Our next harvesting of donations for the Vanuatu literacy project will be on October 25th… so if you have a collection tin, be sure to bring it along!
The latest copy of St. John’s Journal is now online – you can download it (click here!), or wait for a paper copy (but you only get colour electronically!)
James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8
(Due to a technical failure, no audio this week… sorry!)
The people of God, the Jewish nation of Israel, actually spent very little of their history being the nation of Israel.
They started out as a tribe, an extended family, that made good; that somehow escaped from the shackles of the region’s first great empire – Egypt – and established themselves as a nation by invading the land of Canaan. There they were united under a single ruler – king Saul, and after the madness that brought his reign to an end, under David, and then his son Solomon.
But after that period, they collapsed, first into civil war, then into exile under the Babylonians and then the Persians. And though, under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra the people were able to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, they remained subject to foreign empires: Greece, Egypt (again), the Syrians, and finally the Romans.
So though we – and the scripture – speak often of the Kingdom of Israel, that only represents a small fraction of the history of the people – if the time from Abraham to Christ was one day, the Kingdom of Israel existed for about forty minutes.
So though that brief moment in history dominated the hopes and dreams and memories of the people, they had spent most of their existence managing to keep their identity, to be and remember who they were, not through structures of government, but their systems of religious identity; through the worship of the Temple, through the confessions of faith, through obedience to the law of God.
These things were not just parts of their lives – these were the things that made them who they were, kept them united, identified them as a people who belonged to God.
The scribes and the Pharisees – the representatives of the Temple and of the Synagogues respectively – had many things that they disagreed about, many arguments. But they had this in common – they had dedicated their lives (as their ancestors had for generations) to keeping the people of God as the people of God. In the face of political peril, persecution, turmoil and war, exile and return, through the destruction and rebuilding of not one, but two Temples, they had managed to hold the people, more or less, together.
And then along came this radical, this trouble maker, who treated the law as if it didn’t matter.
And worse – people were starting to listen to him, starting to take what he had to say seriously. As he told them, by his words and by his actions, that the traditions that united them were meaningless to God.
I hope you feel a bit of sympathy for the Pharisees. We’re ever so good, in the Church, at seeing them as the enemies of the new movement, the Kingdom of God; but in truth, I suspect they might be rather more like us than we realise – in ways that are both good and bad.
For they had a deep and rich tradition, a story of the people and of God that they had kept alive as other kingdoms and empires, other faiths and gods, had risen and fallen. They had remembered who they were, continued the worship of God in the face of opposition and disinterest. They had, in fact, done many of the things that we do.
But somehow, at some point, the reason behind it all had slipped away; true religion had been, at least in part, obscured by the traditions of the faith.
But at least they understood that the faith was something that needed to be lived.
James, in his epistle, seems to be addressing the opposite problem. Parts in the early Church (of which James was a prominent leader), perhaps encouraged by Paul’s preaching on salvation by grace through faith alone, had concluded that their confession of faith in Jesus, and their lives of prayer and meditation, were all that mattered to God. As elements of Gnostic philosophy – which understood the physical world as something meaningless, to be escaped by spiritual knowledge and practice – worked their way into the Christian faith, this understanding grew stronger.
James, most likely writing from the Jerusalem Church, and certainly steeped in the Jewish traditions out of which that Church had emerged, wrote against this development:
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like
It is not enough to hear, not enough to believe, not enough to have faith: you must also do.
So in our two readings today we have two dangers for the life of faith. The first is to believe that the things we do are important; and the second is to believe that they aren’t.
Which really does describe the tension that we live in.
We cannot simply live as if our faith were a private, internal, spiritual affair. To come to Church on Sunday, to listen to a sermon and nod along – either in agreement or because we’ve dozed off – pray, hear the scriptures, share in communion and fellowship; or to read our Bibles and pray in our own private lives: that is all, in the words of James, to look into the mirror.
