Sermon 03/12/2023 – Growth and Reconciliation

Romans 5: 1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely, therefore, since we have now been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Sermon Text

 The book of Romans is often presented as the most concentrated explanation of salvation in the New Testament. The letter is a defense of Jewish Christians but one that equally tackles the concept why non-Jews are now able to join into a religion that is born from the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah and founded on the scriptures of Israel and Judah from centuries before. Romans is a defense of Jewish believers, written by a Jewish author, but it is also trying to explain fully why the Church was crossing over previously solid barriers in culture to create an increasingly large alternative culture – the Kingdom of God.

The full picture of why Paul feels the need to spell out salvation so exhaustively and in the particular framework of Jews and Gentiles, is complicated. There was a time when the people of Judah had fairly porous religious and culture barriers around them. From at least Solomon to Josiah, a span of about three hundred years, people of all cultures and religions lived in Jerusalem and intermarried with the inhabitants. The Assyrian Empire changed things when it conquered Judah during the time of the prophet Isaiah. Faced with control by one empire, and now threatened at its end by Egypt on one side and Babylon on the other, Josiah attempted to crack down on what he saw as religious indiscretions.

Josiah centralized worship of the God of Israel in Jerusalem, destroying altars to foreign divinities and even destroying ancient ritual sites that were meant for Judah’s God if they were a challenge to centralized worship. The result of his reforms was a push for religious homogeny. It was only after the Babylonian Exile had come and gone, about sixty years after Josiah died, that an ethnic separation was imposed on the people of Judah. The returned exiles, now called Judeans or Jews, were led by Ezra and later by King Nehemiah, in a dangerous gambit for survival. To maintain their identity, they defined a Jew as someone born of a Jewish mother, and ideally, of dual Jewish parents. They had to marry within their own people, and anyone who had “foreign wives,” was made to abandon them to die, along with their children, outside of Jerusalem.

The exact politics and ideology behind this expulsion is complicated, we spent several weeks delving into it when a few of us studied Ezra last year. The essential point to be made here, all the same, is that this is not an idea held by modern Jews – and so we cannot and should not impose anything I just said on them. It is also not what God intended, as we see in the words of the prophet Jeremiah to the people, telling them to go out and marry among the Babylonians for the good of both peoples. Yet, regardless of intent or purpose, the outcome was that an in-group of Jewish believers was created and an outgroup of everyone else put in opposition to it. We cannot judge the people of Judea for this, it was a tactic to survive, but we nonetheless as Gentile believers can say that we uphold it either.

Paul struggled his whole life with these ideas, in large part because he was a Greek Jew. These “Hellenists,” were ethnically Jewish, but were descended from the wider Jewish diaspora. Greek Jews spoke, well, Greek. Depending on where they were from they would dress differently than Judean believers, and ultimately were seen as lesser by many in Judea. Not to equivocate my own experiences, but think of how people react when I say I’m from the Eastern Panhandle. “Not really West Virginia,” they might say, putting me on the outside even though I have every right to claim my heritage that was born in Petroleum and Grantsville.

Crank that up to eleven, and you get the sort of thing we are dealing with. As a result, many Greek speaking Jews were even more committed to the traditions and adherence to the faith than even Judean believers. The rejection they felt from their own people was enough to make them want to do everything they could to look and sound as Judean as possible. Back to my own example, it probably isn’t a coincidence that I have so much memorabilia of thoroughly West Virginia things like ramps, the Braxton Beast, or Mothman. For Paul though, memorabilia wasn’t enough – he was committed to being a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and to the purity of his faith.

This is why he responded the way he did to Jesus’s movement. It was an open invitation to all people to become part of Judaism, and that was something Paul had never accepted for himself. The doubt he felt over his own identity spilled into a zealous defense of the faith from these seeming “aggressors,” and he sought to kill anyone who challenged the peace. Did he have any power to do this? Only through mob violence, but it was something he tried. Eventually, God intervened through Christ’s sudden appearance to him, and after a long wrestling with himself, Paul accepted his Greek heritage and went a step further to begin accepting Gentiles too. He even dropped the Hebrew name he took on when he moved to Jerusalem, “Saul,” and accepted the name he was given at birth, “Paul.”

