I want to begin today’s sermon, which is the first sermon in my summer series called “Memorable Biblical Meals,” by mentioning the Lord’s Prayer, also called the Model Prayer. Whatever you call it, it is a prayer attributed to Jesus and apparently was intended to be an example of one kind of prayer he demonstrated when somebody asked him how to pray. Even if we recognize, which is correct, that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, not an individual prayer, we are no better off theologically.
It’s just a few lines long as you know since most of you can recite it by heart, but I have theological problems with much of this prayer. The part that makes me uneasy in relationship to today’s topic is the line that says, and in a kind of demanding way, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And while you’re at it, God, dust the Bible on the coffee table also!
Does God sit around and wait to be asked for food by the people who are hungry? Maybe hungry, yeah starving people around the world pray this prayer every single day, and yet they continue to starve maybe to death. I can’t imagine why Jesus told anyone that this was a good way to pray; if that is what Jesus did, then why lay the groundwork for what is certain to be disappointment for more than a few? Is God ignoring them, or does God have a cruel streak? The God in the book of Job certainly does, and that’s not the only place we can pick up on such a trait.
I was reading somewhere this week, in the current edition of The Christian Century I think, that church folk do not have a consistent, logical collection of beliefs to which they cling. Duh! More than obvious, but all too true. There are several reasons for this, and one of the major ones has to be the inconsistent ways God and certain key teachings are presented biblically. The Bible is a collection of what numerous people over long periods of time thought about God, faith, spirituality, morality, survival, and so on. Most of them didn’t know each other or hear or read what the others had spoken or written. Yet, somewhere along the way, someone came up with the idea that if we worked hard enough at it, we could take all parts of the Bible and systematize them–a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. The finished product would be an inspiring collection without any inconsistencies or detours. This can’t happen for the simple reason that not everyone writing something that was eventually designated “scripture” agreed with what others said–even about God. There mere effort is a waste of time. I think it is possible to collect everything the Bible has to say about a given subject and put that in one volume, but then the inconsistencies and differences of opinion would be even more glaring. What I’ve just said is highly troubling for biblical literalists who believe that God wrote the Bible and that God cannot by nature make an error or contradict Godself. Back to prayers for food specifically.
If you think of God as the Creator of the world and all that is in the world then you would agree that as the good Creator God has provided for God’s people, and when I talk about God’s people I’m speaking about the whole of humanity. You could say that God has already put into motion a system whereby the food needs of every person on Earth can be met every day. The prayer or prayers has/have already been answered. It’s like praying, “God, give us air to breathe.” And God says, “UH, OK. I’ll try to come up with some and swirl it your way.” There’s already plenty of air for us to breath if we stop the pollution and the destruction of the magnificent rain forests.
Said another way, with reference to food, God has worked through brilliant scientists to create methods whereby ample food can be grown, stored, and distributed. If pure humanism works for you you can still embrace the previous sentence by simply leaving off the first part. Even if you attribute the abundance of food worldwide to human ingenuity, the result is the same. There is more than enough food produced to meet the healthful dietary needs of every person on the face of this Earth; no one should have to go without. You’ve heard me say this before. It is tragically stunning.
A member of our church family has some of the same feelings about Psalm 23, which begins: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want….” Really? So anyone who is not provided for either hasn’t appropriately asked God for that provision, or God has decided to withhold provisions as punishment for who knows what? Is that the secondary or the subliminal message we’re supposed to get when we read that Psalm?
Another possibility is that food and drink in such contexts are always metaphors for spiritual nourishment. I don’t think that’s the case, but it does away with a substantial theological problem. I do think, by the way, that food is sometimes a metaphor for spiritual nourishment, but not always.
Several writers and biblical characters believed that if they prayed for food God would send food. Conversely, if you didn’t ask, you’d go hungry. Geez! What if you just forgot? “Sorry, kids, Daddy forgot to ask God for food this morning. There’s nothing for any of us to eat today. You’ll have to go to bed hungry. I’m so sorry. I was in a rush to get to work. I’ll try never to forget again!”
“Thanks, Dad. That would be really special if you could manage not to forget again because God isn’t going to give us squat unless you ask.”
The story of the Exodus–that is the escape of the Hebrews from the slavery in which the Egyptians had been holding them–is a stirring story. On the surface it’s a creative proclamation that God wills for people to be free and never enslaved. Some scholars and non-scholarly skeptics alike question the historicity of all or parts of this great story of liberation, but the message of the story remains grand nonetheless.