And looking into the mirror isn’t a bad thing – indeed, it’s both good and necessary. But to look into the mirror that is the practice of religion, and to do nothing about what you see, to walk away and forget what God has revealed to you in those moments – that is the self-deception that James speaks of. Seeing and hearing something of God, but doing nothing about it.
We cannot claim faith if we do not live it out.
And that’s the point that the Pharisees, for all their faults, got.
They understood that if their relationship with God was going to mean anything at all, it had to be lived out in the details of life, in decisions big and small.
Their fault wasn’t that they thought what they did mattered. That was their insight. An insight, let’s not forget, that led them to be willing to die rather than betray their faith.
They fell on the other side of the tension. They believed that what they did as an expression of their religion mattered: but had lost the meaning of the faith in their desire to cling on to its trappings.
So I wonder which is our fault? Which is yours, which is mine?
Are we like those who James would criticise, living out our faith in word alone; asserting the Lordship of Jesus but allowing our lives to be shaped by the needs and wants and norms and priorities of the world around us? Do we hear the scriptures each week but walk away and forget what we have seen, forget what we looked like when we gazed into the mirror of God’s story?
Or are we like those who hold firmly to the traditions of the elders, who know the importance of the faith that we have been entrusted with, and work tirelessly to keep it, to see it passed on to the next generation – but have somehow lost what it means, why it matters, how it is transforming the world.
Can we somehow find that path which holds and honours our traditions, keeps alive our story, but avoids the sterility of the Pharisees; reminding ourselves of what the Kingdom of God demands of us, looking deeply into the mirror of our faith and then doing something about it?
Living, not just believing.
Being the people of God in deed as well as word.
Holding the traditions of our faith for what they mean, not just because they are.
Passing on to the next generation a faith, not just an institution.
With God’s help, let it be so.
Ephesians 6:10-20 | John 6:59-69
And so Jesus comes to the end of this whole section built around the imagery of the Bread of Life; finishing, as you remember from last week, by declaring that he, not the manna in the desert, nor the loaves and fish of the feeding of the 5,000, but that he was the true bread, and that it was by eating his flesh that one could experience eternal life; life with God, here, and hereafter.
And many of the disciples found this teaching hard, and many of his disciples chose, at that point, to stop following him.
And notice that word – disciples. It’s not that many of the crowd of onlookers heard these things and said “no, that’s not for me”; it was many of his disciples. Not the twelve; but many of those who had already chosen to become students of this Rabbi, learners at the feet of this Guru.
And there’s something here which on the surface seems a bit strange. Because Jesus has lots of hard teachings. I mean: love your enemy – that’s hard. Forgive the one who sins against you seventy seven times – that’s hard. Give to all who ask, expecting nothing in return – that’s hard. But “eat this bread of heaven” (which we’ve basically translated into “come and have communion from time to time”)? What was it about that teaching that was so hard that people who had opted in to the Jesus movement now opted out again?
But of course the puzzle that question betrays our hindsight. For we come to this part of the story knowing the end. But for the crowds, and the disciples, and, for that matter, the twelve, the revelation that Jesus was not just a prophet, a rabbi, a teacher, but something far more: in John’s language, the Word of God made flesh; that revelation still lay in the future.
Some of them, perhaps, had started to guess at it: they’d seen him walk on water, after all – but then, that wouldn’t have been outside of expectations of a prophet, given the miraculous events surrounding the prophets of the Old Testament stories.
But something made a difference. There was something that the twelve (and many others – for it was not, by any means, all of the wider group who chose to abandon Jesus at this point) got, had seen, had understood, that the others had not.
And we know pretty well from the way the disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching a lot of the time that it wasn’t a case of them being smarter, or more perceptive, or braver, or better people; they weren’t those things. The thing that made the difference was simply this – in the words of Peter:
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
They didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching. But they do understand one thing.
They knew where to look.
Where else would we go? Your teaching might be hard – hard to understand, hard to accept, hard to obey – but where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life. We’ve figured out that much. And if that’s true – we’ve going to stick around, whatever might come, because we need to hear these words, eat this bread, live this life. Where else would we go?