Paul’s letters work hard to establish just how wide God’s kingdom really is. At times, he seems to swing so far as to abolish Jewish practices among Christians, but his own life tells us that he never stopped being a Jew, even as he was most ardently Christian. So when he heard that Jews were expelled from Rome under Claudius, he would have wept for his siblings in faith. Yet, when he heard that upon their return, the Gentile Christians were not accepting them back into the Church they had founded – his tears turned into a righteous indignation. Paul put pen to paper and set out to settle the issues between Jews and Gentiles once and for all, and in the process wrote the letter we read from today. Without even trying, he wrote something that, for many of us, suffices to explain Salvation better than any other text. So much so, that our Communion Liturgy borrows directly from sections throughout Romans.

The work that Paul embarks upon requires equalization above all else. All people are sinful, all people having fallen short of standards both human and divine. Rather than being a source of perpetual shame, Paul puts this forward as something that simply removes any form of shame from the community of faith. We are all sinners, but being redeemed, we are not to be ashamed of that fact, instead we are equipped to overcome the conflicts of our past and take on something new. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul puts forward that both Jews and Gentiles have advantages as members of the Church. Jews have the entire history of Israel, the scriptures, the teachings of sages and teachers, and as a result carry the history of God’s work in the world and how grace has been poured out since Eden on all flesh. Gentiles, meanwhile, are admitted into the Church by grace and so speak more directly to how grace exists in the here and now.

Grace did not cease to be given to the Jews or transfer to be a Gentile only matter. Paul does not deny that the two populations are different, maybe even overwhelmingly so. All the same, Christ’s work unites them in something stronger than those differences. The opportunity to learn from those differences, to compromise where compromise is possible and respect the extremes of one another where compromise cannot happen, it is a boundless place for growth. When I worked for the Baptist Convention in D.C. there were many things that seemed alien to little ole Methodist me. I thank God for everyone of them I saw in action, because I saw in the different ways of worship or working, God at work. When you see God at work in something completely different than what you are used to, you begin to see the universal nature of God’s grace.

God has reconciled all flesh, God has given salvation to everyone. No matter how sinful a person may be. No matter how different they may be from what we call, “the norm,” God is inviting all people in. We can fight this, or we can accept it, but only one of those choices is Godly. We may like Paul deny the parts of ourselves that make us seem different from the people around us, but that is a dead end. Only in accepting, embracing, and promoting difference, can true unity be found. When we take off the name we’ve put on ourselves to blend in, and take on the name that was always our to have and to embrace – then we will know true growth. God is here, God is welcoming us and all others into the Kingdom, let us lock arms and charge in with joy, unashamed, and fully accepting God’s call to us, and not to the “us,” we pretend to be. – Amen.

Profile of a Prophet: Moses

Exodus 3: 1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
           Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
           But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
           This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Sermon Text

Today we start a new series looking at some of the prophets that brought us God’s word throughout scripture. We are blessed as Gentile recipients of God’s grace to have the legacy of God’s work through both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. One does not take precedence over the other, but both show us God’s glory in their own way. Throughout the history of God’s people there have been those who God has raised to a particular purpose – the articulation of God’s desires for God’s people. The prophet’s voice was a tool of God to bring about change, to give warnings, and to ultimately to reveal the nature of God to the people of God.

When we open our Bibles, we are well aware that there are prophets talked about in their pages. If we were to grab a Jewish Tanakh, that would be even more obvious to us. The name of the Hebrew Scripture is an anagram, Tov for Torah, Nun for Nevi’im, and Kaf for Ketuvim. In other words, the teachings of Moses, the prophets, and the writings. Tanakh. The prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible include the three major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as the twelve minor prophets – just like we would see in our Protestant Bibles. Yet, they also include the books of Samuel, Kings, Judges, and Joshua – things we usually call historical books.

As we hop across the pages of our Bibles over the next few weeks, we will visit much of the Hebrew scripture and even jump into the Greek scripture of the New Testament at the close of our series. For now, we look into the distant past of God’s revelation to see the first prophet called to proclaim God’s salvation to God’s people. Today we look at the life of Moses, and how he shows us the pattern of a prophet and the wonders of God’s all-encompassing love.

Before we jump into Moses particularly, I want to talk a little bit about what a prophet is meant to be. When you all hear prophet, I’m sure you have your initial ideas. What comes to mind? Fortunetellers giving a forecast of future events? Doomsday preachers speaking about God’s final victory over the evils of the earth? A sword cutting between the lies we tell ourselves and the truth? Of those options the last one is closest to what the role of a prophet was defined by in scripture. While there was a paid position within ancient royal courts called “prophet,” this role is different from what the biblical prophets achieved. The paid position might ask God specific questions, getting back specific answers. They would say when a good time was to go to war or to begin projects. These were closer to our usual view of prophets than any of the Major or Minor ones of scripture.

