August 31, 2014
“A Theology of Enough”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Exodus 16:1-5, 13-21
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 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.”4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 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. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’”
17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
Enough. How do we know what that is? How far is far enough? When have we worked enough and earned enough money? When have we done enough to get a college acceptance? When have we had enough to eat? When do we have enough stuff in our closets? When have we had enough anxiety, enough stress?
Author Wayne Muller writes, “We have forgotten what enough feels like. We live in a world seduced by its own unlimited potential . . . at worst we feel powerless; no matter how strong our hearts, or how good or kind our intentions, each day the finish line seems further away, the bar keeps rising, nothing is ever finished, nothing ever good enough. So we work and add and never stop, never back away, never feel complete, and we despair of ever finding comfort, relief or sanctuary.”
Where is the end of our ceaseless striving? When are we safe enough? When have we prayed enough or done enough good things? When do we have enough space in our houses?
Author Jen Hatmaker writes, “2,465 square feet. Four bedrooms. Two living rooms. Two and half bathrooms. Nine closets. Twenty-six cabinets. Three bookshelves. Ten dressers and armoires.
Every last one of them packed full. I invented an engineering trick to get them closed that I should patent. Some cabinets are packed so high I have remove forty pounds of stuff before I can retrieve the bottom dwellers.
I don’t even know what’s in some of them. About three times a year, I rant around the house, screaming at our stuff: ‘What is all this? How did it get here? Why do we have so much junk? How am I supposed to keep up with all this? Where did all this come from?”
And then I remember: I bought it all.”
That’s how Jen Hatmaker opens one of her chapters from her book “Seven” in which she tries to do something in the face of the forces of greed and excess and overindulgence that seem to have taken over her life.
Figuring out what is enough, for her and for us, is a spiritual journey. It is finding the place where we rest easy in the simple sufficiency that comes with trust in God and having only what we need, where this day is enough, this moment is enough, this breath is enough.
When we pick up the story in the text today, the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea and they are traveling into a land with no reliable life support system. God has promised to take them into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of nourishment and abundance.
But this wilderness is not that place. It is a training ground. Theology professor Amy Erickson writes that many of her students have commented that all the Israelites do is whine and complain in this passage. But she asks could it be that this is the place that God took his people to form them into the people they needed to be.
She writes, “God designs and implements a plan to shape these former slaves into the people of the God. Prior to their liberation, the Israelites knew only life in Egypt, an empire where they constructed storehouses for food , where they were exposed constantly to a hoarding, competitive ethos, and where human lives were abused and broken in order to fuel the hunger of the elite.”
God hears their cried and acknowledges that they need reassurance – this journey in the desert is fraught with risk – where will the food and water come from? There are thousands of them. The Israelites remember that at least when they were slaves they were guaranteed a meal.
But God needs to reshape them. All they know is how to be a slave and now they need to know what is means to be God’s people, to live as a community that relies on one another and on God, especially when they will enter a land of abundance.
Amy Erikson notes that it is through this “ritual practice of daily gathering of food that falls from the sky, they will learn, with their very bodies, to come to trust their God; they will learn to share their basic human resources equitably.”
The Israelites are told to gather only what they need, enough for one day.
There were those who hoarded more than they needed, in violation of Mosses’ warning and had some left over for the next day, and it got maggoty and foul. They wanted to establish a zone of self-sufficiency.
The people in the wilderness immediately try to replicate the ways of Egypt by storing up and hoarding out of anxiety and greed. The narrator takes pains to explain that the stored up, surplus bread is useless.
They learned this lesson again and again, day by day: work to gather what you need, not more – there are others in community who need it. Do not take more than you need because it will be worth nothing to you. So one of the first lessons they learn as God’s people is this, about what is enough.
God is teaching two aspects of enough.
One, that our lives are not meant to be endlessly productive. We are not meant to gather to ourselves an anxious overabundance, to work and work and buy and buy, because we do not know when we have enough. God gives them, and us, instruction to rest. If you go back and read the story in full you will see how God establishes a pattern of rest. Every seventh day the food will not come – there is no need to go gather it. What was gathered the day before will be enough.
The Israelites, barely away from their slave drivers, cannot imagine what it looks like to not go out and work. They go out to gather and find nothing. God is reshaping them, reminding them that free people can rest, slaves cannot. God tells them that they can stop, they have done enough.
The second thing God is teaching is that we must learn what is enough, for the sake of others, for the sake of the community, so that everyone has enough. So we see that when the Israelites go out to gather, those who gather much do not have too much, and those who gather little do not have too little. God is telling them by this daily ritual, that everyone should have enough. This is the economy of God’s kingdom.
Shane Claiborne, who calls himself an ordinary radical, is one of the founders of the Simple Way in Philadelphia which is an intentional Christian community, a place where they live together, share what they have, care for all people, fight injustice, feed people.
He writes, “I’m convinced God did not mess up and make too many people and not enough stuff. Poverty was created not by God but by you and me, because we have not learned to love our neighbors as ourselves. Gandhi put it well when he said, ‘There is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed.’ One of the first commandments given to out biblical ancestors while they were stuck in the middle of the wilderness somewhere between Pharaoh’s empire and the promised land was this: each one was to gather only as much as they needed . . . Over and over, we hear the promise that if we only take what we need, there will be enough.”
What would it look like to walk through our lives, breathing in and out “it is enough”? Can we allow God to teach us this lesson, to gather enough and seek to make sure that others, our brothers and sisters, also have enough? We are a privileged people to even ask these questions when billions of people around the world are desperate to find enough.
Could we look at our lives and see where the excesses lie? Could we say with the writer of proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Could we start with this, for everything that comes into our homes, one or more things go out? Could we give things away because we hear God’s call that we not have too much while our brothers and sisters have too little?
Let us walk through every day, and say to ourselves “it is enough” and discover what God intended for his people – a differently shaped life, trusting in God and loving one another.