Season of Pentecost week 16, Common Lectionary year A
World Wide Communion
Providence is not just a town in Rhode Island.
(Exodus 16: 2-15, Matthew 14:13-21)
by Rev. R. Elisabeth Jones
A few years ago in a first year preaching class, a student asked for clarification of a term that kept coming up in a sermon from an earlier generation that made no sense to him. â€œWhat is providence anyway?â€ he asked.
Being a firm believer in the Socratic teaching method, I turned the question back to the class. â€œWhat comes to your minds when you hear the word ‘Providence’?â€ I asked.
â€œItâ€™s a town in Rhode Islandâ€ came back the first (smart-lipped) answer.
Itâ€™s the phrase that came to my warped mind when I began my sermon preparation for today, and I couldnâ€™t come up with a better title. Sorry!
These texts are about Providence, but not Rhode Island.
In the first reading, the Israelites find themselves in a place called the Wilderness of Sin â€“ a barren inhospitable land, where a scorpion has enough trouble surviving, let alone a rag tag horde of ex-slaves, who barely had cloth to shade their heads from the sun, let alone the Mountain Equipment Coop survival packs for desert migrations.
In the second, we find another horde of ordinary folk miles from home, as sun is setting, with no food to eat. In both, God provides.
In the first, the nature of the provision â€“ a strange heavenly food, and a flock of quails, looking like sitting ducks (!) emphasize that the source of this provision could be none other than God.
In the second, the arithmetic of miracle 5 loaves for 15,000 – emphasizes that this is an act of divine compassion, not a church potluck.
In a sense you could say these texts are the â€˜signature textsâ€™ to show us what â€œProvidenceâ€ means.
So why did my student, and why do we have trouble with it?
Itâ€™s not a word you hear much these days in churches like ours.
It still gets plenty of play in the Black American Churches, and among the Asian Christian communities, (at least thatâ€™s what my internet searches revealed), but among mainline, liberal, progressive type churches like this one, itâ€™s become anaemic, archaic, and a bit embarrassing.
After all, when was the last time you had manna for breakfast, when did you last find a brace of quail, plump for the picking on your doorstep when you got home from work?
Itâ€™s as if weâ€™ve lost our innocence, we know too much. Too much about where things come from. If to the ancients, the mysteries of where babies, olive trees, wheat and wine come from, or water in the desert, or quail migrations across the Sinai, were happily explained by â€œthe Providence, the providing hand of God,â€ in our day, such things are more readily explained without using the â€œGodâ€ word. So much so that when we hear â€œProvidenceâ€ in the context of Church, we like my student, are quite sure where to put it.
After all, itâ€™s we who provide, isnâ€™t it?
We provide, for our families.
We go out, we earn a living, receive money, we convert that to cash or card and exchange it for food, clothing, shelter, household supplies. We provide a safe home to raise our children.
We (here at CPUC) provide programming for our children, our seniors, all our members, to help us grow in faith.
We provide pastoral care to individuals and families negotiating illness or transition.
We provide a place of worship, or of fellowship, or of belonging.
We provide hospitality to two support groups for people dealing with addictions.
We provide a safe place to ask questions about God, life, faith, meaning, values, suffering, illness, health of soul and body.
We provide time, talent, skills, passion and energy, to support social justice in our neighbourhood and our world.
Where the ancients spoke of pillars of cloud, water and food in the desert, bread and fish on a hillside, as the work of the Provident God,Our stories of providence are about the miracles of science and technology that render crops resistant to disease and drought.
Our Stories of providence are about healing diseases with medicines, not just prayers.
Our stories of Providence for lifeâ€™s essentials involve pipelines and power grids that lighten our darkness and heat our winters, of satellite GPS systems not pillars of cloud and fire that guide our paths through unknown places.
Providence, a once-robust word within the Christian lexicon, has become archaic, outmoded, even meaningless. And perhaps we should just let it go. Except, if we do let it go, we stand in real danger of letting go of the truth it contains about God.
Is there a way to reattach â€œProvidenceâ€ to â€œGodâ€ in a way that makes sense to us in our day, while remaining true to its original power in these ancient texts?
The dictionaries on my shelves tell me that the word Providence is like a computer password which unlocks an entire worldview.
Providence is the key word which says â€œThe source of everything that sustains life is God. It is in Godâ€™s loving nature to gift creation with what it needs to flourish.â€
Where once God was described as the Provider of seedtime and harvest,
These days, we are more likely to see God as the life pulse of the Universe,
God provides life, all of it, from the protozoan life forms that now reach tens of thousands of fossilized feet into the air in a majestic mountain peak, piercing a sunlit sky, that is filled with the oxygen I breathe.
â€œProvidenceâ€ is the code word, the key that unlocks for us a vision of God as the source, the provider, the core of all the life that we know.
Now, we know that others may not see it that way.
But we can, and here, we do.
For today, we choose to look around us at the people sitting next to us, the elements on this table, the land upon which this church is built, the money in our wallets, the love, the hopes, the dreams in our hearts,>all, as the gifts, the provisions, of God.
So that everything we are and everything we will do, to provide for family, friend and stranger, are the fruits of Godâ€™s Providence.
And we are thankful.