This is, truly, the core declaration of Christian faith. At its heart our faith is not a declaration of, an assertion of a creed; nor is it membership of an organisation; nor is it conformance to a particular way of life. At its heart belief in the Christian faith is that question, that trust, that hope, that despair: where else would we go – for you have the words of eternal life.
Do you recognise that cry? The words of the confused, the doubtful, the struggling; but at the same time, the grip on one unchanging core: You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God
This is, to segue rather abruptly into the epistle – this is the shield of faith, with which one may quench all the arrows of the evil one – all the criticism, all the twinges of doubt, all those moments when you wonder whether it is worth it, whether it is true, whether you are fool for even being here: this teaching is hard – but where else would we go?
Now I have a real problem with the whole “armour of God” passage from the book of Ephesians – a problem that you might have got an inkling of in the sketch we did dressing Dayan up.
My problem is this: it seems to me that there are two reasons why Paul used the image of the Roman soldier as a description of the life of faith, and most of the time when we read about the armour of faith we manage to get both of them, not just wrong, but exactly wrong, 180o wrong.
The first is perhaps the more obvious – the image of a Roman soldier is, for us, something out of a history book, or a movie set in Roman days. It’s something out of the ordinary, something a little exotic. Which of course it very much wasn’t for the people of Ephesus. For the Ephesians, as for people throughout the Roman world, the Roman soldier was a an everyday sight –to be seen, almost literally, on every street corner.
And because the image is a bit exotic for us, there is a natural tendency to focus on the analogy – discussing (at great length, as you will find if you do even a little bit of online research about this passage) what the breastplate was, and how the Roman legions had pioneered the short sword, how the shields of Roman legionnaires would interlock, and so on, and drawing all sorts of conclusions about the analogy based on these interesting historical observations.
Missing, of course, the point – that the image of a Roman soldier was used because it was familiar, because everyone knew about them, precisely because it wasn’t exotic and exciting.
So often as an attempt to get past this concern, quite a lot of writers and artists have tried to bring the passage to a modern equivalent – using the equipment of the modern soldier, or trying to avoid the military image, of a police officer.
And there we run straight into the other, and deeper problem. Because whether you picture a member of the Australian military, or one of the Anzacs, or a police officer, one thing I can be almost certain of is that you are imagining someone who is one of us, someone who is on our side.
But the Roman soldier was none of those things. For the Christians in Ephesus, whether of Jewish or Gentile background, the Roman soldier represented the enemy. The occupying force. The power of the world. The empire.
The image of a soldier was not chosen in order to evoke the language of spiritual warfare; not to lend credence to some sort of martial understanding of what it means to live as God’s people in the world.
It was exactly, 100%, 180o the opposite.
The image of the Christian dressing themselves in the “armour of God” was designed not in parallel to the Roman Soldier, but in direct opposition to it. It’s taking a symbol of the power of the world, and completely reversing it as a symbol of the way of the Kingdom. As if to say – “Look, this is how the world understands power, understands control. The force of will, the power of the military, the authority of empire. The ability to force another to submit to your will. That is power – as the world sees it.”
“But what is power for us? What is power in the Kingdom of God? What do our ‘soldiers’ have? Truth. Righteousness. Gospel. Peace. Faith. Salvation. God’s Spirit. Prayer.”
When the Church looks – or looks at itself – like the world; when we measure ourselves by the buildings we own, the dollars we collect, the political power we wield, the size of our email lists, the slickness of our advertising; when the Church has done that, from the day of Constantine to the modern day; that is when we are dressing ourselves as the soldier; the force of empire given a Christian gloss, the crusader going to war in foreign lands with a cross painted on his shield; the bombs dropped on Iraq with Bible verses painted on the side.
No, that is not the Kingdom. Read again those key words in the epistle:
That is what our ‘empire’ looks like.
