Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15
Greetings everyone! It has been a while since I have preached. Last Sunday we were blessed with daughter Emily’s sermon and the testimonies of our young people, Olivia, Meghan, Ryan, Nicole and Brendan. July 1st we heard from the Rev. Dr. Carol Brighten and on July 22nd from Rev. Dr. Kathryn Ellison. This week I am once again up to bat and welcome your thoughts on a fascinating set of readings.
Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1323&cmpgn=5244
Once again, you need to have the full context of this reading to understand what is really going on. In the previous chapters 15- 16 you can read all about how God rescued Israel from Pharaoh, King of Egypt and his army, leading them through the Red Sea. This exciting episode is the climax to four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and oppression under Pharaoh. Finally, the people of Israel are free. Finally the people of Israel are liberated from the bondage of slavery. Finally they are on the way to a land of their own. But Israel soon learns that the way of freedom is not the way of ease and comfort. With freedom comes responsibility and the call to continue trusting in the Lord who made them free.
Israel, it seems, has a bad case of “good old days” disease. Wilderness life is difficult. The people are hungry. They begin reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “We had meat to eat and as much other food as we wanted” they complain. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the overflow room. Kids behaved themselves better and had respect. People were more patriotic. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like a head of cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten. Barbara Strisand sings in her song, The Way We Were,
Memries, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
That is the problem with the “good old days” disease. Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.
Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: rebellion.
That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. That is often when the temptation to look back is strongest. But Israel is warned repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.
Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.
Psalm 78 is one of a relatively few historical psalms in the Psalter that recount the focal points of Israel’s history. In a pre-literate society where the common people had no knowledge or written language or access to books, the narrative of Israel’s journey with her God was passed on through song, poetry, liturgy and dance. This particular psalm begins with the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt and concludes with God’s selection of David and his descendents to lead Israel and “be a shepherd to the people of Israel.”
The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded that he appoint a king for them so that they might “be like the other nations.” After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an expression of the belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment. The psalm concludes with the words:
[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
71 from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
72 With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skilful hand.
We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.
As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined his disciples in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” That might appear to be contradictory. The people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign in the miraculous feeding. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they had witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a king to restore Israel to a position of power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to lead them through the wilderness to abundant life. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.
It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the text from Exodus previously discussed. They credit Moses with providing the children of Israel with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.
So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.
At this point in the letter to the Ephesians, the author turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge.” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in vs. 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness.