what is it?


I am preaching for our service this week. We recorded it on Thursday standing in front of our church vegetable garden rather than in the sanctuary, so not only do I have a manuscript of the sermon, I have a recording as well.

The text is Exodus 16:9-21–the story of the manna in the wilderness.

When I was in high school I was in a musical ensemble at my church. Ten or twelve of us were chosen out of the youth choir. The director wanted a name with spiritual significance. What we came up with was Manna, I think because we assumed the word meant something like “God will provide.”

Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this story of God raining bread like dew in the morning and quail into the camp at night have been affirmations that God will take care of us. And that is an important truth–the same one Ginger talked about last week–we belong to Emmanuel: God With Us.

We are not alone.

Here’s the thing. The word manna in Hebrew doesn’t mean anything deeply theological. It means, “What is it?” When they woke up in the morning, the ground was covered with something that looked like coriander seed, was white, and tasted sweet, and they said, “Manna?” They were trying to figure out what was going on. Sound familiar?

They were told to only collect what they needed for the day and trust that there would be more tomorrow. If they tried to save it to make sure they had food for the future, the stuff soured and became full of worms. They had to learn to trust God and take each day as it came.

Most of the sermons that I have heard sermons on this story stop right here. And they were good sermons. Their daily exercise in trusting God was the inspiration for lines in one of my favorite hymns, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”—morning by morning, new mercies I see. Jesus underlined the same point when he talked about considering the lilies and not worrying about tomorrow.

But as I looked at the story this week, I kept reading to the end of the and found something I had not seen before. Verse 35 reads:

And the Israelites ate manna for forty years, until the came to a habitable land; they ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.

The Israelites had escaped from captivity—from generations of slavery and oppression—only to end up in the wilderness. The desert. Before long, they began complaining and Moses took their complaints to God, who responded with manna. I have this sort of a cosmic image of God handing sandwiches to the kids in the back seat who keep yelling, “Are we there yet?”
“Be quiet and eat.”
“What is it?”
“I said eat.”

I imagine the first few mornings of manna were cause for wonder and even gratitude. Morning by morning, they woke up to food for the day. But then they didn’t get where they were going for forty years. What they expected to change quickly became the way life was. I wonder how long it was before they stopped tasting the thankfulness. Being in the wilderness for forty years meant the ones who had come out of Egypt never knew anything but the wilderness. In fact, most of the people who left Egypt never got to the Promised Land. They woke up every morning in the and said, “What is this?” for the rest of their lives.

Eight weeks in to our lockdown, perhaps we are getting a taste of what they felt. A lot of days I feel like Billy Murray in Groundhog Day, where he is exhausted by having to live the same day over and over and he says, “I’ll give you a weather forecast: it’s gonna be cold and it’s gonna be gray and it’s gonna last the rest of your life.”

What began as something we hoped would be short-term is now something whose ending we can’t predict or control. In my own attempt to begin to understand that we may be in for the long haul, I wrote this poem last week:

maybe it doesn’t get better

you may not want
to read past the title
but hear me out–

we can’t do what we
are doing just because
we think this won’t last
and we can get back
to the way things were

maybe it doesn’t get better

I know–
I already said that
but what if the pandemic
pans out into permanence

or as permanent as
things ever get
what if we what we took
for granted isn’t granted

and we are left with life
and each other
for years, not days
yeah, I’m going to say it again

maybe it doesn’t get better

okay–I’ll say it another way
who knows what will happen
does that help

faith and hope hunger for uncertainty
love knows all you can count on
in life is someone else and let
someone count on you because

maybe it doesn’t get better
then again, maybe it does

The Israelites had to learn how to live in the wilderness as though that was what life was like. Yes, they knew they were supposed to be on their way to the land that God had promised them, but they couldn’t just sit around and wait for the future to come. The truth is the future never gets here for any of us. We cannot live lives that matter if they are based on what we expect to happen next. We can learn from our past and we can prepare for what we think might happen, but we can only live today, whatever the circumstances.

Most every Sunday morning during the quarantine, I have come into the meeting house to take the picture of Ginger and Jake as they send out the worship service e-mail. It feels strange to be in the room without anyone else here. I long for us to see each other, to be able to hug each other, to be able to sing together, and to eat too many snacks at coffee hour. That day may be a long time coming.

The decisions about how and when things will begin to open up, when we will be able to gather in person for worship, when we can go out to eat with friends, or quit wearing masks are not ones we get to make directly. We will respond to those circumstances, not create them.

How spend our days–these days, whatever the circumstances—are our decisions to make. We can decide how we will connect, how we will find ways to say we love one another, how we take care of each other, how we treat one another, how we ask for help. We can choose to make sure we all have what we need to get through the day ahead. We can choose not to wait for normal to return, or for things to get better, but to live today in this strange time as though these are the days we have to live.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus happened on the night before he was executed, when he washed the feet of his disciples. In a culture that knew only sandals and dusty roads, it was an act of servitude and compassion. The way John tells the story, he says that Jesus, “knowing he had come from God and was going to God,” knelt down and washed their feet. He wasn’t waiting for something to happen, or someone to rescue him. He took care of his friends.

We, too, have come from God and are going to God. Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey, we are with God and God is with us. We have today to live, to breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God, to take care of one another, to choose morning by morning new mercies to see.

Maybe things will get better. Maybe they won’t. Whatever happens, we have come from God and we are going to God, and we are traveling together. May we choose to do and say everything we can to remind one another of those things. Amen.



  1. Your sermon was beautiful and I loved reading your poem again. I am now headed over to All Saints’ for drive-by Communion. Thank you, Milton, for providing comfort and inspiration during this troubling time.

  2. That was awesome, Milton!!! I love that you were in the garden and that the birds (and other flying things!) could be heard along with you. Thank you for the inspiration and as always, for you friendship. Love you, my friend!

  3. Seeing you made my heart happy, Milton. Enjoyed your words, as always. Powerful reminder to live each day as though these are the days we have to live – true not just in THESE uncertain times, but all the time. We always have and always will live in uncertain times.

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