This morning The Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause, the academic dean here at Eden Theological Seminary, preached on Exodus 16:2-21 during our chapel services. Her sermon - which deals with history, grace, Barbara Bush and Hurricane Katrina - was powerful and it is too bad an audio recording is not available. However, Dr. Krause was kind enough to give me permission to post the text of her sermon here.
Beware of stories like the quail and manna story.
They sound nice, but they should make you quite suspicious. Stories like this are the stories that religious communities tell about themselves to remind their members of the institutional values, and authorities of the community. They are origin stories. They can be a kind of map as to who plays what role and to what the overarching cultural assumptions and rules are. In other words – they can be told as stories that tell you who you are and what you should do. Beware of stories like this.
Eden seminary has a story like this. Like the Israel story from the wilderness tradition it is grounded in the origins of the school. Much like the story of the quails and manna, this Eden story sets a baseline for the identity of the Eden community and its members. The story is this – that back in 1850 – at the founding of this school in Marthasville, Missouri – just about forty minutes west of here – students had literal “field work” to do before they went to class. In fact, these original students had farm chores of cultivating the fields of the campus, tending the livestock, mending the buildings, fences, and equipment. For several hours each day these hearty and pious students would work as farmers for the Eden community before they would begin their own academic studies.
This is a story about the origin of Eden seminary that bespeaks our simple piety, our thriftiness, and our pride in hard work. When we recite this story for current students it plays a very important rhetorical role – it says: “we are made of sturdy stock,” “hard work with and for the institution insures an enduring legacy,” and “students today have nothing to complain about.”
Likewise in ancient Israel, the story of the quails and manna in the wilderness bore several core truths about the community. Our leaders lead well and are obedient to God. Our practices and observances, such as the Sabbath, were established even at the very founding of our community. Our members were contrary and disobedient, and required strong leadership. You might guess that this was likely a story told by the religious leadership of Israel.
Now imagine rhetorically what such a tradition might mean in the hearing of such a community: It would reinforce the established leadership of the religious community, it would authorize the practices and observances of that community. The story would call for its hearers to follow the leaders and follow the rules. The message of the text might be something like: “Obey the rules and all will be well.”
Come to think of it – the Dean likes that message from the text for this morning – “Obey and all will be well.”
But theologically what does the story mean? Is there more to the story from the wilderness generation other than a moral tale about how Israel ought to trust and obey its God and ought to trust and obey its leaders?
Yes – indeed there is. Look at the central theme of the story. Those who complain and who challenge the system of God’s leadership of the people – they are fed, and nourished, and sustained. While Moses and Aaron may have liked to institute a system that those who complain most receive less, or that those who attempt to gather more than their fair share – find their food ruined and are never allowed to gather again – such is not the case.
In fact, those who break the rules are ultimately rewarded. No doubt those who take more than their fair omer of manna, find their food to weigh what their neighbor’s does, and their extra gathering for naught. Those who keep their food overnight, find that food ruined with worms a day later. But every day there is always more. And on the Sabbath – there is a double portion . . . for any and for all – both the compliant and the complaining.
So this text is not simply about rules, and expectations for membership in the community of Israel, it is also about something much bigger, and much less “map – able” It is about grace.
And grace resists the voice of authority that announces with such confidence the summary value of the religion to be “Obey and all will be well.” Grace sneaks up around the side and behind the back of institutional norms and authorized self certainties and says to the outsider (and even the broken down insider) “Hey, guess what, there’s enough for you too. It’s alright, have something to eat.”
And so the story bears both an institutional message and a subversive message of grace.
This last week there was quite a bit of institutionalized rhetoric about the hideous disaster on the Gulf coast and the response of the government and private citizens to the tragedy. In this rhetoric you could hear echoes of the stories we tell ourselves as a nation – stories that authorize leaders to lead and inform those who follow to comply and not complain. One, now infamous expression of this national rhetoric came from former first lady Barbara Bush.
Last week while in the Houston Astrodome, visiting with survivors from Katrina, many of whom had spent several harrowing, life threatening days in the N.O. Convention Center or the Superdome, Barbara Bush shared with reporters her response to how the survivors were processing their good fortune to be out of flood ravaged N.O. and in a situation of relative comfort and safety. She said:
“What I am hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they (the survivors) all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the Arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, (chuckle) so this is working very well for them.”
Barbara Bush’s institutionalized worldview of the established authorities – a worldview oblivious of its own investiture in white privilege and upper class elitism -- was reading the story of Katrina survivors in Houston as a case of the underprivileged making out like bandits on gracious Texan hospitality of Houston’s largesse. But theologically, what “Bar” seemed to miss is that the provision that has come forth in the aftermath of Katrina is not some silver teaspoon of sympathy measured out by the “haves” to the “have nots.” It is nothing less than the goodness of God which is beyond all of our control and maneuvering, providing enough and even a double portion for those who have been stranded in this wilderness of disaster, devastation, and despair.
Mrs. Bush’s attempts to supervise that expression of grace, and to codify it into categories of who deserves what and how left her this week with nothing but a mouthful of worms. The goodness she seemed to imagine she spoke for dried up in the noonday heat, and left her not the grand dame of Texan hospitality she seemed to imagine herself to be, but a callous classist and a racist.
Never fear for Barbara. The good news is that if she hangs out in that wilderness long enough there will no doubt be grace enough for her as well. That is the way grace works, and at one time or another we have all been at the wrong end of telling a story where we have desperately needed grace before.
The good news of Israel’s story – if we read it theologically – is that it resists a simple claim like “Obey the rules and you will be saved.” Instead, the story from God’s point of view is a kind of parable about God’s grace and provision. Such parables offer not so much institutional legitimacy and authority – I think Israel knew there would always be claims to those things in ample measure. Rather there is a promise in this story of God’s provision and goodness that might call us from our certainties and carefully constructed views out into something much more liberating and life giving – new communities, new relationships, and new life.
For that encouragement, for that promise, let us thank God as we journey on in faith in these days of both wilderness and blessing.
Photo credit: Eden Theological Seminary web site
Update: Read the comments on this post in the UCC's online theology forum.