Religious Gout

Sunday 26th April 2015
The Forth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Exodus 16:4-15

There is some dispute as to whether John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-92) really did cause beef to be placed between two slices of bread because he had no time for a formal meal during a 24-hour gambling session and because he wanted to spare his hands from grease as he was playing cards; but we can infer from today's passage from Exodus that The Lord was no gambler; not for him quails sandwiched between slices of manna; the two were strictly sequential in the first instance, and thereafter, entirely opposite in their effect.

To take the manna first: it was a rather modest item of nourishment, small and friable, a divine Malteser that would melt in your mouth but not in your hands. It sustained the people daily with one ration per day and two on the day before the Sabbath; it could not be stored and it was distributed to everybody equally: there were no manna shops and it wasn't traded on the wilderness stock exchange; it had no history and no future.

The quails, on the other hand, were only apparently beneficial. The Lord sent them because the people got fed up of manna and wanted something more substantial; so the wilderness was carpeted with quails, a quite different prospect from being carpeted with manna, and the people were almost immediately sick, thus the opposite effect of the two foods.

I must say that I have liked the egalitarianism and the modesty of the Lord's offering of manna ever since I became interested in politics in my early teens. I loved the fact that it couldn't be hoarded nor traded; and this fits very nicely with the idea that we not only come into the world and leave the world with nothing but that while we are here we are merely stewards of God's bounty and never own anything. As to the modesty, the memory of the daily manna has often comforted me on days when prayer has failed to ignite a spark within me and on days when I have left a church service wondering what it was all about, wondering why I bothered. Thinking about the quails, the Lord supplies richness but not on demand but in brief flashes so that we are not glutted with richness.

This would not have been a problem for most of us in the past because life was very simple. I remember staying in a Kenyan village where the food was the same every day and, without broadcasting, the conversation was, to say the least, repetitive and threadbare. Not surprisingly, after a week I longed for a variety of food and a variety of conversation; and although my longing might initially have been for quite simple variety, we have a tendency to escalate our requirements of the things we desire. Our first encounter with wine or truffles, science fiction or opera, Worthing or Sicily, might begin in a quite simple way but it will not be long before we seek higher quality wine, a more intense experience of truffle, a better authored book, a better sung aria, a livelier aspect of Worthing and a more exclusive hide-away in Sicily; that is how we are but that is not how our relationship with God is to be constituted.

If we look at the history of the attitude of the Chosen People to their God while they traversed the wilderness we will see that it veered wildly between fatalism and scepticism: at one minute God was expected to do everything whereas at the next he could do nothing.

Perhaps we are not in the same condition of wild oscillation but there are dangers in both positions. Too frequently I hear those who lead our Prayers of the Faithful asking God to fix a world diplomatic crisis or a famine but there is no sense in God fixing anything he gave us the tools to fix: we creatures cause crisis and famine and it's up to us as creatures to find a solution; we may pray for grace, sill or strength to use our tools but they are our tools nonetheless. At the other extreme we are prone to a weary, unfocused sort of scepticism which is often manifested in quite unfounded nostalgia for a mythical golden age leading us to believe that the world is getting worse and there is nothing that can be done about it that, somehow, God has 'gone to sleep' or 'turned his back'. We meet this kind of rhetoric most often when we are told that morals, or Western Europe, or our Church, are in a state of irreversible decline when the reality is that God is timeless and indivisible, not subject to variances and changes of outlook: whether or not we are more or less receptive to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is never more nor less with us as individuals and collectively in the Church she infuses.

But to cultivate this steadiness of outlook we need a steadiness of purpose and approach; if the religious settlement of the Chosen People had a weakness it was that it was based around the high emotional occasions of ritual sacrifice; and although there are references to private prayer, these are very few. Likewise, there has been a fluctuating tendency in the history of Christianity to place far too much emphasis on church-based ritual and not enough on domestic prayerfulness and study and vice versa. The need for balance between the public and the private, the individual and the collective, is an essential balance in our Christian discipline and observance: too much church-based worship tends to raise expectations to unrealistic levels; and too much emphasis on the domestic over-plays our individual strength and under-plays our need for mutual support.

But there is a sequel to the manna and the quails. When they were offered entry into the Promised Land' the Chosen People did not believe that the Lord would deliver it into their hands and they were thereby exiled to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years; they could not bring themselves to believe in God's promise. I suspect that a more accommodating attitude to manna and a little less desire for quails would have done the trick which is why we always need to be careful with a history of holy celebrity which quickens and deepens our expectations. The history of Christ's church is largely one of ordinary folk patiently and thankfully consuming their manna, happy that there are others that can stomach the quail but with no ambition to do it themselves because, as we know from the story, to eat rich food is a gamble for which most of us simply do not have the stomach and quite rightly fear religious gout.