Eat Dirt and Live
The theme of my spiritual life lately, and thusly of my preaching, seems to be: “God will give you good things, but not in the way you want God to.”
And the Israelites in our Exodus text are examples par excellence of that phenomenon.
In the grand tradition of internet culture somehow describing ancient dynamics in more vivid ways than ever before, it often appears as though God is “trolling” the Israelites.
And I’m sure I’m not the only who feels that God has trolled me—in a loving, humorous, and exceedingly frustrating way.
We’re in the midst of “Bread of Heaven Summer” as the gospel texts for these propers in Year B is are known.
Jesus wants to make really clear to us that he is the Bread of Heaven, and if we want A. everlasting life, and B. a decent quality of life here and now, we need to turn to him for sustenance. This is a theme that rarely can be overdone.
But where things get interesting is in the contrast between how straightforwardly Jesus offers sustenance, and how roundabout and backdoor of a path God the Father seems to take in our Hebrew Scripture texts.
In the gospel lessons, Jesus does clear, concrete things, like literally feed 5000 people with actual bread and fish.
And when it comes to spirituality, he offers forthright teaching like, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That’s pretty clear.
But the Lord is much sneakier in Exodus.
And frankly the Israelites are in no mood to put up with it. They are so worn out and frustrated that they’re actually wishing they had remained enslaved and died in Egypt.
“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.’”
They’re all out of steam, both physically and spiritually. They can’t go any further.
Their faith is dried up, both their faith in Moses and their faith in God.
Do you know what it feels like to be in that place?
I bet you do. I know I do.
It’s that thought that occurs at the end of a long, tough day in a long, tough week in a long, tough year: “I can’t make it up this flight of stairs. There is no way I can get dinner on the table tonight. I can’t do one more load of laundry, deal with one more stupid meeting at work, listen to the kids fight for one more minute. I’m done. I don’t love anyone else, I don’t love God, and I sure don’t love myself right now.”
We’ve all been there.
We know our God loves us. God gave God’s life for us, after all.
So one would think that when we get to this extremity, God would send down a gift basket of delicious food, either literally or figuratively.
The Israelites need literal food. We, in our economic security, are more often in need of spiritual food.
But when we call 911 in our prayer life, we really hope God gets here fast.
But notice how God appears and how God provides in Exodus.
“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.”
In the cloud.
God appeared to them not in light, or fire, or with angels, or even a voice from heaven.
God appeared in the cloud.
I know this speaks to my own experience of God.
Although I cherish the few moments where I felt like God communicated to me with tangible clarity, most of the time I simply feel lost.
I feel like I’m inching my way forward with a blindfold on.
Seeking the will of God, seeking next steps in my life and ministry, requires me to receive God in the cloud—in my very confusion and lostness and unsatisfied hunger for answers.
What would it be like to lean into our hardest questions and deepest spiritual confusion?
What would it be like to trust God to manifest in the cloud?
Finally, the food begins to arrive for the Israelites, but it is at the last conceivable minute.
God speaks out of the cloud, but it is not until nighttime that the sustenance comes: “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp.”
The Israelites had endured weeks of hunger—why did God make them wait those last few hours?
I don’t know, but I do know that neither can I expect on-demand service from God the way I do with everything else in my life.
I may not understand it, but I can admit that there may be some spiritual value in the gap between the promise of God’s help and its fulfillment.
What could I do with that gap?
How could I grow and learn in the time between understanding that the fast is almost over, but hanging on those last few hours or days or weeks until the spiritual growth or understanding finally arrives?
And then the manna. “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.”
Stop and really picture that for a minute. A layer of bread as fine as frost on the ground.
That sounds really, really difficult to harvest and gather.
Seriously, can you imagine scraping frost-thin bread off the bare ground to eat?
Wouldn’t the manna be mingled with dirt? How did they separate it? Or did they simply eat some dirt along with the bread?
God is trolling us again. This could be an early recipe for humble pie.
It certainly rings true to my experience that along with the blessing and sustenance and love of spiritual growth and revelation is a healthy dose of mess and dirt and humility.
And the gathering and harvesting of God’s sustenance in our lives is rarely easy.
It often feels as slow and backbreaking and seemingly futile as scraping frost-thin bread off the ground.
Can you imagine how long it would take for one person to gather enough manna to satisfy even a normal hunger, much less a hunger weeks in the making?
It can seem the same in the droughts and famines of the spiritual life.
Bend down, scrape up a handful of grace, eat it with the accompanying clinging dirt, repeat.
Bend down, scrape up a handful of grace, eat it with the dirt, repeat.
It’s one way to cultivate patience.
Or, on your worst days, storm off in a huff and say, “If this is how God is going to feed me, I’m ordering delivery from someone else.”
But we don’t actually have that option, and neither did the Israelites.
God is the only game in town when it comes to satisfying our spiritual hunger.
And no matter how bad the wilderness seems when we’re stuck out in the middle of it—God speaking obscurely from dense clouds, the quail not showing up until after it’s dark and we’ve already gone to bed hungry, the promised bread of the new morning being insanely difficult to gather and then tasting like dirt—we do know in our heart of hearts that this is the only way to the Promised Land.
We certainly don’t earn our spiritual growth—we don’t get to the Promised Land through our own efforts.
But our dogged and never-ending efforts—one more day in prayer, one more day of scripture study, one more effort to love, one more hour of service—they form us and change us for the better.
We can’t generate or command God’s sustenance—that is always freely and lovingly given, albeit in sometimes strange and frustrating ways.
But we can make ourselves ready to receive it by means of our patient and faithful turning Godward, over and over, day in and day out.
Because just as we can’t make God feed us, neither can God make us eat.
God wants nothing more than for us to freely receive grace and love and truth and joy and all the soul food we hunger for every day.
But the choice remains ours.
The purpose of spiritual practice and spiritual community is to both hone and assuage our hunger.
Jesus is offering us himself as the bread of heaven.
We have to make the desire of the crowd in our gospel lesson true for ourselves: “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Then, having tasted both famine and fulfillment at our deepest level ourselves, we are one step closer to helping someone else wandering lost and hungry in the desert.
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