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Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

To paraphrase a former president in a presidential debate, “There they go again.”

Those Israelites.

Carping and complaining, moaning and groaning.

“If only we had meat to eat!”

“We remember … Egypt.”

“Our strength is dried up …”

“There is nothing … but this manna to look at.”

Here the Israelites are, multiple years into their journey in the wilderness, and they are fed up to their gills with manna – you know, bread from heaven manna? – and what do they want? What do they really want after all these years of eating the bread of heaven?

They want meat.

Oh, they can talk about the veggies and the fruit they used to eat in Egypt – I’m telling you, their doctors were probably really pleased, because they wanted a balanced diet, good for their hearts, but, no, what they really wanted was Capital M-Capital E.-Capital A.-Capital T-MEAT. Because they were tired of eating manna.

It’s not like the Israelites didn’t have enough to eat – they did.

They had the manna from heaven – the bread that God sent, in just the right amount. Every single morning, God sent them just the right amount of manna. And they didn’t want it anymore. Now I want you to know, in case no one has told you, manna actually is real. Manna is a real substance that you can find, to this day in the Sinai, if you are out in the remote areas, where the Israelites once sojourned. Manna is not what most people think it is. A lot of people think of manna and they think it is those little communion wafers that you get in church on Sunday mornings. Uh-uh-uh, that’s not manna. Manna is … um … plant lice excretion,[1] also known as bug poop.

That’s what the Israelites are complaining about this morning. They are tired of bug poop. It’s not that they are tired of having bug poop every day. What they are tired of is only having bug poop every day.

And frankly, let’s be honest, if had to eat bug poop every day, wouldn’t you be tired of it? After all, there are only so many ways you can fix bug poop. You can boil it. You can bake it. You can toast it. That’s it. There’s nothing else you can do with it. And if you don’t do that pretty quick, it goes rotten anyway.

So, we’re not exactly talking about gourmet meals that the Israelites had had all those years wandering in the wilderness.

It was nutritious.

But it was not gourmet.

The Israelites were not complaining about not having enough. Because they had enough.

And it wasn’t simply that they wanted more – more food, more variety.

They were complaining because they thought that they deserved more. They thought that they had been faithful long enough, wandering around in the wilderness, scooping up bug poop every single morning, and eating it morning, noon and night. They thought that they were special. And because they were special, they should have something more.

Sinai from space, via NASA

The problem is, these people had forgotten, in all those years of roaming the wilderness, of being fed day and night by God on high, of being led day and night by God on high, they forgot that they were special not because they had been so faithful for so long, but because they were created in God’s very image. God chose to create them in God’s very image, the image of love – because, my friends, we are not necessary to God, so God must have wanted us, God must have desired us, God must have loved us into being – and the image of community, the community that comes from when God said, “Let us create humankind in our image.”

The Israelites had forgotten that they were created in that image, the image of love and community, and in God’s version of love and community, it’s never about what you deserve. In God’s version of love and community, it’s not about what you have earned by your faithfulness.

In God’s version of love and community, it is always about what God gives you.

And what God gives you is always enough.

Always.

• • •

I have to tell you, when I read this passage about the Israelites carping and complaining about how hard their lives were because they were tired of eating bug poop every day, I think back and remember my friends, my “families,” in Kenya and in Honduras, in Sudan and in Haiti, and I think to myself, “Man, I know a whole slew of people who would give anything to have what you people  had. I know a slew of people who would love to have … enough.

I mean, come on.

The Israelites are getting a guaranteed meal delivered to their doorstep every single morning, and they are kvetching about this?

They have enough, and they want more?

