For forty years the children of Israel ate manna in the desert. The Scriptures say that “it was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.”
“Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much… some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it… the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.”
It is, of course almost impossible to believe such a thing. Even if you account for the number “forty” as an indicator for the more vague meaning: “a long time,” it’s hard to believe that the grumbling, complaining followers of Moses (or anyone, for that matter) subsisted on this dew-like substance, that evaporated from the ground with the sunshine.
An interesting detail: “Moses said to them, ‘No one is to keep any of it until morning.’ However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.” This detail, like so many details of the stories of Israel’s pilgrimage to the Promised Land, contributes to the general sense that the stories cannot possibly have taken place in history. It all just seems so hard to believe. Who knows? I don’t.
What I suspect is this – that the details of the taste and texture of the manna from heaven are unimportant, as unimportant as the actual amount of time the children of Israel may have wandered through the wilderness. But the matter of the perishibility of the manna is not unimportant at all.
History is silent about the truth of the existence of manna. God seems to have wanted to allow for a kind of historical exhibit of manna for all posterity: he tells Moses to “take a jar and put [a measure] of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.” But this artifact and its contents have been lost, just like the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and Noah’s ark. Who can truly believe that they ever really existed? I don’t know.
But I know that if you want to know what kind of economy God would set up, if we really allowed him to govern our lives, you don’t have to scratch your head and wonder. God knows there are people who are perfectly capable of getting up early and collecting more than their fair share of the manna. God knows that such early birds could sell it at a profit. God knows that there are those who could corner the market in manna, stockpile it, and make a killing. And God knows that there are those who would sleep in and miss out on the manna. He knows that there are those who are too weak, or too lazy, or too stupid, frankly, or whose knees don’t work so well anymore, or whose backs go out whenever they try to bend over and collect their share of the manna. God knows. And God doesn’t care. “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” This is a rule, established by God. And in case you forgot, or deliberately held on to more manna than you needed overnight, the excess would be crawling with maggots in the morning, just to show you.
We heard St. Paul refer to this unbelievable story in one of his letters to the fledgling church in Corinth, as he is trying to help them learn what it means to act like a Christian community, a community gathered in Christ’s name, a community called to embody God’s will for his people. It was a community in which there was a marked disparity between those who had a great abundance, and those who had great need. (Sound familiar?) He is writing to the young church about its offering and support for the poor. And St. Paul reaches for this simple and unbelievable story from way back in the Bible, and its un-complicated insistence: The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
I’m not going to torture the point here. You can see where this is going. I’m not going to try to paint a picture of those in our own day and age who have gathered too much, or of those who have gathered too little. Let me just say this: both pictures are grotesque in the extreme: wealth and poverty in our midst that are grotesque in the extreme. I’m not going to say that it is easy to calculate the life-lesson here – how much is too much, how much is too little? - I’m not at all sure it is simple to do this math. But I am pretty sure the calculations should not be so extreme as they are in our society.
What I’m going to say is that if you want to know how God organizes things, what God thinks is good and right and fair, you don’t have to wonder: it’s right there: “the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
I can think of dozens of ways to rationalize and explain this lesson away: beginning with the sheer supposed foolishness of believing that there was a time when a wandering people grumbled in the wilderness that they were hungry, and God left a tasty dew on the ground that fed them for forty years. You’d have to be a little gullible these days, I guess, to believe a story like that. This, of course, is a common, but often unstated, assessment of Christians: that we are gullible. You’ve got to be at least a little gullible to believe this stuff. If you weren’t gullible you’d be spiritual, but not religious. Spiritual is OK. But religion, with all its hard-to-believe stories, is for the gullible. Manna from heaven: LOL!
But even amongst the religions, I have this suspicion that we are becoming – maybe we have become - a people who no longer believe in manna. And you can imagine that I see this as a danger.
And if we are in danger of becoming a people who no longer believe in manna, then we are in danger of becoming a people who no longer believe in a Promised Land.
And if we should become a people who are in danger of no longer believing in a Promised Land, then we are in danger of becoming a people who no longer believe in the kingdom of heaven.
And if we should become a people who no longer believe in the kingdom of heaven, then what is the point?
And in a sense, it all starts with the manna. You give up on the manna and so much else falls away.
And what’s the thing about the manna? It isn’t the flavor, or the texture, or the presentation – it’s that God provides it, and that everyone gets what he or she needs. It’s that those who gathered much did not gather too much, and those who gathered little did not gather too little.
There has been a fair bit of gasping about the news this past week or so. There have been two remarkable Supreme Court decisions, and one rendition of Amazing Grace that left a lot of people gasping, one way or another. And of course it is dangerous to talk about either Supreme Court decisions or about singing presidents from the pulpit. So I want to say that I know this. But it is important to talk about manna from the pulpit – lest we become a people who no longer believe in manna.
And from where I stand - in this city that is built, in part, on the amazing gifts of medical care that have been developed in the most extravagant way – access to that care is more or less a question, not of legislation, but of manna. Those who gathered much did not gather too much, and those who gathered little did not gather too little.
And from where I stand, the human right of gay and lesbian people to enter into marriages that can be sanctioned by the state, in this nation that grants privileges to married people, is a question, not of states’ rights, but of manna. Those who gathered much did not gather too much, and those who gathered little did not gather too little.
And from where I stand, the reality of the plight of so many black Americans whose lives seem not to matter very much in the eyes of some in our nation, is a question, not of regional heritage, or respect for law enforcement, or anything else, but of manna. Those who gathered much did not gather too much, and those who gathered little did not gather too little.
It all begins with manna. It begins with recognizing how hungry you are, that somehow you have ended up in the wilderness. You grumble, and if you do not grumble to God directly, then some Moses hears your grumbles, and passes them on to the Lord. And amazingly, like dew in the morning, manna comes down from heaven! And now you can set off again for the Promised Land.
On the way to the Promised Land, we are trying not to forget the manna. We are trying not to tire of it. We are trying not to resent God for feeding us with nothing but this manna, nothing but this bread from heaven. We are trying not to forget that God has someplace for us to go, even though we don’t know where that place is, we just believe that it is flowing with milk and honey (a welcome change from the manna)!
On the way to whatever Promised Land God is calling us to (and this is an idea, mind you, not a piece of real estate), we are trying to remember that Jesus has already told us about a kingdom. He called that kingdom the kingdom of heaven, and he told us that it is at hand. And mostly we don’t know what that means. (We are still struggling with the manna!) But the manna tells us something important about the Promised Land, something important about the kingdom. It tells us that those who gathered much did not gather too much did not gather too much, and those who gathered little did not gather too little.
St. Paul was being cautious in his letter, not to say what was too much and what was too little. St Paul was secretly an Episcopalian. He knew that this was a delicate matter. But he also knew that responsible people of faith could figure out when too much is too much, and when too little is too little. Has that become too difficult a task for us? I hope not.
I hope it has not become too much to ask of us to hold on to our belief in the manna that came down from heaven, and to know manna in our own day and age when we see it, even if it looks like a visit to the doctor, or a marriage license, or claiming with the urgency of the moment that black lives matter in America.
The manna just keeps coming: manna from heaven: gifts of God for the people of God, with which he nourishes and feeds us. There is more than enough for everyone. May it be that those who gather do not gather too much, and those who gather little do not gather too little. And may God draw us ever closer to the Promised Land, and ever more deeply into his kingdom. And let it start with manna.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 June 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia