September 18, 2011
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
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.”
The tambourine was barely silent when the people started to complain. I mean, you know about the tambourine. Moses had a sister named Miriam. It was her tambourine. She pounded it joyfully, leading everybody in a triumphant song. It was right after the people were released so supernaturally from Egypt.
As the people departed Egypt, finding themselves in similar landscapes. They began in the desert, and it’s still desert. They are still pitching their tents, still traveling by stages, and now they are running out of food.
That is one great benefit if you are a slave: you have a master, and you never have to worry where the food is coming from. All good things come from the master.
It may cost you more flesh than you expected. But chow time comes at chow time. Slaves don’t have to worry about a roves over their heads. Never mind that part about working yourself seven days a week, twenty-eight hours a day. Everything becomes a routine. The more work you do it, the less you have to worry about growing up and figuring it out. Everything is provided, as long as you have a master!
But that was Egypt. This is now. The people and Moses pass through the sea into freedom. They don’t have Pharoah for a master any more. That’s the good news, and that’s the bad news. No sooner does the tambourine stop when the people of Israel grumble. They want to know what’s for supper.
What’s for supper -- for God’s sake! What are we going to eat? Can’t just keep walking around! When will we eat? That’s a matter every creature wants to know.
My little cat Nellie is seventeen years old. She now resides in our upstairs bathroom. We call it her deluxe apartment in the sky. And Nellie yowls whenever she gets the urge to eat. My wife says it is an emotional disorder. The truth is they are hunger pangs. Nellie lets us know when she wants something to eat. This is what every creature does. Every creature. Dogs do this. People do this.
Looking out my kitchen window, I noticed one wayward bird squawking that we had not replenished her birdfeeder. She looked at me and said, “I’m about to winter in Louisiana. Aren’t you going to feed me before I go?”
The people of Israel, just like all other creatures God has made, grumble out loud, “What’s for dinner?”
The kids ask the same question when they walk in the door at 3:40. You inform them of the menu and they want a snack. Get them some celery sticks with peanut butter, but they were hoping for something with a lot of chocolate.
What’s for dinner? At 8:00 after the light repast of salad and soup, he gets up to forage around the refrigerator. The fridge is full of food, and he exclaims, “Why don’t we have anything hear to eat?” This is a human question. This is a creature’s question. When there is no immediate answer, the people grumble.
You know, I hear the grumbling. All kinds of people are prone to grumbling. The grumbling is always about something. Something is unsatisfied.
Why didn’t the levee go the entire length of the river? What are we going to do to help the people who were flooded? Why can’t you move quicker?
Life offers up the illusion that questions can be answered, that problems can be solved instantly. You want to get hold of somebody, you dial their cell phone and let it ring. If you call and they are sitting in church, it doesn’t matter because you are important and you want your answers now. Technology leads us into that illusion.
So does modern medicine. Why can’t you figure out this illness? Why can’t you tell me why it hurts in my stomach? Why can’t you fix this and patch me up? I’m paying you good money – or my employer is. I expect to know now.
We want to look into the crystal ball and see how the kids will turn out. Why can’t you tell me that? You are supposed to know all of that
The people of Israel grumble: did you bring us all the way out here to let us starve? And for what it’s worth, Moses rightly redirects the blame. “Take it up with God,” he says. Take it up with God. He’s right about that. Beneath every human discontent is a problem with God.
Why don’t you give me what I need?
Why won’t you answer my prayer?
Why can’t you come when I call on you?
How long do we have to wait?
Why don’t you get all the hypocrites out of my church?
Why can’t you give me the joy that other people feel?
Why won’t you send us a better pastor?
Why don’t you give us something to eat?
It’s really an issue with God. Oh, I know: pick on Moses because he is God’s representative. Grumble to him, because it’s his job to listen to all the kvetching. When the kvetching goes unanswered, and God’s representative is pummeled around by the questions, concerns, and unaddressed agendas, when you scrape all that away, the plate is still empty . . . and you are waiting for God to put something on it.
This is essentially an issue with God. At heart it is a deeply spiritual issue, namely, we are not getting what we want, much less what we need. Don’t we pray to God for daily bread? Jesus told us as much.
Jesus told the story of a contractor who treats everybody fairly. He keeps going down to the town square to secure some more workers. Even if they put in more hours, even if they work harder, even if they show up late, this guy treats everybody the same. It’s a glimpse of how God is, the kind of God we want to believe in.
God gave you that last breath of oxygen. Did you get a bill for that?
God gave you the body that you inhabit. Did you have to sign a rental agreement? Of course not.
God is the Giver, the primary Giver. All things originate from God’s creativity. Our problem with God is whether God is the continuing Giver. Because, as you know, we want it and we want it now. Fill in the blank – what I want right now is ____________.
