First thing to notice - shortage. Before this text - the water is bitter. After this text - there is no water. And in this text - no food. Being in the wilderness, being pilgrims - literally “wanderers” - is not a leisurely walk on the Santiago de Compastelo, it is not a romanticized journey. It is a matter of life and death. Thirst and hunger mark the days. And this results in complaining. The people complain. They complain about their leaders. They wonder whose great idea it was in the first place to leave the comforts of Egypt behind. At least there was a pay day. At least there was food on the table. What good is to be liberated if it leads to a slow death in the wilderness? In this location complaint is the norm.
Next thing to notice - complaining against the leaders turns out to be complaining against God. Reminder of the disciples in the gospel texts - as there, so here, the people don’t come off very well. God has just saved them from the oppressive military machine of Pharaoh, answered their cries to be liberated from slavery, sent leaders to bring them out to a land of milk and honey ... and within days they are complaining: “Are we there yet? We’re hungry. Can we go home?” You might expect a wrathful God to have had it with such an ungrateful, whining bunch. You might think they’d just be left to their own devices. But, no, the LORD hears their cries and answers ... first turning the bitter water sweet, later bringing water from the rock and, today, sending bread from heaven in the morning and a flock of quails in the evening.
There is plenty of guessing about what the manna was made of (just look up “manna” on wikipedia). The main thing is - it miraculously came from God and sustained the community until the congregation was in a place where it could live off of the land once more. I expect that the Stewards would call it “pennies from heaven” (or bitcoins). We do face some significant financial challenges in the days ahead ... and one might not be far wrong to notice that the Christian Seasons Calendar is like manna for us. Then again, the search committee might imagine that “manna” will take the form of a rich harvest of strong candidates to become your next congregational minister. And that minister, when called, will be praying for manna in the form of active, committed congregational members. But more crucial than dollars or leaders or members is manna that comes in the form of spiritual energy, passion and conviction burning within our lives and life together ... it is manna in the form of God’s living word - the message at the core of the gospel - that will not let us go, that picks us up when we despair and reminds us that it is not about us, it is about God ... and God will surely provide. It is not just the church that longs for this manna. Many living after being carried across to another shore ... into a long season of wilderness wandering seeking healing from great grief and loss or longing for a world not doomed to environmental collapse or learning to live with the diagnosis that has changed everything.
Coming to trust in God’s providence, to trust that there will be enough each day, each month, each year is, it turns out, a test ... a test of obedience. The LORD says to Moses: “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” And the instructions follow (after the conclusion of the appointed verses in today’s lectionary reading). The first instruction is to collect an omer of manna per person. When they gather some gather more than an omer each and others gather less than an omer. But when they measure it out, “those who gathered much had nothing oveer, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” The second instruction is not to store any for the next day. “But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bread worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them.” It turns out that the people do not only complain when there is a shortage, they also do not trust God to repeat today’s blessing tomorrow. In the wilderness the people are tempted to give up faith in God. As it was then, so it is now.
There is one more instruction. Once a week, on the sixth day, the people gather twice as much manna, ernough so that they will not need to gather manna on the Sabbath. And on this one day each week the stored manna does not become foul and no worms eat it. Sure enough, some of the congregation go looking for manna on the Sabbath day but find none. It causes the LORD to complain to Moses: “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?” Living between slavery and the promise, being on a pilgrimage from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, from the old way of death to Christ’s new way of life, will require learning to live a life of obedience in which we come to trust God at every turn. And in a culture that teaches us to shop til we drop ... a world in which the email never stops, the overtime piles up, and our to do list takes over our life ... it turns out that obeying the command to stop on the Sabbath day in order to do nothing but rest in God lies at the heart of the pilgrim journey. It also happens that in such a non-stop world keeping the commandment to stop is not easy. It is the reason we gather here, pilgrims on the journey, learning to obey the One who sustains and guides us on the way.
Forty years (it means a long time) of being sustained day by day, year by year ... looking ahead I wonder how the church will be sustained through the hardships ahead ... yet I notice the lively energy at VST this year (take a look at the building without a roof and you would be surprised to discover a community living on manna). I expect that one day people will look back at this era in our life together and say “those were the days” ... these are the days. Dayeinu. It is enough.
(Following the sermon the congregation sang "If Our God Had Simply Saved Us" with the chorus repeating the Hebrew word "daiyenu" - meaning "enough".)