Sermon: Im-Manna-uel, What is it?! Exodus 16:2-15
Rev. Ha Na Park
Hunger. It is real, physical hunger – extreme hunger. This slave community – “the whole assembly”, adult women and men and children, freshly escaped from Egypt – has been walking, running away, and wandering without eating for days – they are tired. Starving. Cranky. Complaining. Crying out. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt! Moses, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” They have made a grand departure from Egypt – the “exodus” at the sea of reeds – to seek freedom, to seek liberation, to seek hope to reach the “promised land”, only to find themselves in the middle of nowhere, and hungry – very hungry.
Can you think of a time when you were very hungry? I remember one time, in Mongolia. I joined my University’s religious study research trip to meet Shamans in remote, towns in Mongolia. When my group finally reached one very remote town, where young boys ran their horses across the vast, endless open green hills, guests were welcomed with traditional warm goat cheese and milk. Honestly, (and I regret it now) I couldn’t eat more than two pieces of cheese, and I couldn’t drink the milk. Our group didn’t carry anything to eat; we were solely dependant on what they would offer. I decided to starve. I just couldn’t eat any of their food, even when they offered us a feast with lamb. When my group visited where the feast would be offered for us by the town people, the lamb, which was killed with careful hands to spare its suffering and make use of the whole body (nothing is wasted), … the lamb was put in a big cooking pot which was placed above the fire-hot stones. Literally, the lamb only, in the pot. No water. No salt. Nothing was added. (there’s literally nothing edible on the remote Mongolian hills, yet the people are happy) I just couldn’t eat it because of the smell, and taste. So I starved for three days.
Mine was a chosen hunger, a stupid choice – if I can choose the s word here – but hunger is an embodied experience, a great equalizer. If there’s no food available, everyone has to go through it – the cry of a hungry baby reflects the same desperate need as the cry of a hungry wolf cub. Hunger is crisis.
In our faith tradition, hunger as real, embodied experience of crisis and injustice also becomes an important metaphor for our spiritual hunger. Spiritual hunger is also a real, embodied experience. In spiritual hunger, we seek or start a journey where we try to separate ourselves from the world of false images, false truth in order to move into the world of communion in our true being. To live and resurrect in love, meaning and truth, … “Every day.” We have this spiritual hunger. And we have known, from our experiences, that this spiritual hunger can save us or destroy us. Three months ago, I was spiritually wrecked. Then, I realized I had resisted acknowledging my spiritual hunger. I confessed that I needed to recollect myself and rebuild my spiritual self. This honest acknowledgment led me to ask the question: what did I really need to sustain myself? What sustains us? What sustains community? I am sure that at some point in our lives, we all ask similar questions – and the search for answers has led us to come to gather for worship, study, and work here at Immanuel.
In our Bible story, “Wilderness” is a geographical location. It means an area “Without visible evidence of life-sustaining resources” such as water, bread or meat. In our faith, this wilderness story invites us to see the wilderness also as a spiritual, imagined location in our lives, in our world. The exodus story calls us to engage with an act of imagination, such as… “Where are we, as the slave community that has made a departure from domination and oppression but have not yet reached the promised land? How do we, free and hungry seekers, exist in this messy, miraculous time and space, still seeking, still hungry, and free? How do we experience God in this, our, middle, in-between, “not-yet” place of wilderness?”
We confess that God sustains those whom God has delivered, but where are we with God now?
In today’s story, God hears the people’s complaints. God hears the people’s outcry. Then, God says to Moses, tell them “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day… At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”
It is very interesting to note that manna means “Not bread.” God has clearly said it is bread, it is going to be bread but it was not!, When the people found this fine flaky substance, as fine as frost, on the ground, they said to each other, not bread! “What is it!?” “What?” So, playing on words – people call it “mah-na.” meaning “What?!” The most “authentic” or realistic translation ends up with,
“What the heck!”,
a phrase which my older son loved to use after he learned it three years ago from other kids; his immigrant parents learned that expression for the first time from their child.