After a long delay, Nooma is set to restart on Tuesday nights on September 1st. We’ll have a bit of refresh of format, and a few new faces, so come along as we live, pray, and learn together….
Last year’s crazy whist night was a lot of fun – no experience is necessary, just a sense of humour and a plate of food to share for supper. So come along this year on September 4th, 7:30pm in the lower hall…
Part of UnitingWorld’s reconstruction efforts in Vanuatu following cyclone Pam is rebuilding schools – and rebuilding them to be able to withstand future cyclones. Neville Jones (Presbyterian Church Aotearoa New Zealand missionary in Vanuatu) has a great photo blog of images of the reconstruction work being funded and coordinated by UnitingWorld.
See it here.
Proverbs 9:1-6 | John 6:51-58
There is something about food.
In particular, there seems to be something about sharing a meal together that has been valued by cultures across the world and throughout history.
Sharing of food seems to be almost synonymous with sharing of life: we eat together with the people that we live together with – our families, our friends, our communities, our colleagues.
And the sharing of food is a common theme throughout the scriptures as well. From the fateful shared piece of fruit in the garden of Eden, to the heavenly banquet of Revelation, not to mention all of Jesus’ teaching about how to behave and who to invite to dinner; his own example of sharing meals with outcasts, foreigners, women, sinners; the miracle of the feeding of the 5000; and, of course, the last supper.
And for much of the Biblical narrative, the simple language of ‘bread and wine’ is used; not, I suspect, because the meal was just a loaf of bread and a glass of red, but because in some way, in the culture of the day, bread and wine represented the gifts of God in food and drink.
Our reading from the book of Proverbs portrays wisdom, personified as a woman, as wisdom is throughout the book, inviting those in the town to a banquet in the majestic, seven pillared home that she has built. The offer is made to all – she sends out servant girls, but in case anyone doesn’t hear, she also calls out from the highest places of the town: “come, eat of my bread, and drink of my wine”
But what is on offer, of course, is not food – what wisdom is offering, to those who know that they are simple, is wisdom. There is a definite sense in the language here that the meal that wisdom is offering is actually herself.
Which is made even more interesting when you know that the language used of wisdom throughout the Old Testament is ever so close to the language used of God – to such an extent that Jewish scholars will sometimes refer to Wisdom – Sophia – as the feminine representation of God in the Old Testament literature – the books of Wisdom have even been called “Sophia’s Torah” – “Wisdom’s scriptures”.
Hold that in your mind, for a while: God, as Wisdom, inviting all those who know that they lack Wisdom, to a meal, to receive the gift of God: herself, Godself, Wisdom.
So perhaps Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life isn’t so radical a departure for Jewish thought as it might seem.
John, writing his gospel, has spent a whole chapter building up to this. He begins chapter six with the feeding of the five thousand, and ends it (in next week’s reading) with ‘the words of eternal life’. It begins with Jesus meeting the very practical, immediate human needs of those around him – feeding those who are hungry – and then follows their response, as he challenges them bit by bit to think more about what this might mean: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life”; “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven”; “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”; and to his punchline: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”
We might note, in passing, on the way that the Church, at its best, has reflected that same progression: meeting people in their need and serving them, and then, as they seek a deeper engagement, inviting them to reflect more on things eternal; and also perhaps how the Church, at its less good, started at the other end, opening the conversation with eternal life, salvation, damnation, heaven and hell…
Wisdom offered herself figuratively as a gift to all who would receive her: Jesus does the same. But in doing so, of course, he is also foreshadowing a much more literal giving of himself, a theme that he will, of course, return to, most famously in the words of the institution at the last supper. When he took the bread and broke it and gave it to them saying “this is my body, broken for you”.
They surely remembered his words from before – whoever eats this bread will live forever.
And no wonder, then, that when the early Church started to commemorate the gift of Jesus, and to remember his death, it was to the bread and the wine that they turned.
For in this sacrament, the deep seated human tradition of sharing a meal with those who are your people merges with God’s offering of God-self to all who would receive.