When I read this passage, I remember the days when I lived in Kenya, and the rains didn’t come and they didn’t come, and our crops dried up and died almost as soon as we put them into the ground, and we had so little to eat … so little … and our children went hungry and their bellies distended, and their hair turned red because they were malnourished, because we were literally eating the leaves off the trees …

I remember walking through the market looking for anything – anything – that I could possibly eat, and over here, there would be this little pile of scraggly little onions (and they were scraggly), and over here there would be this little pile of scraggly little tomatoes – barely an excuse for a tomato – and then I would see these piles of weird greens that I had never seen before and that I had no idea how to cook …

I remember asking the mamas, “What are those greens?” and having them laugh at me, because there I was, the white woman who was the Peace Corps fundi wa maji, the water engineer, who brought them water when possible, and I had no idea what I was looking at …

And I remember them telling me, “Those are leaves from the trees, mama.” And how, when I asked, “Which trees?” the women laughed even more and said, “If we told you that, you wouldn’t have to buy them from us!”

And I remember asking them to teach me to cook those scraggly leaves with those scraggly onions and those scraggly excuses for tomatoes, and how much we all rejoiced when finally, some rain arrived, and we could once again grow some of our crops.

When I think of the way the Israelites moaned and groaned because they didn’t think they could stand one more bite of God’s bread from heaven, I remember what it was like in Honduras, where we ate rice and beans, beans and rice, rice and beans, beans and rice, rice and beans, beans and rice, morning, noon and night … because we didn’t have anything else …

I remember what it was like in Sudan, a country that has been at war for most of the last sixty years, where food shortages were common, and death stalks the land on a constant basis, and nearly weeping to discover that war had once again brought death to our doorsteps, depriving us of fish and tomatoes and vegetables, because war means death, and death means bodies in the Nile River, and bodies in the Nile River upstream from us meant cholera downstream where we lived … so we couldn’t eat anything that had come into contact with river water … and all we had left were onions and lentils, and lentils and onions, and onions … and onions …

 

I remember more rice and beans, beans and rice in Haiti, where the poor subsist on less than a dollar a day – if they are lucky – and where oftentimes, there were more beans than rice, because the rice industry has been destroyed in that country by politics and hurricanes and earthquakes … and where to stave off hunger, we would buy pieces of sugar cane, so that we could gnaw on it, so that t

I remember what it is like to be hungry every single day … to not have enough …he sugar would abate our hunger, but it did nothing for our nutrition, and our children there were just as malnourished, with their bellies just as distended, and their hair turning just as red as they did in Kenya.

So you know what I think, when I read about the Israelites demanding more, demanding M-E-A-T-all-capital-letters-MEAT?

I think: You have enough! Quit complaining!

• • •

The sad thing is – and we do not like to admit this – we all are like the Israelites at some point in our lives.

We have enough – enough food, enough medicine, enough opportunity – and at first we think, “Thank you, Lord.”

But then …

Then …

We start complaining.

Because after a while, enough is not enough.

After a while, we want more …

After a while, we stop trying to keep up with the Joneses and we start trying to surpass the Joneses, and the next thing you know, we have more than enough, and the Joneses?

Well, the Joneses are out of luck.

This is what our society teaches us right now – you know this. Look at the advertising you see. Advertising that says, “Buy more, more, more, more!” And, “If you buy this, your life will be fulfilled!” Until the next version comes out. Adversiting tells us we simply cannot live if we do not have the latest version of whatever the newest thing is, if we do not wear the newest styles, if we do not drive the newest cars.

And right now, for some strange reason, society is telling us, in every way possible, that it is perfectly okay to say, “I’ve got mine, and I don’t care if you ever get yours!”

But that attitude of us against them? That attitude that demands more, more, more? That attitude that leaves others in the dust?

That is not God’s plan for us, my friends.

That is not how God looks at us. That is not why God created us.

Because in God’s very good creation, there is no such thing as “us’s” and “thems.” All of us – each of us and all of us – are beloved children of God.

God’s plan is that each of us – every single one of us beloved children of God – has, quite simply, enough.

Not too little.

Not too much.

Simply …

Enough.

