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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
October 1, 2017
Exodus 16: 2-15
Audio not available.
A reading from the Book of Exodus
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.
It is rare that a part of the liturgy one week becomes a sermon illustration the next week, but here we are, because last week the chancel was empty until you all brought 650 pounds of food in for Overflow the Cart Sunday and if that’s not a sermon illustration for Manna in the desert, I don’t know what is. The shelves were empty, and then they were overflowing, and you’ve heard this story before. Israel has come through the Red Sea, they’ve escaped from slavery in Egypt, but they’re stuck in this wilderness and there’s no food in sight and their prospects look grim. And so God sets out once again to prove God’s power and God’s might and God’s faithfulness to them, and God says “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,” and so all of this mysterious substance shows up on the ground, this dew-y flaky stuff, and we could go a few rounds over what this Manna might have been like or whether we’d care to speculate as to its scientific properties but the point is you can eat it, and the Israelites eat it, and they survive, and they have enough, and the shelves were empty, and then, all of a sudden, they were overflowing, because God provided, because you provided.
But sometimes — maybe most of the time — we don’t come to church with bags full of groceries. Sometimes we come to church empty-handed. And not just empty — spiritually hungry. And this of course is where Israel knows our story just as well. Israel, of course, did not bring snacks into the wilderness; but their hearts are just as empty as their stomachs, empty of faith, empty of hope. All they bring is the same kind of bad attitude that was very much on display in the complaints at the edge of the Red Sea. I think the sarcasm will sound very familiar: “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.” At least in Egypt there were groceries. And yes, of course, this story ends with the abundant feast of the people of God, but the people of God have very little to do with actually putting the food on the table. Which means that this story isn’t really about feeding. It’s about being fed. And it’s about showing up hungry. Spiritually-empty.
Sometimes we show up empty. I mean, I know it doesn’t always look that way — on the outside, we show up for church with all kinds of supplies, with food for the shopping cart, with snacks for the Sunday School, with cash for the offering plate. For many years at our house no Saturday would be complete without the liturgical writing of a post-it to be stuck inside the front door reminding one or both of us of whatever we were supposed not to forget for Sunday morning. But you can bring all the supplies in the world to church and still show up empty. I mean, spiritually-hungry. I mean, you’ve-been-reading-the-news-all-week kind of hungry. You’ve been reading the news about the world stretched so thin, about all the ways we are being torn apart, about all the borders and all the barriers and divisions that never quite fade away. Maybe you’ve been feeding on the news from Puerto Rico, where the response to the storm smells of old legacies of colonial imagination. Maybe you’ve been feeding on the news from Myanmar, where old religious boundaries have exploded into human travesty. Maybe you’ve been feeding on the news from America, where the old racial wounds that run through our national character keep getting wider and wider. I feed on the news and it takes something out of me, I get hungrier and hungrier, and I never know what it was once it’s gone, but I feel its absence; if I’m honest, I came to church this morning with all the supplies that I needed. But I still showed up empty.
And if you showed up empty too, the good news is that we came on World Communion Sunday, when we imagine the table of God to extend across all of those old borders and barriers and divisions. The Presbyterian Church is not in the tradition of having “Feast Days” but if we were in such a habit, surely this would be the one, the one with the table as big as possible, when we imagine it to stretch from this sanctuary to every sanctuary in every house of Christian worship around the world, across oceans and borders and through congregations of every shape and size, in San Juan and Charlottesville and St. Louis and here at home, and we fill that table with every ounce of bread that we can muster, made from every grain and every seed and every flour that springs forth from the earth. World Communion Sunday is not a Biblical holy day but it is a powerful act of ecclesial imagination; a day when we proclaim something bigger than the news; a day when we feed ourselves with something bigger than the news; a day when we see the world for one brief moment through God’s eyes.
But this Bread of Heaven will not last for long. I mean, I’d love to promise you the opposite. I’d love to promise you that something about our communion today will inoculate you against the onslaught of the news of the week to come, but I don’t have that kind of authority. That’s not what this Manna is. It’s not the abundant feast of the kingdom. It’s this little drop of dew-y, flaky stuff sitting on the ground, it’s not much. It’s not enough to fix the hunger. If anything, it makes them hungrier. Consider this. Every morning in the wilderness, Israel has to wake up and choose. Behind them, back into the land of Egypt, is food. Slavery, but food. In front of them, countless miles ahead, countless obstacles ahead, through some expanse whose length nobody knows, is land that God has promised to them, the land of milk and honey, the land of abundance, the land of freedom, the land of liberation. None of the Israelites have been there. Nobody knows the way. Nobody knows any of it for sure. It exists purely on promise. It exists purely on hope. And it exists on this Manna, breadcrumbs across the wilderness, hints of something better yet to come, just enough to get you up in the morning and send you on the right path. This is the irony of the Gospel: the manna doesn’t fix the hunger. It creates hunger, hunger for the feast yet to come, hunger for the promised land yet to come, hunger for that bounty that lies across the desert, for all those who can get up in the morning, eat just enough for the day, and then point themselves towards the horizon.
