Bread Alone

Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

Among the many debatable assertions made in holy Scripture, this one is a doosey: that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.  The saying comes from Deuteronomy, where it refers back to the memory of the children of Israel wandering in the desert after escaping through the Red Sea from slavery in Egypt.  You remember that they were hungry and complained to Moses, who asked God to do something about it.  In the night, while the people slept, God leaves a sprinkling of this stuff called manna - enough for everyone – which sustains them.  Of course, eventually Moses’ people will complain that all they have is this manna to eat, this food that comes down from heaven each night in the desert, what the Psalmist calls the bread of angels, but this complaining is par for the course.

The writer of Deuteronomy says that God put his people through this ordeal in the desert to test them and to humble them, “that he might make [them] know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”  This, of course, sounds great, and is easy to recite as though we mean it.  It is a wonderful and well-worn cliché by now.  But you have to ask yourself whether or not you think it is true, and if you do, whether or not there is much evidence that you or I or anyone we know is living as though it was true.

To assess this question, it helps to get back to the desert; to think about what it means to be uprooted, uncertain, homeless, hungry, on the run, and deeply skeptical of your leader, but basically unable to do anything about it since you can’t very well go back to Egypt where you used to be a slave.  You don’t have a lot of options, and you are tired of living on manna.  Are you grateful for it anyway?  And will you remember to thank God for it after you have arrived at a land flowing with milk and honey, and perhaps steak, or at least lamb chops?

To say that we Americans live in a land flowing with milk and honey is a gross understatement.  The fact is that we live in an obscene society.  So much do we have that we fatten our children and the poor on the worst imaginable processed foods.  It is actually costly and inconvenient to eat a healthy diet in this country, or to lead what might be called a healthy lifestyle.  Warfare is so much a part of our lives, that we are basically untroubled that we have been sending soldiers to Afghanistan for almost a decade now, with no end in sight, and our idea of withdrawing from Iraq is to leave a force of only 50,000 troops there.  Who knows what we are planning to do with North Korea – and who will object?  Our disgusting dependence on oil is a helpful distraction from the reality that we have stripped the earth of so many of its resources with little care about the effect this might have on the planet or on us: trees, fish, clean water – all disappearing, just to name the most obvious.  We built a great system of schools to educate our children, but we don’t seem to care much if our children actually learn anything.  We built a great system of prisons, and we don’t seem to care if a million people rot in them, as long as we can’t see it from our house.  And we built a great economy, that after it stopped making anything useful, just found ways to make money for the sake of making money.  And then we decided that those who master that game will be rewarded the most handsomely.  Not just on the order of a few times more generously than anyone else, but with exponentially extravagant sums that allow an exponentially extravagant lifestyle.

But here is the kicker: we are not really unhappy living this way, because most of us look up with more envy than disgust at the investment banker whose annual bonus is a seven-figure number, even after the financial crisis of the past several years, while unemployment still hovers around the double digits.  There is manna and there is money, and given the choice, most of us know which we would take.  If you doubt me, ask yourself how far you would have to walk from here in any direction to buy a lottery ticket – that ludicrous tease (promoted by the government) that you, too, could live like a banker, if you just get a little lucky.  Another way to put this is to say that most of us would happily live on bread alone, as long as the bread is direct-deposited into our bank accounts.

For better or worse, in the midst of this land flowing with milk and money, (no, my computer does not even try to correct me here) there stand churches, like Saint Mark’s.  Every day of the year here, and several times on Sundays, we take some scraps of bread and a few cups of wine and we offer them to God, asking him to bless them, and to bless us, too.  Although it’s hard to picture a desert here in this beautiful church, this is meant to be a place where we connect with the memory of those wanderers all those generations ago.  It is meant to be a place where we see how God calls us out of slavery and into a new freedom.  It is meant to be a place where we rush across the parted waters of a red sea to escape the clutches of those who would exploit us, use us for their own purposes and gain.  It is meant to be a place of humility, where we come to terms with our own limitations, and God’s merciful provision.  It is meant to be a place of testing, to see if we will keep God’s commandment to love him and to love one another.  And it is meant to be a place where we are asked to consider whether or not we really want to live on bread alone.

It is so hard, as fat Americans (I can say this with confidence), to come to church and feel hungry for manna: for the food that comes only from God.  What is this wafer of tasteless bread, and this sip of too-sweet wine?  What point is there to it, what power does it have?  And who needs it anyway?  No one needs it if you are happy to live on bread alone.

But if you begin to become weary with the obscenity of our society, and begin to wonder where there is an antidote for it, you might start by looking for manna.

Once, America thought of itself as a new promised land, because of the freedom we have here, and because of the plentiful resources that could so obviously and so easily be shared by so many.  It did not take us long, as a nation, to find slaves of our own, so that we began to be more like a new Egypt: oppressing others for our own gain, and ready, willing, and able to live on bread alone.  It took a bloody civil war and another hundred years of struggle to cross that red sea. 

But remember that Moses’ followers reminisced fondly about their days of slavery in Egypt, while they wandered the desert.  They longed for cucumbers and leeks and garlic and melons, when all they had to eat was manna, from heaven.  And have we wandered back to Egypt again?  Or are we, at least longing for its cucumbers and melons, which somehow seem more enticing than our freedom and our self-respect?

If it sometimes feels this way to you, as it does to me, then you are in the right place this morning.  For day by day, and Sunday by Sunday, God propels us, when we gather in his name, back into the desert.  He leads us here to help us escape from the obscene fatness and exploitation that we would willingly enslave ourselves to in exchange for cucumbers, melons, leeks; in exchange for bread in our bank accounts.  He leads us here to show us heights of beauty, forgiveness, mercy, truth, and love unknown in the corporate offices of Goldman Sachs, et al.

He leads us here to feed us with a better manna than he gave to his children so long ago  - the bread of heaven, food of angels that renews this life and fortifies us for unending life in the world to come.

There is ample evidence that man can live in this world on bread alone, but it is an obscene and ugly life we end up living that way, and it comes to an unhappy end.

There is another life to be led, in this world and in the world to come.  This is the life of pardon, mercy, wonder, joy, and love.  And there is no way to live it on a diet of bread alone, but by the love of God that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  Today, here, now, God has called again out of Egypt, he is raining down on us the bread of heaven, the food of angels.  Will we not come to his table, and eat?


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 7 June 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 6, 2010 .