I ask your prayers this morning in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A question for us to ponder this morning, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” Our psalmist asked this question in the 18th and 19th verses, the 78th Psalm. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God saying, “Could God spread a table in the wilderness?” You know what it means to be “hangry,” don’t you? Snickers created an ad campaign around it. “You’re not you when you’re hangry.” The colloquialism now a bonified word in the dictionary means, “bad tempered or irritable due to hunger.” Personally, I’m not me when I’m cold, tired, and hungry, especially at the same time. This unfortunate trifecta can quickly devolve into tears or tantrum, even at my age. This is all to say, I have empathy for the Israelites whose stomachs are grumbling more than they are. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And their children’s bellies are aching. These poor souls are hangry. Yes, God delivered them from their Egyptian captors. Yes, God has promised to continue providing. The covenant remains strong, doesn’t it? Well, easy for us to say. We know how the story ends. We know that Aaron becomes Aaron, and that Moses leads them into the promised land. But the Israelites do not. These two are feeling the heat.
Think about it. They’ve been in the wilderness for almost two months. Having left the Oasis of Elam and halfway to Mount Sinai, they suffer a shortage of food, water, and life support. How many of you would want to run off and set off on a long desert march, only to run out of unleavened bread? With animals and grain to care for that you cannot eat, because they are requisite sacrifices. And you are being by two brothers who were in the early stages of leadership formation. Who wouldn’t panic? Who wouldn’t wonder if a slave’s life in Egypt was preferable to a death in the desert? Even in the face of such faithlessness, the Lord is generous and faithful, even if a bit peeved. True to his word, the Lord answers with the bread of angels. Ancient Greek and Latin sources refer to it as “perspiration from the sky” or “the saliva of the stars.” Manna actually translates to, “what is it?” And to answer, it is a sort of sweet tasting hoarfrost that fell on the land at night and was collected milled and baked into small loaves of bread in the morning.
Here’s what I believe we’re to take from this story in Exodus. One: food security is a priority for God, then and now. Two: the giving of manna and quail on a daily basis with the edict not to stockpile it is God’s way of teaching us to trust that divine blessings and provision will happen and will happen regularly. The Israelites discover that hoarding invites worms and spoilage. That’s quite the metaphor, isn’t it? And three: the familiar words we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” refer to this very manna. Meaning that we are to trust God to supply our physical needs, one day at a time, just as the Israelites do in the desert. The Lord provides neither too little, nor too much. The Lord provides enough, but not more than enough.
In that vein, the whole force of our Psalm this morning, depends on its opening word, the word in the bible, “yet.” Our ancestors did not trust God. Yet God trusted them, graciously sending them food in abundance. You see, not even Israel’s mistrust, and so not even our mistrust, can thwart divine grace. We may and do reject God, but God with the fierce and dogged love, rejects our rejection. God spreads a table in the wilderness. Recall the 23rd Psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” My friends, our mistrust is no match for God’s love and care. And this of course, foreshadows Jesus’ “I am” statement as the bread of life. Heaven sent Jesus’ manna is the only one who feeds and satisfies both body and spirit. The lectionary gifts us, well some say it gifts us, every three years with six long weeks in John’s gospel, contemplating emptiness and fullness, hunger and nourishment, Christ and bread. We watch as he feeds people. We watch as his scarcity mindset drives them to clamor for more, more, more. Not more of his revelations as the son of God, but more food to get their bellies fed. And we hear the challenge of his words when he invites the grasping crowds to probe the hungers beneath their hungers. The spiritual writer, Debie Thomas, calls this, “The unspoken deprivations that fuel their desires. The needs they carry in secret places.” He doesn’t stop telling the crowds to learn from him, believe in him, or even follow him. Jesus issues an invitation that is far more intimate and provocative when he calls himself our bread. He invites us to eat him. Eat him and never be hungry again. The gospel writer is explicit. Jesus had hordes disciples before he started making these audacious claims in the sixth chapter. But once he proclaimed, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. For my flesh is the true food and my blood is the true drink. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” They ran for the hills.
Growing up, my family had plenty of food. Food insecurity was not our issue, even though I do remember eating fried bologna towards the end of the month. What I do know is that money was tight. So there weren’t discretionary funds for beautiful things. When it came to furniture, art, clothing, or shiny objects. I’m a visual person. So, I appreciate, dare I say crave, what I call eye candy. I hanger for color, fabrics, textures, spaces such as this one. My heart palpitates when I walk into an art museum. Several years ago, I had an “aha moment” when I was asked to explore the unspoken deprivations that fuel my desires. The hunger beneath the hungers. Admittedly, and I’m not proud of this, I love to shop. I will say it, I love to shop. The hunt of a good bargain beckons me. My girlfriends and I, we hunt together. It’s how we escape and commune. Please know that I have never had real money to spend. I wouldn’t dare darken the door of a famous couture designer. No, I’m more of a flea market queen. A member of the consignment store set, who stalks the racks for upscale designers. One distinct memory, a painful one, came to me as I explored the source of my shopping issue. Up until around the fifth grade, my mother sewed almost everything I wore. But one August, we went off to the fancy children’s shop to buy new school clothes. I was beside myself. It was one of the greatest days of my young life. I still remember what the dressing room looked like, and what it felt like to try on and model so many wonderful things. I remember lying in bed that night, unable to sleep because I was so excited. There was one catch though, but it didn’t seem to matter at the time. My mother put it all on layaway. The hunger beneath the hunger, she never paid it off to get it out of layaway. And I didn’t dare ask her about it. It’s almost embarrassing to share this with you. It seems so trivial because I was not denied food, or shelter, or my parent’s unconditional love. None of that. But that incident and a few others like it, I discovered, are the source of my shopping spending habits. For years, I struggled with conflating my own self-worth with what I was denied or could not possess. I hid my hunger because I was ashamed that I wanted and needed too much. I certainly didn’t think God would spread a table in the wilderness for me. I do now.
It’s so hard. It’s so hard to understand what it means when Jesus says that he is the bread of life. I’m sure many of you just don’t expect to be fed by him. The short answer though, is that he and he alone is all the sustenance we will ever need. If we trust that Jesus is our bread, he can fill our empty wells, he can heal whatever is broken, and he can find whatever is missing. Mere intellectual understanding is inadequate to the truth of Jesus as the bread of life. I would argue that feeding upon the truth of Jesus is actually taking that wafer in your hand and eating it. That it’s better than ever trying to understand him or intellectualize him. The intimacy he craves with us is in that simple gesture, that small morsel of his body is divine grace. We have no share with him if we do not surrender to him, offer our vulnerabilities to him. If we do not allow him to wash our feet, baptize our babies, or sit with us as we hold someone’s hand as they slip from this world to the next. When Jesus speaks to us in this metaphorical, and yes, peculiar way, he wants us to crave him. Fearful that we could starve to death without him.
What is it that he offers? Love! The bread of life is love. He is love incarnate, ours for the taking. This bread, this love, will satiate even our deepest longings. But most important, it is the way in the truth to loving ourselves. I told our baptismal families yesterday during our rehearsal, that if they take anything away from their child’s baptisms, I pray that at the very moment the waters of new life wash over their child, they feel loved, unconditional, gratuitous love. God loves them. God loves their child, each one a beloved son or daughter of God. Each one a pilgrim in a desert blanketed by grace. Jesus gives bread because he is bread. Jesus gives love because he is love. Love will spread a table in the wilderness for you, you and for me. Please, I invite you to taste and see.