Rather than being employees of kings, the Biblical prophets were usually lay people called out from their normal lives into their role as a prophet. This was not always the case, sometimes a paid prophet would be called to the higher role of a capital P Prophetic Voice, but on the whole it was more common for people to be called to this ministry rather than following the usual chain of command. There was still the ability to learn from another prophet or succeed someone’s work – like what we see with Elijah passing his work to Elisha, but the model for the named prophets in scripture is that they are plucked up and set aside for a specific work. I speculate about this to a certain degree, but it explains best why the eponymous prophets were so different from their contemporaries.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish philosopher of religion, explains prophets as critics of the sins of their era. Specifically, the prophet calls the people to see the ways they hurt one another and how we all have a part to play. He puts it this way, “the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible… In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every [person,] crime would be infrequent rather than common.”[1]

The prophets act as a wakeup call for us to get our act together. The Biblical Prophets especially are crying out to people on the verge of collapse from one source of evil or another. We talked last week about avoiding God’s promise of redemption by never falling in the first place. That is the sort of thing that the prophet was constantly doing. They stated the problem as it was now, the consequence of that problem if it was not fixed, and then finally the opportunity that would exist if the people changed their ways. The goal was always to see people change, like what Jonah did at Nineveh, but often the prophecy of disaster is the one the won out.

Back to the focus of today’s message, we look to the ministry of Moses. The people of God had been enslaved in Egypt for a long time. Despite the fortune of Joseph in the Egyptian Court, shifting political power resulted in the Hebrews being a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the kingdom. A pharaoh came into power, “who knew not Joseph,” and the people soon found themselves the victims of genocidal programs meant to limit their numbers and reduce them to slave laborers. The land of Goshen essentially became a prison, with the people being kept there as wheels in the machine of industry.

One of the survivors of an early attempt to cull the Hebrew people was the son of two members of the house of Levi. After his birth, his parents feared he would be killed, and so he was floated down a river. A member of the royal household pulled him out of the water and, realizing he was a Hebrew, took pity and decided to raise him. The boy’s sister was nearby and convinced the noblewoman to hire the boy’s mother as his nurse, and the boy, Moses, was raised in Pharaoh’s court and with the full knowledge of the ways of his people.

Moses’s time in the court saw him divided in whether he could live as a member of the nobility when his family and his people were suffering under the rule of that same royalty. When a group of Hebrew men were being abused, Moses killed the assailant. Rather than earning him a place of pride among his people, it made him look reckless. Moses had made it worse for his people, the idea that they were a dangerous minority would be solidified by his half-baked plan to make himself into a hero. Moses fled Egypt and settled on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt. There, among the people of Midian, he made a life. He married into the people there and had children. He started a life as a shepherd and began to drift away from his time in Egypt, his identity as a Hebrew.

That was, until a bush caught fire one day. Burning as it was, it did not seem to be harmed in any way. The sight was enough for him to stop and look over at it. As soon as he did, he heard a voice calling his name. “Moses! Moses!” The source of the voice was unknown, but Moses was ready for whatever it had to say to him. “Here I am!” the call of so many prophets, set him walking toward that bush. The conversation that followed would change his life forever. Moses meets God, the God, and is told to go back to his people and proclaim the truth that they are soon to be free of their slave masters in Egypt.

The how of this is worked out as Moses goes through his ministry. He is not given a list of plagues that are going to appear in Egypt, nor does he even fully understand how long the trip from Egypt to Canaan is going to be. All he knows by the end of this conversation is that he is a prophet called to bring God’s word, and God’s law, to God’s people.

We can take a lot from Moses’s story, but I think that we can see in his call story a more direct vision of what prophets are hoping to achieve through their work. When God calls the prophets, it is not just God wants a better world – though God does. It is not just that God wants to see God’s people be holier than they were before – God certainly wants that. No, the work of the prophet is ultimately to bring God to God’s people and God’s people to God. The prophet acts as a bridge, showing the people the face of God through the face of the prophet. The prophet lays out God’s presence among the people. The prophet weeps, rages, laughs, and smiles as they show the world just what God is thinking. The prophet shows a light and a hope that God is never far away from us. Most of all, the prophet shows us that God is here to save us.

