A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 8, 2023 by Revd Sally Hitchiner

Reading for address: Deuteronomy 8

It is a little-known fact that after being saved from Egypt, the Israelites found the promised land relatively quickly. The problem was they were scared by the size of the inhabitants so they backed up to wander in the wilderness for until that whole generation had died out. As we join them in our Old Testament reading, they approach the boarders of the Promised Land for a second time. Moses, the last of that generation, is about to die too. The new stage of their existence is in view. “Please” Moses begs “Choose life”.

We too are on the verge of a new world. Emerging from the Pandemic, without the immediate financial backing of our business, we have a choice what kind of community we want to build here at St Martin’s. This Harvest Festival we are invited to do something different. To choose between the myth of scarcity or the reality of God’s abundance.

So let’s wind back the clock and look at what this choice to live by God’s abundant life entails. It the first thing in the Bible.

Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s abundant gifts. There is a personal God behind the world and as God creates more and more, God keeps saying, “It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.” God blesses -that is endows creation with our own abundance. The plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind: everything is told to be fruitful and multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit. At the end of all the creating God is so overrun with fruitfulness that God says, “Phew! I’ve got to take a break from all this. I’ve got to get out of the office.”

Other passages say more. Psalm 104, the longest commentary on the creation story ends by picturing God as the great respirator. It says to God, “If you give your breath the world will live; if you ever stop breathing, the world will die.” But the psalm makes clear that we don’t need to worry. God is utterly, utterly reliable. God will not stop CPR. The fruitfulness of the world is guaranteed.

Psalm 150, suggests how humanity should respond to this God. It just says, “Praise Yahweh, praise Yahweh with lute, praise Yahweh with trumpet, praise, praise, praise.” It enacts abandoning ourselves to God. Letting go of the need to have anything under control.

So why don’t we do that? Moses tells them their story.

Back to Genesis, God befriends Abraham. God tells him to be a blessing, to multiply and bless the people of all nations. There are a few ups and downs but this idea of blessing dominates Genesis until chapter 47.

Here we meet Pharaoh who dreams of a famine. His response is to control and monopolize the food supply. For the first time in the Bible, someone articulates a global scarcity myth, “There is not enough for everyone” says Pharaoh “I’m going to grab everything I can.”

Pharaoh appoints Joseph, a descendent of Abraham, to oversee his resources. Joseph brings in his family as economic migrants. In time Joseph and that Pharaoh die. Joseph’s family multiply in Egypt but the new Pharaoh is still working under the scarcity story. When the famines continue, instead of helping them out, the Pharaoh exploits their need. He gets the Israelites to exchange their land for food. When that food runs out, they exchange their cattle. And eventually they exchange themselves and they become Pharaoh’s slaves.

Disaster! It looked like the scarcity myth had won. But the promises of abundance continue. Even in captivity, the people multiply. Pharaoh decides that they have become so numerous that he doesn’t want any more Hebrew babies. He tells the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (notice we know their names but we don’t know Pharaoh’s), to kill all the newborn boys. But they don’t, and the Hebrew babies just keep popping out.

By the end of Exodus, Pharaoh has been as mean, brutal and ugly as he knows how – as the scarcity myth tends to make people. Finally, he becomes so exasperated by his inability to control them that he tells Moses, “Take your people and leave. Take your flocks and herds and just get out of here!”

But then Pharaoh, the great king of Egypt, who presides over a monopoly of the region’s resources, asks Moses to bless him. The powers of scarcity admit to this little community of abundance, “It is clear that you are the future. So before you leave, lay your powerful hands upon us and give us energy.”

The power of the future is not in the hands of those who believe in scarcity and monopolise the world’s resources; it is in the hands of those who trust in the God of abundance.

Moses’ people leave and look out into the wilderness and see in the distance, not just desert but something else. When they fear and complain, something extraordinary happens. God’s love comes trickling down from heaven in the form of bread. They say, “Manhue?”- Old Hebrew for “What on earth is it?” You can imagine them like children seeing snow for the first time. Holding their hands out, catching it on their tongues. They kept saying it “Manhue”- and the word “manna” was born.

They had never before received food as a free gift that they couldn’t control, predict, plan for or own.

Everybody had enough. But because they had learned to believe in scarcity they started to hoard. When they tried to stockpile the food, it turned sour and rotted, because you cannot store up God’s generosity.

Finally, Moses said, “We should do what God did in Genesis 1. We ought to have a Sabbath.” We will form a ritual of trust that says we don’t have to hustle every day of our lives. There’s no record that Pharaoh ever took a day off. People who think their lives consist of struggling to get more and more can never slow down because they never, ever have enough.

This Manhue continues until they get to the boarders of the Promised Land.

