Aug. 6, 2018 Manna in the Wilderness

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky subsatnce, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.   Exodus 16: 14-15                                           

 One of the great benefits of travel is the opportunity to try new foods- experience the local cuisine-  lobster rolls along the coast of Maine, huevos rancheros for breakfast in Santa Fe,  ostrich burgers in Montana, candied eel in Chinatown.  Sometimes when the plate or bowl is placed before you, often with a flourish, the contents may or may not be familiar. Noticing the knot forming in your stomach yet not wanting to seem unappreciative,

“What is it?” you ask.

 What is it? It’s the question of the ages, ancient ancestors have asked the same. The Israelites were deep into their travels across the Sinai wilderness on The Road Trip which came to define all other road trips. They’re wandering, they’re whining, they’re wondering aloud if they just shouldn’t turn right around and go back to Egypt. Sure things had been rough, times bad, the work beastly, but at least they knew those fleshpots and they’d had bread- moldy, day-old bread - but the supply was sure.

Starving for certainty, they greedily demand food from Moses and Aaron. But it is the LORD who answers, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”  

But remember our wandering ancestors were in the middle of the wilderness, and so this bread wasn’t going to look like anything they’d been used to seeing on their plates. Besides, this is bread from heaven. So when they stepped onto the dew  they said, “What’s this?”

And they named it manna from the Hebrew man hu - which means “What is it?”

If we were to travel to the Sinai peninsula this manna would not stay a mystery very long. Just as those wandering Hebrews did, the Bedouin who live there today still gather it and bake it into bread, which they call manna.  

The manna flakes themselves come from plant lice that feed on the local tamarisk trees. Because the sap is so poor in nitrogen, the bugs have to eat a lot of it in order to live. They excrete the extra in a yellowish-white flake or ball of juice from the tree that is rich in carbohydrates and sugars. It decays quickly and attracts ants, so a daily portion is the most anyone gathers.

One day’s worth no more, the people were instructed to gather because manna would not keep.

If the people tried to hoard it, it spoiled overnight. In the morning it stank and crawled with worms.When the sun got hot, it melted. So their limit was two quarts of manna per day per person. The only exception was the sabbath. Since God meant the people to rest on that day, there was no manna to be found. God let them gather twice as much as they needed the day before and on that one day a week it lasted two days instead of one. So the people rested on the seventh day and the next day they were back at it again, living one day at a time by the providence of Almighty God.

This lasted 40 years, or fourteen thousand six hundred days. Manna was the Israelites food in the wilderness. They ate raw manna, boiled manna, baked manna, ground manna. It was how they survived until they came into the land of Canaan. So that manna became for them the symbol of God’s very practical, physical care for them. 

Long after their sojourn in the desert was over, they remembered their manna meals. At God’s command, they kept two quarts of it in a jar by the tablets of the law as an everlasting reminder of their dependence on God, who gave them each day their daily bread.

What is it? We ask.

What is it that makes something manna from heaven?

What is it about a God that hears a whiney people and feeds them with bug juice, feeds them with food they would never bothered to touch on their own? 

What about us is it that insists that miracles have to fit our measurements to be true?

For if the things we demand of God have to be airlifted in by some jumbo jet pulling a 40 foot banner proclaiming:

Bread from Heaven,

chances are we’re going to miss a lot of heavenly meals.

What is it, we ask.

What is it about the ordinary that carries the extraordinary?

This story from Exodus with manna on the menu answers: because it is not what it is that counts, but Who sends it.

Travel into our time and the meal of bread and wine which we will share. The very ordinary bread and wine, could have come from Von’s or Trader Joe’s. And the water?  tap water, not even filtered. Bread and wine and water each as commonplace as bug juice and each sent by God.

I do not suppose that this is any more difficult for us to truly believe that than it was for those who crowded around Jesus in this morning’s gospel. We shop those brightly lit aisles- laden with bread that beckons- whole grain, nutri-grain, Italian, sourdough. We know where that bread comes from. We’ve stepped aside while the clerk restocks the shelves, moving the day-old pumpernickel to the front. The wine aisle is not much different really, those dark bottles with their mysterious labels tell us all we need to know. The only unknown, What is it? Is it from France or California or some remote So. American hillside? 

They’d seen him walk across the water, and watched as he fed thousands with 2 measly fish and 5 round loaves of barley bread… but this is what they ask:

What sign are you going to give us then,

so that we may see it and believe in you?

What work are you performing?

Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness…

They wanted miracle food to eat according to their expectations,not a relationship with this ordinary looking man. Jesus honored their hunger even as he corrected them. It was not Moses who gave it to them, he explained. It was God who gave it and God who gives the true bread from heaven, the bread that gives life to the world.

“Give us this bread always,” they said, and that is when he let them know that they were looking at it. “I AM the bread of life,” he told them. Jesus is God’s manna in our 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.

The very question, What is it?  puts us on manna alert.

Manna alert, as our ancestors discovered, manna alert provides a healthy spiritual discipline for each of us. Looking for manna causes us to look at everything as coming from God- even something as revolting as bug juice has the capacity to awaken our thankfulness. Nothing is too ordinary or familiar in the hands of God. In fact God seems to prefer the commonplace to get our attention.

Manna alert prevents us from stockpiling, from investing in manna insurance, just in case God does not come through. Being on manna alert means we appreciate the very gift of the moment,the here and now, without drowning in the anguish of what has been or what we assume will surely come to be. We really do begin to ask and to receive our daily bread. Manna alert causes us to focus on Who not what.

I AM the bread of life.

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,

And whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

8/5/2018 - The Reverend Anne Bridgers

Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, pp.8-11