The last eight months have been brutal for the world economy. If any of us ever doubted the truth of globalization, we no longer doubt. What started out as a subprime lending crisis in our own country has ballooned into drastic declines on all of the world’s major stock markets.
The economic crisis hasn’t just affected players at the level of the world stage. It has hit close to home as well. Many of us are wondering if we even want to open the 401(k) statements that arrive in our mailboxes each quarter. Others of us had our retirement funds invested with companies that have had to merge, sell off assets, and/or turn to the federal government for bailout funds, and we are still trying to figure out exactly what that means for us. A few of us may be thinking about putting off that retirement we’ve dreamed about for so long.
In a matter of days we found ourselves wrenched from comfort and stability and driven out into an economic wilderness—maybe not for forty years, like the ancient Israelites as they fled Egypt, but at least for the foreseeable future. And like those ancient Israelites, we are quickly discovering that there aren’t many oases along the way of our wandering, not much assurance that things will be okay. At least not anytime soon.
The complaints have already begun. Like the Israelites, many voices are carping about the leadership that has brought this mess upon our heads and complaining about the steps being taken—or proposed—to try to bring us out of it. We shake our fists at them and say, “If only we had died by the hand of the market when the bulls were in control of Wall Street, when our portfolios were burgeoning and we could go out to eat whenever we wanted, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with poverty.”
Truthfully, the Israelites in Exodus don’t bear nearly as much responsibility for their dilemma as we do for ours. They had to flee Egypt on a moment’s notice, with no time to gather much more than the clothes on their backs. We, on the other hand, had lots of time to amass assets before we were forced to flee. We all benefited from the run-up in stock prices over the past couple of decades and didn’t want to ask too many questions as financiers invented riskier and riskier financial instruments. As long as our portfolios continued to look good, we really didn’t care.
The Israelites, moreover, were in their bind because they were seeking to gain their freedom from slavery. Even despite their grumbling, they were willing to bear up under wilderness hardship because they knew they had escaped far greater suffering than what they were experiencing now. We, on the other hand, have been forced into the wilderness because we benefited from the empire. We made good money and we wanted even more of it and the things it could buy: greater comfort, the ability to enjoy the finer things in life, more assurance about our personal future.
Food in the Desert
The story about God’s providing manna in the wilderness, therefore, may be a story we need to remember in these difficult economic times. Most churchgoers have heard this story before. The Israelites are dying of hunger out in the middle of the Sinai desert when God tells Moses that food will be provided for the people in the form of what they came to call manna. Every morning, when the dew evaporated, it would leave behind a flaky substance that the Israelites could gather and eat. The story tells us manna was like coriander seed, and “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” … not a bad bailout if bread was one of your primary food sources even in good times.
God laid down some interesting rules about gathering the manna. Each morning, you could only gather one omer—a little more than two dry quarts—for each person in your family. Then you had to measure what you had gathered. The amazing thing was that people who tried to gather more than their share found out they had exactly one omer when they measured it, and the people who hadn’t been able to find much at all that morning also had exactly one omer when they measured it. God’s economic system turns out to look a bit different than ours.
God also said you had to eat all the manna you gathered within that same day. I guess God wanted to make sure all the Israelites got enough calories to make it through another day of trekking in the hot desert. When some people tried to hide a bit of their manna overnight so that they could have an extra snack in the morning, they discovered that it had turned wormy as they slept and was no longer fit to eat.
Finally, God said that on the sixth day of the week the Israelites were to gather twice as much of the manna as usual. They could eat their normal ration on the sixth day and save the rest to eat on the seventh day without the extra portion turning bad. This was, Moses told the people, because God wanted them to be able to rest on the Sabbath day.
As you might imagine—the Israelites were like other human beings, after all—some people went out into the desert on the morning of the seventh day to see if they could get an extra day’s supply, only to find that there was nothing on the ground that day.
An interesting—even delightful story—but what does it have to do with the economic wilderness into which we have found ourselves thrust?
A Failure of Heart
The story about manna in the wilderness tells us about a temptation that lies ever close to the human heart that may be instructive in our present situation. And it tells us about three failures of the human heart that tend to make our current situation worse.
The story about manna in the wilderness tells us that we human beings can be a greedy bunch. We try to pick up more than our fair share of the manna that is meant to sustain everyone. We hoard the manna—the very manna that God promises will continue to appear every morning—so that we might be a little bit better off or gain a slight advantage over the competition. And even when we are told there is going to be nothing in the field that we can ethically gather, we will still sneak out at sunrise on the outside chance that we can get a little more, and get a little more ahead.
We are tempted by greed because of three failures of the human heart to which even those of faith are prone: a failure of imagination, a failure of trust, and a failure of gratitude.
We experience a failure of imagination when we can’t imagine the world operating any way other than the way the world itself tells us it ought to run. We can’t imagine a divine economy that operates in any way other than how the reigning economic theory tells us the world’s economy ought to function: whether it be a University of Chicago-style antiregulation, free-market capitalism, or a centralized planning economy like that of mainland China. This is true in spite of the fact that the whole biblical story is an unfolding of God’s alternative economic stimulus plan. The church is called to be a community that at least tries to catch the vision of God’s economy and then live it out in its own life.
We experience a failure of trust when we do not take God at God’s word. Throughout the biblical record we are assured—time and time again—that God will take care of us, that God will not abandon us, that God will bear us up, and especially at those moments when the ways of the world push us out into the wilderness. We may—and often do—walk away from God, but God will never walk away from us. We give evidence of our failure to trust in God’s promise when we work so hard and stay so busy, thinking to ourselves, “If I don’t take care of myself, who will?”
We experience a failure of gratitude when we will not allow ourselves to enter into Sabbath rest. “Here,” God says, “I want to give you a gift: you can rest
one day a week. Take a little nap, play with your kids without also trying to teach them something at the same time, drink a little wine with someone you love, go for a leisurely walk.” We would never dream of rejecting a gift offered to us by a neighbor or a friend. But we regularly reject the gift of God and fail to show our gratitude by letting go one day a week and trusting that God will make it all turn out okay anyhow.
Whether we are talking about the Israelites in the wilderness, the economic wilderness in which we find ourselves today, or the management of our planet’s food production, our failure to imagine and live in God’s economy, to trust in God’s providential care, and to show our gratitude by relaxing into God’s arms only serves to perpetuate the messes in which we find ourselves. And when we try to take more than we need—whether that be manna or the world’s food supply or stock derivatives—we find them turning wormy in our hands and not good for anything.
God sets a wedding banquet for all the world’s people, with a banquet table heaped up with more than enough food to feed everyone if only we will share it wisely, more than enough good wine to give everyone a little joy if only we will make sure to top off every glass, and more than enough financial resources if only we will quit clutching tightly to what we have and give it away for the sake of the gospel. That’s why the communion table is always set with a glass of wine and a loaf of bread: to remind us that God will provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty. Thanks be to God.
Adapted from a sermon Jim Kitchens preached on October 12, 2008 at Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, based on Exodus 16:1–4, 13b–27, and Matthew 22:1–14.
Questions for Reflection
- Where are you displaying a lack of trust and trying to “do it all”? Where is this showing up in your congregation? How might you and your congregation begin to return to an attitude of trust in God in this difficult economic time?
- Where is gratitude being expressed in your own life? In the life of the congregation? If gratitude is missing, how can you begin to restore it?
- How much rest are you and your congregation willing to give yourselves? How can you support one another in observing Sabbath?
- Where are you and your congregation holding tightly to resources and where might you loosen your grasp and give instead?