Sermon for Year A Proper 20; Exodus 16:2-15, NRSV
When I signed up to take nine high school youth on a Confirmation pilgrimage just this past August, only a little over a month ago, I had no idea how much I would be fed on the journey, on our cross-country travel to Navajoland. I had no idea how hungry I was for a deep, spiritual, mystical encounter. I had no idea how the wilderness of Arizona, the landscape of the desert, would speak to my soul—with stunning sunsets streaking across the horizon, with canyon walls shooting overhead, with the sand and sagebrush skimming my feet. I had no idea that the story of the people, the Diné, the Navajo, would be a story so familiar to my ears.
Our first night on the reservation this jet lagging, motley crew was fed a sumptuous feast of Navajo tacos. Large pieces of fry bread—that doughy goodness—topped with black beans, ground beef, cheese, onions, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, all the traditional taco fixin’s you could want. Then for dessert even more fry bread, now flowing with ice cream and honey. We went to bed that night full and happy.
And then the next morning, at the end of a sleepily mumbled morning prayer, Mother Cynthia of Good Shepherd Episcopal Mission, recounted to us the origin myth of this magical fry bread that filled our bellies. In the history of the people, of the Navajo, fry bread was a new phenomenon. Before white settlers came west, this was not a staple of the native diet. Before the white military came west and burned the tribal territory trying to starve the Navajo out of their homeland—the people had enough food to eat. Before the white wave of cultural domination came west, the Navajo had never encountered the government rations of oil and flour—central to the fry bread recipe. Yet during their wandering in the wilderness—while being forced three hundred miles from their homeland—, the tribe, the Diné, the people created something new from what had been given them—this Navajo fry bread. Instead of being torn apart by western influence; instead of baking bread as the white settlers would have done, they created something totally new from ingredients they had never encountered. They rallied around their ability to create something out of nothing; their ability to turn scarcity into abundance; their ability to turn their wilderness—a place where all hope was lost—into a moment of communal identity.
In moments of scarcity, in the years of oppression, in their time of trial, this Navajo fry bread became a symbol of resistance, a symbol of perseverance, a symbol that the people would never give up. This Navajo fry bread became the bread of resilience. And while on this Confirmation pilgrimage, learning about this native culture, one of my youth so wisely, intuitively, and astutely spoke up and connected this fry bread story to another more familiar story for us—that of the manna in the wilderness, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience (our Old Testament reading today, Exodus 16).
Over the past five Sundays we have been following the Israelites upon their freedom from bondage, to their hurried flight out of Egypt, and now to their wandering in the Sinai wilderness for forty years. They have experienced suffering. They have experienced slavery. And now they are experiencing the brink of starvation, just as the Navajo would experience thousands of years in the future. The Israelite people complain to Moses and Aaron (and really their qualm is with the Divine), “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3) Although the Israelites have left the land of their persecutors, they have not found their home; they have not arrived in their own tribal territory; they have not glimpsed the land flowing with milk and honey. Yet despite their grumbling, despite their complaining, God provides a feast. Out of nothing comes enough for everyone. In the evening God sends quail—meat to eat— and in the morning manna, bread from heaven: blessing God’s people—who thought they had only known scarcity—with an abundance that can only come from the Divine. Out of their cries from captivity, out of their wandering in the wilderness, comes manna, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience.
This gift from God symbolizes the strength of this community: their fortitude, their grit, their perseverance, their desire to remain God’s chosen people despite slavery, despite conquest, despite exile. And even when doubt creeps in, the Lord reminds the Israelites of their sheer determination with the offering of the bread of resilience. Out of the wilderness comes fry bread. Out of the wilderness comes manna from heaven. Out of the wilderness comes the Body of Christ: the bread of resilience.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus himself reminds us that just as manna was a gift in the morning, that he is a gift from the Holy One. Jesus reminds us that just as manna was the bread of heaven, he is the bread of life (vv 32-25). Jesus, this God made human flesh, this body broken for us, this gift from the Divine, is the bread of life, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience. Jesus Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the bread of resilience is enough for us: enough to sustain us as we our bound in slavery. Perhaps enslaved to our culture’s consumerism: finances that encourage taking instead of giving. Perhaps enslaved to anxiety: worrying over another’s perception of you instead of the beloved child of God emanating from within. Perhaps enslaved in a body that you were born into but has never truly felt like your own. Jesus is enough to sustain us as we wander aimlessly in the wilderness. Perhaps wandering around in the darkness as you mourn the death of a spouse. Perhaps wandering between careers as your job falls out from under you. Perhaps wandering in the midst of uncertainty as you await the results of too many medical tests to count. Jesus, the bread of resilience, is enough to sustain us.
We remind ourselves that Jesus is enough to sustain us every time we gather together, at this altar, at this table, to thank God together; to celebrate the Eucharistic feast together; to partake in the bread of resilience together. For the human spirit, bound together in communal love, is persistent, is determined, is resilient. As resilient as the city of Houston: neighbors using their boats to rescue stranded flood victims. As resilient as the people of Puerto Rico: whose island has been almost completely destroyed, but who come out of the storm singing hymns of praise to God. Resilient as the people of St. Patrick’s: who have overcome economic recession, leadership transitions, and one of the most wicked winters Tahoe has ever seen.
So today let us rejoice in our own story of perseverance. Let us remember we can in fact do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13). Let us feast on God’s abundance and be sustained for the pilgrimage ahead. Let us partake of the fry bread from heaven, the manna in the wilderness, the Body of Christ, the Eucharist feast. Let us partake of that bread of resilience.