not so certain. And for generations, we have co-existed with a theological and financial cognitive dissonance, storing up resources for the future even when we read about manna, hear Jesus say, “Do not store up treasures on earth,” and thank God for “daily bread”.
I wasn’t sure whether I should speak of our financial situation at OPC this morning, but if Jesus gets to talk about money, then I’m gonna to do it, too.
Seriously, though, I’ll keep it brief. Your finance committee has done an excellent job of keeping you informed of our financial situation and reminding you of our “open book” policy at OPC. When it comes to money, we value transparency above all else.
If you have followed our situation closely this year, you know that at the end of August our expenses were running about $25,000 ahead of income. That’s about 11% of budget. It averages out to about $150 per member, or about $4 per week per person.
And I want to be clear that we are talking about deficit, not debt. We have no debt, and still have a significant cushion in our own storehouses, a little more than $130,000.
How do we, as a church, decide how much is enough?
The Israelites are in the desert. There is nothing there. They need the manna to survive. And the only thing they have to go on is God’s promise that it will come day after day after day. If we play out the comparison here, we’re sitting on a four year stockpile of manna. Is there anything that we can we learn from the Israelites, warts and all?
Maybe it’s that when what we know for certain is in our past, our faith grows stronger out of sheer necessity. Or perhaps we are too susceptible, trusting in what we can see rather than in the reliability of God. Or maybe it’s as simple as recognizing that God’s job is provision, and ours is the gathering.
And before the complaint comes that the story from Exodus is about bread, not money, we read Jesus’ troubling parable of the workers who all got paid a day’s wage, whether they worked from sunrise or just an hour.
We may be a people who like to speak of grace, but the truth is that the two texts this morning run head-first into our constructed meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded and sloth is punished. The truth is: in God’s economy of grace, we all get enough.
Friends, don’t get me wrong: there is no doubt that we are living in economically precarious times. But as we face these days, especially in these early days of political campaigns, I think we can resist being manipulated by fear, as we see this moment as an opportunity for a deepened faith, a chance to re-examine our values in the light of what we know of God’s character and Christ’s mercy.
In other words, when it comes to God’s grace, when we think about the blessings we have received, how much is enough?
If we really believe that God’s grace is unmerited, if we really know that the love that flows from the heart of God really is unconditional, then how can we possibly think of hoarding it for ourselves? The supply of grace can’t be depleted. Sharing it doesn’t mean there’s less of it to go around. It is limitless, boundless, endless.
And unlike most commodities, grace doesn’t come in quantities. There’s no Costco size family pack. Our images of God may be shaped by those dramatic scenes of the Hebrew Bible, parting seas and knocking down city walls; but far more often, the God we know in Jesus Christ works through the subtlest of means. The Canaanite woman desires “crumbs from the table”, which are sufficient to heal her daughter. A widow places two meager coins in the Temple offering, thereby becoming the example of generosity through the generations. A basketful of fish and bread feeds a multitude. A little mud opens a blind man’s eyes.
...mustard seeds…flickers of light…handfuls of water…
How much is enough?