Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The old town mayor was on his death bed.  He had only hours to live when he suddenly smelled the scent of fresh rolls wafting into his room. Aaahhhh. . . He loved his wife’s freshly baked rolls more than anything else in the world. With his last bit of energy, he pulled himself out of bed. . . Down the stairs and into the kitchen he went. There was his beloved wife, Lillian, kneading the dough for a new batch. As he reached for one of the fresh steaming rolls, he got smacked across the back of his hand by the wooden spoon his wife was holding. “Leave those alone!” she said. “They’re for the funeral!”

Our readings this morning are about hunger (physical hunger and spiritual hunger), about food (food from heaven and food that we provide for ourselves), and in particular, they’re about bread.  In our collect for today we pray for God to “give us the bread that is the true bread of life.”  We pray for God to sustain us with our daily bread just as the Israelites did, because everyone depends on daily bread, both literal bread and spiritual bread.

That bread we pray for in the Lord’s prayer is an echo of a time when our ancestors in the wilderness are said to have depended on another bread that was given daily. They called it manna, which in Hebrew roughly translates as “what-is-it.” 

However, as the book of Joshua says, once they left the wilderness and entered the land of Canaan, the people no longer depended on daily bread, and instead “ate the produce of the land.”  And, for the benefit of anyone who missed this point, the text goes to great pains to repeat it.  The scripture says, “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.”

Now this might seem like good news – good news that the people are now capable of being self-sufficient, taking their fill from the produce of the land. But note that the text makes a peculiar assertion that could easily be overlooked: the manna ceased on the day that they ate the produce of the land.  So there is at least an implied cause-and-effect: the self-sufficiency of the Israelites seems to be the cause for the interruption of the bread supply.

In and of itself, I suppose, that event doesn’t seem to imply anything good or bad, one way or the other.  But were we to read further into Joshua, we would discover that self-sufficiency actually begets some dangerous and dysfunctional behavior. For once the people no longer depended on the bread that was given, once they took from the produce of the land, once they weaned themselves from a dependence on the grace of God, new problems set in – in particular the problems of covetousness and greed.

This is something God had warned them about. One of the ten commandments, and the only one repeated twice in Exodus is: “You shall not covet.” But once the newly-found freedom of self-sufficiency had set in, covetousness was not far behind.  In fact, after their success at crumbling the walls of Jericho, things began to go awry for the Israelites, all because of one person’s covetousness.

God had decreed that all the silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron were to be deposited in the treasury to benefit the entire community.  So, just as the manna had provided enough for everyone, no one had too much, but everyone had enough, so too would the riches of Jericho help to supply the needs of the people.  However, what came from God was for everyone.  If you hoarded it for yourself, manna went sour. And if parts of the treasury were hoarded by one individual, then it was going to go away.

So sure enough, come the next battle in chapter seven, things go badly . . very badly.  The Israelite warriors began to lose their courage and battles they would have easily won were lost.  So, a special prosecutor is appointed to find out why. The prosecutor determined that there had been some serious transgressions against God, and that the sin was attributed to one man, Achan.

Turn out, Achan had held back some of the things that belonged in the treasury. Achan had taken from the community goods and set aside his own little treasury. One man’s sin had caused the entire community to fail.

Because of Achan’s covetousness and greed, the life of the community was imperiled.  What the text appears to be saying is that covetousness and greed damages not just the individual, but the whole community.  Allowing the wants of the individual to outweigh the needs of the whole community brings misery to God’s gathered people. Just as on a spiritual level, giving up dependence on bread that is given daily from heaven has its consequences too.

This way of living . . . acknowledging dependence on God and acknowledging that all gifts from God are for the benefit of all and not just the one or the few . . . was central to the life of the early Christian Community.  The books of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles go to great pains to emphasize the importance of this “manna living” to Christians. What else are we to make of the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where we learn that “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” 

Which brings us to a difficult and challenging question. In the midst of all this talk about dependence on God and the needs of the whole community verses the wants of the individual, what does it mean to live in Christ?  When we live “in Christ” how does that understanding move us to live with an awareness of our dependence on God and a responsibility to our sisters and brothers?

Well, I think it has something to do with what we could call “a return to manna living.” And for that, we turn to the Gospels and to one of the principal characters in the story of the “Prodigal Son,” the servants.  I believe that in this story, the servants provide us with an example of manna living, or what it means to live in Christ.

How so?

Well, note that at the father’s command, the servants go to gather the things he wants to be given to his son.  The servants evidently have free access to all the best things in the father’s household: the best ring, the best clothes, the best food, they have access to all of it. And these servants are to administer all these “best” things according to the father’s wishes.  At first read, most people usually identify with the father, or the younger son, or even with the seemingly justified anger and self-righteousness of the older son — but few people ever think about the servants.  That’s pretty ironic since it is the servants who truly get at what it means to live in Christ. The servants are stewards of all the best in the household and are trusted to do with those things what the Father wants done.

Isn’t that who we are? Haven’t we been entrusted with all the best God has created – the earth and all that is in it?  Look around and see the abundance and richness God has entrusted to our care. As servants in God’s household, we are stewards of all of creation. And within that context, think again about what it means to say that covetousness and greed, withholding anything that belongs to the whole community of God, leads to seriously bad consequences. What does that mean for our lives?

But there’s more.  Because being entrusted with the best of God’s gifts also means being entrusted with the most valuable of God’s gifts . . . the gift of forgiveness.

When he was writing to the Corinthians, Paul said that being in Christ means that in addition to bread that is given daily and from which we are to share with those who are in need, God also gives us a ministry—a ministry of reconciliation.  “All is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” says Paul. 

And it’s not much of a stretch to see that these two things are related – a willingness to accept the bread that is given daily by God and a willingness to take on the ministry of reconciling the brokenness of the world, a brokenness largely born out of extravagant living, covetousness, and greed.  They are one and the same in that the motivation that threatens them is greed and covetousness.

So, what do our readings have to say to us today?

Well, Paul would say that first and foremost, we are to understand that “We are ambassadors for Christ, and that God makes God’s appeal to the world through us.”  That’s a pretty tall order.  So, we must pray for daily bread to sustain us – God’s spiritual daily bread — and we must pray for God’s forgiveness and generosity.  For only in accepting and experiencing forgiveness are we able to offer it to others.  And while we’re at it, let’s also pray for the courage to be reconciled to share with each other and be reconciled with each other just as God has done for us. Amen.