God taps Moses, who was a Hebrew reared through strange but wonderful circumstances as an Egyptian, to get his sister and brother Hebrews out of their cruel enslavement. The Pharaoh isn’t so keen on the deal, and it takes a series of cruel catastrophes divinely aimed at the Egyptians, and Pharaoh himself, to get him to change his mind and let the Hebrews go.
After a harrowing escape, they are free people, but they’re stuck in the wilderness for forty years, going around in circles while God decides where God wants them to land. They are not amused, and the first occasion for dissatisfaction is when hunger strikes. They took some food with them, but it didn’t last long. Pretty soon, they were hungry, and for people who are accustomed to having food on a somewhat regular basis, getting hungry and not having any idea where to get any is cause for panic. Their taskmasters certainly hadn’t served them gourmet meals, but it was in the best interest of the slaveholders to keep the slaves well enough fed that the work for which they had slaves could get done. At least they had something to eat that took away the hunger pangs. In the wilderness, hungry, no food, no idea where to get food, it was a bad place to be physically and emotionally.
As the story was told, God heard their concerns, and started sending them each morning an edible substance called manna. Some readers and hearers of this story believe that God sent the manna down directly from heaven. Others believe the Hebrews learned by looking what manna was and where it would be; it was in their eyes a naturally occurring substance. Either way, the people found it looking like frost on the ground every morning for 40 years. It wasn’t just for breakfast, but morning was the time for gathering the manna. Manna in the morning. Manna in the evening. Manna at suppertime. Be my little sand storm and love me all the time!
OK, so for the skeptics, if manna weren’t heavenly fare, what in the world was it? I’m sure you know that we aren’t the first people to ask that question; it’s been asked ever since those who lived through the whole wilderness event began to talk about it to people they met who hadn’t gone through their ordeal. That continues right up until this very day though I doubt that anyone here asked that question of the family members and friends gathered around the breakfast table this morning.
About this time of year in 1927, a journalist working for Time magazine heard about some research a couple of Israeli scientists, an agriculturalist and a microbiologist, were doing and of their not so appetizing conclusion as to what manna in the wilderness had been. Manna, concluded the scientists who evidently believed in the full historicity of the Exodus story, was the excretion from the bodies of certain coccids, a kind of plant lice that infested the tamarisk shrubs on the Sinai Peninsula. Yum. Yum. Yum.
“So what will you have for breakfast this morning, grandfather?”
“Now, you know what I love, sonny. Bring me some of that lice excretion.”
There are some more palatable options, if less than heavenly.
Though there was no frost in the wilderness, the white color of the manna gave the appearance of frost on the ground–readily accessible in order to nourish the wanderers. It’s a beautiful image of God providing for the physical needs of a struggling people.
Furthermore, at one point, God made a rule that each person could only take enough manna for that day’s needs–except on sabbath eve when manna for two days could be gathered. There would much later develop in Roman Catholicism orders of mendicant brothers and priests who begged for their food; the rule in this kind of order was that no one could ask for more food from any generous benefactor than was needed for that day alone. This practice clearly hearkened back to the wilderness sojourn of the Hebrews. Oh yeah, you should know that a few Hebrews tried to be greedy and gather more than they needed for a day, and their efforts were wasted. The excess spoiled before it could be eaten. That caused some cursing in Hebrew, I’ll tell you!
After a while, the people got tired of manna, manna, nothing but manna day in and day out for years. Many of you know that my mother’s parents were tenement farmers, and Mom grew up helping them work the farm for the people who offered them a small house in which to live and a portion of the food they harvested. They were poor, and during many of her growing up years, the only food available for breakfast was oatmeal. This was many years ago, say 70 or so, before anyone knew or cared what a healthy food oatmeal is. Oatmeal every morning for sure and sometimes at other meal times as well. To this day, I’ve never seen her put a bite of oatmeal in her mouth; the mere thought sickens her because that was all she had, and with no other choices, all those years.
The time came when some frustrated Hebrews who were thinking slavery was better than the plight in which they found themselves in the wilderness began to complain about cuisine once again. Talk about Lean Cuisine! This time, it was the health nuts doing most of the mumbling. Too many carbs, God. Everyone knows that women and men cannot live by carbs alone. They said, “God, if you seriously expect us to keep wandering around here in the wilderness heat, we’re going to have protein.” The story says that God met their request and sent them quail on occasion. This seems to have been sporadic, but a part of their experience.
