I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 1, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78; and John 6:24-35.
You and I will probably never get to taste the manna that God sent down to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but if I had to imagine what it was like to eat that “bread of angels,” as the Psalmist calls it, I would guess it’s something like my grandmother’s homemade pie crust—a divine mystery of its own, tender and flaky and golden brown, cradling piles of summer fruits or bearing the velvety smoothness of harvest pumpkin.
Inconceivably simple, the way her hands would knead and roll and stretch the flour and shortening and water in a manner both precise and casual, fingers guided by memory to create something greater than the sum of its parts. A recipe saved on a worn old index card, yes, but also an artwork, a small miracle on the plate—a gift that could not be explained, only received and consumed gratefully at the cool altar of the kitchen table.
I wonder if you have a recipe like that in your life—one that was given to you, one that you have made and passed along, one that sustains you and those whom you love in ways far beyond the nutritional content. If you close your eyes, can you taste it, can you see it? Can you call to mind the loving hands that first made it for you, the way they put something of themselves in between the layers of salt and sweet and bitter?
Every time we receive a recipe or make it for someone else, we are taking part in a story. A story of survival, of the ways in which we have managed to find and prepare our daily bread. And a story of love—of the wordless ways that care and memory descend through the generations, linking us forever to those who came before, those who savored the same sweetness we now taste. As a record of what must be done to produce a certain result, a recipe is a guideline. And as a record of love’s timeless and eternal feast, a recipe is also a miracle.
A guideline, and a miracle. An ethic, and a gift. It is necessary for us to understand how something can be both of these things at the same time. And so, in today’s story of the Israelites receiving the manna from heaven, we witness both dynamics, gift and ethic, present in God’s offering.
First, the gift. “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,” the Lord says to Moses. Having delivered Israel from the Egyptians, God has heard, again, the cries of the people, and God is determined that they not forget who He is and how deeply He desires to sustain them both physically and spiritually. And in the gift of manna in the wilderness, God is saying to Israel: SEE, you do not have to settle for the bread of tyrants. You do not have to choose between your survival and your freedom. I offer you BOTH. You get to have both. This is my gift to you, if you will only trust me and take it.
And then, the ethic. The Lord continues saying to Moses, “each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” and no more than that. In other words, this manna, this miracle of loving providence, must be received and used in the spirit it was offered. It must not be commodified and hoarded, it must not be used to wield power over others. Because those are the old ways, the ways of Pharaoh, those are the ways of scarcity and fear, and those ways have no place in the life that God is offering. So yes, receive this gift, but receive it with an ethic rooted in the common good, receive it within a set of rules given to guard yourselves against forgetfulness. In so doing, you have what amounts to a recipe: a set of guidelines enclosing a miracle. Specific instructions to preserve and pass on the beauty of the gift.
This can be easier said than done, though.
I once tried to make my grandma’s pie crust—I had a copy of the recipe card, I had all of the ingredients, I followed the steps, but my hands were not adept at sensing the proper textures, at intuiting the ways to moisten and stretch the pastry without overdoing it. My first attempt was tough and unremarkable, a pale imitation of that golden crust of my childhood dreams.
In any recipe, as in any life, we live in the tension between the guidelines and the gift—between knowing the rules given for us to follow and discovering the hidden, mysterious ways that wisdom conditions us to do so lovingly and well.
Israel certainly struggles with this when they are given the manna. Some of them ignore the guidelines—they gather more manna than they need, only to find it rotten and useless the next morning. Or they go out to gather it on the Sabbath, only to find that there is none to be found. It is only when they can receive the gift as it is given—as something precious, as something sufficient, as something that they cannot wield to their personal advantage—that the sweet miracle can actually work. When the guidelines and the gift converge and, at last, they can live as they were meant to live.
We are still learning this, as people, and as a church, still making our way through the wilderness, still learning how to bear the gift of God’s providence, to trust it, to live it. And in Jesus, we are confronted with that challenge and that invitation directly, personally. No longer simply manna from heaven, but now God’s own life, God’s own body given as nourishment for the world, the living bread, offered simultaneously as pure miracle and as ethical mandate. A foretaste of God’s peaceful kingdom. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.
Can you accept this gift? Can you also live the type of life that it signifies?
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus tells us today, not because the bread that feeds our mouths is unnecessary, but because it is not sufficient by itself to satisfy the deeper hunger in our hearts. In order to satisfy that, we must trust him AND we must follow him; we must receive the gift AND live into the guidelines; a life lived without one or the other will never be whole. The recipe will be missing something.
And so just as the Lord did for Israel, Jesus is inviting us, again and again and again, every time we come forward to the altar to receive this bread, to be people who carry within ourselves the capacity to receive the miraculous and embody the ethical—those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who cry out for justice AND who marvel at the immeasurable sweetness of Divine love, who know that without God we can do nothing—people who will pass down both the guidelines and the testimony of pure grace to those who come after us, that our own lives might become like a creased and well-worn recipe card, a record of what can be taught, and an invitation into what can only be lived.
Some time later, I told my grandma how miserably I had failed at her pie crust, how I figured I would never quite get it right. And she looked at me, and she didn’t say very much, but just took me into the kitchen and got out the flour and the measuring cups and the old wooden rolling pin. And standing over my shoulder, she showed me again how to do it, instructing, guiding, sometimes intervening to patch up the broken parts of the crust. And in the end, there was a pie cooling in the evening light. Not perfect, but very good—sort of like life itself.
A recipe passed down. A lesson learned.
And a miracle.