Last Words: God fed you with Manna, now go

This sermon was delivered by Dr. Marty Stevens at the final graduation Eucharist under the auspices of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on May 19, 2017. As of July 1st, Gettysburg Seminary becomes United Lutheran Seminary, a consolidation with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Go on, Get Outta Here

May 19, 2017

This sermon was delivered by Dr. Marty Stevens at the final graduation Eucharist under the auspices of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg on May 19, 2017. As of July 1st, Gettysburg Seminary becomes United Lutheran Seminary, a consolidation with the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. 

The sermon was based on the following texts: Deut 8:1-18; 2 Corin 4:1-7; Luke 10:1-9                                                    


This is the day that the Lord has made... let us rejoice and be glad in it!
This is indeed the day that the Lord has made. What a GREAT day!
Should we just let out one more hurray for what a great day this is!!

Marty Stevens preachingOh, wait .. when I said this is a great day, you were thinking about graduation, right?
I was actually talking about the Israelites in our reading from Deuteronomy.
It's a great day because the Israelites are just about to enter the Promised Land.

The whole book of Deuteronomy is the final farewell address by Moses to the Israelites,
reminding them of how far they've come and how wonderful life will be
once they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.
And what does Moses want them to remember just as they're getting ready
to cross the river and enter the Promised Land?

Well, on the plus side, as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years,
they came to trust in God to provide the necessities of life like food and water.
Moses specifically calls the people to remember how God provided for them,
when they couldn't possibly provide for themselves.

Moses tells them: "God fed you with manna,
with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted. ...
The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these 40 years."

When the Israelites were sure they were going to starve to death in the desert,
the next morning manna was covering the ground.
They had never seen anything like it before.
In fact, one of the funniest puns in the Bible is the word manna itself –
it literally means What is that?

In today's context, I'm sure sometimes our students feel as if they are encountering
something like that manna, something with which they are not acquainted,
something strange, something they have never heard or seen before. What is that?

But in that newness, that strangeness, the word of the Lord is heard,
strengthening the claim on your life, sustaining you on your journey of faith.
You come to a more expansive understanding of who God is,
and the multiple, diverse ways God is active in the world.

So, on the plus side, they came to trust in God to provide what they needed.
But on the minus side, not everyone in the desert was thrilled
with eating only manna every single day – dry flakes something like
the stale communion wafers we've all choked down on occasion.

They grumbled; they complained; they whined; they murmured.¬¬¬¬¬¬¬
Hmmm.... What would be the analogy to students in seminary?
No need to state the obvious, I guess...

On the really plus side, the Israelites had been rescued from Egypt,
liberated from being enslaved by the most powerful nation on earth at the time.
After centuries of oppression, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt,
freed from making bricks in the hot Egyptian sun for a Pharaoh
who knew how to use his power to get what he wanted.

But Pharaoh's power was born of coercion and oppression and fear.
God's power is on behalf of rescue and liberation and salvation.
God's YES was stronger than the Pharaoh's NO.

We have heard God's YES in our lives. We have been rescued from the power of death
and given new life and freedom in Christ.
Salvation has claimed us and nothing will ever be the same again.

So on the really plus side, oppression and death give way to rescue and liberation.
But on the really minus side, some of them want to go back to Egypt.
They want to act as if the rescue didn't mean anything,
that their liberation was not a life-giving, life-changing event.

They mis-remember the days of oppression
and instead of leaning into their life-changing rescue and life-giving future,
they want to pretend they can go back to the past.

It's easy to do, isn't it? To mis-remember the past and long for the days of yore,
to put on those rose-colored glasses, romanticize the past,
and get lost in the nostalgia of the way things used to be.
Living into the uncertain future can be a scary and anxious time.

Graduates, believe it or not, there will be days ahead when you long for the days of seminary,
when those days of classes and papers and projects seem like a piece of cake
compared with the days you are facing as a public leader in the Church.
When those days come, remember your Baptism, take a deep breath,
keep on working hard, and face the future with confidence.

On the really, really plus side, the Israelites are about to enter the land
promised by God centuries ago and confirmed down through the generations.

Virtually every time the land is mentioned in Deut, it is noted as sheer gift from God,
sworn to the ancestors and now about to become a reality in their own lives.

I mean, there's a reason we call it the Promised Land, right?
It's not called the Earned Land or the Deserved Land or the land I'm entitled to.
It's called the Promised Land for a reason.
Imagine being one of those Israelites in the desert and hearing these words:

"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams,
with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,
a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates,
a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity,
where you will lack nothing."

Likewise, graduates today are poised on the verge of the Promised Land of public ministry.
You are going to good ministry settings, to places overflowing with possibilities,
to communities of abundance where you will lack nothing you need
to lead God's people in our mission of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ
and living out our Baptisms as disciples of the Risen One.

So, on the really, really plus side, the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land.
But on the really, really minus side, the Israelites – and we – are prone to forgetfulness.
When life goes well, we are quick to pat ourselves on the back
and take full credit for the success.
And so Moses reminds the people:

"When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them,
and when your herds and flocks have multiplied,
and your silver and gold has multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied,
then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God.

Do not say to yourself, 'My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.'
But remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power,
so that God may confirm the covenant with you."

This warning against pride, this call for humility, is something we all need to hear.
It echoes through the other two readings for today as well.

Paul's letter to the Corinthians reminds us, "We have this treasure [of the Gospel] in clay jars,
so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God
and does not come from us."

In Luke's Gospel, the laborers are sent into the harvest with no purse, no bag, and no sandals.
They are instructed to "eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there,
and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'"

Because ministry in the name of Christ is not about fine houses or flocks and herds
or purses or bags or sandals. Ministry in the name of Christ is about God's people
- all people - for whom Christ lived and died and was raised from the dead.
This is indeed a great day to celebrate! And none of us got here on our own.
Everything we celebrate today is evidence of the multitude of blessings
God has bestowed on each of us and on this historic place.

Congregations across this country, and indeed across the world, nurtured you
and encouraged you to come to this place for formation as public leaders in the Church.
Faculty and colleagues engaged in teaching and learning with you.
Staff supported and cared for you during your time here.

Other congregations and institutions and agencies walked alongside you
as you practiced living in the Promised Land of public ministry.
Generous donors made all of this possible. And, of course, your family and friends,
your support networks, loved you through it all.

So here we are. Here we are, poised on the verge of the Promised Land,
mindful of how far God has brought us and eager for the next step.
Here we are - at the nexus between the past and the future.

The past will always be a part of you. You can't go back to the past but
you take your Seminary experience wherever you go.
And you go into God's promised future.

The Promised Land is within sight – it looks like Wisconsin and New York and Maryland
and North Dakota and Iowa and Pennsylvania and Virginia
and New Jersey and Indiana and Tanzania and other as-yet unspecified places.

The Promised Land is wherever the Spirit is blowing rescue and liberation,
provisions for the journey, ministry to the neighbor, community, and new life.
The Promised Land is wherever God is present. And, of course, that is everywhere.

So go, people of God. Go into the lands that God has promised to you.
Go serve the people God is giving you.
Go confidently, boldly, humbly, anticipating abundance,
and focused on ministry with God's people.

You are marked with the cross of Christ, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit,
you are claimed, you are called, you are prepared, you are eager to serve.
So go, people of God. Go into the promised lands.
Go! Get outta here! And let all the people say Amen.

Rev. Dr. Marty Stevens
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg