Biblical Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Matthew 6:11
This sermon was preached at Massanetta Springs Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center
Hebrew Scripture Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “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, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Gospel: Matthew 6:11 – Give us this day our daily bread.
Good evening friends. May the peace of Christ be with you. What a joy to be in this fantastic place with you all. It is my first time here and I am so grateful for this opportunity to share life with you these (next few) days. So for today and Thursday I’d like for us to think about bread. I am sure you all have preached so many times about bread, but if you don’t mind, I would like us to come back to it again this week. Let me start by saying that I believe that a good sermon is one that bothers us in some ways. I do hope we can be bothered together and continue the conversation during our meals and workshops. Please don’t shut down. Listen and engage, and then, agree and/or disagree with me. A sermon is only a seed, a provocation, and it demands a transformation both of the preacher and of those who hear it.
Let me say that this sermon is about bread. However, it might about complaining. Or, better said, it is about bread via complaining, wilderness, injustice and racism. Thus, the idea here is that we cannot get to bread if we don’t deal with all this issues in this text and in our context. So let us start.
The gospel for us today is Jesus praying to God, saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Give us this day our daily bread. “ When I think about the daily aspect of this prayer, I think about the omer, the unit of measurement people used in the desert. The omer was an apparatus, an instrument that measured what each family needed for each day, no more, no less.
But when I think about daily bread, I think about what sustains us daily in life. When we talk about bread, we are talking about the most substantial thing we can have in order to live.
When Jesus mentions this line, he is remembering Deuteronomy 8: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and that very notion of daily bread comes from the experience of daily sustenance given by God in the desert.
So, life is made of these two things: daily and bread. Both very complex things. For when we think about daily, we think about today, but when we think about today, we have to engage past and future. And yet, the past, while still here with us, is gone. And the future, while already with us, is yet to come. In both cases, past and future must be dealt with here, today, and daily.
And when we think about bread and give us our daily brad, we must remember what Jesus reminded us: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Because bread, any bread, is related to Jesus, the bread of life; is related to the word of God, and the word of God is about love and justice, mercy and peace. Hence, bread never comes alone! For any bread comes with hopes, with demands, with a way of living.
Bread and the dailiness of our lives are all entangled together in a much larger and complex scheme of things to which we pastors must attend. The ways we eat our bread daily depend on the political shape of things, on a certain structure of power, of inclusions and exclusions. For the bread to arrive at our table, a lot of political and economic exchange must have already happened. But let us go to the Exodus story.
The daily bread in Jesus’ prayer is deeply connected with the quails and manna of the Exodus story, where the Jews were complaining about lack of really good food. The daily bread for the Hebrew people is more than bread alone. It is about a difficult way of living, one lived in the wilderness, one of insecurities, absences and uncertainties. It is because of these experiences in the desert that Deuteronomy can finally say, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The word of God neither precludes bread nor equates it with the only thing in life.
Our story begins with murmurs and complaints. And I must confess: right at the outset, as I read the story, I felt myself immediately annoyed by the fact that the people were murmuring. I was thinking: God has taken them away from slavery and oppression and here they are already complaining?!
God spoke to them, showed them all these miracles, and they are still complaining? And complaining about meat? Shouldn’t they be happy with their daily bread? How arrogant they are!
As I got angry, I had to read the text again and again, and read other things as well. Slowly, I started to realize a few things:
First, they were in the freaking desert! And a life in the desert is a very hard one. They had no comfort, they had gone thirsty already; now they are going hungry and they don’t know it yet, but they will be attacked very soon. Oh, what a deliverance huh? The process of deliverance didn’t come all at once, but it was a process of change, a movement of transformation.
Second, I had to think of the lousy leadership they had. When the leaders hear their complaints, they say, “Well, we have nothing to do with it; your complaint is with God.”
Third, I realized that the people only got what they wanted, because they complained. “I heard your cries says the Lord.”
So, when I thought about my own feelings of being annoyed by the complaints of the Hebrew people, I very soon realized that the way I was annoyed by their murmurs and complaints was the same way I reacted to the riots in Baltimore after the violent death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man killed by the police. So let me first share how I had to engage this event with my students before we go to the reading of the Bible.
When violence exploded in Baltimore, what we saw in the news were furious and condescending reports about the anger of black people on the streets.
We heard, “Oh yes, the brutality of the police was unacceptable, but that does not justify the anger of the black people on the streets setting fire to houses and even destroying a CVS pharmacy. This is not how people should behave! They should go through the proper systems of justice to change things.” Rhetoric quickly moved from addressing the violence of the police to the violence of black people. In the same way, I turned my frustrations from God to the people, and blamed them for their complaints and sense of entitlement.
A class one day at McCormick helped me realize what I was doing That week, my black students in the class were going through a rough time”?On the one hand, they were in distress and scared to live in this country, and on the other hand, they were so bombarded with this massive white media accusing black people of being violent that even they were critical of the black folks.
