What is it? The Answer Can Be Hard to Swallow

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-15
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 24, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A friend of mine and I were recently looking at a strange apple-like fruit on an unfamiliar plant and I asked him “What is it?” He didn’t know, but to my surprise he picked the fruit and took a bite and then another. He did not die. In fact he is here today.

I have often thought how brave the first tasters of new foods and drinks are. Coffee and beer and raw oysters and sushi and even unsweet chocolate are particular cases in point. You have to develop a taste for them, they are bitter or odd on the tongue or to the eye or to our customs. “What is it?” would be more than a fair question when first partaking of a new – and especially odd food.

I sometimes wonder who the first person was to try this or that strange food after initially asking “What is it?” Even today there are some foods that put before us we might not want to know the answer to that question. “What is it?” sometimes might be better off left unanswered. Here’s an example I read recently about a so-called bread. I am not making this up there is a place in the world where – and I am quoting –

a type of plant lice punctures the fruit of [a] tree and excretes a substance from [its] juice, [in the form of] a yellowish-white flake or ball. During the warmth of the day it disintegrates, but congeals when cold. It has a sweet taste. Rich in carbohydrates and sugar, it is still gathered by natives who bake it into a kinda bread . . . The food decays quickly and attracts ants. 1.

I feel pretty confident that if any of us were shown that flaky stuff on the ground we’d ask “What is it?” If we were told we were supposed to make bread out of it and eat it everyday we’d do a double take and ask a bit more emphatically “WHAT is it? If we knew the answer was plant lice dung, we’d most likely wish we didn’t know.

In our lesson today, the Hebrew people ask that question about the daily bread God’s sends, they ask “What is it?” And guess what? In Hebrew the question is pronounced “man hu”which is where the word manna comes from. So the food that the People of God get from God they end up naming “What is it?” That’s meant to be a humorous. And we might find it a little funnier when we know that the plant lice droppings used for food that I described a moment ago are found in the place where the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness and first asked “What is it?” Today natives call the bread they make out of it, manna.

Since this modern “manna” corresponds to the details and geography described in Exodus scholars suggest that it may be the manna referred to, the daily bread from heaven that the Hebrews are reported to have survived on in the wilderness. And that would sure explain why they say “What is it?” When Aaron and Moses’ tell them it’s to be eaten every day.

As I was putting together this sermon I kept smiling at the idea that probably the most famous food in Bible, if not the world, manna translated means “What is it?” That is funny all on its own but I also find it funny because I cannot help but wonder what we’d all think of a modern bread product wrapped up and labeled and marketed for sale by that name,

“‘What is it?’ builds bodies 12 strong ways. How? Well let’s look at the list of ingredients. Oh, I see here listed first, plant lice dung.”

I am making a bit light of it, but I am also trying to impress on us how difficult eating something called “What is it?” – manna– was for the Hebrew congregation. This was no easy thing. See while they get the luxury of quail at night–which are known to come in the area as described in the Bible– every morning they must also wake up to eating this new and very, very different food.

That’s the story anyway. See all of what the Bible recorded, and the commentaries (and my reports) so far, may or may not be historically how things happen– people argue about that– but either way we need to consider how the story can have meaning for us today? There can be a powerful metaphoric truth in this story one way or another.

The people of God turn from bondage and the ways things were in Egypt with the powerful human-elite’s oppressive way of doing things, the story remembers that it was God who led them to that freedom and turning. So for sure we can understand the story includes a meaning that God rescues people from oppression, and that as a part of those rescues God provides. That’s a common truth set out in Bible Stories.

But – and this is always true too– God’s people have to turn to the difficult and strange ways of the wilderness path that God calls them to in order to be fully rescued and transformed from what has been to what should be. In the story that is happening. God’s people are transforming from the old way of doing things. And, as we heard, the people complain about to it to the leaders. For millennia people have resisted change. And the leaders are right to respond, as we hear Moses and Aaron do, that the complaints are against God.

We can hear all of this as metaphor applicable today to our Spiritual journeys, turning from the bondage and oppressive ways of man, to the freedom and justice oriented way of God. And it holds up as symbolism for the taking in of spiritual nourishment too. When we turn to God and go onto God’s way in the wilderness we get this wonderful meaty stuff of unconditional love for us as individuals.

Who doesn’t like to go to sleep full of, that delicious meat knowing we matter much? That is something we desire and want to swallow. But there is a corresponding manna of unconditional love for others that God’s people also have to also ingest. When love is unconditional from God, that necessarily means everyone is entitled to that love. That manna can be hard to swallow.
On God’s way, as God’s people, we have to provide love too. To everyone inside and outside of church. That is a fragile, easily spoiled, some say flaky stuff, this manna of loving others. But like it or not, the manna of unconditional love for others is as essential to our nourishment as the meat of unconditional love for us.

Hear how that metaphor works? We are supposed to turn away from things that keep us in bondage and sinful ways that our power elites in the culture call us to do, like the religious and secular Pharaohs who even today after all these years would still have us not love – and oppress– those they deem as others.

Only the bold and the brave turn away from Pharaohs and toward God’s love. Because while God’s way provides a wonderful meaty unconditional love for us God’s way also provides a corresponding manna of unconditional love for others that we have to ingest for balanced spiritual nutrition. To some that second part, the manna part sounds icky. The complete healthy spiritual nourishment, the foodstuffs of our faith are made of things some don’t want to partake of. Because while love for us is easy to swallow, love for others is very hard for many to swallow.

Some even treat love for others like it is plant lice dung. Sadly I hear it from those outside the church who don’t want to turn toward God’s way in the wilderness, who want to continue the power elite’s sinful ways of being unloving to others, like LGBTQ, People of Color, People of Other Faiths, even Women and the Poor and Aliens and Disabled among us. It’s a sign of not wanting to take in the manna of unconditional love for others.