Or to bring it home, what’s for dinner?
It’s not merely a matter of wanting anything. We are talking about daily bread, about sustenance. The world is arranged in such a way that plenty of food so that all life can be sustained. The problem is that food is in the wrong places. Or too much food is in the wrong hands. Or we find ourselves in a desert of sand, and we worry that God does not care for us enough to give our daily bread. It’s about food, and it’s about more than food. It is always a desert concern.
Does God come to our assistance? Does God provide for us? Or is God sitting on a cloud somewhere, uninterested and uninvolved?
In many obvious cases, yes, God does provide. But there are potential misfires. Do you know what happens after God gives manna to the Hebrews? Some of them start hoarding it. They wanted to stockpile it, so they could have more than their neighbors. When they opened up their Ziploc container on the very next day, it was full of maggots. That’s what selfishness can do. It turns all our treasures into worms.
Yet the story teaches that, prior to human greed, God provides. Each and every day, in the most desolate of locations.
The manna falls from heaven, so to speak. The word Manna comes from the Hebrew question, “What is it?” Religion professors like to point out to unsuspecting students what we think manna actually was. There was a certain kind of insect that secreted a white, flaky substance. It’s small. It does not seem significant enough to live on. Manna is a tiny gift that you do not think is sufficient. But it’s all you have to go on.
It indicates that God the Giver provides gifts every day all around us, if only we look for them in the small places. We see them if we silence our grumbling hearts long enough, to appreciate, to receive, to pass along what we have.
Of all the stories that have come from last week’s flood, maybe the best one comes from my home town of Owego, New York. The historical village on the Susquehanna took on more water than they have ever seen in their history. The Victorian mansions along Front Street are emptied of waterlogged antiques. Piles of furniture and wall board form sidewalk bunkers on both sides of the street. Last Tuesday, the first day that I could get up there to check on my parents, the mud line in the trees was higher than my car.
The whole town was without power for a number of days. When the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Parrish Bridges, realized that he would lose all the food in his freezer and refrigerator, here’s what he did. He fired up the gas grill, cooked everything he had, and took it down the hill until he came to the water’s edge. Then he borrowed a kayak and delivered the food up and down the street to people who had lost everything. They were in the desert, a vast watery desert, and he went door to door.
“What is it?” they asked. He said, “It’s your dinner.”
Somebody heard the story and said, “Did he take it to the Presbyterians?” No, he took it to the hungry. Hunger does not discriminate, and neither do the floods.
God provides. Sometimes we are the ones who provide on God’s behalf, because God first provided to us. But the prerequisite is to cease all grumbling. Perhaps we are misled by the abundance in our own refrigerators. And when a time of constriction or limitation comes, we hover over what we have, if not reach for more.
Maybe what we need is not for more manna to fall, but for our eyes to see it, our tongues to taste it, our hearts to share it. Maybe it’s when we think we have the least resources that God provides the most.
I don’t know, but I see this mystery over and over again. One day, Jesus is mobbed by a crowd. They want to hear him teach, so he teaches. They want him to heal, so he heals. It gets late, so he looks at the twelve disciples and says, “Feed them something. You give them something to eat.”
They say, “Lord, we don’t have much. A couple of loaves, a few fish, but what is that when the need is so great?” So he takes what they have, blesses it, breaks it, gives it away. Somehow there is enough for everybody. How did that happen? Did everybody take a really small piece? Did his generosity inspire thousands of peasants to share? Did food strangely multiply? I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” There was abundance where people only saw scarcity. That’s the way God is.
One thing we will discover as we read through these stories of Israel in the wilderness is how much these stories read us. How much they see what it’s like to be human. How much they expose our own spiritual hunger. They push us to go deeper, and to prepare us for a God who actually provides for us. They train our eyes to see when God truly does provide.
I don’t know if you have had a lot scraped away and you find yourself with an empty plate. But in times when I have, suddenly something blossoms in that desert. Where there is no reason to think that life could actually happen, something happens. When it feels like everything is being taken away from you, suddenly you might be filled with more than you thought possible. Be it a relationship, or a job, or the loss of some physical ability, or the loss of some hope you were counting on, just then, precisely then, is where God provides, in the middle of your wilderness.
But it’s probably not where you looking, nor does it always come in the package you expect. Hungry people grumble, God provides, and the people say, “What is it?”
I confess the story in our text leaves me a little bit hungry. It leads me to a place where I need to turn to God and say, “Feed me ‘til I want no more. Come to me in my barrenness. Come to me in my deepest need. Shut my grumbling mouth and open my desiring heart.”
For those of us who journey through the desert this way, we discover it is a pilgrimage. Sustained in visible and invisible ways, we are changed and transformed.
What’s for dinner? Christ.
(c) William G. Carter
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