This is where we join. The book of Deuteronomy – from the Greek words Deutero -nomion – second law – is Moses’ second try at helping the children of Israel to form a way of life that will ensure they don’t forget their God. The book’s central section is practical, more or less retelling the law they found at Sinia, but we join them in the preamble – this Moses trying to help them to see WHY they should live differently to the previous generation as they go into the new land. He begs them to learn from all the grumbling and grabbing, hoarding and hedonism. Don’t miss the amazing joy you have available to you. “Please, don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget God.”

The call to remember is compelling. But Moses knows, however powerful a speech is, they need something substantial to help them remember. So he moves to talk about rituals, ways of life, they can use to embed this remembering into their lives.

We mentioned the sabbath ritual. These rituals are not tokens. Imagine how odd they would have looked to their neighbours who wouldn’t have seen someone stop working for one day in seven before. Imagine the impact on their finances by missing so many days work in order to rest and worship together.

Moses’ abundance rituals are not small tokens.

When I was a university chaplain we built a community that included a number of Muslim students and staff. When you’re living that closely with people whose faith rituals change their lives, it is hard to ignore.

“Would you like a cuppa?”

“No thanks, I’m fasting.”,

“Don’t you get hot dressing like that?”

“Yes, but you get used to it.”

“How do you eat if you’re wearing a niq’ab?”

“Hold that thought” they’d say, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, I’m just going to go and pray.”

I was often struck by how humbly and generously they lived their religious difference.

In the middle of 2020 as facemasks were everywhere, one of them texted me. “We told you! If we just carried on, covering your face would eventually become fashionable.”

A minority group that lives differently, can be a generative gift to the wider world. To know the full gift of our faith, we too as Christians, need to be willing to embrace a way of embodying our faith that makes us different to how we would be if we did not believe it.

Back to Moses. On top of the sabbath ritual, he introduces another ritual to help them remember to trust the God of abundance rather than the myth of scarcity.

Every year, they are to give ten percent of their income to fund their shared worship and faith community activities. And then every three years they are to give another ten percent to support the poor.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to give ten percent of your income to the church but just pause for a moment and work out in your head what ten percent of your income would be. The Israelites were not richer than we are now. Imagine what impact giving that much to their place of worship had on their day to day lives. Imagine how it would change how they felt about their worshipping community, the warmth they would feel to others who were also so heavily invested in it.

So everyone who could, took a full day in every seven, to step away from work and ten percent of their income was to be given to their worshipping community plus ten percent every three years to help the poor among them. These rituals are not tokens. They are designed to jolt. As well as being practical, good for their mental health, these rituals were really designed to make them remember who they belong to. To make sure they don’t forget that they put their trust in the God of abundance rather than the myth of scarcity.

This is not a promise of riches. Look at Jesus. In Jesus we see that God comes to us not only as the source of creation abundance, but also joins us in the complexities of receiving it. “One does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” These words are most famously said, not by you or me but by God at a time when God was hungry with us, when God was tempted to grab.

But it doesn’t end there. As well as being the source of abundance, and our fellow practice of the way of abundance even in times of scarcity, God also joins us as the food itself. The breath in the CPR isn’t an abstract force. The abundance of God has a name – The Spirit of Christ. In the face of all this consumeristic scarcity, Jesus invites us to a new ritual “Consume me” – each week take my abundance, my eternity, into your bodies as a nourishment ritual.

So here and now, we are about to engage in three rituals that we, as Christians, do every week but that come from our Old Testament passage and were brought to fulfilment by our Jesus.

In a few moments you will be invited to pray and reflect with God what would be a meaningful financial contribution for you to make to our worshipping community here. Christians aren’t asked for a particular percentage of our income. We don’t know your financial or faith circumstances. It’s not compulsory, but the invitation is there to commit to sharing what you have with your worshipping community and the poor, to join in a ritual that chooses abundance over scarcity.

Secondly you will be invited to turn and look your neighbour in the eye, perhaps take their hands if you’re here in our building, write in the comments section if you’re joining online, and repeat words of abundance “Peace be with you”.

And thirdly we will all gather just as we do every week, those of us in this building will be invited to come forward and hold out your hands. You will be given something to eat, a gift that you have not earned and cannot buy.

As you hold it in your hands, pause for a moment. See in this small piece of bread, all your resources, everything you have in life that is a blessing. Where you live, what you are wearing, the people in your life. Pause for a moment as you receive this free gift from God and from this community, let it renew your memory of all that God has been for you, of the way of life God invites you to that may be different to the way of life you would have if God did not exist. Abandon your control to God’s deep, meaningful and sustaining abundant life. And let’s be a community that asks and keeps asking until the answer nourishes every cell in our bodies, as they did “Manhue” “Manna”- “What is this?”