So we had to go through a process of rethinking the whole thing. First, we had to talk about the fact that this particular situation is only one among many disturbing incidents, including Ferguson, New York, and the death of Sandra Bland, that viscerally mark the attack on black people in this country. A massive, constant, systemic attack on black people over the course of the last 300 years.
Then, we had to talk about who our leaders are. Who are they? Almost all white millionaires and billionaires. Oh yes, we have a black president, that is for sure. But having a black president hasn’t changed much in this country.
Then we had to talk about processes of justice being in the hands of white people and how it makes it impossible for blacks to have almost any justice in this country. We had to talk about the absolute evil aspects of what we call law, because often laws are crafted to protect the wealthy and a certain white high-class society.
Then we had to talk about the violence on the streets: about that fact that, while it was perhaps not the best way to respond, it was still a legitimate way of doing so, because it was black people’s own way of showing how this white system of injustice perpetrates structural oppression against them and gives them very few ways to act and react.
And yet, their complaints and murmurs have not been answered, so they must continue to riot and revolt until things change. We read together Martin Luther King’s meaning of riots:
(Photo: @RickBooneFox5DC / Twitter)
…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
We finished our long discussion when we were able to say, “I’d rather be with the oppressed people, even when they are wrong, than with those who have the right and are on the side of the powerful.”
This way of reading reality illuminated my way of reading the biblical story. First of all, I had to see that the Hebrew people had every right to complain. But before we go on, let us say that the problem of complaining is often twofold: first, it seems that in our faith, we do deal well with complaints against God or actually. Hebrew/Jewish people are free to say whatever they want to God. Just look at Job saying things to God, demanding justice! However, as Christians, we secretly love when God scolds Job for his arrogance. Second, the problem with murmurs is that most white folks in this country can’t deal with conflict. Engaging differences is very hard; we become scared. We tend to dismiss perspectives that are different from ours.
So, this way of being tends to feed our interpretation of the Bible. It makes us want to get rid of conflict here by scolding the Hebrew people for complaining and murmuring to God. They should know better! This same dynamic would make us take the side of Moses and Aron. Surely we will say that the problem is with the people, not their leaders.
Isn’t it the same way we react to black people’s complaints? “We the church of Christ have nothing to do with the racism and problems of black people. Go complain to the politicians; we are not racists.”
We easily forget that black people are living in the wilderness in this country, a place those who are not black can’t measure or imagine. Our first reaction is to remove ourselves from the picture, to say I am not like that. The problem is that when we try to avoid the issue, we keep its dynamics alive.
What kind of a leader are you? God prevent us from being colorblind leaders of a nation that is killing black people on a massive scale”?. Let us pray so God can provide leaders of this nation who won’t be chickens in this situation like Moses and Aaron were in theirs. Let us instead go to God and say, “God! The complaints of black people in the wilderness is also our problem. And we will murmur day and night with them until you help us find a place of justice for our black brothers and sisters. We are responsible for this situation as well, and we want your help so we can stand with those living in the wilderness until we find the daily bread of your love, and the daily meat of your justice!”
Just as we stand in solidarity with the Hebrew people in that desert story, we must side with black people as well. The Hebrew people were living in the wilderness, a life between places. They were also going through a process of forming a new identity They were shifting from a life lived in oppression, serving a cruel master, to live now under the guidance and sustenance of God.
However, old habits die hard. This experience was a way of God creating memory in the flesh of their hearts and bodies.
For that, God manifests Godself to them: “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord.” This memory would help them leave the illusions of an idealized past and build a future that was promised to them. In this way, they were learning how to live into this new identity.
An identity that is marked by a God who gives them daily bread, daily meat and daily love. An identity marked by the fact that their agency and murmurs and complaints changed the heart of God and consequently their situations. We learn with them that murmurs and complaints are necessary things! It was a way of getting closer to God. They complained, and God heard their cry. “Draw near to the Lord, for God has heard your complaining.” They were called not to forget the benefits they have received from God.
The Hebrew people had their prayers answered by God and God gave them a portion of the manna and meat everyday. They were taught to live daily, with daily portions of bread and meat and not to accumulate food. They had to live by the Omer, measuring their daily needs. No more, no less. The Omer was a measurer of justice and a symbol of God’s fairness!
But now imagine if we in this country had an Omer for our society!!! That wouldn’t work. What we all have inside of our houses could be shared with at least 20 families. Our garages are filled with junk, our refrigerators and freezers have food to feed a whole village, we have A/C at our disposal, we can go eat mostly anywhere we want, we have several cars, we use 45% of the globe’s natural resources, and we think we are entitled to all that. We offer no complaint until what we want is not available anymore. We are all hoarders and an Omer, a measurer of limits wouldn’t work well for us. We think we are entitled to all that we have. Isn’t it God’s blessings? Our Omer is: the more we have the more blessed we are! Had we have a God’s Omer in this country there should be no poor or such thing as the richest 1%! If the rich are getting too much, that means that most people are not getting enough.
