Sunday, October 01, 2006

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11.4ff
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

Mark 9.38ff
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Some of the best cooking involves searching the cupboards for whatever you have and creating something tasty. My grandmother, I am told, did this on an even larger scale when she was the cook at a company cafeteria. The most anticipated meal was Friday’s meat pie, a wonderful melange in a tasty crush. It was only after my father married my mother that he learned that his mother-in-law the cook simply threw all the leftovers for the week together to create the filling for the delicious pie. I’m sure there’s some important moral to be drawn from this story, but I’m probably too close to see it.

Now, with the power of the internet, you can go to any number of websites, enter the ingredients you have on hand, and presto, you have a recipe! The reason I share all this is the exciting list of ingredients found in Numbers 11. The Israelites are wandering in the desert and given to complaining. “Manna, again?” is the familiar refrain as the people remember happier times around the “fleshpots” of Egypt. “Manna, always manna…there is nothing to look at but this manna.” But at least one of the writers of Numbers had a culinary arts diploma on her resume. You can hear it in the wonderful but completely extraneous explanation of manna:

Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its colour was like the colour of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.

It almost reads like a defense for manna. Who could refuse “cakes baked in oil”? But refuse they did. Instead they recited the ingredient list of the so-called happier times in Egypt when their diet was fish, cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks and garlic. Sounds delicious, right? Is it cruel to preach about food right before lunch? Back to the power of the internet, I added the list to my online recipe generator and came up with “Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper.” No wonder they were pining for the old days back in Egypt. Who wouldn’t trade their freedom for Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper. If I was the kind of minister who did sermon titles, you can bet I would call this one “Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper.”

But I don’t do sermon titles. But I will try to link manna, red snapper, the exodus, casting out demons, liberation, lepers, communion and my grandmother’s cooking in the next ten minutes. Here we go.


John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Healing is liberation. If you have ever had the experience of overcoming some debilitating condition, you will know the relief and the sense of release that comes with it. While the most common metaphor for facing illness is “fighting,” the most common way to express healing is the language of freedom. Freedom from pain, freedom from stigma, freedom from the compromises that illness brings. Jesus brought healing but he also brought freedom.

Freedom, of course, is infectious. As soon as people became aware that Jesus was healing in the name of God, they wanted to get in on it. And the disciples, in their usual role of having to ask the dumb questions, say ‘should we stop the others who are casting out demons in your name?’ The answer was ‘no.’ Those who do good in the name of Jesus cannot be stopped, and cannot deny Jesus. In fact, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

Whoever is not against us is for us

Sound familiar? Almost. If you take the inverse, “whoever is not for us is against us,” you have the Bush Doctrine, the justification for making war on so-called terrorist states. Notice how Jesus has turned this ancient idea (Bush didn’t think it up) on its head: Whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus takes the classic formula for defining enemies and creates a formula for finding friends. His formula is completely open-ended: anyone who follows in my way and seeks what I seek can only be defined as friend.

In other words, anyone else who seeks to promote liberation from illness and the life-denying effects of illness is a fellow traveler on the road. Anyone who shares the goal of releasing others from bondage is my friend.

Freedom is infectious but freedom is also costly. You cannot be liberated without some change in how you perceive yourself. Remember the ten lepers? Jesus healed ten lepers on the road one day and only one returned to say thank you. Usually this story is preached around the topic of gratitude, but it may also be a sermon about dislocation, and the enormous change in self-perception that comes with healing. We assume that the nine were so caught up in being former lepers and adjusting to their new freedom that it never occurred to them to return and thank the God that brought the healing. Rather than condemn them, we need to try to understand them.

The same can be said for ex-slaves. Imagine you know only dependence. Imagine that one day you find yourself liberated and discover that the freedom you sought was really only the transfer of dependence: dependence on Pharaoh to dependence on God. Of course we immediately think ‘how wonderful’ be liberated, and ask ‘how could they be so ungrateful?’ Now, think like a slave. To a slave, dependence is dependence. Being transferred from one god (Pharaoh) to another (YHWH) would be wonderful if there was some tangible evidence that this was an improvement. Sure, it was great to see Pharaoh get his, but next thing you know the tribe is wandering in the desert: thirsty, hungry, attacked by snakes and wild beasts, and altogether convinced that the “devil you know’ has to be better than the one you don’t out here in the desert.

The reason that the desert wandering took a full generation was partly to extinguish the direct experience of fish, cucumber, leeks, onion, garlic and melon that made bondage bearable. Better to enter the Promised Land with no direct experience of that former life and prepare the masses for the “milk and honey” to come.

Back to the topic of bread from heaven, St. Paul had this to say:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5)

St. Paul had a talent for mixing metaphors and making something simple seem really complex, so I’ll take a go at trying to explain. At the Passover celebration (the early version) the family would gather to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle the blood ever the doorpost to commemorate the time that the spirit of death “passed over” the households of the Hebrew people. They also ate unleavened bread, the bread that remained unleavened when they left Egypt in such great haste.

In traditional Christian belief, the Passover or “Paschal” lamb is Jesus, sacrificed for us that we too be spared from death. The “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is most present to us at the Lord’s supper, when “a new Passover” banquet is celebrated. Liberation from bondage, liberation from sin and liberation from death are all entwined in the joyous meal. The “cup of blessing” and the “bread of heaven” become not only reminders of the new life God provides, but a celebration of the freedom we receive in Christ Jesus.

So, if manna is bread from heaven, and the bread we share is the bread of heaven, and if Jesus brings liberation from illness and despair, and Jesus brings liberation from sin and death, what is the message we hear for today? How do ancient stories and ancient rituals speak to our time?

Like Woodward and Bernstein and the advice to “follow the money,” I say follow the bondage. Who is enslaved? Who needs to be liberated? Who needs hope?

Quickly google “manna” and you will discover several food banks that chose the name “Manna.” It seems perfectly appropriate: for the poor that rely on a community based food program, it must seem like “manna from heaven.” But then the name gets tricky. We have already this morning been talking about how tired the people were to receive manna, how bored they were, and how they complained to God knowing that back in Egypt there were still people who were enjoying fish and cucumber and leeks and melon. Gail could tell us if people complain about lack of variety and make comparisons to what non-food bank people get to eat. At any rate, the manna reference is more than a little problematic.

The link does, however, highlight something else. The people who received manna were dependent on God in a way that people who lived with abundance were not. We have the freedom to eat whatever we want, the people to use food banks have freedom from starvation. Who would have a greater sense of what it means to be dependent on God? Do we always remember to give thanks for the abundance we have? How could someone who uses the food bank possibly forget that they depend on generosity outside themselves?

How can we live with abundance and imagine that we are dependent on God? Can it be done?

I believe it begins at the table. Jesus said “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever shares the Kingdom goals of compassion and sharing, healing and wholeness could never be against us, whoever they are. All are welcome at this table precisely because it us a source of hope for all who are seeking. It is a place of liberation, where to power of death is defeated and the Lamb of God brings new life. It is a place where all are equally dependent before God, and all are known as God’s children. It is a place where “bread from heaven” frees us from the sinful systems that create inequality and division.

This table is more than a meal, it is a proclamation against hunger (actual and spiritual), poverty (actual and existential) and the forces of death that cannot see God’s intention for this us. This table is a place of liberation, where hurts are healed, sadness turns to joy, and God makes an end to death.


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