The offering of wisdom – right living, in the Hebrew understanding of the terms – has been expanded to the offering of life itself; life eternal, life with God, here and hereafter.
At this festival, God calls out as wisdom did: “come, all who are in need! All who seek life! All who struggle under the burdens of being who the world expects them to be! All who are plagued by the memories of their past misdeeds! All who have hurt the ones they love, and would do anything to be able to make it right! All who have been told they are not good enough! All who have been rejected because of their colour, their accent, their sex! All who would come, come, eat the bread, drink the wine”
“Whoever comes, and eats of this bread, the bread, my life, that I give for the world, will live.”
So from the very earliest days until the present, in what is (other than baptism) the most consistent and longstanding ritual of our faith, the Christian Church has celebrated communion, the meal of the body of Christ.
The bread which is body – life, the wine which in blood – death, together at this table.
So as we come to this table, as we join with Christians throughout history and throughout the world, let us hear again the words of Wisdom, the words of Jesus: “eat my bread, drink my wine; live with me, die with me; whoever does will live eternally”.
God invites all to eat the gift that is freely given. The bread of Christ’s life and the wine of Christ’s death, lived and died and given for all humanity, all creation.
This is God’s meal, not ours; we are not the host here, God is. We are not in charge, God is.
We, all of us, come to this banquet because we have heard the voice of wisdom calling from the highest places of the town:
“Come, you who are simple; come in; and live.”
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:41-51
It’s not often that I choose one of the readings for Sunday to be from the Epistles, the letters in the New Testament. That’s partly because I’m really keen on not excluding the Old Testament from our tradition, and feel it’s almost always appropriate to include a gospel reading; but there’s also a sense that the Epistles are generally so context specific – written to a particular people at a particular place facing particular problems – that they are better studied in depth, systematically, than picked at in a sermon.
But today we have one of the most universally applicable passages from the letters that I can think of – Paul’s description, summary, of what it means to live as God’s people in the new era that Jesus had ushered in.
Now there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Paul was the author of this letter. I tend to conclude that he was, but if not, the author was clearly someone not unlike him: schooled in Jewish thought and tradition, but passionately committed to the new way in Jesus. So I’m going to use the name Paul – please feel free to imagine the footnote “or whoever the author was”.
The passage we have heard today is about how we should live. And for someone schooled in the Jewish tradition there is an absolutely unambiguous starting point for having that conversation. For any discussion in a Jewish context, the question of right living started with the Decalogue, the ten commandments.
So I think it’s really instructive, as we read a letter of the early Church – written a generation or two at most after Jesus – to explore how the Church’s understanding had moved from that starting point.
And of course, the first thing to notice is that there is much in this passage which simply echoes the commands we read in Exodus and Deuteronomy: put away falsehood and stop stealing are pretty much directly derived from the ten commandments.
But there are three ways in which this passage seems to me to go beyond the letter of the Jewish law (although, let it be noted, they are all very much within the spirit of the Law and the Prophets, foreshadowed by much of God’s revelation through the people of Israel).
Firstly – well, last week I alluded to the Garden of Eden caricature of God’s rules: “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree, because I say so”. And as everyone knows, especially anyone who remembers being a parent or grandparent of a toddler, there is absolutely nothing that makes an activity more attractive to the basic instinct of human nature than being told not to do it.
And of course, with a toddler, the golden rule is distraction – less forbidding, and more offering of an alternative. And that’s not just true of toddlers (just more obvious) – one of the most consistent pieces of advice given to those who want to break a habit is to create a displacement, an alternative: not “I will not smoke”, but instead “when I feel like a cigarette, I’ll chew a piece of gum instead”.
And one of the striking things about this passage in Ephesians is that, unlike the ten commandments, every prohibition, every negative, is paired with a positive alternative.
Give up stealing – work so you can be generous to others.
Put aside evil talk – instead, say those things that build others up.
Don’t lie – speak the truth to each other, for we are woven together.
Put aside bitterness – be kind to one another.
