Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
September 20, 2020
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.’“ 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. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “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.’“
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 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. 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.
Remembering that I had done a similar thing nine years ago, I went on the church’s Facebook page this week and asked, “Where have you tasted the best bread?” Bread is a unique thing to humanity. It is the symbol of basic sustenance. It is a common sight at most meals yet it can be found in hundreds of diverse forms. While other foods may be the main attraction or get most of the attention at the table, it is bread that is always there as the most essential item. Most of us, just love bread.
Here are some of the responses that I got to my inquiry: Grandma’s breadmaker; Wonder Bread straight from the factory; Great Harvest bread; Sourdough bread from Fisherman’s Wharf; homemade focasio bread; bread at the Walnut Creek Country Club; Zingerman’s; Grandma’s bread; the Sunflour Bakery in Farmington; homemade bread from Mom; the rolls at Chuck Muer’s restaurants; French baguettes while on a bike ride in the Loire Valley of France and the Italian bread at Carini’s Bakery on Joy Road. I get hungry just thinking about these delicious bread memories!
Bread is a part of our faith tradition. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, he reminds us to request of God “our daily bread.” Jesus referred to himself as “bread of life.” Tested in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed the world. Bread was also part of the food supply used to feed the hungry multitude. In an upper room with his disciples, Jesus compared the bread he offered to his friends to his own body, broken for us yet remembered as a nourishing living presence through the sacred meal we observe as Christians.
Today’s Scripture lesson features an important mention of bread in the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of God were beginning to lose their faith as they drifted along each day, without any guarantee of food or water or even a final destination. Some even began to turn against the God who had set them free from their oppressors and took them across the Red Sea. They asked, “Why would God take us away from the certainty of three solid meals in Egypt to starve in the uncertainty of the desert? Why would God be so cruel as to allow God’s people to suffer without food and water?”
Cold, hard reality had set in. The people of Israel looked back at Egypt and slavery with longing hearts. They grumbled. That word is used seven times in five verses. They grumbled. They didn’t cry out to God for food. They certainly didn’t confess their faith in a God who have delivered them from slavery and thirst in the past. They didn’t ask for Moses or Aaron to appeal to God for help. They simply grumbled. They expressed a preference to have died in Egypt rather than acknowledging what God had done and trusting in what God might do.
So what did God do? You might expect that God would have given them a good scolding, lashing out at the Israelites for their ingratitude and grumbling. But instead of reprimanding them, God provided for them. “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” In the wilderness, God sent manna. In sending down this important provision, God wanted to teach God’s people the most important lesson in life. Know who God is and give God the glory through your words and actions and attitude. That is all God really wanted- a sense of humanity understanding where the gifts of life really come from and a trust that God will always provide.
William Willimon writes that this “bread from heaven” was not immediately recognized a suitable nourishment. It didn’t come from the oven. It didn’t come pre-sliced with Wonder or Great Harvest on the label. It wasn’t served in a fancy basket with garlic butter on the side. It was a white, sticky substance laying all over the ground. When the Hebrew people first saw it, they asked, “Manhu?” which literally meant “what is this?” Thus this bread from heaven became known as manna.
In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about growing up in the South and eating grits. She ate them for many years, not knowing what they were. She ate cheese grits, grits with bacon, and slow cooked grits that swam in their own gravy. When she was about twelve years old she asked a friend if he knew what grits really were. “The truth?” he asked wickedly grinning. “You really want to know about grits?” He then told her that grits were small bugs that lived in colonies on the surface of fresh water lakes. At the end of summer they were harvested, shelled, and dried in the sun so that you couldn’t even see their legs. He concluded his story by rubbing his stomach and saying, “Mmmmm!”
Taylor says that because of that she always thinks of grits when she reads about manna. The Hebrew people didn’t know where it came from or even what it was. But Taylor asks, do we have to know what something is and where it comes from in order to view it as bread of heaven? “What makes something bread of heaven? Is it the thing itself or the one who sends it?” Taylor writes that how you answer those questions has a lot to do with how you sense God’s presence in your life. If, in order for it to be bread of heaven, manna has to drop straight down from heaven in a sliced and wrapped loaf, we will go hungry a lot. We are going to wonder why God isn’t helping us the way in which we expect God to help. We are going to grumble and complain. And we are going to miss a lot of the ordinary things that God is doing for us, gifts like unexplained grits. On the other hand, if we understand that everything that comes to us comes from God, there will be no end to the manna in our lives. Every day we will find a basket full of provision, of nourishment, of daily sustenance. Others may not recognize it or even know what it is. But we will know that it is something that God has given to us and we will give thanks and we will eat.
I am grateful that I grew up among in a rather humble and modest home. I never felt the want of anything yet looking back I understand that there were times in which my parents struggled from paycheck to paycheck. The cupboards and bank account were sometimes close to empty and my mother had to be creative as to what she put on the table. I will always remember that just before payday, when there was little left to serve, she would cook her famous recipe which she called, “Something Out of Nothing.” We would ask her what we were having for dinner and that is how she would respond. “Something Out of Nothing.” The recipe was never the same. It usually involved dumplings and tomato sauce, or sometimes pasta and cheese, on rare occasion some frost-covered hamburger that she had found at the bottom of the freezer. Yet I remember it always tasting so good. I wondered why Mom would wait until we didn’t have any groceries left until she made “Something Out of Nothing?” But maybe its special flavor came because I knew that whenever she made it she made it with a lot of love and she made it with some extra special attention at those difficult stretches in family life.
Since I announced my intention to retire next spring, I have received some cards and emails and have had some personal conversations with some of you. It has been very meaningful and uplifting. I have been told about things that I did or things that I said that made a difference in someone’s attitude, outlook, or even their life. I didn’t see it then. I didn’t know it. I was probably too focused on my grumbling about something else that was frustrating me or I was searching for a solution, perhaps God’s easy answer to a difficult dilemma. And yet someone told me that during those times I had offered bread from heaven. And I was given manna in return. There is a clearer understanding that what we have experienced together was not just endless meetings and successes and failures but gifts of God that have been offering through fellowship, worship, and service. Those moments of Something Out of Nothing are suddenly less frustration and more blessing.
All of us need to be on manna alert. We need to have an awareness about who supplies our daily rations of grace and mercy. We may seek miracles but God provides everyday sustenance. We may want comfort but God brings us joy as we gather the manna. We may simply want food to eat but God comes to us in relationships that bless us and give us the opportunity to bless others. Like the people of Israel, we may not always get what we want, but what we receive can bring a glimpse of heaven into our daily world.