Because in God’s very good creation, the one in which we who were created in God’s very image live, God’s plan, God’s dream, is that each one of us has enough.

Our call, as faithful people of God, is to make God’s plan, God’s dream for God’s beloved creation, come to fruition.

It is on us to do what God wants done.

Now, the moral of the story for those carping, complaining, moaning, groaning Israelites is that God basically replied, “More?!? You want more?!?! I’ll give you more! I’ll give so much more that you will literally choke on the meat that I will send you, and you will die from it!!!”

Which is what happened. If you keep reading in Numbers, remember, this is what happened.

These carping, complaining, moaning, groaning, there-they-go-again, stiff-necked people, they got what they asked for, and you should always be careful about asking, because you might just get what you asked for.

It’s not a pleasant ending to this story. But it does get across God’s basic message to us, who, I pray, are not carping, complaining, moaning, groaning, there-they-go-again, stiff-necked people.

Hopefully, we actually hear God’s message, and hopefully, we actually live God’s message, which is this:

In God’s eyes, enough truly is enough.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, at Immanuel Episcopal Church, Glencoe, Md., on 30 September 2012.


[1] From Barbara Brown Taylor’s Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, 1997.

 

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Celebrations and challenges in Egypt

My friend and fellow missionary, The Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, has written an eloquent piece on Episcopal News Service about what is going on in Egypt, where he is serves, particularly between the Muslims and Christians. Paul-Gordon, a mission partner with The Episcopal Church, is an author, Episcopal priest and interfaith advocate serving as the rector of St. John the Baptist Church in Cairo.

Paul-Gordon writes especially of how he is called to help facilitate dialogue and understanding between the two faiths and Egypt struggles to live into its new identity. He speaks, too, of how he helped the United Nations organize a recent meeting of the most influential religious leaders, Muslim and Christian.

The article begins:

Celebrations and challenges: Muslims and Christians look toward the future in Egypt

By Paul-Gordon Chandler, March 28, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] Against the background buzz of the now-familiar sound of army helicopters flying overhead, it is an interesting time to pull aside from all that has recently made this region seem like the “Wild East” to reflect on Egypt’s present situation. On Friday, March 25, we celebrated the two-month anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, popularly known as the “25 January Revolution.” We have indeed witnessed history. And it has been a time of profound emotion, full of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows.

In contrast to the protests all over the Middle East, such as in Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen, Egypt’s context is unique in that up to 10 percent of its population is Christian, mostly from the historic Coptic Orthodox Church founded by St. Mark. In the heat of the revolution and during its ongoing aftermath, this significant indigenous Christian presence has paradoxically allowed both for opportunities of unity and significant tension. If I had to sum up our recent experiences in the last two months, it would be in two words: celebrations and challenges.

There is so much to celebrate. In addition to the obvious new freedoms that exist due to the overthrow of the oppressive regime, the revolution has brought about a new and profound interfaith spirit among the youth. Time and time again, thousands of young Egyptian Muslims and Christians have taken to the streets together, first to protest the repressive system, and then to celebrate their victory. The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as “The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.” Around the country, Muslim imams address religious harmony and the importance of unity in their Friday sermons.  In the now world famous Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians have prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt. In essence the Egyptian revolution ended up as a summons to national unity, thereby condemning religious sectarianism. It has been deeply inspirational.

To read the rest of his post, click here.

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Bringing and receiving gifts in Sudan

Earlier this week, we received a great report from South Sudan, soon to be the world’s newest nation, about The Episcopal Church’s missionaries who are serving there. Robin Denney, Larry Duffee, The Rev. Robert North and his wife, Karen, serve in South Sudan, teaching, training and witnessing to the South Sudanese, and in return, receiving the witness of the faithful people of Sudan. All of the missionaries say the same thing:

When you give, you receive.
The story, by Matthew Davies of Episcopal News Service and datelined, Juba, South Sudan, reads:
Throughout several decades of civil war, the Episcopal Church of Sudan kept 2,000 schools open, mostly under trees – a testament to its commitment to educating its people.