And this observation leads directly into my second: that all of those positive alternatives are based around the welfare of the community of the followers of Jesus, around the health of the Church, if you like.
Speak truth to your neighbours because we are members of each other.
Don’t steal, but work honestly so that you will have something to share with those in need.
Don’t speak evil, but build one another up.
Put aside malice, bitterness, anger, slander and instead by kind to one another, forgiving, tender-hearted.
The Jewish Law was given to enable the people of God to live together as a community, and ultimately, as a nation, who were living in the service of God. It was the code of laws for a nation, a people, who had their own state, their own system of government, their own land.
The law for the people of the Kingdom of Jesus, on the other hand, was written for a rag-tag band of misfits, rebels, losers and visionaries who had in common nothing but a passionate commitment to the person of Jesus Christ.
And so, boiled down to its raw essentials, the command of Paul for write living is really “be nice to each other. Be kind. Be gentle. For you are all broken people, saved by the love of God. Forgive one another, for you too need forgiveness; remember that the others in your community are fighting their own battles, wrestling with their own demons, struggling with their own temptations and difficulties and personal complexities. So be kind, as you might hope they will be kind to you when you need it.”
And of course none of this, as I said before, is new to the people of God, it all finds echoes in the law and (especially) the prophets. But perhaps the biggest change lies not in the rules, the laws and instructions, but in the motivation offered.
The Ten Commandments have a prologue: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt”. The basis for the Law, the reason that the people of Israel are expected to obey the law, is this: God is the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, and who saved them by acts of great power.
Our passage in Ephesians ends: you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us – again, at its heart the law is “because God has saved you” – but not by mighty works, not by plagues and miracles, not by parting the sea and throws Pharaoh’s army into the water.
Instead Christ loved us and gave himself for us.
Which, being my third observation, brings us to our gospel reading. Now our gospel readings in the past few weeks have taken us slowly through the conversation that followed on from the feeding of the 5000. And it’s worth noting that in John’s gospel, the miracles that he records all have quite strong theological meanings. Here the author is clearly linking the feeding of the 5000 back in history to the giving of manna in the desert to the people of God, and forward, to the establishment of the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of communion.
And the thread that links through those stories of bread is the common thread of the giving nature of God: giving food to the people in the desert and on the mountain, but most completely of all, God giving Godself for us in the death of Jesus that we mark in the meal we share.
It’s a shame, really, that this sermon doesn’t coincide with communion. So I’m going to take a raincheck on my final few paragraphs today, and come back to the bread of life next Sunday!
Today Elly told the kids the story of Jesus feeding a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and kids, with just 5 bread rolls and 2 fish. It was a miracle! Have you ever gone without eating for a whole day? Your body begins to get weak if you don’t get food. Food is one of our basic needs – we all must eat to live. In this story, Jesus met his followers’ basic need for food. But today the children also learned about how Jesus can give us something we need more than food. If we believe in Him, He can sustain us in every way, and He can give us eternal life.
The children discussed questions about what we need in life to live as God’s children. We talked about what ingredients would make the “Bread of Life”? The children suggested Love, Kindness, Hope, Peace, Caring and Sharing. Can you think of others?
Exodus 16:2-4 | John 6:24-35
When I saw the way that the lectionary readings had coincided with the mission focus on our Vanuatu literacy project, my initial reaction was to try to rearrange one or the other in order to avoid having these readings on a day when we talk about our commitment to help our international partners.
What bad timing, I thought to myself, to have readings about God sending manna from heaven, and Jesus reflecting on the feeding of the 5,000, on a day when we particularly focus on those of our brothers and sisters for whom God seems not to have provided.
For there is a particular problem, for us in the wealthy western world, when we come to read stories of God providing for the people of God, a barrier to us really hearing the words of the scriptures as they were written: that these words were written by, and to, and for, a people who sometimes had enough, sometimes didn’t, but rarely if ever had more to spare.
