Every good and perfect gift is from above


James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What comes from within

Watching for the Morning of August 30, 2015

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

File:Yemenite boy washing hands, December 5, 1949.jpgThe voice of Moses in the reading from Deuteronomy on Sunday will call us to “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe.” But Deuteronomy calls us to more than an outward observance; it calls us into the spirit of God’s instructions and commands. It celebrates the wisdom and justice of God’s law. And it understands that the life of the community depends on observing this law, of living within God’s will for justice and mercy.

The psalmist joins that song, describing those who are welcome in God’s holy house not in terms of ritual purity, but in language of fidelity to neighbor: those who speak truth, do justice, and show mercy to the poor.

James, too, sings of the life lived in accordance with God’s word: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

It is so easy for religion to slide into a narrow legalism, by which we are able to imagine ourselves faithful without ever actually living by the Spirit of God: the spirit of compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, truth, courage. Jesus is attacked because some of his followers haven’t observed the ritual washing of hands before eating. This is not a real hand washing related to concerns about germs, but a ritual pouring of water over the hands with an accompanying prayer. It is like someone eating without saying grace. Is the ritual blessing of a meal a measure of the true Christian or are we summoned to live within the spirit of thanksgiving that receives all things as gift from God? Outward forms have their importance in teaching and sustaining the inner life – but the point is the inner life. And by inner life it is important that we recognize we are speaking not only of the individual, but of the spirit that abides in the community. One generous person is good. A community of generosity is the intent of God.

The question what is truly means to be “clean” – to be acceptable before God, to be worthy to enter God’s presence – is deeply important. And Jesus will not let us narrow the definition to ritual practice. He insists that we recognize the will of God for a community that honors God in all things – from the food we eat to the food we share from hearts that are at least seeking to be loving and true.

The Prayer August 30, 2015

Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow of change:
be our lamp in the darkness
and our eternal rock,
that we may worship you rightly
with lives of compassion and truth;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 30, 2015

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
“What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” – Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon of Moses to the people of Israel at the end of the forty years in the wilderness in which the community is urged to observe God’s wise and just laws.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”
– The poet asks who is worthy to enter the holy precinct of the temple – and answers it not in terms of ritual purity, but the just and faithful treatment of others.

Second Reading: James 1:17-27
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
– The author reminds the community that God calls for our inner and outward lives to be aligned and in harmony with the message we have hear from God.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” – The religious leaders challenge Jesus because some of his followers didn’t observe the ritual washing before eating. It prompts his teaching on purity – not as on outward observance, but the words and deeds that flow from the heart.


Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yemenite_boy_washing_hands,_December_5,_1949.jpg

These boots are made for marching

Sunday Evening

Ephesians 6:10-20

File:Caligae with nails.jpg15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Go online and you can find instructions for making caligae, the heavy “boots” that were used by Roman soldiers. These boots were made for marching. They were studded with nails to give extra traction for trampling your enemies.

We should not miss the haunting yet delicious irony that the familiar look of Roman imperial domination is being used as a metaphor for our mission to live and proclaim the dawning reign of God.

We know the power of things like jackboots and swastikas. We understand the meaning of armed men at checkpoints with AK-47s or police dressed in riot gear in Ferguson, Missouri. Roman military dress had its purpose not only to be effective in battle, but a clear message of indomitable rule.

In the face of all such imperial claims stands the Christian community, clothed in Christ, bearing witness that God will depose all human empires and bring all creation under his glorious and gentle rule. Against the weapons of this world we wield the “weapons” of grace and life.

“Take up the whole armor of God” writes the author of Ephesians. The Greek translated ‘whole armor’ is a single word from which we get the English word ‘panoply’. It means: “shield, helmet, breast plate, greaves, sword, and lance.” The English translation ‘whole armor’ seems to emphasize the word ‘whole’ – as if there were a way to be only partly clad in heavenly armor. But the phrase is “take up the panoply of God,” put on the ‘armor’ assigned to the Christian community, wear the raiment of heaven: truth, fidelity to God and others, readiness to manifest the peace of God, trust in God’s work to deliver his world, and the word of God that is the Spirit’s tool to lay bare and heal the human heart.

