September 21, 2014
Another reading today from Exodus that is likely quite familiar. Like last week, the people following Moses are murmuring. As I said last week, I believe congregations have learned this murmuring technique from Old Testament stories. Or maybe it’s a timeless type of human behaviour. In this story they are murmuring about their gift of freedom claiming to prefer the “good old days,” in Egypt.
We have all heard about the good old days, right? Again we need to remember that in those days people spoke directly with God and received answers, or at least that is the way the story is told. In today’s story, God hears this complaining and God says to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you and for your people and each morning they will be able to collect enough bread for the day.”
This reading always reminds me of my childhood. As a child who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, where we raised pigs, and so, of course and we ate pork. On a regular basis we ate roast pork, pork chops, pork sausage, side bacon, back bacon and my mother made pickled pigs feet for friends of hers, and they loved them. Until I was about 12 years old I simply ate pork and never thought too much about it. But at that time I started to go out and eat at the homes of friends. There I discovered that there were other things to eat besides pork. One friend who came to my house took one look at the chops and said, “Yuck, I don’t eat pigs – they are gross. Pigs eat leftovers, they eat garbage and that means then that their meat is garbage.” So, whenever I read this story about manna, I think of pork and how we ate that day after day and how I got tired of it and I complained.
For the Israelites, this eating of manna lasted forty years, or fourteen thousand, six hundred days. Manna was the Israelites food in the wilderness. They ate raw manna, boiled manna, baked manna, and ground manna. It was how they survived until they came to the land of Canaan and only then did they recognise the manna as a gift from their God and that in some mysterious way, they had been cared for. Long after their journey through the desert had ended, they remembered their meals of manna. At God’s command they kept two quarts of it right beside the tablets of the law as an everlasting reminder of their dependence on God.
There has been a good deal of speculation over the years about exactly what manna was. The Bible says it was like coriander seed, white and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. If you go to the Sinai Peninsula, it will not stay a mystery very long. The Bedouin who live there, still gather it and bake it into bread, which they still call manna. The flakes themselves come from plant lice that feed on local tamarisk trees. Because the sap is 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.
Some believers reject this explanation because they think it takes away from the miracle of the manna, but I wonder about that. Does manna have to come from nowhere to qualify as a miracle? Or is the miracle that the needs of these hungry people were met, they were nourished with bug juice and with food they had never before thought of eating? Or to put it another way, what makes something bread from heaven? Is it the thing itself or is it about the one who sends it. How you answer this question has a lot to do with how you sense the presence of God or Spirit in your life. If the manna has to drop straight from heaven looking like a perfect loaf of butter-crust bread, then chances are you are going to go hungry a lot.
If you expect the bread direct from heaven and you do not get the miracle you are praying for, you are going to think that God is ignoring you, or punishing you, or that God is not there at all. You might start comparing yourself to others and wondering why they seem to have more to eat than you do and you may start complaining to heaven about that. Meanwhile, you are going to miss a lot of other things that are being done for you because they are so ordinary – like bug juice, or things too transitory – like manna, that fine flaky substance that melted as soon as the sun got hot.
If, on the other hand you are willing to look at everything that comes to you as coming from somewhere outside of yourself, then there will be no end to the manna in your life. A can of beans will be manna, pork will be manna and bug juice will be manna. Nothing will be too ordinary, or too transitory to remind you of the goodness that is possible. When you go to bed hungry and you wake up to find a fine flaky substance on the ground, you will say, “What is it?” and when someone says, “It is the bread sent from heaven through the Spirit of the community,” you will believe it. You might say thanks be to the Great Spirit, thanks be to Creator God and you will start eating the stuff. Because it is not what it is that counts but the fact that it happened.
The miracle is that we could make it happen all the time. The Spirit is made known to us in the simple things that sustain us, some bread, some love, some wine, some chocolate, all of those things that keep us going day to day and we need that. Everything else is gravy, but it is easy to forget that. At least I forget, come to my house and I will show you a cupboard full of canned food, tea, coffee and all the good spices I can buy and a refrigerator that is often over-flowing.
Maybe it is manna insurance; just in case the community doesn’t provide. Either way I am on manna alert and I know that it is about more than food. That day, in the desert they just happened to be murmuring about food. Remember the story when Jesus and the community fed the 5000 gathered? Remember, later that day in the sun after they were all fed and they followed Jesus around and they stuck to him like glue? The miracle of that day reminded them of the manna stories they had heard and they thought they had a Moses too, a Moses who would work wonders for them. Testing their premise, they asked Jesus to prove himself by producing bread from heaven on the spot. They wanted the butter crust loaves, but he needed more than that, so he gave them community instead, which, believe me, sounded like bug juice to some of them.
I am reminded of this story: Marjorie grew up on the Red Pheasant Indian Reserve not too far from North Battleford. The day this incident happened, she was about 12 years old. It was a beautiful fall day and the leaves were turning colour and the river where her father was fishing was fairly high for that time of year. Her mother was busy inside storing things away for winter. Marjorie and her six siblings were playing in the yard. It was late afternoon when her Dad said he thought he would call it a day. He had a nice catch; the washtub was almost full of fish. Just then the neighbours pulled into the yard, they had been in town all day and they were on their way home. They stopped beside Marjorie’s Dad and they all piled out to visit. As they were leaving they said, “Do you think you can spare us some fish? We don’t have any meat for supper.” Marjorie’s Dad gave them all of the fish but three. They were delighted. They packed the fish up in bags and off they went down the lane to their home. Marjorie’s mother was furious. She waved her arms at her husband and said to him, “What do you think you are doing? Why would you give away all of the fish? I was going to can them for us to eat in the winter.” He just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Ahhh, there will be enough, there is always enough, you will see, we will have enough.”
Marjorie said to me, you know sometimes I am sitting watching TV and I remember that day by the river, and I get up off my couch and I go through my cupboards and I put all of my canned goods in a box, all of them except three cans and I take them to the food bank. He was right, there has always been enough.
Like Marjorie, like her father, like the ancient Israelites, we are the receivers of manna every day of our lives, whether we recognise that fact or not. Like Marjorie and her father, we can be the manna for others. We are the ones, we are the community that sends the manna, in co-creation with the good earth, and with one another we create manna for the world.
I invite you this week to think about the manna you have received, where did it come from, and when were the times that you there were short on manna? I also invite you to reflect on Marjorie’s story. How do you share the manna in your life?