In this first meeting, God tells Moses that God has heard the cry of the Hebrews. Their many prayers have not been forgotten, the tears they cried are not ignored. God is hurt by the hurt they have suffered. In my darkest days, I want to know that God hears me. Praise God, I can hear it from God’s own lips as God speaks to Moses. Moses is chosen as the one to go forward, and though he gives many reasons as he makes his way to Egypt why he should not, God does not let up for a second. Moses is going to be the face of this liberation movement, and Moses is going to proclaim that the same God who loved Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham.

God could have just left it at that. But God keeps talking. You can call me, Ayah ahser ayah, “I am that I am.” Moses points out that this is not a name, it is a title. So, God finally goes one step further, God gives Moses a name so precious that it is not spoken even today in Jewish communities. You may know ministers who use it, its four letters long, but I do not. It is God’s actual name, and it is the thing we are asked not to take in vain. For this reason, I will use the name “Adonai,” or Lord, like our Bibles today do. Jews sometimes take it a step further, only saying HaShem, or “the Name.”

This revelation of God’s name seems small to us, but it meant a lot in the ancient worlds. Names hold power, and the ability to call on a deity was seen by the ability to say their name. A God without a name would become lost to time, and much like people there was an expectation that to be forgotten in this way would be tantamount to death. For the deity, revealing their name was an act of self-preservation, but also an act of vulnerability. When people knew your name, and called on you, you were expected to answer.

For God to give Moses the divine name was not an act of self-preservation. It was, however, a sign that God loved God’s people enough to open up another level of intimacy with them. It is one thing to sign a letter with someone’s title, another thing entirely to sign it with their name. God here makes it clear, in this moment and in all of Moses’s time on earth that to be a Hebrew, to be a person of God, is to be close to the one who called upon you. We speak with God name to name and face to face. God is not trying to keep a distance from us but is constantly knocking down obstacles and building highways for us to get from where we are to where God is. And for every step we take, God is running even faster toward us.

Moses would go on and lead his people from Egypt, he would lead them into battle and through hunger and thirst. He saw multiple rebellions, a very misshapen golden cow, and even two separate and very different incursions of quail into his camp. God was with Moses the whole time and even left Moses with a set of teachings to pass on to his people, to be recounted and memorized and lived. God gave Moses the Torah as the ultimate sign that God was always with God’s people, and that God was always pulling them closer. Moses died one day, and when he did, it was God who took him up and buried him, unwilling to let anyone else have the honor. Is there any clearer sign than this? The prophet brings God to us, and with their leadership we find God with us. – Amen.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Academic. 2007)

Serve Always – Maundy Thursday 2022

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them…

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon Text

 Today we are reminded what makes Jesus the king we worship like we do. Regardless of his rightful place ruling all the universe, despite his existence from before eternity began, Jesus is a servant before he is a ruler. On the night before Jesus is going to be killed, knowing that one of his most trusted friends is going to be the implement of his destruction, he does not plan an escape or immediately cast this friend aside. Instead he strips off all his clothing, dresses himself in just a towel, and cares for his friends – even the one who was already plotting how he was going to turn him over to his enemies.

Jesus’s overwhelming love for those around him was not just limited to this single night, it was in everything he ever did. Jesus never asked for anything from those around him for his help. He was not afraid to speak the truth or to call out the wrongdoing of others, but he was never cruel and was willing to show love even as he rebuked the evil in the world. Nothing Jesus did was outside of the context of love and service. From the day he was born in Bethlehem to the day he died on Golgotha, Christ was here to serve, ready to bring us into the Kingdom his father had prepared for him.

Tonight, as we remember Christ’s final evening before his death and resurrection, we rehearse the love which he showed us. As we take up towel/cup and water/bread, we remember the astounding work of Christ. Soon Christ will be hidden for us for a time, but the light that will be revealed after that grim darkness will shine brighter than any other. Today we get to see what Christ did with his final hours and we see that what he did was serve. If we really want to see what Jesus was all about, we should look to these final dear moments he spent with his loved ones. We should serve always, striving at all times to embody the principles shown to us by Christ’s own sacrificial life. – Amen.

Heavenly Bread – Lectionary 08/01/2021

Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-21

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.

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.

Numbers 11: 4-6, 18-20

The rabble among [the Israelites] had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

… Say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore, the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’”

Sermon Text

 Welcome to another week of talking about bread. Last week we saw how God uses the multiplication of bread, and the feeding of people generally, time and time again to show the goodness which is offered to all people. Today, we see that same goodness shown to the Israelites in the wilderness. Next week will take us to Elijah being fed, not only in the wilderness, but in the depths of his own despair. Wisdom will set a table for us the week after that, and we will conclude our block of stomach centered texts with a very cryptic command from Jesus about what we must eat. Food is an image and a reality where we seem to meet God again and again.

