Year C, Lent IV
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
March 10, 2013
“…the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.”
Last week we spoke about repent and return, right? We spoke about the Kingdom of God being simply how things are supposed to be, right? We are called to repent of our sinful ways and return to the way things are supposed to be, return from exile from the kingdom of God. The real question is what is it supposed to look like, this Kingdom of God? We are called to return from our posture of consent to, of complicity in, of collaboration with forces of idolatry, gluttony and avarice that rule our 21st century American lives; the call to return from that life is as clear as it was in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as Jesus. But where is it we are returning to? What does that kingdom of God look like? How is it supposed to be? That is our Lenten question this morning which finds its voice right there in our lectionary this morning.
The book of Joshua is the story of the conquest of Canaan. In the wake of Moses’ death, God gives command of Israel to Joshua. It is a tough book, lots of smiting and really reinforces a manifest destiny narrative for Israel in the Levant that is still hideously unresolved. In any case, that’s where our lectionary leads us, to the first celebration of Passover in Canaan and the end of the rain of manna.
What was manna? Right, bread from heaven. In the Exodus story, Israel escapes from Pharaoh and the people find themselves starving in the desert and they began to have nostalgia for “…the land of Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” God heard their cries and through Moses declared, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread.” So from that day forth, for all forty years of the Exodus, quail covered the camps in the evening, and in the morning, as the dew lifted, a manna was left on the ground. It was “as fine as frost” (Ex 16:14) or like “coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (Ex 16:31) Enough meat and bread for everyone; the way it is supposed to be. And, of course, it coming from God via Moses, there were rules.
Does anyone remember the rules of manna? Rule one: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs.” (Ex 16:16) Pretty simple. Take as much as you need. Rule two: “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” (Ex 16:19) Do not accumulate. Do not hoarde. What happened when they tried to store it? “it bred worms and became foul.” (Ex 16:20) Have faith that God will provide. And rule three: Keep the Sabbath. “Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” (Ex 16:23) Miraculously, on the Sabbath, the seventh day, the manna did not turn foul when kept overnight. Sabbath is key. In the words of Ched Meyer, with whom I studied two weeks ago, “Sabbath observation means to remember every weekthis economy’s two principles: the goal of ‘enough’ for everyone, and the prohibition of accumulation.” Take what you need. Don’t accumulate. Observe the Sabbath. To sum it up, abundance is a gift from God, it is the true nature of things that there is enough for everyone AND, self-limitation is the appropriate response to such a divine gift. A Sabbath economy is part and parcel to the kingdom of God. It is there that we are called to return.
“Great idea, Fr. Brent. Manna. There’s there’s solution to the hunger problem in Oregon.” True, manna in its pure form is scarce. It is not traded on the Chicago mercantile exchange. But that is the very point. Our world is not commodifiable, actually. It is not ownable; not really, or at least really not in the kingdom of God. God’s plan is not to carve up the earth for the strongest, the most aggressive and competitive to accumulate more than they can possibly use while others do not have what they need. It is that world that we need to repent and return from. An economy of Sabbath; that is where we need to return to.
The conference I went to was all about Sabbath economics. This is an economy that is based on the principles of gift and limit. There is abundance, enough for everyone. Moving at the pace of the Sun, there is food, clean water, clean air, space for everyone. Even with nine billion of us, there is enough of everything necessary for everyone to live if we all just got along and shared of the abundance. No, the world cannot consume like we do in Eugene 2013, there is distinctly not enough for that, but there is enough that no one need starve to death, or freeze to death, or die of thirst. You see, disparities of the order of magnitude in the world are not natural, but rather are the result of human sinfulness. Wealth disparities are are anthropological aberrations. It does not happen like this in nature, that 1% of a population controls 50+% of the wealth. The phenomenon of the 1% is unique to humanity, but at least we are consistent. If we read the Gospels closely, Occupy’s critique of the 1% in our day mirrors Jesus Christ’s critique of the 1% in His, which mirrors the critique of the prophets 500 years before that. And the solution that Jesus Christ offers is the solution that Moses offered, which is what God offers: jubilee. When shared, there is enough. Vast disparities of wealth through improper accumulation are not part of God’s plan but are the result of human sinfulness, and the solution is jubilee, the redistribution of the abundance gifted to us by God. I said it: the redistribution of wealth, the jubilee, this is God in Christ’s economic plan. I fear that Jesus’ political career would be short in modern day America talking like that, but He does talk like that, and if we are going to be serious about following Jesus Christ, we need to pay attention.
God’s plan for the Israelites was simple, the wandering for 40 years was to purge the Israelites of the habits of the fleshpots of Egypt. The duration of 40 years was key. In 800 BCE when this all takes place, 40 years was the far end of life expectancy. So after 40 years, the first hand experience of slavery was going to be aged out of Israel, that is why Moses had to die before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, that land was not for him, but for the children. 40 years away from the concentration of wealth, of man’s dominion over humans, over animals and plants and rivers and soils. And over the course of that 40 years, they lived in a Sabbath economy. Every day their life was sustained by the gift of God’s grace: manna and quail with water occasionally pouring forth from rocks. 40 years… the lazy habits of empire broke on the rocks of God’s hesed, steadfast love. Israel was prepared to enter the Promised Land and to practice the Sabbath Economy they had been trained in, so on that day, in the midst of that first Passover, the manna was to cease and they ate of the crops of Canaan. With the tools they had acquired in the wilderness and backed up by the Law, usuary, the collection of interest was forbidden, the Sabbath every 7th day, every 7th year, and in the years 7 times 7, the 49thyear, the year of our Lord’s favor, the proclamation of jubilee. All debts were forgiven, all accumulated land was returned to its rightful owners, all indenturedness ceased. Israel was living the dream.
Well, they lived the Sabbath economy for a while, maybe a few of hundred years. By the time the prophets are writing in the Babylonian exile, 500ish, they are primarily decrying the destruction of Israel in terms of their distance from jubilee, in their participation in Empire, in accumulating wealth, in placing faith in the 1%. We here, we don’t have forty years to clean up this mess. Climate-wise alone, the past 100 years raised the globe’s temperature 1.3 degrees, something it took 5000 years to do of its own volition. How much warmer will it get in the next 40 the way things are? But we don’t have 40 years. Fortunately, we don’t need 40 years. We know the truth when we see it, we know right from wrong when we see it, and it is right here. The kingdom of God is at hand for those with the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, the voice to proclaim it.
Our story of repentance, of the repentance required of us, very specifically us in this room is specifically the story of the Prodigal Son. This is a uniquely Lukan story, and we all know it. There are two brothers, one cashes in his inheritance and “squandered it in dissolute living.” He ends up broke and starving and humbly returns home, where to his surprise he is joyously welcomed by his father because to him, “…this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The trusty, devoted, stay at home brother is not impressed with his whore mongering brother’s return and the grandiosity of his welcome, but the father explains, “…he was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” And then they dug into that fatted calf at the feast.
That is our story. We are a wasteful and spiteful people; a prodigal people. We have squandered the earth, our inheritance. Talk about dissolute living. But every day, every moment of every day we have the choice, the chance to do it different. And God in Christ is there, waiting, waiting with infinitely wide and eternal patient arms to welcome us as we return from our sleep walking, our blindness, our death to the kingdom of God. There is enough for everyone. Disparity is not God’s plan. God’s plan is Jubilee, redistribution. Repent and return to this brave new world. Now that is a Lenten message we can sink our teeth into. AMEN