Sunday, February 12, 2023
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“Grits from Heaven”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Reading: Exodus 16:2-3,9,13b-20, 22a, 31 & 35

This morning we are traveling with our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness. And it’s thirsty in this desert. We have seen with our own eyes the splitting of the Red Sea and the conquest of Pharaoh’s mighty army, all now dead on the seashore. We remember the ten plagues and all the other signs and wonders Moses and Aaron accomplished in Pharaoh’s presence. We are breathing free air for the first time after the Egyptians enslaved us and tried to eliminate us. And we are in the wilderness. Get used to it. We will be here for some time.

It doesn’t actually take 40 years to get from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It’s only about 200 kilometers, you could walk it in 10 days if you’re a good hiker. If you look at reconstructions of the Israelites’ journey, it’s just circle after circle after circle. Moving around with no obvious precision . . . for 40 years. A whole generation. There are jokes about traveling the wilderness. If we’d had women leading, it wouldn’t have taken 40 years: they’d have stopped and asked for directions. It’s a marvel that the Israelites wandered for 40 years to find the one place in the middle east . . . where there is no oil. Jews and Christians alike see in the wilderness wandering, a glimpse of our life with God. Frustrating. Grueling. Feeling directionless at times. Taking years. And yet, Jewish people look back on the wilderness with a sort of nostalgia. Remember when we were out under the stars, and it was nothing but us and God? They celebrate the festival of the booths by living in shacks, subject to the elements, no one better off than anyone else, all dependent on God. Plus, it’s fun camping out.

It's true for us Christians too. Our life with God is also between the splitting of the Red Sea—our baptism and coming to faith in Christ—and the promised land, where we are not yet. In between, we circle, like this.

What do the Israelites do when they first get to the wilderness? The first thing is, they . . . complain. The Hebrew is more like “they complain bad.” Now remember they’ve seen miracles with their own eyes. They’ve breathed free air for the first time. And their first question is, what’s for lunch around here? I asked some Jewish friends what they make of the complaining in the wilderness, they looked at each other and then at me and said “typical.” We human beings complain bad. Sure, God, I know you sprang us from freedom and destroyed the world’s greatest army to do it, but it’s noon and I’m hungry, what I gotta do for a sandwich? Or in the Bible’s words, remember “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” Remember when the steaks were free and nobody went hungry? In another version of this story in the book of Numbers they complain even better, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Num. 11:5-6) Quite a salad bar. They remember badly, of course. Slavery had no such menu. Genocide didn’t come with an open bar. But that’s not even the best of their complaining, I’m sorry, I keep doing that, our complaining, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (14:10 & 12). Their bodies may have left slavery in Egypt but their minds, their imaginations, have not.

This is like prisoners today released from prison who suddenly feel terrified at the limitless possibilities. I feel this way in the cereal aisle sometimes. Or historically mistreated peoples who internalize their oppression and inflict it on themselves, whether black, indigenous, gay or otherwise. Freedom doesn’t feel like freedom, it feels like death. Nelson Mandela remembered when he first saw his plane had a black pilot and he was afraid: that’s how deeply he’d ingested racist poison.

In our anthem we sang about the Jordan River. That’s the body of water the Israelites will later cross into the promised land. It’s a river there today, some of you are traveling to see it soon. But in the church’s imagination, the Jordan is any significant transition. Sometimes crossing the Jordan is an image for death. Other times it’s a passing from death to life in baptism. Or any major life transition. This spiritual comes from the wisdom of the black church. These seem like innocent little Bible songs to oppressors. But the oppressed know they’re actually revolutionary marches for free people. Sing them long enough, say, for 40 years, and your imagination will eventually be as free as your body.

There’s an old joke among preachers that tells a truth: The joke is that every church has a “back to Egypt” committee. Some group whose job is to say ‘remember when things were great way back in the day? A friend who was preaching this in a declining parish with a grand history, told that joke. Someone came up to him after and said, “You didn’t know this but this morning you were preaching in Cairo.” Sometimes the whole church is the back to Egypt committee. This isn’t just lay people. I remember a gathering of preachers when these old guys got up and told us how faithfully they’d served. Me and my fellow younger clergy looked at each other. Yeah, and handed us a broken down decrepit wreck of a denomination, thank you very much. It’s not church, or clergy, or laity, it’s just people. We complain not because we’re afraid of change, but because we’re afraid of loss. We remember the past poorly. And we don’t trust God for the future. Typical.

But God in this story is trustworthy. God in our lives is trustworthy. He hears the people complaining and, what, punishes them? No. God rains bread on them. Literally. In the plagues there were cloudbursts of frogs, hail, locusts. Here there is a downpour of bread. Exodus’s words: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you’.” God is so patient with us. Understands we have internalized our slavery and oppression and, well, when people are hungry, we get cranky, hangry, we’re all four-year-olds in that moment. So, God feeds us miraculously from heaven. Sometimes at communion when I hand you the bread I’ll say, “manna from heaven.” I’m not sure it’s bread, but I’m sure it’s Jesus.