Where the presence of a fully dressed Roman Soldier strikes fear, a properly dressed community in Christ gives hope. Where Roman rhetoric exalts the emperor as the bringer of peace, the Christian community witnesses to our true reconciliation. Roman inscriptions declare the emperor to be the savior of the whole world, the Christian community knows better. Caligae, studded marching boots, cannot save; armed might cannot heal the world.

But there is one who will.

A company of Roman soldiers is a living sign of Roman dominion; the author of Ephesians urges the believing community to be a living sign of God’s reign of grace and life.


Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caligae_with_nails.jpg

Where else will we find anything like this?


John 6:56-69

File:Cristo nel labirinto.jpg66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Now the Feast and Celebration,” the liturgy composed by Marty Haugen for the Campus Ministry at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, uses this verse for the Alleluia sung by the congregation as they rise to hear the reading of the Gospel:

Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Each Sunday in which we use this liturgy contains this small yet profound acknowledgment that the words of Jesus are beyond us but precious to us, challenging yet comforting, confusing yet compelling.

Where else shall we go? Here we hear the challenge to build our house on rock, to enter through the narrow way, to judge not lest we be judged, to forgive seventy-seven times. Here we hear of evil driven from hearts and minds and bodies, yet his body surrendered to torture and death. Here we hear the unthinkable – that God sends rain on the just and the unjust, that sinners are forgiven, that the unclean are welcomed. Here we hear the requirement that love of God is more important than love of family, that our attachment to God supersedes the duties to parents. Here we hear that we cannot serve God and possessions. Here we hear Jesus tell the rich man to sell all and tell us that it is better to lose a hand or an eye than to lose the kingdom.

It is too much. But it is compelling.

We want to hear this Jesus. We don’t want him buried in the slop of a lovey-dovey gooey marshmallow God. Nor do we want him hidden in that bitter grist of an angry God demanding blood in payment for our debts. We cannot have him lost beneath a sterile white bread, white potatoes, repristination of middle class morality. We want this strange, compelling Jesus whose words push those in power to murder. We want these strange words – and deeds – possessed of eternal truth and life. We want the good shepherd who lays down his life, the royal king who is butchered by usurpers but rises from the dead, the precocious child who has more wisdom than all us religious teachers. We want this perfect vessel of the Spirit through whom God heals and redeems and raises the dead. We want the man who welcomes the little children and speaks blunt and brutal truths about the elites. He names them blind guides yet welcomes Nicodemus and tries to help him see the life that is from above.

This Jesus is wonder and mystery, puzzling and outrageous, making a whip of cords and kicking tables but telling us to love our enemies – enemies he forgives though they have his blood on their hands as they throw dice for his clothing.

We want to know more. We want to hear more. We want to be encountered by this strange wondrous man. So even though his words puzzle and offend, we stay. Even when it’s not what we want to hear, we listen. Where else will we find anything like this?

Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia. Alleluia.

For information on the picture go to: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACristo_nel_labirinto.jpg

Provoking a choice

Watching for the Morning of August 23, 2015

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

File:Track Choice - geograph.org.uk - 129367.jpgSo what do you choose? It is a question Joshua asks the Israelites and Jesus asks his followers. “What do you choose?”

Israel has come through the desert and, as presented in Joshua, God has led them on a victorious march to claim the land from its Canaanite inhabitants. There are hints in the text that the process was more complicated than this – but the author wants to emphasize God’s fidelity in fulfilling his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their descendants. The God who opened the Red Sea and freed them from every enemy has fulfilled his promises. Now what will this people do? Its time to choose: the LORD or the gods of the land?

It’s a tougher choice than we imagine, because we are by nature syncretists. We think we can worship God and the gods of our land: we can worship God and mammon, God and country, God and success, God and power, God and sexuality, God and family, God and self – or God and some of all of these.

Joshua demands they choose. Jesus makes us choose. With audacious, provocative, even offensive words he forces us to either see with new eyes or walk away. And many depart, many who were disciples. But the twelve respond: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” There is no true life in those other things, no enduring life, no imperishable life.

As we face this challenge, the psalmist reminds us of God’s faithfulness and Ephesians bids us put on “the whole armor of God.”

