One Mason Jar at a Time

Sunday sermon from October 12, 2014
Text: Exodus 16:2-31
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

So, to set the scene: we are in the middle of Spaceballs, Mel Brooks’ 1987 parody of Star Wars, Star Trek, and every other science-fiction-fantasy-space-opera. Spaceballs, in other words, is not a serious film. It is among the dumbest of the dumb, but there is a nugget of truth buried here that we need for this morning. Just at the beginning of the second act, our intrepid heroes, after daring to a kidnapped princess, have crash-landed on a desert planet. They set off on that long cinematic walk across the wilderness, Lawrence-of-Arabia style, but, before they go, the captain advises this very high-maintenance princess to take from their ship “only what you need to survive,” and the camera cuts, and the next thing we see is the princess walking unladen through the desert while our heroes drag behind them multiple heavy pieces of her oversized luggage. After a few beats they give up in exasperation. While the princess looks on in horror, the captain opens the heaviest piece of her luggage and removes from it the largest blow-dryer you have ever seen.

The captain stares down at this monstrosity of a thing, wondering, no doubt, what in the Dickens has gone so wrong with his life that he is now dragging through the desert this anchor of a device all at the behest of a spoiled rich girl, and so he picks up this blow-dryer and with some disdain in his eyes asks of her “What’s this? I said, ‘Take only what you need to survive.’”

To which she replies, “It’s my industrial-strength hair-dryer, and I can’t live without it.”

All punchlines aside, somewhere in that joke is, believe it or not, the question at the heart of our text for today, which is, of course: “What do you pack for a journey through the wilderness? What do you have to take with you to survive?” Israel has escaped from Egypt; they have crossed the Red Sea; they have left Pharaoh’s army in disrepair. They are bound for some promised land of milk and honey, but of course that’s still a while off, forty years, but they don’t know it yet. All they know is that the wilderness is a hard place to be; they’ve gone from watering-hole to watering-hole but at some point the hunger begins to set in.

And so, about a month and a half removed from crossing that Red Sea, then, Israel really begins to complain, and Moses and Aaron, the two who rescued them from Pharaoh in the first place, of course they’re the ones who get it. “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.” Now, first of all, don’t over-interpret “fleshpot.” It’s not a euphemism for anything. It just refers to whatever large cauldron they would have had access to for the proper cooking of meat. It’s where Israel makes their Brunswick Stew. Second and more importantly: how bad does it have to get – how bad must it have been – for Israel to so quickly grow nostalgic for its time in slavery, and, lest we forget, under the constant threat of genocide?

It must have been bad. But of course this is usually where the God of abundance kicks in. The father welcomes home that prodigal son, the one who lost everything, and kills the fatted calf. One basket of bread and fish transforms into the feast befitting a multitude. The Biblical God of abundance, perhaps not so unlike any half-competent church pastoral care team, is perfectly capable of finding people in their hour of need and stuffing their freezers full of casseroles. But what God gives Israel in this wilderness is not such an abundant feast. It is no fatted calf or endless basket of fish. It is certainly an unsatisfying foretaste of the land of milk and honey. It is, rather, this thin layer of starchy dew littered on the ground, this “Manna,” of which God says, “Take only what you need to survive.” “Take only what you need for each day, one day at a time.”

And as if to rub the point home, when some of the Israelites try to save some of it, you know, a little extra, just in case something goes wrong tomorrow, a little nest egg – there’s so much of it, it would be a shame to waste it – when Israel tries to save a little extra, it just turns foul overnight; the text says that it overflows with worms by morning. Which isn’t totally surprising, of course. Food spoils. But in this story it’s not entirely natural, because of course on the day before the Sabbath Israel is instructed to collect twice as much, and on the Sabbath morning there are no worms at all, so that Israel can observe its day of rest. So maybe it’s not exactly what they need to survive. It’s what they need to survive as God’s people.

Now, even 4,000 years ago, this living day-to-day is not the normal way of things. Israel is no stranger to food storage. Grains would have been kept through the winter. Milk would have been made into cheese so that it could last without refrigeration. Israel is hardly used to living hand-to-mouth. Nor, of course, are we. We have just come through the high season of our own annual harvest, which means that for some of you I imagine that right now your own kitchens and houses are as full as they could possibly be with fruits of the harvest set away for winter. Carefully frozen, in labeled ziploc bags: “Blueberries, June 2014.” Dried, perhaps, in tupperware sitting in cupboard, “Apples, October 2014.” Or, perhaps more likely, down in the basement, in cardboard boxes stuffed foot to brim with mason jars, your harvest has been pressure-sealed and boiled – I think it was Teresa Smith who told me she had put up 40 pints – “Tomatoes, September 2014.” We know what to do with abundance. The winters are long. You save some for later. I am hardly an expert in home canning and I have never done it without seriously scalding myself with boiling water but even I, this year, in the full glory of peach season, even the Gaventas got in on the game, and in our pantry you will a half-dozen jars of our own preferred method of abundance-deferral: “Peach Butter, August, 2014.”