Then, ok, it is what the heck, but the question, “What is Manna, anyways?” – which rained down as ‘the bread from heaven’” – inspired many scholars to investigate to find what it was.
When I took a Learning on Purpose course at The Center for Christians Studies last summer, Janet Ross told her students that manna was quail’s poop! Or, at least, the poop of sea birds. It is quite obvious from the reading of verse 13, “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was…” manna! There are also records which tell us that in the middle East, certain sea birds come to the land. People who are lost in the desert find that seabird’s poop and their droppings have nitrate that will sustain a person.
So the point of the ‘What is Manna’ question is, (quite funny to think that what is manna question is really asking what is what…) that what sustains us is the unexpected. And it is not just that the unexpected was surprising.
More than just surprising. Something yucky, something disgusting, something painful, something hard to swallow, something we want to avoid turning into food, something sustaining. The point is that something disgusting may end up being nutritious. God likes using Paradox and Irony, God uses them in our lives, only waiting for us to really see what our manna is, and ask what we can do really about it with faith.
It is a great lesson for us to think about when we are in spiritual hunger, when we are spiritually, physically, emotionally, hungry, when we engage with new discoveries, or hard truth.
When we go through embodied hunger experiences, how will we open ourselves up to think through, to live through, to pray about formation and reformation of our true being? In these moments of deep hunger we are invited to think and act in the presence of God.
Last Sunday, I shared with you the message that the real miracle is not water, or not the dry ground which disappears so quickly; it is the people who entered the sea as free people. In today’s story, the real miracle is not Manna, the “fine flaky” substance, as fine as frost. Manna was the unexpected gift from nature – there was no supernatural miracle. It is just how we find ourselves as part of the earth, humbly accepting – when we need the sustaining power from nature, the earth, God, and God says, indeed, “the whole Earth is mine”! All things are in God and God is in all things.
If then, what is the real miracle? I suggest that the transformation of perception may be the miracle (the original idea comes from Janet): Being transformed with our renewed sense and perception about what is holy, where God is, who we are with God, how we will live in this world and ‘what questions’ we carry with us may be the miracle.
Creating a Manna community which works differently from the way the world works, (from corporation model to communion model, for example, where scarcity of resources does not create domination, oppression and inequality) may be a miracle. In a Manna community, we ask and see what is truly sustaining, what we really need if we want to eat, engage, and embody that which is going to transform into good food for the world.
God has called us to be the beloved, chosen community of Yahweh
who knows God,
who knows the gift of freedom,
who is eager and strives to learn together in community that
“Anytime we do the work of love, we are doing work to end dominations.” (Bell Hooks)
and to live and resurrect in love, truth and communion, … “every day”, not just on Sundays.
With God, and in God, we live in non-linear time – not straight, but non-linear, detour, queer, strange, or unusual time. True “promised land” time is never in the “present”, always “beyond.” Always “beyond.” Utopia is always in the future. It is not just in the future, though, it’s also always in the past – in the imagined past of a perfect, beautiful world – the garden of Eden.
We always find ourselves in the middle place and time – the messy, miraculous, middle time. Manna time (“What the heck” time).That is our time. Our place, every day, in our community, Immanuel: Im-Manna-uel, hungry, seeking, fed, free church.
God allows us to play on words, because God knows God likes to do it, right!?
To finish up, I’ll finish my story which was unfinished in the middle of this message: I was spiritually wrecked last Spring. I asked, “Am I alive? What – Manna – is it that I am going through?” I asked those questions. Now, in Immanuel, every day, I see that every cell of my mind, body, spirit is healed, upright now to live, to be alive, and I come into leaf, the green leaves of one, happy spiritual self. May we be the presence that inspires our neighbours, our city, our world to come into leaf, the green leaves to know their true being in our, communion, Manna world.