Episcopal Church missionary Robin Denney discusses her agricultural ministry in South Sudan with The Rev. David Copley, Mission Personnel Officer for The Episcopal Church. Photo by Matthew Davies.

Today, with 4 million members, the Episcopal Church accounts for almost half of the south’s population. It is one of the biggest social service providers in the country, and as such is strategically positioned to reach deep into the hearts of local communities.

For Robin Denney, development work is about the changing of hearts and minds, and through her service as an Episcopal Church missionary in Sudan she’s witnessed those transformations in abundance through the church’s ministry.

“You can’t just convince someone to change their behavior by telling them something or by giving them training,” she said. “It’s through discerning as a community where is God calling us that people’s hearts and minds are changed and that is the work of the church, and the church here has such a vision for development.”

Denney, of El Camino Real, and Larry Duffee, an Episcopal missionary from Virginia, have traded in their lives in the U.S. to share their gifts and play a small part in helping to rebuild South Sudan, just four months away from independence after voters in a January referendum almost unanimously chose to secede from the north.

Denney’s agricultural training and Duffee’s business and financial background are valuable assets for the South Sudanese, who are eager to learn the necessary skills that ultimately will lead to self-sufficiency in their nation, plagued by decades of civil war until the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005.

While serving in South Sudan, the missionaries have been teaching pastors and community leaders at Bishop Gwynne Theological College, an educational institution in Juba run by the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

A video report on the missionaries’ work is here.

The bishops of the Sudan church, under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, have a vision, Denney explained — “that agriculture can really be the basis of a new economy” in South Sudan. “The land here is so fertile, it can be the breadbasket of Africa.”

Denney has lived and worked in South Sudan for just over two years. She has established an agriculture department for the Episcopal Church of Sudan and she takes her expertise to almost every diocese, offering workshops and hands-on experience, especially in more rural areas of South Sudan that are not experiencing the same level of growth and development as the capital, Juba.

In her first year, she worked primarily on training and preparing communities for agricultural projects and her second year saw those plans move towards implementation. The main farming projects are located in Eastern Equatoria, Yei, and Yonglei states, where the communities are now harvesting crops such as sorghum and sesame.

Most of the workers are volunteers and are learning new skills while simultaneously experimenting with new techniques to explore the yield potential of the land, Denney explained. “We realized that farmers are really interested in trying improved techniques if they can do it in a risk-free environment,” she said.

With that in mind, on one 10-acre farm in Panyikwara Abara half of the land was used to try out new techniques while the other half was cultivated with more traditional practices. “The improved techniques performed significantly better,” Denney said.

Last year, nine out of 10 officers who’d been involved in the projects had already implemented mulching (a protective cover placed over soil), and seven out of 10 had begun planting crops, Denney explained. She expects that number to be higher this year.

But her ministry comes with its share of challenges. In Jonglei, there has been a problem with flooding and insects this year. “Almost the entire sorghum crop everywhere else was destroyed,” she said. “Our farm was reduced in yield because of those problems, but we still produced over 107 sacks of sorghum, which is just over 10 tons, in a community that had nothing.”

Most of the food supply for South Sudan has until now come from the north and from neighboring countries, said John Augustino Lumori, acting provincial secretary for the Episcopal Church of Sudan. “So work such as Robin’s is essential for our agricultural sustainability to ensure we can have our own produce to provide the backbone of the country,” he said. “Our partnerships will enable us to be self-sufficient.”

Denney needs to ensure that when she leaves in April, there are sufficient people trained in the agricultural skills she has brought. So far, 11 diocesan agriculture officers have graduated from Bishop Gwynne Theological College and are now working in their local communities. Fifteen more graduates are expected to return to their dioceses later this year.