But Israel’s not putting up mason jars. They’re not allowed. With no way of knowing where they are going or how they will get there or how long it will take, Israel is explicitly denied the opportunity to build up a little security.“Take only what you need for each day.” “Take only what you need to survive.” There’s no food storage. There’s no “saving for later.” There’s no long-term planning. There’s no rainy-day fund. This text has no patience for abundance. And the reason it gives, of course, is that God in this wilderness wants Israel to subsist on God alone. One day at a time, God says, “and then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” In this story God wants Israel to wake up every morning relying every morning on the grace of God. More than that: God wants Israel to wake up every morning knowing every morning that it subsists purely on the grace of God. So while the Bible surely offers us many examples of the rich abundance of the kingdom, the perspective in this particular story is somewhat different. In this particular story abundance becomes the problem, because abundance would give Israel the means to fend for itself. What we have here instead is God who gives just enough. Just enough, to live as God’s people. Just enough, for now. Abundance may come tomorrow. This story is about having enough for right now.

No collection of mason jars could possibly in real life exceed the collection dreamed up in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley, a daughter of the midwest, takes the rough outline of Shakespeare’s King Lear and unleashes it across the setting of a slowly dying family farm. Her setting is no stranger to the miracle of abundance and the struggle for survival: while the farm creaks uncertainly from year to year, the kitchen overflows with a bounty numbered in mason jars. At every turn somebody is opening a jar of something: pickled peaches; tomato chutney; pepper jelly. But it seems that for every jar they open there are at least a dozen left in the basement; in fact, in one sequence, she describes finding no fewer than dozens and dozens of unopened jars, dust-covered, forgotten, in one sense such a testimony to the bounty of a place and the abundant life that sprang from it.

But in Smiley’s book the mason jars don’t just represent abundance. They also represent some fundamental inability to live into the present moment. In the original play, the noble, aging Lear becomes suspicious of his youngest daughter’s sincere affections, driving her away and leaving himself in the hands of her two conniving sisters. But Smiley’s book takes as its central character the older of these sisters, who, as the book goes along, finds herself in various kinds of battle with every almost member of her family. I will spare you the melodramatic details of why. Suffice to say that Ginny begins to nurse a murderous rage against her middle sister, Rose, a rage she quite literally bottles up. She finds some poisonous water hemlock on the farm property. She cuts some inside of some fresh liver sausages, covers them in a jar with brine water, and boils them to a seal. Then, she takes that one jar of poisoned sausages, mixed with a sundry group of a dozen other mason jar delights, and delivers it with a smile on her face to her sister’s welcome arms. She figures someday, her sister will get what’s coming to her. All she has to do is wait.

A great deal of time passes, as it always does when we are waiting for the future to happen. That jar of poisoned sausage sits on the back of the shelf, like so many of the mason jars in my house, like so many of the ones in your house, waiting for a day that never comes. A great many pages later, Ginny comes back to the house on a mission to find that jar and destroy the evidence. She does, of course, behind so many dozens of other, dusty jars. She pours it all down the sink. She bleaches the area clean. She removes all trace of this future she had once left waiting. And what she describes in that moment is its own kind of liberation: as Israel from the slavery that lingers in its past, so too Ginny here from the grisly future waiting around the bend. As she empties that jar, she describes being relieved of the “burden of having to wait and see what was going to happen.” Ginny transforms from being someone for whom the future looms darkly to one who can live into the present moment. And Smiley leaves her having blissfully enough, just for right now.

Which means our challenge in this story isn’t simply to eat our way through all the apple butter in our pantries. Our challenge is to figure out how to live as a community of faith content to have enough, just for right now. Here at Amherst Presbyterian Church we are just entering into stewardship and budget season. In the weeks ahead you will be hearing about where the church is in its own financial stewardship, what are our hopes and dreams for the coming year, and, as these things go, you will be asked about your own commitment to those hopes and dreams. It is, of course, the money in your pocket that makes those dreams into reality. And one of the challenges I will offer — not just to us as individuals, but to the congregation as a whole — is to consider what it means to be a community that is unafraid to spend what it has, unafraid to spend down a balance of goodness and grace stored in so many dusty mason jars. There is nothing so poisonous to a community as the work of waiting around for a future we have canned somewhere in the basement. It’s not a call to financial irresponsibility, nor a call to flamboyant consumption. What it is is a reminder that God’s church is happening right now. This is the destination. Israel thinks their walk with God begins when they get to the promised land. But it begins now. The challenge is to be a church that says “Who we are is not wrapped up in some dream of a future yet to come. Who we are are these people, in this journey, together, right now.

And every day we will have just enough, just exactly what we need. So much of our lives live under the shadow of hypotheticals: “What could we do if we had a million dollars?” “What could we do if we had 400 people in the pews every Sunday morning?” “What could we do if we had that brand new church building?” But in this story the question is no longer hypothetical. It’s not about what happens after you make it to the Promised Land. It happens right now: “What will you do with the gifts God has already given you? What do you need to do the ministry that God has called you to do, right now?” And the answer, of course is that what we have right now is already enough to do whatever God is calling us to do. Because what we have right now cannot be measured in bank statements or church ledgers. What we have right now, every morning, every morning laid out for us like the dew, what we have right now is the immeasurable grace of God. You can’t stockpile it for later. You can’t take it with you. There’s no way that we can get so much grace from God today that tomorrow we can do it without Him. So relieve yourselves of the burden of having to wait and see what is going to happen: tomorrow we will still have enough. Because God will not abandon God’s people. Because God will meet us every morning like the rain. Because God will shine upon us every evening like the sun. Because God will walk with us every step of the journey. Because here, especially in the wilderness, here every morning comes with exactly what we need to survive, as God’s people.

It’s our industrial-strength grace of God, and we can’t live without it.

Amen.