The Prayer August 23, 2015

Keep us, O God, in your eternal Spirit
that, when challenged by your word, we may never turn back from following you,
but always confess and believe that you have the words of eternal life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 23, 2015

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-3, 13-18 (Appointed 24:1-2a, 14-18)
“‘Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’” – Joshua gathers the people following the forty year wandering in the wilderness and the occupation of the promised land and challenges them to put away their foreign gods and serve the LORD with fidelity.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:15-22
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.”
– The concluding section of an acrostic poem declaring God’s fidelity to those who are faithful to him.

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
– The author uses the metaphor of a Roman soldier’s armor to call the community to faithfulness to God.

Gospel: John 6:56-69
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” – The words of Jesus about eating his flesh has revealed that many even among his followers do not understand the meaning of the sign of the bread (the feeding of the five-thousand) and they turn away. Jesus then asks the twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?”


Picture: Kate Jewell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

File:Hans Holbein- The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.JPG

Once more on Last Sunday

(I have written also about last Sunday at my blog Jacob Limping. But there are things we need to say before moving on to next Sunday and the next portion of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel)

John 6:35-51

51 The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This word ‘flesh’ matters. We have a hard time holding on to it. We tend to spiritualize Jesus. We talk about his death in abstract terms. We think of him as a transcendent reality. We attribute to him our notions of divinity above suffering. It was a long, hard, battle in the ancient church to keep Jesus grounded in the flesh. His own flesh. His own bleeding and dying.

We can imagine Jesus in the flesh, but the price is usually that we relinquish the claim that he is the incarnate one, the embodiment of God. Jesus becomes a prophet and a martyr, a mere man, not the incarnate Lord of All. But if we hold on to his divinity, his uniqueness, his status as Son of God, we tend to lose his humanity. Somehow we have to hold on to both.

This word ‘flesh’ matters. It is not just Jesus’ teaching that was given to the world. It was not just a vision and a hope and a promise. It was his flesh. He hungered. He ached. He wept. He drank and danced and soiled whatever ancient equivalent there was for diapers. He chased butterflies and learned to break rocks and build. The Holy One was enfleshed. He was one of us. Fully human. Fully flesh.

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

What he gave for the world was his flesh. And he gave it all. He surrendered up his laughter and joy and feet and hands. He surrendered up his head to thorns and his back to stripes. He surrendered up his flesh to death.

And he surrendered up his flesh to resurrection.

This life giving manna is not just the flesh that dies; it is the flesh that lives, flesh that is raised, flesh Thomas can touch. The risen Jesus is not a spirit being; he is an enfleshed being. It is a flesh beyond death, a flesh not bound by the realities of our world this side of Eden, a flesh that participates in resurrected life, a flesh that is a real part – the true nature – of God’s glorious creation.

This crucified and risen flesh is the bread that brings true life. Jesus is more than teacher or sacrificial lamb; he is the bringer of the age to come. Resurrection has broken into our world. The tomb stands forever empty. The re-creation of the world is dawning. The Spirit is breathed out. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the new reality in which all debts are wiped away and we live in God and God in us.

Most of us are more comfortable with the notion that God is in heaven and we are on earth until, hopefully, we too go to heaven. But God reigns in heaven; God wants to reign on earth. God’s purpose is to set right his world, to raise his world from its bondage to death into its true life.

In the flesh of Jesus the resurrection has come. The new creation is dawning now, here. Here is heaven on earth. Here is risen life now. Here is the age to come that will never perish. Here is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Here is true love of God and neighbor. Here is the holy.

The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh

The meaning of Jesus cannot be shaken loose from the body, the flesh, the physical reality of skin and bones and breath, of laughter and loving, of eating and drinking, of anger and tears and spoken words. It cannot be shaken loose from that body made dead and that body made alive and all creation carried on his shoulders from death into life.


Image: Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521, Oil on wood) [Public domain].  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Holbein-_The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb.JPG#file

Heaven’s true bread

File:Lippi, pietà del museo horne.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 9, 2015

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

So we have seen the sign of the bread (two Sundays ago) and heard the conversation that Jesus is the true manna from heaven (last Sunday), now we hear that this true manna from heaven gives life – not to sustain us for a day, but eternally.