It is fitting, then, that we discuss God’s gift of food on a communion Sunday. Though we celebrate communion with juice and bread that we bring to this table, it is a gift of God from beginning to end. The grain to make bread is watered by the rain which God brings, the vine is given the same gift, and even the paten and chalice are made from clay plucked from the earth God has placed us upon. The sacrament is not just its material components, but a spiritual exercise. We take the juice and the bread and find it somehow changed. While we will talk more in-depth about communion and its many facets in a few weeks, we must acknowledge today that some aspect of the meal we are preparing to share together is beyond the bounds of its earthly components.

It is not anything revolutionary to tie the gift of manna to the Eucharist. Jesus seems to do so in John 6 and Paul as well leans upon the idea that we in the Church eat our own form of manna in the eucharist. (1 Cor.10.) Strange though it may seem, there is something connecting the bread on this altar and in your packets, to the dusty and mysterious fragments of food that the Israelites collected long ago.

Looking back to that Israelite’s journey in the desert, we can only know so much. Forty years pass out in the land between the Red Sea and Canaan. Sometimes the people would come nearly into the promised land, only to turn completely around and lose decades of progress. Those forty years are recorded sporadically in the Torah, from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Sometimes the same story is told two or three times across those books, always with subtle differences that show different aspects of the interactions between God and God’s people. Our story for this morning, of God giving manna and quail, occurs elsewhere in both Exodus and Numbers. In Numbers the quail is given as a curse as much as it is a blessing. The greed of the Israelites is highlighted in their quest to obtain something they do not need.

Exodus, in talking about God’s gift of manna and quail, sees both gifts as a positive addition to the Israelite’s life. The people complain to God they are hungry, specifically they miss bread and meat, something they had very little of in their wanderings. God looks upon this request, not with anger, but with mercy. Even when this complaint could rightly be taken as an inability to see the good they have already been given, God is willing to give more to the Israelite’s than they previously had. God looks with compassion on our limited scope and feeds us good things alongside the bare necessities we need.

We need both tellings of this story. If we believed God only wants us to have more and more good things, then we would fall into the trap which the Prosperity Gospel has set time and again for people. This school of thought believes that material goods, wealth and status, define a person’s standing with God. This idea is contradicted throughout scripture, yet it is more popular than ever to believe God wants the faithful to be rich and that poverty is only ever the fault of the person going without. On the other side of things, if we believed God is always ready to turn against us, then our love cannot be complete. If we see God giving quail only out of spite, “until it comes out of [the Israelite’s] nostrils,” then we will doubt every good gift as a test. God becomes, not a benevolent God, but an exacting and capricious deity.

That balance, God as abundant in mercy and goodness and God as desiring us to be better, that is the life of faith in a nutshell. The goodness of God brings us to appreciate God as the source of life, light, and truth that God is. Yet, if we walk away from God’s goodness unchanged then we have not actually engaged with the same God who offered it to us in the first place. The mystery of our religion is that we constantly return, again and again, to the realization that God is good, and that we are not yet as good as God, and so we must turn more and more away from the things that are preventing us from being truly good. We do not despair at our lack of righteousness because God is good to forgive our sins, but we do not tolerate those failings in ourselves either, because the goodness of God motivates us onward toward righteousness.

I grew up in a church that had a lot of good going on with it. Yet, there was a prevalent teaching that was given again and again by one of the leaders for the youth group. “Nothing you ever do, will be good, because the best thing you could ever do,” and here I quote directly, “is like poopy, doo-doo rags to God.” The idea behind this comes from Isaiah 64, where Isaiah is trying to explain what happened to Judah to cause the Babylonian conquest. Isaiah sees God’s anger as the primary cause of the event and says that the people had transformed into something they did not use to be. Rather than being the light in the dark they were meant to be, they had become cruel and they abused one another. This transformation meant that, even their best deeds, now that they had fallen so far, “were like filthy cloths.”

I bring that teaching up because it never sat well with me. If God wanted to be with us, why would God continue to be so critical of the people God had saved? It seemed duplicitous to on one hand say nothing a person did was ever good enough and on the other hand claim to save them from that incredibly high standard. Yet, I believe that is often how we talk about God. We speak as though God sets a bar, we fail to meet it, and we are lucky that God cared enough to spare us, because we do not deserve one lick of kindness. It sounds scriptural, because it takes a lot from various spots of scripture and pieces them into a statement we can’t refute. These truths which we misrepresent are that we don’t earn salvation, we are sinners, and we are fortunate God chose to save us rather than start over.