And for most of us, most of the time, that simply isn’t the reality of life. Sure, we don’t have everything we might imagine that we want, but rarely do we wonder whether we will be able to eat the next day, or where we will we sleep, or whether our children or grandchildren will have school to go to, books to read, doctors when they need them, a roof over their head.
But as I stayed with the story of the manna in the desert, something about it grew on me. It’s brought out more fully in the surrounding narrative, but it’s here in the reading we had today:
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
Each day they are to gather “enough for that day”. God’s provision for them was to be enough.
Now I don’t know if you know the story, but naturally enough, some of the people, when they saw the manna in the morning, decided that just gathering one day’s worth was imprudent, an inefficient use of their time, an opportunity missed. So they gathered twice as much as they needed, and set half of it aside for the following day, no doubt intending to have a bit of a lie in the following morning when everyone else was out manna-gathering.
But the next morning, of course, the excess that had been stored overnight was maggot-ridden.
Each day, God said, the people were to gather enough. And in that way, God said, “I will test them”.
What, I wonder, was God testing?
Testing whether they would be obedient? Whether they would follow the (apparently arbitrary) instruction to only gather what they needed? A command with an echo of the garden of Eden – don’t eat from that tree: why not? Because I say so.
Or was it to test their faith – their trust that this was not just a one-off provision, but that God could be trusted to provide for them each day, their daily bread?
Or maybe even just to test whether they knew what “enough” was, that they could resist the temptation to take more simply because more was there to be taken.
Now I started by suggesting that it’s crucial to our understanding of this sort of story that we start by recognising that it isn’t a story about us; it isn’t a story about people who have plenty; it is a story about people who knew what it was to be hungry, who had fled from oppression and now wandered in the desert, never having enough.
But if it isn’t a story about us, it is surely still a story for us.
For us, who have successfully gathered more than we need, who have stored away the excess against a rainy day, who have built bigger barns and filled them. For us who, whether or not we feel wealthy when we look around our community in Wahroonga, have incomparable riches compared to many – most – in the world.
For us, for whom the words of the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” have none of the power that they have in the voices of the hungry.
Who have, perhaps, lost the ability, even the incentive, to trust in God to provide for us. For we live in the era of too much.
Last year Sureka and I took the “living below the line” challenge – that for five days, everything we ate would come out of a budget of $2 each, per day – $20 for the two of us for five days. And I remember the most striking thing about the experience being not hunger, but boredom: I commented on the Friday that if I never saw another lentil in my life, it would still be too soon.
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty pathetic, first world problem sort of response to experiencing a few days of something which is just a poor imitation of the lived experience of the majority world, day by day and week and month and year.
The provision of enough – the story of the Manna in the desert – left me grumbling about the luxuries I had to forgo; the lack of room in my budget for coffee, chocolate, or wine – or fresh fruit, green vegetables, meat or fish.
And of course, that too, is the story of the people of Israel – for when they get used to God providing them with manna, they start to take it for granted, and start to complain of boredom at the sameness of the food they get each day.
It’s simply seems to be the human condition – we are terribly bad at recognising when we actually have enough; far better at seeing the things we want than celebrating the things we have.
Which in the end isn’t a bad message when we come to focus on our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Vanuatu; to hear their gratitude to us for our help, when that help has merely enabled them to rebuild the homes and schools and clinics that we take for granted, at a cost for us of going without things that surely, in the end, matter far less.
In a few weeks time Sureka and I will be doing the living below the line challenge again, and I’d encourage you to consider whether you might join in – it really does give you quite an insight into the degree to which we take our ability to buy and eat a varied and healthy diet for granted. Alternatively, you might choose to sponsor the efforts – any money we raise will be going to the literacy project!
No answers this week, I’m afraid – just a few questions to leave
When we pray, week by week, “give us this day our daily bread”, what do we mean, when we already have all we need and more?
How might we discover – or rediscover what it might mean to actually trust God to provide?
And what might it mean if we really considered our brothers and sisters in the developing world to be our family?