Monday, September 5, 2011

Manna--A Lesson from the Wilderness- 16th Sunday after Pentecost

"When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, 'What is it?' 
For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, 'It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.'"
  --Exodus 16. 15

The towering mountain peak in the Old Testament is the Exodus story. That journey that led them from slavery to freedom. That winding precipitous road from Egypt to Red Sea through desert after desert to finally the Promised Land. The Japanese theologian Koyama talks about the "three mile and hour God." Three miles an hour is the walking speed which would finally take them to their destination. Did Yahweh, their God just walk off and leave them traveling that slow, slow pace? Three miles an hour. No. God was with them every reluctant step of the way. That wilderness was a place of danger. God had told them it was a place of promise. But mostly they saw the danger and they forgot the promise.

Early in their wanderings they murmured and complained because they had little water and no food. Has God brought us here to starve in this wilderness? God heard their cries and sent them manna from heaven. Manna? they said. What is it? And Moses said: "It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat." Little, day after day the manna would come and finally they made it to the Promised Land.

For years scholars have thought that manna was a secretion from the tamarisk tree. But after further investigation, many now feel that it was produced by two tiny insects--one scale insect that can be found in the mountainous regions and another that can be found in the valleys. And the chemical analysis of those excretions reveals that they contain three basic sugars with pectin which contains a great deal of nutrition.

And in the sixteenth chapter of Exodus we have a most interesting story that clusters around this word, manna. They were told to go out every morning and gather up enough manna for the day. Day by day the manna would come. And so fresh every morning they found the sustenance they needed for that particular day. They were warned not to take more than they needed.

But some more enterprising Hebrews began to wonder. Why get up so early? Why do all this week day after day? Why don't we go out in the morning and just gather up enough of the manna for weeks on in and we have a lot more time to sleep or do whatever we wish. And so Exodus says they took their sacks and went out and hoarded up the manna. But a strange thing occurred--when they opened their sacks the next day--they discovered that the manna they had collected had turned moldy and had worms in it. It stunk to high heaven. And they learned a powerful lesson that day. There are some things that cannot be saved up, pickled or frozen for another day. Manna must be collected fresh every morning.

Embedded in this primitive story is one of the great lessons of faith. We have to keep coming back and reaching out our hands because the needs of our lives are daily. It doesn't matter how young you are. It does not matter how old we are. There are so many things that you have to give attention to day after day. It's as basic as sitting down at a table three times a day. We never say: Well, we'll just eat on Sunday--eat a lot--and we won't have to worry about it the rest of the week. It doesn't work that way.

There is nothing new here. But these are lessons we need to be reminded of. The first lesson is this: we are dependent on God and we are dependent on one another.We are not any different from those on that first long journey. In the wilderness they learned some scary, scary things. They learned that you could die out there. Sand, heat, oppressive heat, water scarce--scorpions and disease and enemies always over the next hill it seemed. And so, out of necessity, they began to rely on God and they began to rely on one another--even some they did not like. But they needed one another.

Every Sunday we pray the same words. The Lord's Prayer. It really is the Disciple's Prayer. It is a prayer for us, not God. Once I was counseling a couple about to get married. And we were talking about church. The man was big and strong and used huge earth-moving equipment every day and worked with a very rough crew. He said: "You know what I like most about Church? The Lord's Prayer that we pray every Sunday." Why, I said. "Because there is so much in it that I need to tell God over and over again. It always sends shivers up my spine when we pray it together. It's my favorite part of church."

And you know, there are something that we need to say again and again. It's like Bach's Two-Part Inventions that people play on the piano. You never do finish. You have to keep practicing over and over again. You don't ever graduate. You've got to keep doing it over and over--again and again.

Jesus said: "Pray like this: Give us this day our daily bread." It is the recognition that we live all of our lives by the hand of God. Give us what we need for whatever it is that we must do. Give us our daily ration, somebody calls it. Enough to make it through operations and kids leaving home and life changes and family disruptions and disappointment and moving and all the difficulties the journey brings.

We really are a dependent people. When my youngest granddaughter was about four, would come up half-dressed and I say, "Let me help you." And she would exclaim: "I can do it myself!" and marched off in a huff. Two minutes later she would be back saying: "Granddaddy, could you help me with this?" You don't say: "I offered to help you a while ago." I do not say: "I helped you yesterday." No. My Granddaddy heart would just melt and I would say: "Sit in my lap and we'll tie those shoes or put that band aid on or buckle her seatbelt."

AA knows about how dependent we all are. They sit around this little table. They've all been to hell and back and there is no pretense. Their faces are lined. Some of them are beet-red. The sorrows and hurts of the years are written in their faces and on their hearts. And they have learned the hard way that it's by giving and receiving that it really does happen.

A friend of mine who is a recovering alcoholic called the other night when he heard I was retiring. He said: “I was in a mess back there years ago”. And I said: “Yes”. And he said: “Do you remember establishing the first AA chapter in our church and how furious some people were because they thought we would mess up their church? You really had to take a lot of heat”. I had forgotten all that. “Well”, he said, “it's still going. I'm still there every Monday night. We have fifty people every week. I couldn't have made it without them.” We really are a dependent people.

How have we missed it so long in church? How have we missed it so much in prayer? "Give us this day our daily bread." It comes every morning. Manna. It's all around us--the blessings and treasures of God. We are not self-sufficient. We can't pick and choose the people we are going to love and those that God sends our way. God gives these. That's what you call church.

That's why I love the hymn: "The Servant Song."

"We are travelers on a journey, Fellow pilgrims on the road;
We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, Speak the peace you long to hear."

Every single day we hold out our hands and whisper: Give, Lord, give. One of our favorite places in England is the gorgeous cathedral at Chichester. It is not the largest but I still remember it 15 years later. In the vestibule I picked up a prayer that was written by Sir Richard Chichester. We have all heard it.

"Dear Lord, three things I pray--
Too see thee more clearly--
To love thee more dearly--
To follow thee more nearly--day by day."

It's a lesson from the wilderness. The manna comes--and just keeps on coming. Day by day. And we reach out and take what he gives--sometimes it comes through other people. Sometimes it comes in ways so quiet that if we don't listen very carefully we will miss it.

I don't know what hard thing you may have brought with you here. We all carry burdens on our backs. But this I know. Every morning, without fail, the people of God were commanded to go out and to receive those things that God had in store for them. And whatever they found would be sustenance enough for whatever they faced. God said when his people were in great need. I will send you manna. And they said, “Manna? What is it?” And God said: “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” Thanks be to God.


  1. oddly enough, kerry and i just pulled out your first version of this message from our tattered notebook of your sermons from covenant. it is always timely.