Monday, September 18, 2017

Bread for the Journey - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16A


The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” 
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” 
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

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                Israel’s journey through the wilderness was no picnic. It would take time to move from slavery to freedom. Although Israel made it safely through the sea, and the Egyptian army was turned back, they were not home free. Led by Moses and his sister Miriam, they had sung and danced a song of triumphant praise to God, who had become their salvation (Ex. 15:1-21), but the excitement of the crossing of the sea gave way to the realities of wandering in the wilderness. As their stomachs began to growl, they started to complain to Moses and Aaron. Once again, they accused Moses and Aaron of leading them out into the desert to die. Why wander aimlessly in the desert, with nothing to eat, when the “fleshpots of Egypt” danced in their heads.  The known always seems better than the unknown, even if the known is not good. The Israelites had cried out to God for deliverance, but when deliverance seemed risky, they fell back on what they knew.


                The good news is that God once again heard their cries. God told Moses that meat and bread would be provided—meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Sure enough, that evening quail flew into the camp. The people captured the birds, and had their fill. Then the next morning, when they got up they discovered a substance covering ground. It seemed like dew, except it was more than dew. When the people asked what this was, Moses told them that this was bread from heaven. This would be their daily bread, their daily provision during the long march through the wilderness. There is a caveat here, that needs to be noted. God instructs the people through Moses to only gather as much manna, this stuff from which bread could be made, as could be eaten in one day. There would be no hoarding. They would need to trust God for their daily provision. Only on the sixth day would they be allowed to gather more than a days’ worth of manna. That was because on the seventh day they would rest and celebrate the Sabbath.

                The wilderness wandering experience was a time of trust building. Would the people of Israel trust their futures to this God who had rescued them from Egypt, but had delivered them into a desert? Would they trust Moses to be their guide as they took the journey in the wilderness? How long would it take?

                It is understandable, however, that we may choose the known over the unknown, even if the known is oppressive. Catherine and Justo Gonzalez remind us of why this can happen:
The battered wife or the alien who works for very little money in harsh conditions may fear that freedom could be worse than their present circumstances if there is no guarantee of food. While the Israelites were being directly led by God, the battered wife or alien may have to survive at the mercy of a society that has often been hostile or uncaring toward them. [Preaching God’sTransforming Justice, p. 405]
They ask a good question of us: what role does church play in helping the exploited and oppressed leave an oppressive situation? On the other hand, we understand why people would flee oppression, even if they don’t know what the future holds. What role does the church play in making their transition possible? 

                As Christians who pray regularly that prayer Jesus taught, the one that speaks of daily bread, where is our faith? Where is our trust?  Do we who have much, find it difficult to trust in God? Or do we trust in our own abilities? The Gonzalez’s note that many in the two-thirds world believe that it is easier to be a Christian in their situation than it is in the so-called developed world. They write that “the more security God gives us, the less we trust in God. Instead, we constantly search for more and more security. To be secure in this world’s good should be seen as a test. Will we be faithful? Will we use what we have for God’s purposes or hoard it for ourselves, always afraid of not having enough?” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 406].

                These are important questions for us to consider, especially as we gather together as the people of God at the Table of the Lord. Is this Table not a witness to God’s hospitality to all who would gather at the Table of God? I appreciate these words by Joshua Jipp who speaks of divine hospitality. He writes:
In Israel’s Scriptures God is often portrayed as the host of Israel as he provides manna and quail in the wilderness (Exodus 16;4, 15; Nu 11:1-9; Deut 8:3, 16; Pss 78:24-38 and 105:40; Neh 9:15, spreads a table of peace and divine nourishment for the Psalmist (Ps 23), and, as the owner of the land, grants Israel the gift of benefiting from the land as his guests (Lev 25:23). But God also promises his people that one day he will act to inaugurate his kingdom, will save his people, and make known his presence in full by means of a banquet fest between God and his people. God’s climactic act of salvation for his people will come, then, in the form of God sharing his presence with his people through shared hospitality. [Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality, p. 19]

The provision of manna and quail are expressions of God’s hospitality that foreshadow God’s final banquet. The wandering in the wilderness will be a time of testing, a time of learning to trust in God’s faithfulness. As we gather as the people of God at the Lord’s Table, how does it bear witness to this hope, this expectation? How will live in faithfulness to God’s call? Will we take the risk to cross the sea and the desert? The good news is that God provides bread for the journey. There is no need to hoard, just take that step of faith and trust in God’s love.

Picture attribution: Roberti, Ercole de', -1496. Israelites Gathering Manna, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55968 [retrieved September 15, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ercole_de%27_Roberti_-_The_Israelites_gathering_Manna_(National_Gallery,_London).jpg.

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