In the wilderness, the Hebrew people demanded to live a better life because they were promised a better life. Black people, still in the wilderness, must also demand a just way of living in this country which also includes food! There is a deep tie between bread and justice for the Hebrews and black populations. Both groups struggle to have food! No meat for the Jewish people then and no vegetables and fresh fruit around the black neighborhoods now.
The Hebrew people have given us a great tool of resistance: complain! We all must go to the streets and demand change and bread and justice! For everyone should have the same amount of bread and justice. That is what makes our stories balanced.
The daily portion of food was both God’s manifestation to the people and the ways in which a family must measure its daily need. The omer was a sacrament. It provided a way of measuring what was necessary for life and a reminder that in God’s presence, there must be limits for all of us. The omer was then a visible sign of an invisible AND very visible grace of God!
So I finish by challenging you with couple of things:
First, we need a theology of complaint! We learn from the Hebrew people AND the black people how to complain about their situation. They won’t let us off of the hook! The Hebrew people are the people of the prophetic and the Black Church in US heirs of that tradition. They have developed their lives under the fragments of the Biblical prophetic, and have made kept their lives by the sustenance of the promises and assurances and challenges of the prophetic. The prophetic is God’s voice of justice and peace and love, in this order! The prophetic is that which keeps us alive!
We heard the voice of John, in James Baldwin’s “Go tell it on the Mountain,” how the prophetic is so integral to the black community that it is now its own indigenous voice. As he describes a worship service in a Harlem’ storefront church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized:
Down at the crossroads where my savior died, or Jesus I will never forget how you set me free, or Lord hold my hand while I run this race. They sang with all the strength they had in them and clap their hands for joy. There has never been a time when John watched the saints rejoice with terror in his heart and wonder. Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord. Indeed it was no longer a question of belief because they made that presence real. He did not feel it himself the joy they felt but he could not doubt that it was for them, the very bread of life. He could not doubt that is, it until it was too late to doubt. Something happened to their faces into their voices, the rhythm of their bodies into the air they breathed. It was as though wherever they might be became the Upper Room and the Holy Ghost was riding on the air. His father’s face, awful face became more awful now. His father daily anger was transformed into a prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyes raised to heaven, hands arched before her, moving, made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering which he had read in the Bible, and found so hard to imagine.
See the same thing also with the Palestinians and their right to complain, to murmur, to fight, to thrown stones to protect themselves and end the uttermost brutal colonization that is trying to decimate them.
So we are up to create a theology of Murmur and Complaint! Just for a quick beginning:
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that sees God as the bread of life daily!
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that turns any space into a Upper Room.
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that connects life in the Upper Room and the daily life into the same place which happens to collapse two shocking realities!
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that turns daily anger into prophetic rage.
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that does not let God go off the hook if God had promised a better place to live.
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that does not let the powers that be and white supremacy go off the hook for there must be justice running like a might river!
A theology of complaint and murmur cries out to God! It shouts, it sings, it begs, it praises, it names, it involves the reality of the black people with the reality of God’s promises.
A theology of complaint and murmur is one that will stay on the streets day in and day out.
A theology of complaint and murmur will work with black, natives, brown, yellow and white people to dismantle white supremacy!
A theology of complaint and murmur will not care about the complaints of white supremacists for that murmuring is an evil sound of oppression and destitution and death. These kinds of complaints will be shut down. With justice, with peace and with love.
A theology of complaint and murmur will not trust in leaders who are not with the people in solidarity, leaders who are afraid of talking about systems of injustice, leaders who want the forefront of protests but sale their souls to the media and some appearance.
A theology of complaint and murmur will go after those who maintain this system of injustice take them down from their places of privilege and arrogance.
A theology of complaint and murmur cannot and will not be rushed! It will keep on murmuring and complaining and annoying everyone until justice and peace and love, in this order, happens in this society!
A theology of complaint and murmur will keep screaming until we all have fleshpots and can eat our fill of bread.
A theology of complaint and murmur will have an Omer as the apparatus of justice until everyone will have the same possibilities of dignity of life in life!
A theology of complaint and murmur will help us raise our eyes to heaven, hands arch our hands, moving, making it real for all the world our (lack of) patience, our demand for endurance, until we end this long suffering.
Finally, a theology of complaint and murmur will draw near God! Always, will draw near God!
I pray that we all learn how to complain and murmur with the Jewish and the black people. Next time you hear the murmurs and complaints of poor and black people, remember that God is drawing closer to them and not necessarily to us.
As a leader, don’t be like Moses and Aron, but instead say, “God! Their complaints are ours as well! They don’t have justice, so we don’t, either. They don’t have peace, so we don’t either. Delete our names from the book of privileges if the poor don’t get signed into this book as well.”
And when you look around your city, pay attention to those who cannot have their daily bread of justice and love. Remember the sacrament of the omer! Measure others by the way you measure yourself. So no one should have less or more of anything than you do! That commandment is something like “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Yes indeed, bread never comes alone! As we understand the full complexity of the daily bread, we shall pray again, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
May God feed us and the poor with bread and meat! Amen!