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Manna, Mystery, and the Way Out of Empire
The Word in the Wild, Proper 20, Year A
The berries are purple, bright with an almost neon sheen. They are bunched along the branches, little clusters shaded by the green, serrated leaves. This time of year, to sit by one of these plants full of berries, one is almost guaranteed to see a catbird—the elegant, dark gray cousin of the mockingbird.
Most children are taught not to eat berries like these. Some berries are poisonous, and so rather than teach the difference, we instruct children not to enjoy any of them. This is largely because the parents themselves have never learned the difference. For food, they have become entirely dependent upon agriculture, processed and packaged and shipped to the grocery store.
If we were to place most modern Americans in a forest they would starve. But it wouldn’t be from lack of available food; instead it would be from a lack of knowledge—an inability to recognize the gifts all around them. Our sense of the gifts of creation have been replaced by a dependence upon the economies of commerce and the Empire they serve.
The people of Israel were in a similar situation in their exodus from Egypt. They knew how to shop at the grocery stores of the Empire, eating from its ready supply of grain and meat, but they didn’t know how to eat from the gifts of creation, freely available on the land. And because of this lack of knowledge, their trust for their well being was placed in the very Empire in which they had been enslaved. So it was that when the food they’d carried with them from Egypt began to run low, the people of Israel began to panic.
The blame, as so often happens, was pointed toward their leaders. They didn’t want to admit that it was God they didn’t trust, so they blamed Moses and Aaron (How often is the same reality the case in churches? How often is a problem directed at a pastor really a problem with God?). God, however, sought to make them honest about their problems. God tells them, in effect, “Your problem isn’t with Moses but with me. I know this is a stressful place to be since the Empire upon which you depended is now gone. But I’m going to show you a new reality in which you can live with abundance without becoming enslaved in the process.”
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It is here that the genius of God’s response to Israel becomes clear. Instead of God acting like a divine U.N. Food Program plane, dropping flour sacks into the wilderness from above, God gives the people a whole new pattern of life. At the heart of this pattern isn’t a new piece of knowledge, a new means of controlling and exploiting the world. Instead, God offers them a strange food, one that can’t be identified according to any of their old ways of knowing. “What do you call it?” they ask. To which God answers, “Exactly.” So it that manna is named as a question, one that is left forever undefined. Manna means, literally, “what is it?” And one can only know the answer by trusting God for this daily food and eating it without understanding, a mysterious provision from the generosity of God.
Though we do not rely on manna as our daily bread these days, our task is still the same as Israel’s in the Sinai wilderness. We are called to recognize that it is God we must trust, rather than the grocery store, the military, the government, or even the church. And if your experience is anything like mine, you will likely find that what God gives you in that trust will be food enough, even if you don’t understand it. We will still be asking to our graves—“What is it?” To which God will only respond, “Exactly, eat and be filled.”
On a recent hike, I saw some of those purple berries, lush on a branch. I pulled off a handful and offered them to my family. Are you sure they’re edible? my wife asked. My youngest daughter, without hesitation, grabbed a handful and poured them into her mouth, enjoying the sweet, spicy flavor of the American Beauty Berry. She ate them, not because she knew what they were, but because she trusted me and what I offered. It was a delicious reward for her trust, and such flavors await us too, if only we will trust God and accept the gifts God is already offering us.