And sadly over the years I also hear unloving acts by some inside churches toward members and leaders they disagree with. There is inherently nothing wrong with thoughtful dissent and disagreement (I encourage it) but it is sinful to act unkind and unjust and unloving in churches– as much as it is to act that way outside. It’s also a sign of not wanting to take in the manna of unconditional love for others.

I am sure we’ve all heard complainers among God’s people, not unlike those in our story. And we have heard them outside and inside churches. Outside or inside, big or small, the issue is usually the same, the complainers want the good stuff (meaty unconditional love for themselves), but don’t want the hard-to-swallow stuff (easily spoiled unconditional love for others).
It is hard to desire the well being of all others– let alone actually provide that well being. It’s easier to be unkind or unjust or unloving. I hear from time to time that our church – this amazingly welcoming place– is actually exclusive by its inclusivity, our taking in the manna of unconditional love is somehow conditional. The argument seems to be that kindness, justice and love for everyone excludes those that don’t want to provide. In other words, if I have this argument straight, it is exclusive to not allow the unjust to act unjustly, the unkind to act unkindly and the unloving to act unlovingly.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it’s a nonsense argument. No one is excluded– unloving conduct is excluded. Those who make the argument, if you think about it want done to them what they don’t want to do for others. They want the meat of unconditional love for self, but not the manna of unconditional love for others. They have trouble swallowing the distasteful-to-them manna of doing to others as they want done to themself, of desiring the well being of others and acting like it.

It is distasteful to many to follow God’s commands to love everyone, to actually and really tend to the well being of all manner of people as God made them. Whether we like them ot disagree with them. We actually and truly welcome all manner of people as God made them, but there are boundaries that keep us in a line aimed at the well being of others outside and inside churches.
We can see this happen with the Godly ideals we teach and preach and try to do regarding being respectful of others. We welcome as equals people of all color and genders and ages and disabilities and education and wealth and gender identification and partner preference. We also welcome as equal those of other faiths and those of no faith at all. We also welcome as equal those who are uneducated and those who are educated– even if those who went to college in Michigan! You can be from another church or be a Fundamentalist or an Atheist or an Agnostic or a long time UCCer and you will be embraced as equal here. You can disagree with anyone in this church and you will be welcome, see no person is unwelcome, but unkind, unjust, unloving conduct is, how can we be safe otherwise?

All of this can be a hard for some to swallow and so we hear complaints about that manna of unconditional love in letters to the editor or to me or to the leadership or to you. And you know what? It is fair answer to such complaints by claiming as Moses and Aaron do that “Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” We are doing God’s work by trying to take in unconditional love and give out unconditional love.

How do we know it is God’s work? Because, well . . look on the wall behind me. Micah tells us there are only three requirements God has for humans. As a whole we are doing them by caring for the oppressed and being respectful and safe in this place. We take in the manna, the “what is it,” by aiming as best we can to love kindness and seek justice and walk humbly with God. That’s the manna we have learned and continue to learn to swallow and digest.

Conversely those who do not provide kindness are not doing this. Those who do not provide justice are not doing this. Nor is unkindness or injustice or unlovingness humbly walking with God.

And it is not just Micah. We are told in Scripture that God is love. And we are told that love is steadfast and endures forever. We are told to love everyone – all our Christian brothers and sisters, all our neighbors AND all our enemies. And we are told what love looks like in 1 Corinthians 13

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We are trying to be that love– unconditionally. We can have unconditional love and still have conditions for conduct like, those from Micah and 1 Corinthians. Unconditional love does not mean rules, courtesies, and expectations for kind, just and loving conduct go out the door – or that we do not challenge unloving behavior. We cannot have a safe world or churches if they are not . . . well . . . safe places. From Micah we know that loving kindness includes expecting kindness. Seeking justice, means expecting justice. Walking humbly with God means expecting humble walkers with God. From 1 Corinthians 13 we know love’s boundaries expect God’s people to be patient and kind, to not act envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, to not insist on our own way; or be irritable or resentful; or rejoice in wrongdoing. These are not elitist expectations because they apply to everyone. These are not exclusionary practices toward how people are made by God, but toward conduct that is unloving and un-Godly by Biblical definition.

This applies to big issues like oppression in the culture imposed on groups like LGBTQ or People of Color or Women or Those of Other Faiths, or Aliens or the Disabled or the Poor and it applies to every day conduct among Christian brothers and sisters. We swallow the manna of unconditional love for those the culture and maybe we have other-wised in past. But unconditional love –all of this caring – is not just for people the culture oppresses and those outside churches.

Christians are also expected to provide that love to one another, to be respectful to others in all the things they do as church or for churches. Calling someone who disagrees with you a “so-called Christian,” like I saw in a letter the editor this week is not doing this. Nor is being otherwise unjust, unkind or unloving or un-humble to anyone outside or inside the church.

It is not exclusionary to have boundaries that expect kindness, justice and love. It is not exclusionary if someone chooses to leave because of those boundaries.

See for Jesus Followers the manna of unconditional love includes swallowing the Biblical ideals that we are to love kindness, seek justice, walk humbly . . . be patient and kind . . . not act envious or boastful or arrogant or rude . . .not insist on our own way; or be irritable or resentful; or rejoice in wrongdoing. Christians are to strive to do this both outside and inside churches. And none of us does it perfectly all the time, but, we should try to do so as best we can– and challenge each other to.

May we all do our part to digest not just the meaty unconditional love for self, but the manna of unconditional love for everyone . . . everyone.


1. Fretheim, Terence, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary, on Exodus, p 182