The Manna Jar
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 13, 2014
Upon leaving Egypt and the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, Moses and the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, and they grew hungry. So hungry that they began to crave the foods of Egypt. Better to eat the meager rations of a slave than starve in pursuit of freedom. Seeing their desperate need, God provided food for free, a soft, white substance upon which the people would feed for 40 years. They called the food manna, which means “What is it?” They would gather “What-is-it?” for breakfast and “what-is-it?” for lunch. God supplied their daily needs in abundance, but not for accumulation. Only as much as was needed for the day could be collected, and any extra turned to worms by morning. As a reminder of all that God had done for them, God told them to collect an Omer of manna, which is about two quarts, and to keep it in a jar before the covenant. Later this manna jar was carried in the Ark of the Covenant, right beside the Ten Commandments.
It’s a tiny story, popular in Sunday school, but with a huge impact throughout scripture. This free provision of daily food for each according to their needs and never more, became the basis of biblical economy and ecology. The Hebrew people’s first experience of the Sabbath was as a day of rest from food collection, a day on which freed slaves were specifically freed from their work as a sign of their freedom. Remembering the sign of the manna, later generations added Jubilee practices to curb the accumulation of property and possessions within Israel, so everyone had what they needed and no one had more.
In the New Testament, Jesus picks up these images of God’s abundance in his wilderness feeding of the multitudes, and in the passages of John’s gospel where Jesus refers to manna as “Bread from Heaven” and to himself as the “living bread which came down from heaven”. Jesus added that if anyone ate this bread, they would live forever.
But the manna jar is never mentioned again.
For several years I was a part of a close knit Bible study that often asked the question: why don’t we have a manna jar in our sanctuary? After all, God did say to Moses, “Let an Omer of manna be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
It’s an interesting idea. A manna jar would be a visible reminder of God’s grace. But I think the question behind the idea of a “real” manna jar is “What are the concrete reminders of God’s grace toward us, God’s provision of our need, God’s abundant mercies?”
I’m always leery about speaking with newspapers because you never know what the paper will print: they have a way of hearing what they want to hear and not necessarily what you say. A number of years ago, when Noelle and I were living on Long Island, we were pleasantly surprised with an article by Newsday that focused on clergy couples and the difficulty of balancing family life with professional life and the needs of multiple congregations. The Newsday reporter focused on three clergy couples, a Methodist couple from Flatbush, two reformed Rabbis from Brooklyn, and Noelle and myself. And despite the fact that the paper reversed our ages, lost six years of Noelle’s ordained ministry, got my graduation wrong, all in all it wasn’t bad.
We were pleased though that the paper did faithfully represent what Noelle and I both think is most important in balancing vocation and family, and that is that nurturing our relationship is part of our vocation. The article recounted how we fell in love across a crowded room when our eyes met and we felt the world stopped around us. As all of you already know yourselves, without nurturing your relationships with those you love, there is no other balance that really matters. That no amount of juggling professions, job, school, church can earn you the love of your spouse or the affection of your child, or the deep care of a true friend.
If it isn’t clear, let me say: Noelle’s love for me is manna – for she shows to me a love, a grace, acceptance, understanding which exceeds my imagination, that I can do nothing to earn and that I so much need. She is a sign of God’s grace to me.
What is your manna? What jar does it come in?
If it’s manna, it can’t be something that you can accumulate. It can’t be something you can hold or possess. It must be something you receive daily, or at least when you need it, something that shows your dependence – for manna is the ultimate sign of our dependence on God.
In one sense manna is a kind of a painful reminder because when we look at the manna jar we not only remember the grace we have received but we remember our dependence and our helplessness in times of crisis or despair when the only way through is for someone from the outside to open a door or reach out a hand and pull us out. The manna jar is a symbol that denies self-sufficiency.
For while it reminds us of God’s care and abundance and faithfulness; it also reminds us of our continual dependence. And for those of us who like to secure ourselves or our family’s well-being on our own efforts or good market conditions or by living in the right place, the manna jar is the ultimate reminder that the only sovereign who is both benevolent and dependable is God. It reminds us that we’re not the sovereign. And so when we think about what we put in our manna jar, we have to touch that part of ourselves that is vulnerable, that is honest enough to realize that at some fundamental level we cannot provide for ourselves. And this is especially difficult for men who have traditionally thought of themselves as providers.
Perhaps we don’t feel dependent on God the way the Israelites did. Perhaps it’s only when we go through a personal or social wilderness that we understand how precious and essential God’s grace is.
And I think the name manna is right, because we ask “what is this?” What-is-this thing that makes me aware of my deepest needs but also of the incredible love and sustenance God provides? What is this? And that’s why manna is a sign of grace, because it is completely unmerited. It’s a pure gift.
This week I encourage you try a spiritual practice to increase our mindfulness of the ways God is sustaining us every day. Find a jar – a real jar – and place it somewhere visible in your home – a place where you will see it a number of times a day. This is going to be your manna jar. And at the end of each day, I invite you to write on a piece of paper how you experienced God’s love sustaining you through the day. And be concrete. If it was a conversation with a friend, say who the friend was and something they said that was sustaining. If it was a glimpse of beauty in a surprising place, describe it. If it was that money came from some unexpected source and you were able to make your rent, write it down. These notes don’t need to be long – a sentence or two is fine. And it need not be something big – it could be something that to the outside world might seem an insignificant thing, but to you is important. Put the note into the jar and secure the lid. Then leave the note in there over night. In the morning, take it out of the jar and read it and lay it aside. Now your manna jar is empty. But we know, God is faithful, this day and every day.
And throughout the week and next Sunday, let’s share what we’re noticing and experiencing about God’s sustenance with each other. I look forward to hearing about your adventures of manna collection.
For as the Psalmist declares:
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.