Year B, Proper 14 August 9, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”
So here we are in our second week in a cycle about bread. Today we will consider manna. We heard most of the story from Exodus last week, and Jesus mentions I again in our passage from St. John’s Gospel today (though we’ll leave “…and they died.” for the time being). You remember the story, right? The Israelites complained that they were starving and would rather be back in their fleshpots in Egypt. The Lord spoke to Moses and next thing you know, “…in the evening quail came up and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew… When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance…” “What is it?” they asked. Moses answered, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” They made cakes out of it and it was good, like honey.
This is a story of economics. Some churches spend a lot of time talking about sex. Who to have sex with or not, how to do it, what to do with the results of sex… big topic. Other churches spend a lot of time on politics, maybe not on who to vote for, but principles and concepts of one persuasion or another. You should have heard this sermon that Windy and I heard when we were in Maine recently… it was the tea party in an alb offering commentary, very negative commentary, on the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. The good preacher checked the sex and politics boxes simultaneously.
There is quite a bit of politics in scripture. Politics of course is just how we organize ourselves, how power and authority is distributed. The adult ed last week was about the time of the Judges, 1200ish BCE, in that amazing 200 year period between when the entered the promised land of Canaan and lived in accordance to the Law of Moses and when Israel abandoned God’s will (and the Law) and made Saul, then David, king. Much of Jesus’ ministry was about pointing out what concerned Caesar, and people, as opposed to what concerned God and how to not get those things confused. So much of what he said was about whose authority was to be heeded… in other words, politics. And across scripture there is a little bit about sex, much of it rather positive, Sarah laughed. Jesus basically taught don’t be a creep (lecherous thoughts are as bad as lecherous actions), and stand by your commitments (his commentary on divorce specifically has a lot of cultural nuance about it). Paul, well he had a few hang ups about sexuality, but mostly he is concerned, really concerned, with how distracting sex can be, and about that he is right on. But as I like to say, Jesus never said anything bad about gay folks and nothing good about rich folks, for the warp and weft of Holy Scripture is the creation, how we live within it and share these gifts of God. It is economics. And if we believe in a creation we believe that it is given, it is a gift, and that changes the calculus of the economy markedly.
There is a lot in scripture about the creation, the material world that we are part and parcel of because it is so hard, life, sharing space and resources. Sharing is incredibly hard to do, be you a three year old with a pile of blocks, or a developer with a pile who owns a couple of blocks downtown… sharing what we’ve been given doesn’t always come very easily to everyone.
Maybe the most shocking thing I have learned about the world through my work with homeless folks is the cold hard fact that if you don’t have property rights, like you don’t own land or have contractual rights to land (a lease of some sort), you have no right to live in this country. I mean you have no right to have a place to sleep, a place to put your things…there is no common space for people to share. If you are too poor to afford a place to live you live only on the generosity of someone else. We are rather benevolent about our land here, the parking lot, but everyone who lives here does so at our pleasure. It is the same at Opportunity Village, a fact that needs pointing out when tensions arise there. Even the vast tracts of land owned by our various governments have strict rules about how long you can be in any given place; in federal forests you get two weeks then you have to pull up chocks and move. If you don’t pay you can’t live. That is shocking because something like 1% of our neighbors can’t, so their very existence is criminalized, their life is a trespass. That is not God’s plan for the gift we were given.
This same economy shocked, or at least dismayed, disturbed and disappointed me in particular on Thursday night. Windy and I curled up for a romantic evening; we were going to watch the debate on line. Well, that didn’t happen because we couldn’t watch the debate because Fox owned it and wasn’t willing to share. We don’t have a TV, hence no cable. The debate was steamed live online, and we do have internet, but to access the live-stream, you had to log in through your cable provider and we pay only for internet, not cable, so we couldn’t. So here is as public interest a thing as you can imagine, a common, a debate between candidates for the highest office in our land, but if you did not have property rights, if you did not pay one privately held company, News Corp., its due, or in the very least (we are not very tech savvy and maybe our internet subscription would have sufficed), in the very least you had to pay for your internet and register and identity yourself as a viewer or you would not have access to the conduct of our political process. There were articles all over the place about how to access it through Fox’s proprietary portal but no commentary on the fact that they restricted access to the conduct of our government for the sole reason of profit. They certainly have the right to make money off of a public event like that, add value, charge a fee to those willing to pay for what ever you add to it, but to restrict access to a common, to public process, whether or not you sponsored or paid to produce the event, any event like this, a debate of once and would-be public leaders… that can’t be owned. It is a common, a public good, it should be shared.