Our readings this Sunday begin with Elijah fleeing for his life only to be met in the wilderness by a messenger of God who provides bead and water for his journey. As God gave Israel bread and water in the wilderness, God provides for Elijah to bring him to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) where he will be encountered by God.

With the psalmist we sing of God’s faithfulness and hear the exhortation to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

In the reading from Ephesians we hear the call “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” with specific exhortations for our life together.

And then we come to the wonderful words of the Gospel that show the crowd murmuring like Israel in the wilderness, but speak of the life that Jesus, the true bread from heaven, gives through his death and resurrection.

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Unfortunately the references to death and resurrection are skipped in the appointed verses, but they need to be read, for they draw out the meaning of Jesus’ promise that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The manna kept the people of Israel alive for a day; the death and resurrection of Jesus will keep us alive forever.


The Prayer August 9, 2015

O God of truth and life,
draw us to your self, and feed us on the bread of life,
which is your Word, made flesh for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 9, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8
“Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” – Elijah is fleeing the queen, Jezebel, who has vowed to kill him for his triumph over the prophets of Baal. In the wilderness he is met by a heavenly messenger who provides him bread for his journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-8
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
– The poet calls upon the community to join him in his praise of God for all God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
– The author speaks to their common life, urging them to live in love, recognizing that they are members of one another in Christ.

Gospel: John 6: 35-51 (appointed 35, 41-51)
“‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.’” Continuing the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus develops the idea that he is the true bread from heaven. The manna in the wilderness sustained the people for a day; through his death and resurrection, Jesus gives life that shall never perish.


Image: Filippo Lippi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALippi%2C_piet%C3%A0_del_museo_horne.jpg

Trust and allegiance

One thing more from last Sunday

John 6:24-35

File:Jesus at Sumela.jpg28“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The texts from last Sunday continue to rattle around in my head but, amidst all the talk about bread and manna, this verse shouldn’t pass by unnoticed. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What is it that God requires of us? What do we need to do to serve him? What is God’s will for us?

I remember the struggle with the question of God’s will beginning my senior year in high school as I was in a formative period for my faith and wondered if and where God wanted me to go to college and what I should “do” with my life. I spent one summer hitchhiking around the country convinced this was God’s will for me. It didn’t turn out the way I expected, though I won’t say that it wasn’t Spirit led – or, perhaps more accurately, Spirit protected and used.

There were those around me who thought God had a very specific plan for their lives: what they should do, where they should go, whom they should marry, but finding that plan was not simple for me. And then I came upon this verse: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” which, for a long time, I remembered as saying “This is the will of God…”

Americans derive so much of our identity by what we do. It’s the first question we tend to ask a new acquaintance. But the ancient world would ask to whom we belong. What is our family? What is our clan? Americans don’t memorize their genealogies back to Abraham, but in the Biblical world, who you are is revealed by those with whom you are connected.

So while we think about the will of God as what we should do, Jesus answers in terms of those with whom we are connected. The will of God is that we be connected to Jesus (and his community). And the ‘work’ of God – of the work for God – is not answered in terms of ritual obligations but trust and allegiance.

This is not a small conversation. What does it mean to show allegiance to Jesus (and his community)? There are, in fact, lots of things that that we are to do – feed the hungry, shelter the poor, do justice, love one another, love our enemy. But it is the way we embody Christ to one another that is at stake, not whether we become a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker. We are to live our gifts, to follow those passions God has given us – whether it for law or dance of family. But whatever we do, our trust and allegiance is in Jesus and God’s reign of grace and life in and through him.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The crowd is not quite ready for this. They are attached to their temple (as we are attached to ours, whether temples of stone or ideas.) But in this verse lies a very important and profound element to the question of God’s will for our lives: it is about trust in and allegiance to Jesus.


Image: Ceiling of one of the chambers of the Sumela monastery.  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_at_Sumela.jpg.  Photo: By Vladimer Shioshvili (Flickr: jesus) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

File:Weltchronik Fulda Aa88 103r detail2.jpg


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“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.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.

“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 didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.


Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.