Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Where is my Manna? by Chris Shade

Today we are talking about finding grace in providence. But what is providence? Well here are some quick facts about providence to help clarify.
·      Providence is the capital of Rhode Island and is the 37th largest city in America.
·      It is known largely for its silverware and jewelry industry.
·      It was ranked by Travel and Leisure in 2012 as the best food city in the U.S.
·      So if you want to find grace, pack your bags, because it exactly 3065 miles to Providence.
Seriously though, Providence RI is an important city in the history of the American Baptists. Roger Williams, a Baptist, founded Providence and the oldest Baptist church in America. He named it in honor of "God's merciful Providence" which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven to him and his followers. And that is the kind of providence, God’s merciful Providence, that we are talking about today.

But I am going to take you back before Roger Williams, before our parable even, all the way back to the time of Joshua.

Imagine this: You are a member of the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. You have left Egypt and are traveling to the promised land. Every day is the same. You wake up and you go out and collect manna. Now you are not quite sure what manna is. All that you know is that it shows up every morning, it is tasty, it is nourishing, and oh yeah, it comes from God. It is physical, touchable, palpable proof of God’s providence. It is proof that God is caring from you and protecting you from starvation. And every day is the same. You get up, you collect manna, you eat it, and you go to bed. Every day.
         Until one day. That fateful day. You get up, you go out, and there is no more manna. You think to yourself, where is my manna? Has God abandoned me? Maybe my neighbors have manna. So you go ask them. But they do not have manna either. There isn’t any anywhere. Has God abandoned everyone? Where is the manna, you wonder. You think back to previous days. Perhaps you all have done something to anger God, to fall out of God’s favor. What could it be? You had just finished celebrating the Passover, remembering the glorious deliverance from Egypt. You celebrated by eating unleavened cakes to remind you of the food that your ancestors ate when they left Egypt. They had to flee is such a hurry that they did not have time to wait for the bread to rise. You also celebrated by eating the produce that you had gotten from the land. Could that be it? Was God angry that you helped yourself? Oh, how you long for some good ole fashioned manna.
         This was the case of the Hebrews in the scripture that Emrys read for us today. It is a bit of a strange isolated text thrown in the middle of Joshua between a circumcision story and the battle of Jericho (no joke, I could not make this up if I wanted to.) One day, the manna just stopped and the people ate from the earth from then on. It makes one wonder if anyone felt slighted by God. After all they had this very tangible, real physical proof of God’s providence and then it vanished. I would not be surprised if some of the Hebrews felt abandoned by God and felt a longing for God’s care.
         If the Hebrew Scriptures are any indication, the Hebrew people have had a history of longing for God’s presence. You need to look no further than the psalms.
Psalm 63 that we read together last week.
You, God, are my God,  
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.
Psalm 42
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
This sense of longing is present in the psalms and the prophets and carries into the time of Jesus. Jesus tells the parable that we read this morning, not out of the blue, but because his audience would understand the plight of the younger brother. 
         Like the Hebrews who were blessed with manna, the younger brother in this story was blessed as well. He never wanted for anything. But, he was curious. He wanted to see what it was like in the big city. So he left. He wanted to live life to the fullest and experience all that the world had to offer. Rich food. Strong drink. The company of women. But pretty soon, his reliance on himself lost its luster. Once the money was gone, the great life went with it. The rich food – eaten; the strong drink – drunk; and the women – gone. He finds himself in the lowest of the low: feeding pigs, unclean, sacrilegious pigs. He is hungry. He is tired. He thought that he could do it on his own, but he came up short. And he longs for the time when he was awash in providence. Like the Hebrews longing to have back their manna, he longs for the time when he was under his father’s care. His longing is all that fills his belly. He wants to go home.
         I understand this journey. As a fresh faced 18 year-old I felt the call of the big city. I moved from my modest house in the suburbs of San Jose to the Big Apple, New York City...sight myself. Though I did not have the same kind of agenda as the brother in our story, I was young and na├»ve. I was foolish enough to think that I could make this kind of jump on my own and that I did not need anyone. And like the brother, I discovered that I was wrong. Now, I did not end up in squalor feeding pigs, but I did end up feeling a sense of longing.
It was not that I did not love living in New York, because I did. And it was not that I was simply homesick, though I was. No this longing was much deeper. Back in California I had a church family and a support system, and religious practices and closeness with God. And in New York I did not have that. I did not belong to a church. I had left my spiritual disciplines at home in California. And I missed it. I missed the closeness that I felt with God. I missed the blessing of God’s providence, the feeling that God was caring for me and protecting me. To use the metaphor from earlier, I missed the manna.
         So one Sunday morning I left my apartment and took a walk. I had intended to walk down about 20 blocks to a church I knew. I made it a block and a half when I came across Madison Avenue Baptist Church. From the moment I sat down, I knew that I was home. They welcomed me with open arms, with genuine kindness, and with joy and laughter. I was home.
         The brother in our parable today had a similar experience. As he sat there in the mud with the pigs feeling as low as a human can feel, he remembered that his father’s workers fared better than he was doing now. Maybe he could go back and convince his father to let him just work on the property. Maybe he could get back a tiny portion of the life that he once knew. So he got up and left. And as we all know, the father runs out to meet him. He hikes up his robe to move faster, and when he gets to the younger brother he throws his arms around him. He welcomes him gladly. The brother is home.
         At this point we must question why is Jesus telling this parable? What does his audience have to gain by hearing it? Well remember, this is the same crowd that also has heard of the story of the manna being taken away. They have heard of the psalms of longing. Not to mention, they have been overcome by the Romans. They are defeated. They are occupied. They long for God’s presence with them, for God’s protection. They long for God’s providence. Jesus is telling them that God’s providence is there. It has always been there. All they need do is look for it. And it is not just present. It is abundant. The parable says that the father held a giant feast for the returned son. He killed the fattened calf. He gave him a robe and a ring and made him a part of the family again.
         (SLOWLY) But what does this parable mean for us? Well, are we so different from the audience of Jesus? Have you ever wanted to feel the presence and the providence of God? Have you ever strayed from home spiritually? Gotten lost? Wondered if God was still there? Have you ever felt the sense of longing that is present in our stories today? Have you ever looked to the sky and wondered, where is my manna?
         The good news of the message today is that it is not too late. God’s presence, God’s care, God’s providence is available to us. It is always available. And it is abundant. Like the father, God waits for us to return with welcome and open arms. Picture it like this: We are like trapeze artists swinging back and forth, dangling upside down, wondering where to go next. If we would only look up, we would see that God has been swinging in front of us this whole time, arms outstretched, waiting for us to grab on. We only need to reach out, offer our hand, and God will bring us home.  And the people sad Amen

The hymn, Precious Lord, is one that comes from the kind of place that we have been talking about this morning. It is a hymn of longing and of need. And it speaks of God’s ever present grace. As we enter into a time of prayer, let us sing together hymn number 472 Precious Lord, Take My Hand. 

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