Manna from Heaven

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
Proper 20A
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

When the Israelites looked back upon the stories of their faith they didn’t glamorize it much. Rather, they wrote plainly, even humbly, about the struggles that have characterized their relationship with God. As we have been reading through Exodus, it is evident that the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is not just about the triumph of salvation, but about how they never stopped grappling with their faith. They have a tough time trusting God, even when they have seen his marvelous works. And they can’t ever seem to be satisfied – whether in Egypt, in the wilderness, or in the Promised Land.

Today’s story from Exodus takes place in the wilderness – but let us recall how they got there. Generations ago, there had been a famine. Facing starvation, Jacob’s sons, who had betrayed their own brother into slavery, went to Egypt. There they found their long-lost brother, Joseph, who, despite the fact that he had pretty good cause to turn them away, welcomed them anyway. But over time the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. Once again, God hears them in their need, and using Moses and Aaron, brings them out of Egypt. So, here they are in the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land, but just a few campsites into the trip, they are already complaining. You see, there’s always something to fear. In Egypt they feared the oppression of Pharoah and the destruction of their people. Now in the desert, they feared the sacrifice and discomfort of their new nomadic lifestyle.

But still, God heard their complaints, and provided the food. When it appeared on the ground all around them, they said “What is it?” The name “manna” comes from this question in Hebrew. God provided manna – nothing fancy, just bread, but a promise that they would have what they needed, and they would not starve. But some guidelines came with this manna: The people were to gather each morning the amount that they would need for the day – not more, not less. The only day that they could gather or prepare “leftovers” would be the sixth day – for the LORD declared the seventh day to be a Sabbath.

It might sound like a pretty good deal – no more slavery; no more need to worry about tomorrow’s food, and a day off every week. All they needed to do was gather each morning what they needed for the day. But there is one very difficult part in this deal. That is, it relies on their trust in God. With the exception of the sixth night, every night they had to go to bed with empty cupboards. That proves to be very, very difficult, and if we put ourselves in their shoes, I think we would relate. This weekend, I’ve been to Kroger and Sam’s Club – it will be several weeks before I run out of Diet Cokes, and maybe even a couple of months before we need toilet paper! There’s comfort in that. When it’s there and I can see it, I don’t have to worry about it.

In today’s lesson we did not read the rest of the chapter – but it’s predictable. There are always a few who don’t listen, right? Some of the Israelites tried to set aside and save some of what they had gathered – but it was always spoiled by morning. Others tried to sneak off to gather manna on the Sabbath, thinking they could get ahead – but they found none.

A few years ago, Walter Brueggemann wrote an article in which he said that “the central problem of our lives is the conflict between our attraction to the Good News of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity.”

We run up against this same conflict in today’s Gospel reading. In the parable that Jesus tells, the landowner in the end asks those complaining workers two questions. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Those workers who were being quizzed had gotten everything they had asked for, and everything they needed from their labor. They are complaining because the landowner was generous with the people who came after them – it’s your classic, “It’s not fair!” argument.

But if the landowner in our story is God, we must ask ourselves the same questions: Is God not allowed to do what God chooses with what belongs to him? Of course the answer is yes – but the catch is that we first must acknowledge that those gifts that we receive are indeed gifts from God. They don’t belong to us. We don’t even really earn them because God always gives more than we deserve. And the second question, Are we envious because God is generous? Well, the answer to that may be yes also, if we begrudge others of the mercy and compassion that God gives them – and we fear that God will not have enough of that mercy and compassion for us.

It is that same problem at work – the conflict between our attraction to the Good News of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity. In the broadest perspective faith is not just a set of propositions that we can assent to, nor is it simply our active loyalty to church, or even our passion about certain ideals. In its broadest and most basic form, faith is about how we see the world. It is the lens through which we witness and discover what goes on around us, and it is our sense of God’s presence among us. The lens of faith stakes a firm claim that this is God’s world. And it remembers the refrain of the creation story in Genesis 1: “It is good; It is good; It is good.” Looking through the lens of faith we not only remember the manna in the wilderness, but also Jesus feeding the 5000, and his many parables that remind us of God’s grace and justice. It is this lens that allows us to see that in the kingdom of heaven, we’ll all be put to work and dealt with generously – no matter how late we show up. And it is the lens of faith that allows us to look at a world where the unemployment rate is soaring, where economies are struggling, and know that God’s abundance is more real than the scarcity. God’s abundance is a sure as the Israelite’s manna from heaven.

The biblical story tells us that the Israelites lived off of manna for forty years. At the end of this chapter we are told that God commanded the Israelites to save one portion of manna – just so that future generations could remember. Although I couldn’t tell you exactly where that jar of manna is today – it is not needed. The evidence of God’s abundance surrounds us – we need only have the faith to see it. If this seems difficult – that’s because it is. The struggle of faith is the struggle of our lives – today, as it was centuries and millennia ago, and as it will continue to be for centuries and millennia into the future. But we can persevere in this struggle because God is on our side. As we wander through this wilderness, I pray that we may see the manna that God provides, and learn to trust that it will be there tomorrow and always, as it was yesterday and today.

Amen.