The little story from Exodus is related to this. Manna in the wilderness is not some mythic feeding miracle story about the goodness of God, nor is it a morality tale about trusting God (well, not just those things), it is also and more importantly a lesson, a clear lesson about following simple instructions. And the instructions were very simple: collect only what you need for the day, except on the day before the Sabbath, then you collect enough for two days because work was forbidden on the Sabbath (simple instructions). Now there is a miracle, just follow these simple instructions and your needs will be provided for. (Of course the first thing people did was collect more then they needed and sure enough it was quickly ridden with maggots and went foul). What a piece of work is man. In any case, it worked. After the fits and starts of any new thing, the people of Israel learned that if you follow the will of God, if you participate in the economy of creation and gift as directed, all will be well.
As the years in the wilderness went by, other simple instructions were given by God through Moses to the people. The Ten Commandments were important, but as important, and more specific, was the long and detailed Mosaic code passed on to us through the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And these ideas, the relationships laid out by God through the Law of Moses (the Law Jesus came not to replace but to fulfill) are primarily and most importantly economic relationships.
What are some of the biggest ideas, biggest economic ideas from the law: No usury: no collection of interest (meaning you are forbidden to earn money by simply owning money). Jubilee: in the 50th year, slaves were freed, reposed lands were returned, debts were forgiven. Agricultural commons: leaving the corners to be gleaned, proscribed years for fallowness, Sabbath for the land. These are primary concepts in the Law. That and creating an identity of who Israel was and was to become.
These holy economics have been consolidated by a colleague and teacher of mine, Ched Meyers under an idea called Sabbath Economics. Sabbath Economics can be summed up in three potent axioms. These are Ched’s words:
- The world as created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone – provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within limits;
- Disparities in wealth and power are not “natural” but the result of human sin, and must be mitigated within the community of faith through the regular practice of redistribution (jubilee);
- The prophetic message calls people to the practice of such redistribution, and is thus characterized as “good news” to the poor.
These are not some utopian ideals but are lessons learned and applied by a people coming out of slavery. The abundance of the earth was perverted and corrupted by the militarized slave-holders in Egypt. The fruits of the creation were hoarded by the haves, the 1%, at the expense of have-nots, the vast majority of the population, in particular the slaves. (What is it now, the 1% owns 50% of the world’s wealth and the bottom 50% owns 1%, that’s according to those radical Marxists at Credit Suisse… Some things change, some things don’t). And the good news of liberation that led Israel towards the promised land was in large part the good news of sharing, of community, of redistributing the commonwealth bequeathed to all by God.
The Law of Moses has its issues, there is no doubt about that. They are ancient and we have learned a lot over the past 3000 years, thanks be to God and to God’s continued revelation to us. But when it comes to simple instructions about some of the most basic ways to get along as people in relationship with each other, how to share the ample, though not inexhaustible commons that God freely offers to us, the Law is an indispensable inheritance. Like the words from St. Paul to us from his letter to the church in Ephesus. Put away falsehood, speak truth, “…for we are members of one another.” Work honestly, share with the needy, let no evil words come out of your mouth but “only what is useful for building up…” For we live not just by the bread alone of our economy (they did eat of the manna in the wilderness and they died), but also of the commerce of the heart whereby we are called to live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Too many people are so poor they can’t afford a place to live. Too many of us are excluded from the basic civil process of our civilization. The environment, God’s creation, our birthright has been used and abused and owned and exploited since the Romans stripped the hills of Lebanon of the mighty cedar trees to feed its military machine and out paced their ability to feed and fuel Rome itself, and now we, it, all of it is at the brink of collapse, maybe even past the point of no return all due to our inability to follow simple instructions, our inability to share. Thanks be to God it is never to late to repent and to take another path. AMEN