Yet, that framing is one sided in presenting God’s approach to humanity. If God merely tolerates us, then it seems strange that God would have lifted a finger at all. If God is this exacting presence, waiting for a chance to flip over the hand we are seated on so we can fall into perdition, then God does not seem abundant in steadfast love. When we focus on our depravity and God’s judgement to too great and extent, suddenly I do not see the glory of Heaven, but merely the terror of any alternative. I do not see the goodness of God, but the terror of a judgment seat.

I bring up this judgment heavy vision of God because I nearly fell into that trap writing today’s sermon. You see I plan out my sermons a year in advance, so when I wrote down the scripture I would preach for this Sunday, I was expecting the text to carry me in a particular direction. The reason behind this, is that this story of God giving bread and quail, has always been told to me from the perspective of Numbers and not Exodus. I’ve always known God to give quail as punishment and bread as a gift. Even though I have read the two different accounts, not till I sat down to write this sermon did I know God gave quail as a gift anywhere in scripture.

I think of the passages, like Isaiah 64, like Exodus 16, that we have allowed to be conflated with the emphases that we or preachers or teachers we have known have put upon them. I like to use John 3:16 as a good proof of our general obliviousness to the full extent and meaning of a text, because its easily pulled up in our minds. Do you remember that that text is tied to the account of Moses putting up a metal sculpture of a serpent in the wilderness? (Numbers 21,) or that it in the larger context of Nicodemus asking what it means to be born again? Those are just surface level considerations as well. There is an awful lot about John 3 that reminds us to be watchful as much as it frees us to let go of our anxieties.

Tension is a word we always laughed at in seminary because it could be used to describe any discussion we ever have. There is a tension between any two extremes and finding the proper balance between them is never easy. It is important to remember that God is good to us when we don’t deserve it, as we see in our scripture today. It is also good to remember, God does in fact care what we do, and that we are expected to do better. To complain and find our needs filled is one thing, to find our needs fulfilled and continue to complain is another. Layers upon layers of depth emerge in our life of faith and I do not blame anyone for becoming exhausted along the way.

Life is, after all, a long journey. If we would like to style it as such, we could say it is a journey through the wilderness. We sometimes have reprieve by still waters or in the shade, but we often have to face difficult choices, difficult situations, uncertainty and fear and doubt. Like the Israelites we can feel like we are closer than ever to where we need to be. Our hearts grow stronger and more loving, our life more radiant in the things we are allowed to enjoy and blessings we can share with other, our faith clearer and more deeply felt than ever before. Then, in an instant, all seems to fall out from us. We slide backward in our development, and that promised land that seemed so close now feels thousands of miles away. We spin round the desert of this life, seeking the glory of something far beyond us.

We come today to one of those spots of relief. This table, set by human hands, but given in everyway to us by God. Represents a deep spiritual truth. God is the source of our life. God gives us what we need, and even sometimes what we want. God delights in giving us a reason to celebrate. We do not receive gifts so that we may become rich, in fact we are encouraged to resemble the poor more and more as life goes on. We take up the gifts God has given us, because they are what keeps us going. For the Israelites that was the heavenly bread that was manna and the physical sustenance that was quail.

This table of grace reminds us not only of God’s goodness, but of our own fallenness. Christ died because we could not accept his goodness, least of all could we tolerate his love. When presented with the opportunity to live in a new way, we chose to cling ever more tightly to what was. The blood of Christ was poured out for sinners, but it was also poured out by them. The body of Christ was broken for us all, but it was also we who broke it upon the cross. A tension is present in this table, we celebrate the truth of our freedom it represents, but we also mourn the burden, that we are the reason such a table ever had to be set.

Yet, God does not sit anxiously awaiting us to approach unworthily. God has prepared sustenance to carry us through this life. God has extended grace before we ever needed it. The blessing of God is greater than any anger God could ever feel, and the heavenly bread we partake of today is greater than any earthly food we could ever crave. As we walk through life, we must seek to rest in God, not so that we ever become stagnant, but so that we can better understand every aspect of this world we inhabit. There is abundant mercy in what God has given us and there is a lofty expectation for us to grow. We explore what this table means across the next few weeks, but today, we partake of it. As we lift chalice and paten, as we drink juice and eat bread. Today, we gather our own holy manna and find God’s abundant love prepared for us. – Amen.