Some of the prayers we know best are mealtime prayers. They are prayers which we may have learned as children and they are prayers simple enough to invite us to be children again as we pray them.
As I sat with the Exodus 16 text this week – where God gives bread in the wilderness to a hungry people – the words of one of the first prayers I learned as a kid kept returning to me. You likely know this prayer and maybe it too was the sort of meal blessing that gets rattled off at the dinner table when nobody has any other prayers or songs at the ready. So for me this week, it became the prayer of our text:
God is great. God is good.
And we thank God for our food.
By God’s hands we all our fed.
Give us Lord our daily bread.
Meal prayers are simple words of faith spoken again and again. They are good prayers because we humans get hungry so often. So if we pray when we eat, many of us are invited into prayer multiple times a day.
The congregations of Israelites wish they had a mealtime prayer on their lips. But instead they have complaints. It has been a month since they tasted the Passover meal of flatbread and roast meat. It has been a month since their feet have walked on dry ground through the Red Sea. It has been a month of following God in the wilderness and now they are hungry and grumpy. We might say they’re hangry.
It’s tough to see God as good and great when you can’t see where your next meal is coming from. It’s difficult to give thanks for God’s mighty hand when your own hands haven’t shared food in quite some time. So maybe only the line of my dinnertime prayer works for the Israelites in our passage – “Give us Lord our daily bread.” The grumbling of their stomachs and the gnawing panic their hunger brings goes out to God as their prayer.
In our passage from Exodus, the people of Israel only say two things. First they grumble to Moses and Aaron, complaining that they’ve been brought into the wilderness to be killed. They find themselves wishing to return to a world that never existed in the first place. Slavery for the people of Israel was not an existence where their stomachs were full of bread and their stewpots full of meat. It was a reality where they not just grumbled, but groaned under the weight of slavery.
Its a mirage that life was better in slavery which of course it wasn’t. But what’s clear is that their present hunger means there can only be one prayer on their lips. “Help! We need nourishment for our souls weary after four hundred years of slavery and food for our bellies after a month of freedom.”
For us, I wonder what are those places we sense a gnawing hunger? Which parts of our souls feel weary?
Aaron and Moses take the brunt of the people’s grumbling. And they as leaders find themselves anxious intermediaries in a triangle, caught between a hungry people and mysterious God. The people talk to Moses and God talks to Moses and Aaron and Moses passes on the good news to the people that God has heard their complaints and will provide meat in the evening and bread in the morning. And then Moses slips in a line the people really aren’t frustrated with him, but frustrated at God.
And yet, even in the uncertainty of this moment, God hears the people and responds directly to Moses and Aaron in words and to the people as whole in the form of God’s glory in cloud and the glorious arrival of food.
God hears our the grumbling deep within our souls. God knows our hangriest selves. God responds and offers us what we need.
We don’t always know what we need. We might know how to say, “help!” We might know how to complain. And these are faithful steps, acts of faith. These are honest prayers that God welcomes. God doesn’t rebuke the people here – but shows up for them in mysterious cloud and more importantly in the quails that descend for evening food and the bread that like frost on the desert ground at morning’s light.
The second and final time the people of Israel speak in our text is when they come to see this divine gift blanketing the surface of the wilderness. This time they don’t complain to Moses or Aaron or God – but they say to one another, “What is it?”
In Hebrew the name for this mysterious substance is manna or man hu – which means “What is it?”
Instead of grumbling, they marvel at this gift. “What is it?”
Sometimes we don’t know exactly what God’s gifts of daily sustenance look like in our lives. Yet God promises to give daily bread, enough to eat for each one, day after day. There is enough grace to fill us today.
God reshapes our understandings of both time and food as gifts to be received not quantities to hoard, control, or reign over. The people of Israel, after four hundred years in slavery, and a month in the wilderness starting this freedom journey learn how to both food, work, and rest, as gifts from God.
I love my Costco sized tubs of coconut oil and those massive bags of frozen fruit for my morning smoothies, but God’s way seems to be day by day reliance on God alone, not a stocked freezer or pantry. The people of God aren’t called to prep for the worst by hoarding the most. They are called to receive what God has given as enough.
Harvesting and cooking quail in the evenings and what-is-it-manna in the morning is work. Surviving while traveling through the desert wilderness is work. We all are given work to do – formal and informal.
And let us remember that our work begins with recognizing and seeing the gifts of God scattered around wherever we pitch our tents, through whatever wilderness we journey. Our rest begins not with how hard we worked this week or this month, but we can rest from our labors because God has provided enough for us to pause and give thanks.
The other meal prayer on my heart this week is actually found in our purple hymnal. It’s number 487. I learned it the year after I graduated college when I worked in year in Honduras with Mennonite Central Committee. The MCC directors described as the unofficial prayer and table grace of MCC in Central America. We’d sing it almost every time various workers and volunteers convened throughout the year for retreats and meetings. It’s a simple song that also I think gets at the heart of our scripture text.
Gracias, Señor, por el pan,
y da pan a los que tienen hambre,
y hambre de justicia a los que tenemos pan.
Gracias, Señor, por el pan.
Thank you, O God for this bread.
And give food to everyone who hungers,
and hunger for your justice to those who have their food.
Thank you, O God, for this bread.
The congregation of Israelites hungered for a food that would sustain them, a food that was not built on the exploitation of empire. They couldn’t exactly name or see what this food would be. But it showed up for them in the winged flight of quail and the flaky frost of morning.
As we share in a potluck meal together later tonight, may we marvel at the gifts of God around us – spread on the table and milling about in this space. Next we week as we celebrate communion, sharing a meal that Jesus first shared with his friends, may we know what the taste of that prayer that Jesus taught us, “give us this day our daily bread.”
For God is great. And God is good.
So let us all thank God for our food.
What is it? We don’t always know.
But by God’s hands we all are fed.
Give us Lord, our daily bread.