By Amy C. Schifrin

“And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.” (Ex. 16:14-15)

Grace to you and peace from the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who brings us bread from heaven. Amen. My parents spent the first 65 years of their lives in New York, but when they retired they moved at first to central Florida. Later, they would work their way to the east coast of Florida, where most New Yorkers go before they die. But first they went to Lake Okeechobee, the headwaters of the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee might have been in Florida, but its culture and cuisine was that of any other state in the South like Georgia, South Carolina, or Alabama. There was a lot of good down-home cookin’ to be found.

My mother was a terrible cook, but she liked to eat — a skinny little woman with a big appetite, can you imagine that? In her hometown of New York City, she would go to the kosher deli for all her favorites: corn beef on rye, matzo ball soup, and gefilte fish (which is truly only slightly more palatable that lutefisk) or she would go to the Italian bakery, and get every sweet cream-filled pastry known to humankind.

But she wasn’t in Florida long before she found a new favorite to fill her up. I was down south for a visit, and when we went out to breakfast she ordered it. When we out to lunch, she did again, and on the day that we went out to supper, she had it as her side dish. I looked at it and said, “What is it?” White and lumpy and not resembling anything I would have thought to be food. “Grits,” she smiled contently. You can have them for breakfast with butter or maple syrup. You can have them for lunch with cheddar cheese. You can have them for supper with shrimp and mushrooms. And, if you know Paula Deen, you can have them with bacon bits. (My Jewish mother never went that far.)

Grits, I’ve learned, can be boiled, baked, or deep fried, and they will fill you up even when they are unadorned. Generations of African men and women brought to this land against their will ate grits throughout the years of their wilderness in slavery. Grits and some fatback, that was about it. It was a food that was introduced to the white settlers by the Powhatan Indians. White corn, yellow corn, or homily was ground fine, mixed with water, and then cooked like porridge. What is it? they must have thought when they first saw it. What in the world is it? Grits, and it will keep you alive for the day.

The children of Israel were on their way out of slavery, but now in a wilderness of hunger they were dreaming of savory feasts. As slaves, they had been half-starved, but now that they were fully starved, they were beginning to question why they had trusted that life could be any better. They murmur against Moses and Aaron. They grumble and complain. They moan and they whine. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Such recollection of having their hunger satisfied was truly an illusion, but more than that, whatever food they received in Egypt would have only sustained them to continue as slaves. So the Lord God speaks to Moses, who was entrusted to care for these ornery people, “Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you.” Quail that night and daily bread in the morning. Manna, they came to call it, from the Hebrew expression, Man-hu, which means, “What is it?” They had never seen anything like it before until they got into the wilderness of Sinai, but just as God had sent hordes of locust down form the heavens as the eighth plague, when he called Pharaoh to humble himself and “let my people go,” so now he sends another insect to do his bidding.

This time it was a tree lice that would feed on the tamarisk tree, and the excess secretions would form on the leaves and then drop to the ground. A fine, flake-like substance with a high sugar content, if left un-gathered in the morning dew it would melt and attract every other insect that crawled by. Manna, glistening like hoarfrost on the ground, could be eaten as is, or it could be boiled in water, or ground fine and baked into a cake. Small and white like coriander seeds, or like grits, it can fill you up day after day after day, and in fact, that’s just what it did for the children of Israel for 14,600 days, that is, for 40 years. It is still a favorite food of the Bedouin nomads who yet wander in the Sinai, sweetening their diet, like honey on your morning grits.

God gives us what we need to sustain us, a holy miracle in every seed that’s planted, in every fruit that’s harvested, in every tree that’s tapped. God gives what we need, and like the children of Israel we don’t always recognize his gift hidden in his creation. We want more, and so he gives an even greater gift to put an end to our selfish appetites. He gives the gift of rest. No gathering on that seventh day.

Years before the commandments were carved into stone, he calls his people to a day of rest, a day of thanksgiving, of great thanksgiving. Centuries before he taught his people to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” so that by trusting in him we wouldn’t take more than we needed for this day; An eternity before we would see him fully as he opens our eyes, breaking bread on that Emmaus Road so that we would truly see all that he has done for us.

He answers the prayers of his children in ways that we could never have expected, for the hopes and dreams of all humanity are fulfilled in one like whom they’d never seen before. Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, he looked to all who saw him as a carpenter’s son who became an itinerant rabbi. But hidden in human flesh was manna in the wilderness, manna in our wilderness, who lets the world know that it simply wasn’t Moses or Aaron anyone else who gives us what we need to live, but it is God himself. “Truly, truly I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.’” Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Schifrin is associate professor of liturgy and homiletics and president of North American Lutheran Seminary in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.