God Provides Manna

sermon on Exodus16:1-18
At this point in the Narrative Lectionary, from the Burning Bush at Mount Horeb last week, jumping ahead to the far side of the Red Sea as Moses was returning to Mount Horeb where God would bind the community together as congregation through the giving the 10 Commandments, at this point I’ve been thinking of a Hebrew word that each spring is part of remembrances of these events. That word is dayenu.

Dayenu is a refrain when Jewish people are gathering to remember this sequence of events as they observe Passover. It goes partly like this:

1) If God had brought us out of Egypt, but not done justice on the Egyptians: dayenu

2/3) If God had done justice on the Egyptians, but not…slain their first-born: dayenu

4) If God had slain their first-born but not given us their mammon: dayenu

5) If God had given us their mammon but hadn’t parted the Red Sea for us: dayenu

6/7) If God had parted the Red Sea for us but hadn’t…drowned our oppressors: dayenu

8) If God had drowned our oppressors but hadn’t helped in the wilderness for 40 years: dayenu

9) If God had helped in the wilderness for 40 years, but not given us manna: dayenu…

I’ll stop there, since that’s plenty to give you a sense of the progression that will continue on to Mount Horeb and sabbath and receiving the law and entering the Promised Land.

What it likely doesn’t indicate, however, is that key word, dayenu. This Hebrew word means, “it’s sufficient,” “it would have been good enough.” So this whole account is marveling at God’s progressive provision in the story.

It strikes me as a good and faithful practice for life, but one that is mostly countered in the story and in us. In our reading today, we hear the third major incident of not praising God but grumbling against God, murmuring that it’s not enough, in astonishing short-term memory claiming it would’ve been preferable to be back in slavery in Egypt than with grumbling bellies in the wilderness. This after it’s only been a month and a half since they went through all kinds of miracles  which the Passover service already said eight stages earlier would have been enough—dayenu—even just to have made it to the shore of the Red Sea, long before those hungry bellies were satiated.

Neither does the arrival of manna satisfy the hungering grumblers; the retelling of this account in the book of Numbers has them weeping with rose-colored 20-20 hindsight, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing (as if the manna comes only at great expense) the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now…there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (11:5-6)

(Based on that preferred diet, we might say that if God gave them less bad breath, dayenu.)

But they sure didn’t respond dayenu. For them, it wasn’t enough. It could be miraculous in its own right, could be more than there was any reason to expect, but still feeling like not enough, without dayenu. For us, it is frequently not enough. We refuse to be satisfied, looking for something more, always the next best thing, for what we don’t yet have, for where the grass is greener and the menu is newer and fresher and sometimes all that in the insidious ill-remembered “good old days.”

Now, I don’t want us to confuse hunger and appetites. What most of us have are appetites, a yearning based on new wants and not on basic needs. There are millions of people on the globe who are starving, who do not have enough to eat. God’s answer to them would not be and is not simply insisting dayenu.

Jesus uses the term in the Sermon on the Mount that millions also hunger for justice. In the face of abuse and oppression, for those who cannot have their fill of what life is designed and intended to be, where things are wrong is also a true insufficiency. We shouldn’t label it dayenu. Such hungerings persist throughout our lives, and are cries we should hear and struggles we should join.

Don’t confuse that, though, with appetites seeking more than enough. It is important to notice God providing manna as an economic story: nobody got too little. This is a lot of manna—a half gallon per person per day. And nobody could have too much, more than their share. In the verses that follow it says it couldn’t be hoarded, because it would rot and get wormy.

Yet, in a second economic piece, it can be saved on the 6th day. This odd miracle that only one day a week the manna somehow could keep is also part of the economic order of people’s lives, intended that they would have rest, that not every day of the week would be in needing to work for their food.

The unfortunate present parallels seem clear when people work multiple minimum wage jobs at more than full time and yet need pantries and food stamps and can’t afford paying utilities or rent, those most basic necessities, and don’t get any rest, don’t have the time to enjoy life and delight in goodness that God intends with the sabbath pause. And that’s before questions of education and entertainment and health care and nature deficit and internet and vehicles and trips, whether those are increased appetites or aspects of basic nourishment, whether these ought to be for all. But we’re a long way from that, since somehow we don’t even expect that everybody should get enough food for the day, not to go to bed hungry.

In this month of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ll get one edge of Martin Luther’s reflection on daily bread next week in the ongoing Small Catechism notes in your bulletin. More, for his faithful understanding, this prayer from Jesus is very much about the ordering of society and very much an economic prayer. He said the most important implication of asking for our daily bread was about good government, since a government that failed to ensure peace and security would mean farmers couldn’t hardly begin to grow crops that would feed us.

Luther, with this prayer, also saw the risk in having more than enough. It was this petition that led Luther to argue that usury or collecting interest was idolatrous, since then you weren’t authentically needing to pray “give us today our daily bread.” Your source was no longer God. Instead it seemed something else was providing for you.

Though Luther’s systems were clearly simpler than anything like our models of banks and loans and debts and retirement accounts and stock portfolios, our complexity only reinforces the sharpness of his critique. Putting our trust and reliance in the future on something we don’t directly relate to God, many of us do not need to pray for our daily bread, do not go to bed with a needful, prayerful concern for where our food will come from tomorrow. While that lack of concern feels like a benefit for ourselves, it comes as a dire expense in our relationship with those who do hunger, and therefore also a steep risk in our relationship with God. We have little model of when to say dayenu, of the moments of sufficiency where we can praise God by saying, Even if I had only that, even if I hadn’t had this, still it would have been enough. Dayenu.

Yet even when we don’t recognize it and don’t deserve and continue to strive for more than our share, still your faithful God continues to provide. I’d like to rewrite this section of the Bible as a diary, as if the people wrote, “Got up this morning and went out to collect our manna.” That journal entry that started here on the far shores of the Red Sea, still fresh from slavery in Egypt, that diary note would go on six days a week for forty years, God continuing to provide for their lives.

And it’s not only the persistence but the peculiarity. The word “manna” is about it being unidentifiable. Since you’re learning bits of Hebrew today, the word manna means “what is it?” From the get-go, they had no idea what God was offering, how God was working for them. I appreciate that, and even more so the notion that they continued for 40 years to gather and be sustained by something that was unrecognizable to them. I suspect that’s a fairly accurate portrayal of God’s providence in and through our lives—that we’re surrounded by it daily, gather it by the bucketful, and still don’t recognize it. Also a similarity that it’s really only good in the right quantity and when we think we can claim more than our share of God’s gifts, they go to waste.

From that abundant analogy, I want to end with a smaller focus, with the bread from heaven that you are given when you come to Jesus’ table again today. This small taste could hardly be labeled a feast and would never seem like it could fill your hunger. It comes with the strangeness that leaves you questioning, asking “what is it?” wondering how Jesus could be present for you in this bite of bread. And yet, for all of that, here at this table God provides for you. It is sufficient. In Jesus’ presence, in communion with God and with each other, in these gifts gathered from creation, in a word of promise is all you need. It is sufficient. It is enough. Dayenu.

 

 

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