Denney’s ministry and friendship is greatly appreciated throughout South Sudan, as evidenced recently when a family in Panyikwara Abara named their newborn child Robinsida in her honor.

The Rev. Emmanuel Lomoro Eluzai, chaplain to the bishop in the Diocese of Ibba, has been one of Denney’s students at Bishop Gwynne Theological College for the past year. He said that education is critical for the stability and growth of South Sudan. Through Denney’s training, he’s learned valuable farming skills, such as rotating certain crops between different terrains each season to ensure that the soil is not starved of essential nutrients.

“During the war, many people did not go to school. That is why we need education now in Sudan, because without education there is no development,” he said.

Duffee initially had intended to stay in South Sudan for four months but soon realized that the task he’d set out to accomplish would not be possible in that timeframe. He now has lived in Juba for almost a year. But, he says, the most important goal for missionaries is to work themselves out of a job, “to get it to a point where I am no longer needed and they have no more use for me. That’s the ideal situation.”

As well as providing training, Duffee brings financial skills to the provincial office, where he has set up systems to enable regular accounting to the church’s international partners.

Duffee is anticipating the Episcopal Church of Sudan hiring a new person who can be trained to step into his role. “As long as I can be useful and as long as I am serving the role God called me for, then I’m glad to be here. If I’m sitting occupying a seat just because it’s nice to have someone from the West … then it’s time to go.”

To read the rest of the story, go here.

 

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‘Stronger together than apart’

From the Anglican Communion News Service this morning comes a report of a meeting of 19 bishops from around the world who met in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at the end of February.
The essence of the meeting: “We really need each other. We are stronger together than apart.”
The essence of relationships, of community, of being created in the Image of God: We really do need each other, because we are stronger together than apart.
Any time a group of people gathers, there is the opportunity to build the community for which we were created. Any time those people take the time to listen to each other, to hear each other’s stories, to learn about each other, there is the opportunity to build that same community. As the bishops point out in their statement: “Dialogue is about turning to one another with openness.”
Talking with each other is not always easy. Even when a so-called “common” language is used, there is the opportunity for misunderstanding, willfully or unintentionally. That’s why dialogue – not just the conversation between two or more people, but the “exchange of ideas or opinions … with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement,” as the dictionary defines it – is so important.
When you tell me your story, you express you understanding of that story, you teach me to see the world through your eyes. When you then let me do the same with you, we have created a relationship. We may not see things the same way, we may not agree, but at least we will know how each other thinks, how each other approaches an issue or situation, and that understanding alone can be enough to build community.

A world map showing the Provinces of the Anglican Communion (Blue). Also shown are the Churches in full communion with the Anglican Church: The Nordic Lutheran churches of the Porvoo Communion (Green), and the Old Catholic Churches in the Utrecht Union (Red).

These bishops deserve kudos for their work in building up the beloved community of God.

From the ACNS report:
By ACNS staff

Nineteen bishops of the Anglican Communion this week announced that the Communion was stronger together than apart and that its members needed one another.

In a joint statement issued after a “Consultation of Bishops in Dialogue” meeting held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania the church leaders said they had shared testimonies about partnership mission work.  Through this a common thread had emerged “our experience of finding ourselves in each other.”

“Across the globe, across the Communion, we actually really need one another,” the bishops’ statement said. “We are stronger in relationship than when we are apart. This, we believe, is a work of engaging in Communion building rather than Communion breaking. In the words of the Toronto Congress of 1963 we are engaged in living in ‘mutual responsibility and interdependence’ (Ephesians 2:13-22)”.

The bishops hailed from Sudan, Botswana, Malawi, Burundi, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Canada, the United States and England. They met at the end of February as a group of partner pairs and triads and discussed a range of issues including human sexuality, slavery and tackling poverty . …

“We have been engaged in a process of patient and holy listening, as Anglicans, coming from a wide diversity of contexts and theological positions, who have chosen to listen to one another (Colossians 3:12-17). …

“We have found that in the wider context of conflicts around sexuality in the Anglican Communion, the conflict has provided us an opportunity to build bridges of mutual understanding to us as we choose to turn face to face with each other. We know that this topic requires the best of us in our dialogue: our mutuality and humility and prayer in listening and in speaking as we seek together for God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). ….