What is manna? The Hebrew words they say are “Manu?” What is it? The word manna means “what is it?” People from the US south compare manna to grits. They’re corn meal in a sort of goo, usually with deadly amounts of butter and salt. Grits don’t really taste like anything, so they are good filler food, especially for poor people. A friend of mine was new to the south, a diner offered him grits. He was unsure but wanted to be brave, so he said, “I’ll just try one grit.” Nope. They come in heaps. And they’ll keep people alive cheaply for a long time. Now we serve ‘em in fancy restaurants with like scallops and bacon (shrimp and grits were the meal Jaylynn and I had on our first date. Swoon). But imagine we’re free from slavery and hungry and God rains down grits from heaven. Y’all Canadians say, “what is it?” God says “perfect! That’s what we’ll call em. Whatizit! It’s what’s on the menu for the next, oh say, 40 years.” After the  magnificent chili last week I had leftover chili for three straight meals and I was ready to swear chili off forever. Whatizit for 40 years . . . no wonder Moses had some complainers on his hands.

I wonder about a time when you’ve experienced God’s provision? When you were hungry and, wow, there was something to eat?

It is amazing how dependent we are on food. That’s what it means to be creatures. I realize this when traveling: okay, the last meal was an hour ago, time to plan for the next one! Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach. Feed ‘em and they’ll go to hell and back under you. Don’t, and the war is over folks. One of our online Bible study attenders told us about the famous ice storm in Montreal in the late 80s. There was one block that strangely kept power. So folks from all over would bring their unfreezable meat and cook it with new friends, former strangers, on that blessed block. A community broke out in place of fear and hunger. One year at a church I served we had a sunrise Easter service. The year before five people came so I brought bread for five. This year, I still have no idea why, there were about 60. I looked at the little dinner roll and asked God to make it enough. God did. We just broke off smaller pieces, and all got a bit of Jesus. Any Tolkien fans out there? The Elven Lambus bread, one bite fills you all day, that’s just manna.

Manna is a modest little miracle. And apparently there is a natural explanation for it. In the Sinai desert there is a plant lice that eats the fruit of the tamarisk tree and excretes out a yellow-white substance. Folks who live there still gather it, bake it, eat it, and call it manna. That’s right: lice poo. God’s provision. Apparently, it has a sweet taste and melts in the sun. Doesn’t seem like a miracle so much at all does it? But then again, think of the last bite of food you had. Cereal maybe? Bread? Jam? Bacon? It’s a miracle that that exists. That plants exist to raise wheat and you can beat it into flour and bake it into bread. Fruit for jam. Animals for bacon. Food is always a miracle. Always. Even behind our grocery stores and agrobusinesses, the fact that there is ever anything to eat is a marvel. That’s why religious people pray before eating, we could pray after eating, do it before or after each bite if you want. Looked at that way the manna isn’t so much a new miracle as it is an extension of the miracle all around us: God feeds us and all creatures daily and we live. We should all be amazed all the time.

Here's the more miraculous part. There’s a radical egalitarianism in the manna story. Moses says, everyone gather just enough, not too much, not too little. We don’t listen. Some of us who are strong gather more. Some who are weaker gather less. But when measured later, the ones who gathered too much had only enough. And the ones who didn’t manage to gather enough, had enough anyway. God is the great leveler. Everyone gets the same. Manna is dangerously anti-capitalist: you’re not rewarded for working harder, or punished for failing to work. Do you remember in the book of Acts when the early believers have all things in common? My friend calls this the ten-minute hippie stage in church history. They sold their stuff, held all in common, and nobody had too much or too little? That’s recalling the manna story. There are no cupboards in the wilderness, no pantries in the early church. Just trust that God will provide again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day. And every day thereafter.

There’s a children’s book set in World War II that moves me. Kids in Europe often went hungry during that time. But when there was enough, parents would soothe children back to sleep at night with a loaf of bread. Letting the child sleep with bread reassured them there’d be enough to eat tomorrow.

Jesus in his prayer teaches us, “give us today our daily bread,” but another translation would be “give us today our bread for tomorrow.” In other words, provide for us like you did with manna. Not too much. Just one day’s worth. So that way we’ll trust you again tomorrow.