Again, a very griping story, but we’re back to a theological wrinkle. Does God as a rule provide physical nourishment for all people who struggle especially, let’s say, people struggling to escape injustice and find their way to freedom? Well, no. Did every runaway slave in the old South have plenty of food to eat during their attempted escapes? Of course not. Have you noticed in the news coverage of refugees on the run or being held in refugee camps being always well fed by manna or anything else? If you have, you and I listen to or watch different stations. Remember the boat people? How many of them got here without being malnourished? Few, if any. So why manna for the Hebrews and nothing for many others trying to escape enslavement, even many today? The Red Cross helps a lot with its manna packs, but most people who try to escape their home country are going to be hungry for a while.
Whatever manna was, if anything more than a symbol in a vitally important story, it kept most of the wandering Hebrews going for forty years in the wilderness. That says something about it, even if it got really old those who had little else to eat for that many years.
If it were intended as a symbol for spiritual nourishment it remains of great significance for those who look to the First and Second Testaments for spiritual truths without sweating literalism. Is it not enough of a powerful truth to say manna reminds us that God provides for us spiritually when we are lost and in a wilderness, when we know we must escape enslavement but we don’t know what comes after being a slave, when we are absolutely unable to provide for ourselves in time of acute spiritual weakness?
Jesus had his own wilderness experience–maybe more than one, probably several. He most likely was not in a literal desert for forty days to parallel the forty years the Hebrew story says they were out there. Yet, Jesus was in a wilderness in search of spiritual sustenance because the impulses he had about what he would probably devote his life to were overwhelming and frightening too.
Food comes up in his wilderness story, the one we know about. In his wilderness, which I think may have been a vision or a series of visions, he is hungry or imagines how easily one could get hungry in the wilderness, separated from everything familiar and everything tangibly permanent. He realized that with the powers God had evidently entrusted to him, he didn’t have to worry about snacks and meals. He saw some stones and suddenly, somehow knew that in a pinch he could turn those stones into nifty little cakes of bread, but he caught himself before Temptation pressed him to forget what any powers he had were for. Jesus screams out at Temptation personified, “Don’t you know that women and men do not live by bread alone? But their true nourishment is every loving and nurturing word that comes from God. Understanding those is how I must seek my own nourishment for now.”
Jomo Kenyatta was the first prime minister and then the first president of Kenya. He began this service to his country in the early 1960’s. Here is something he said very early in his presidency:
Many people may think that, now there is Uhuru (that is the word for “freedom” in Swahilli), now I can see the sun of Freedom shinning, richness will pour down like manna from Heaven. I tell you there will be nothing from Heaven. We must all work hard, with our hands, to save ourselves from poverty, ignorance, and disease.
Spiritual nourishment does not relieve us of the responsibility of taking on the problems for ourselves and others in the material world.
I often mention during the Lord’s Supper that the bread and the juice are bits of spiritual nourishment. Yes, we actually take a tiny bite and sip a drop or two so there is a small measure of physical nourishment involved, but in regards to spiritual nourishment those tiny elements, like the wilderness manna, are huge. Among other things, they remind us that we can only go so far at nourishing ourselves spiritually; the bread and wine or juice keep confirming for us that even when we must enter a wilderness so pervasive that we may never come out of it, God still provides for our spiritual needs. In this sense, Psalm 23 makes a lot of sense: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
One of my preaching students at Palmer Seminary this past term is a hospice chaplain. I’m not sure I have what it takes to do that job day in and day out–I suspect probably not. Marcia was telling the class in one of her sermons that a hospice chaplain learns very quickly that there’s a difference between getting well and being whole. A good number of her patients aren’t going to get well as she works in a section of the oncology department for patients who have had years and years of treatment now losing effectiveness and patients who have had radical surgical procedures to buy themselves a little more time.
There are those times, not infrequently in her day to day work, when a patient has been told by her or his physician that the medical world has done all it can do and, therefore, that death is much nearer than it had been. They aren’t going to get well, in other words, or very few of them are. Marcia said it’s very important for patients at that point to know that they can still be whole with whatever the time frame for them on Earth. She said to us in her sermon that most of us would probably be surprised at how many of those patients face the news with courage and embrace their wholeness despite their lack of physical health. God is always ready to provide spiritual nourishment to someone in this kind of wilderness. A word from Marcia or regular prayers with her may be their manna.
“Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for God is with me. God’s rod and staff comfort me. God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Spiritual nourishment. I believe I’d opt for spiritual nourishment over lice excretions. How about you?
How I do live, thou need’st not scoff,
For I have meat thou know’st not of.
The hidden Manna I do eat;
The word of life, it is my meat.
My thoughts do yield me more content
Than can thy hours in pleasure spent.
Nor are they shadows which I catch,
Nor fancies vain at which I snatch
But reach at things that are so high,
Beyond thy dull Capacity.
Eternal substance I do see
With which inriched I would be.