Such is our task for this morning, this World Communion Feast, this sacred table. It will not be enough. You will get some small crumb of bread and some paltry sip of wine and you will still be hungry. You will get some small token of the promises of God and you will still be hungry, spiritually hungry; in fact this table will make you hungry. Sometime this afternoon, or this evening, or tomorrow, for better or worse, and potentially against our better instincts, everybody here will open up Facebook or Twitter or CNN and start to read the news again and those hunger pangs come back, and that emptiness will come back. This is not a bug in the program. This is the prophetic imagination of the table of God that invites us into some world beyond the wilderness. This table should make you hungry. This table that extends to all people should make you hungry for a world that serves all people. This table that extends across all borders should make you hungry for a world that needs no borders. This table that serves everyone in just measure should make you hungry for a world where justice rolls down like waters. Yes, this table is the joyful feast of the people of God. But it is also a calling. And fair warning: you may leave hungrier than you were when you came in.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to go with a group of American Presbyterians on a study trip to South Africa, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of Apartheid. On the final morning of our pilgrimage my group went to the early service of Morning Prayer at St. George’s Cathedral in downtown Cape Town. St. George’s is the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town, an office currently held by the esteemed Desmond Tutu, and the worst kept secret in Cape Town was that the Friday service of Morning Prayer was the one service of the week that Tutu himself would preside at. And so we went. And I had imagined it taking place in the main hall of the cathedral, a thousand of us squinting for a glimpse of this great man. But in fact this service was something more intimate — maybe 75 people, crammed into this side chapel where the pews surrounded the table on all sides.
The Archbishop is this tiny man with these bulging, laughing eyes. He may be both the oldest and youngest person I have ever met. And as serious as he was about the Eucharist, he was equally joyful about welcoming folks to the table. Before we broke bread he asked anybody or any group who had not previously been to that service to stand and introduce themselves, and it turned out that we were pilgrims from everywhere. Members of an American yacht team, racing around the world. A large Norwegian youth group, in South Africa for recreation and formation. Members of an ecumenical outreach organization from all across the Pacific Rim. Alongside, of course, the people of St. George’s, and their friends from the upscale heights of downtown Cape Town and as well as from the townships around it. And then there was this group of African-American women, gathered up from churches all around the South, on their own spiritual pilgrimage. The one who introduced the group was coming from Waco, Texas — amazing, my parents were living in Waco, Texas, even before Austin was a speck on my own horizon — and here we are gathered up halfway around the world.
Tutu began to read the words of institution — in English, and then in Khoso, and then in Zulu. Later, as the bread and wine were offered, this group of African-American women began to sing, almost spontaneously, as their own offering, they began to lead us all in singing, Let Us Break Bread Together. Let us drink wine together. Let us praise God together, on our knees. And somewhere as I sang along it struck me that I had not until this moment known what communion was. That we all had to leave home. That we all had to be in the wilderness, somewhere beyond borders, somewhere beyond divisions, somewhere beyond the old scars and the old wounds, somewhere on the journey to the freedom of the Promised Land. Somewhere as I sang along, it struck me that this moment was the feast of the kingdom itself. That the broken bread and shared cup had beckoned us from across every threshold of everything that divides us. It was a moment full of ecstasy. It was a moment full of transcendence. It was a moment full of grace.
And it made me famished for the better world of God’s promises. When the song finished, and when we were dismissed to a time of greeting and passing of the peace, I went straight over to this woman from Waco. “I have family there!” I said, and she lit up. And we tried to make some connection. But we couldn’t find a shred of common ground. We didn’t have a thing to talk about. I didn’t know the areas she knew. She didn’t know the places I knew. And I admitted, well, my folks hadn’t been there very long, I just don’t know the town well enough. But we both knew the truth: that an old black woman and a young white man could live in Waco together for years and never have their paths cross. I wouldn’t have known her neighborhood. I would never have gone to her church. I would never have heard her sing. And I tell you what. I hope that God grants me the grace to visit the kingdom again. I hope that I am blessed to sit at that eternal feast and share the broken bread and the covenant cup with every child of God’s creation. But especially I hope I get to sit next to her. And I hope — with every hunger pang in my body I hope — I hope that by time I get there, we have something to talk about.