“We are aware that when we talk, the words we use may not be heard in the same way as we intend and we do not always understand language in the same way. We are engaged in a quest for language that will bring us to common understanding and to better dialogue. That does not mean that we agree or that we seek an agreement on particular issues. …”

To read the ACNS story, with the full text of the statement attached, look here.

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Effexor withdrawal

This morning brought an e-mail from a former bishop in Rwanda, The Rt. Rev. Venuste Mutiganda, of a marvelous article published today in the New Times of Kigali. The article tells the story of two British diplomats – the High Commissioner to Rwanda, Ben Llewellyn Jones, and the Director of the Department for international Development (DfID), Elizabeth Carriere – who spent three days living with rural families in Rwanda.

Why?

So they could experience “firsthand what it means to live off less than one dollar a day.”

Fortunate Ntawoyangire, left, wife of Theophile Manayiragaba, center, and Ben Llewellyn Jones, right, the UK High Commissioner, sharing a light moment with his hosts. (By D Umutesi of the New Times of Kigali)

The article, found here, explores how these two high-ranking diplomats got to know the people, and what their lives are like, first-hand.

This was no “grin-and-grip” visit, whereby the officials showed up in big cars, looked around, shook some hands, hand their photos take and then left.

This was life – real life – experienced at its most basic. Llewellyn Jones, the High Commissioner, got up at 5 in the morning and tilled a field with a hoe and then planted some beans. Carriere, the Director of DfiD, stayed with two sisters whose parents were killed in the 1994 genocide.

The visits were arranged and facilitated by ActionAid Rwanda, an NGO that is a “country programme of ActionAid International (AAI) – an anti-poverty agency working with poor and voiceless people and communities and with like-minded partners worldwide. ActionAid is a non-partisan, non-religious development organisation that has been working in Rwanda as a full country programme since 1997 to eradicate poverty and injustices with focus on tackling the root causes of poverty rather than just meeting people’s immediate needs.”

In other words, in order to lift people out of poverty through charity alone, ActionAid works on helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

One way to get out the message: Getting high-level diplomats, many of whom have never quite experienced deep poverty, to go live among the people, and develop relationships with them, at the most basic level.

We are all called to do this: to development relationships at the most basic level. To live together, to eat together, to work together, to struggle – together. When we do so, we no longer look at people as “other.” When we have shared a small space, tilled the land by hand, gathered water and lived in extreme poverty – when we have done that personally – we no longer see the world as “us” and “them.”

Then, we see the world as “us.”

When the visit was over, Carriere and her host both “cried uncontrollably.”

A new relationship was born, a relationship based in our common lives together.

This is what mission is all about, folks. It’s not about “saving” people, or simply handing out our treasures. It’s about relating to each other as God relates to us – in love.

Living with the poor – as they live, experiencing their lives every day – takes us outside of our own lives, our own perceptions (and misperceptions) and helps us to see all people as God’s beloved. Far too often, we see the extreme poverty of the world, we see people – from a distance – who have so little, and we throw up our hands and say, “Well, the poor we’ll always have with us.” Or we wonder, sometimes aloud, sometimes right in front of those poor people, why they haven’t done more to help themselves.

But living in poverty is not a sin.

Poverty itself is the sin.

Not for those who experience it, but for those of us who have enough and allow others to not have enough. That’s the sin.

Will these little visits change everything overnight in Rwanda? Nope.

But will they help two high-ranking British diplomats view the world differently? Most likely.

Relationships do that to you. They change you.

These relationships, this change, has all the hallmarks of the good mission into which God calls each of us.

 

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