There’s a wonderful older movie called Babette’s Feast, about a staunch conservative religious community in Denmark in the 19th century. A new cook arrives from France, running from trouble probably, but no one asks. They fall in love with her and her cooking, but their strict Protestantism forbids them from taking too much pleasure in it, or from anything. Wouldn’t you know it, she wins the lottery and wants to head back to France. She asks as a going away present to let her cook them the best meal she can. She spends all her lottery winnings on it, bringing the finest ingredients from Paris. Spends days in the kitchen. They wonder what sort of witches’ brew she’s conjuring. But when it’s time to eat, their minds explode. But they can’t act like they’re enjoying it, remember pleasure is forbidden. But one guest to the community is a soldier, not part of their faith, and he can’t shut up. This is the finest meal I’ve ever had! Why isn’t anyone saying anything? This makes me want to jump up and dance, sing hallelujah, go to the cook, and propose marriage to her. Faith has its renunciations. We do teach self-denial, fasting, abstaining from pleasures our neighbours may like. But we also teach feasting: Extravagance in mealtimes. After all, we look forward to a banquet that’ll never end. Where the poor eat first. And even the scraps the rest of us get, well, they’ll be enough. Where I’m from we have two silly sayings for great food. One, “this is so good it’ll make you want to throw rocks at your mama.” I’m not sure who first thought of that, but I like it. If you want to ratchet it up a notch, there’s always this: “This is so good it’ll make you wanna smack your grandma.” One day we’ll all eat like that, without any rock throwing or smacking. How do we organize our lives now in light of that coming banquet?

There is more here. There is always more with God. On the sixth day the people are to gather twice as much. Try that normally and it miraculously reduces itself to one day’s worth. But on the day before the sabbath, gather twice as much. Because on the sabbath day, no manna. Some go out to gather anyway and find nothing. God provides manna in a way that requires sabbath rest. No gathering on the sabbath. Nobody works. Not even the animals. Nope. Enforced rest for every creature. Egypt’s economy was without sabbath. Slaves work with no break, no regard for their humanity, no more than an animal gets. But the Israelites are now free people so they can fold rest into the rhythm of their work. In fact, they must do so. Now, this is before the Ten Commandments. So, God provides sabbath rest before he even commands it.

In Protestant churches we once fought to keep the sabbath through the laws. For centuries that worked in Protestant places like Britain, Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. Then it didn’t anymore. Businesses wanted to open on Sundays and had more power than the church. Kids wanted to play sports, so in the 60s to the 80s when blue laws collapsed, we just sort of gave up on the sabbath. As if to say well, if it’s legal now, it’s okay. But maybe it was a mistake to try to enforce non-activity on the sabbath: Nobody have any fun! Maybe we should have just tried to make the sabbath a street party. No work, sure, but delight, games, parades. No wonder we all threw off enforced glumness. I was reading Andrew Lawson’s widow’s book about their ministry at TEMC mid-century, and before here he pastored in Calgary during the war. His church grew. But Mrs. Lawson concedes it was during the war. There was rationing. On the sabbath everything was closed so to grow all Andy Lawson had to do was be a better preacher than the Presbyterians’. There was no competition for church. Now there’s infinite competition 24/7. See why the back to Egypt committee is wrong? The church might’ve been fuller once, when there was nothing else to do.

Our Jewish neighbours know about keeping the sabbath without the government doing it for you. It’s often said that more than the Jews keeping the sabbath, the sabbath has kept the Jews. That one day of no work has kept this people distinct, alive, and prosperous across centuries. There are Jewish businesses that if you try to go online and buy from them on Saturday won’t sell to you. Sorry we’re closed. At Mount Sinai hospital here in Toronto if you try to use the elevator on Saturday, shabbat, every button is pressed. Operating machinery is work. Can’t let anyone do it. When my class visited a synagogue in Vancouver, they poured schnapps for everyone after service. No one’s working today, after this party all you’ll be good for is a nap. Friends we’re the people who brought the world the Protestant work ethic. It built capitalism, democracy, modernity. You’re welcome world. But it does not know how to rest. And we need to relearn that from people who never forgot. Oh, and if you were planning on working this afternoon? Forget it. Don’t do it. Go for a walk. Talk with someone you love. Don’t dissolve into scrolling your phone, dissolve into rest, conversation, food. The life God intends for all of us. (the Super Bowl is okay, just for the record…).

Now if the manna tradition makes you nervous, fear not. The manna tradition ends when the people get to the promised land. Then they have to grow their own food. They take some of the manna and put it in the ark of the covenant, to remember the way God provides. It’s okay to save, invest, and plan for the future. We don’t live in the wilderness now. We also have to work. In fact, we always did. The people didn’t go outside and just open their mouths. They had to gather the manna, pound it, bake it. God provides, but we always have work to do.

Yet there remains this radical memory of manna and a sense that everyone having enough, not too much, not too little, is a good thing. Some suggest we should talk less about stewardship at church and more about manna. God provides, just enough, not too much, in a sabbath-keeping way. And it’s true in many other areas. When I teach preaching, I tell students to spend everything they have. Imagine they’ll die on Monday. What do you wish you’d have told them Sunday? Don’t hold the good stuff back for another day. Give it away. Trust God will give you more. That’s manna. What would be the equivalent for your life? Where are you holding back where you should in fact spend it all, push all your chips into the middle of the table? The Christian gospel is like manna. You can’t have it if you don’t give it away. If you try and keep it, hoard it, it rots. But if you give it out as fast as you can, God will make more. That’s true of food. Money, Kindness. Grace. Everything that matters. Speak Lord, your servants are listening. But better yet, provide, Lord, we are in need. We trust in you. Help us to trust you more. Amen.