Come home to Calvary
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The story of the Exodus, from which today’s passage comes, is the story of a group of people who had been forced to leave their homeland because of economic and political reasons. They were a poor minority, refugees in a foreign land, where the other inhabitants were afraid of them and enacted regressive and limiting economic and immigration policies to keep their “fear of the other” at bay. I’m sure we can’t imagine such a scenario playing out today. ahem. The refugees, the Hebrew people, became enslaved to the powers and systems of this foreign land. And they cried out to God. The truly scandalous and powerful story of the gospel is that God heard the cries of the oppressed and responded by liberating them from slavery. Perhaps we have heard the story of Exodus so many times that this story doesn’t shock us. It absolutely should shock us. As people in a nation that continues to fear the foreigner, the refugee, the oppressed, we have forgotten how our biblical ancestors, and likely our literal ancestors, were once strangers in a foreign land. And God heard the cry of the oppressed. And liberated the people.
Earlier in the Exodus story, as we heard last week, God offers us a divine identity using the verb “to be”. “I AM” is the divine name, and reminds me that sometimes the very act of being is all we need. And so it is fresh with the reminder that I AM has called Israel out of slavery and into freedom, that we consider the story of the manna. The verbs that had defined Israel for so many years were verbs of forced labor and slavery for Pharaoh. Work. Eat what Pharaoh provides. Work some more. One of the ten commandments instructs the people to Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. Sabbath is counter to Pharaoh’s instructions for us to always be working. On the Sabbath, we are called just to be, by our God who calls themself I AM. It’s understandable that the Israelites might be confused about their own identity after generations of slavery. One can see how they might doubt their own goodness, or their capability. It even makes sense that they could question their relationship to God. Generations of slavery and years of trusting Pharaoh, could make one doubt that it means to be “chosen people” or even doubt the goodness of God. And now they’ve been freed, delivered out of slavery, away from whatever kind of home you can build in a labor camp, when denied the opportunity to define your own existence or own your own labor. They have been delivered by God, I AM, away from Pharaoh.
As our story begins, they leave Elim, which was an oasis with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees, and find themselves in the wilderness, a place without such visible support. It doesn’t have Pharoah’s pots of meat (‘flesh pots’) or bread. It doesn’t even have date palm trees or springs of water. They can’t walk down the street to Mollie Stone’s to buy a roast chicken. Whatever supplies they had when they left Egypt are dwindling. They are in a place where they cannot use their own gumption, ingenuity, or resources to save themselves. Slavery is behind them, in their rearview mirror. The Promised Land is still ahead of them. Right now, they are brought by God to be in the wilderness, dependent on something other than themselves. They are in the wilderness, where their words are “they complained” (SEVEN times we’re told they complained), and “God will kill us with hunger”. Their complaining might be better called anxiety, or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. A general fear about things that could go wrong. God’s act of delivery in the past is forgotten. The promise for the future is forgotten. Hunger and anxiety dominate their verbs in their present moment, clouding their call to be.As one of my seminary professors, Walter Brueggemann has written:
“What is striking in this assaulting contrast is how present anxiety distorts the memory of the recent past. Egypt is known to be a place of deep abuse and heavy-handed oppression. Here, however, none of the oppression or abuse is mentioned, only meat and bread. The seductive distortion of Israel is that, given anxiety about survival, the immediacy of food overrides any long-term hope for freedom and well being.” (page 812, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1) How often do we do that too? How often does our anxiety of the present moment lead us to forget the deliverance of the past and forget the promise of the future?
Friends, we are in a wilderness moment. Remember when the world shut down in 2020 and we thought we’d be back to normal a month later by Easter? I love our optimism. But here we are, 20 months into it, and the path is still unclear. They don’t call it the story of “the straight shot through the wilderness” in Exodus. It is the time of wandering in the wilderness. In our passage, God hears their anxiety and their worry. And God responds, with the promise of manna, enough for each day. Are we willing to sit in the wilderness, not trying to be busy with our own working and solution, but hearing God’s name, “I am”? Are we willing to just exist in a place we’d rather not be, just to be? I’ve mentioned before that I never preach a sermon that I don’t need to hear for myself. And y’all know I’m much more inclined to be doing things than I am to just be. These days, though, I’m feeling a need to just sit and be. Our collective anxiety seems to be higher than ever, as we worry about what the world will be like, what the church will be like after the pandemic. I’m feeling frantic and anxious and needing to do something, anything, to fix even one of the problems of the world. We’re feeling frantic and anxious and needing to do something, anything, because we’re afraid of starving in the wilderness, and we don’t see so much as a wafer thin morsel of good news anywhere around. And so we complain. And we cry out. And God hears our complaints. God hears the cries of God’s people. God tells the people to draw near, for God has heard their complaints. And God offers manna. Manna is not an absurd, extravagant, gluttonous feast of a meal, where the table is spread with more food than they can eat in a week. Manna is not too much. Manna is also not a scarcity product, where there isn’t enough for everyone. We’re told, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” Manna is the abundance of enough.
We call this story the “miracle of the manna in the wilderness”, but maybe the manna isn’t the miracle. We want to think of miracles and picture a big laser light show and fireworks where the Hebrew people immediately get teleported from slavery straight to the Promised Land with no delay. Maybe the miracle is that in the wilderness, when we don’t know where we’re going and we’re not sure we’ll survive long enough to get there, God hears our worries and fears and complaints—and God provides. The miracle in this story is that our time of wilderness is also a time when God is taking care of us. Manna is what we need for each day. Give us this day our daily bread. I think that often, when we get all anxious and jangly about the problems of the world, it’s because we’re borrowing worry and trouble from another day. We overlook the fact that we have enough for TODAY and we see all the manna lying on the ground, and start worrying that maybe we should fill our pockets, buckets, and storage barns with manna for the next 5 years. “It’s here today, but what if it doesn’t come next Thursday? Maybe I should just put some away for later….” If you read on in the story, the Hebrew people did that. And the manna goes foul, and they can’t eat it. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be responsible about doing what is ours to do for future provision. I’m saying the wilderness is not the time or place for frantic, anxious hoarding and squirreling. God provided manna only for the time when the land was wilderness and uninhabitable. Once they crossed into the Promised land, once they’ve crossed out of wilderness and into a habitable land where they can provide their own food, the manna will stop. Manna is a temporary provision, through which we learn it is okay to not always have the solutions to our own hunger. Manna teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and God’s provision, so when we leave the wilderness, maybe—just maybe—we can carry that grounded, non-anxious sense of being with us.
We are beginning our stewardship season, when we ask you to prayerfully consider what you can pledge to support the church’s budget next year. Your gifts are our literal manna that sustains and feeds the church through our wilderness wanderings as we journey toward the Promised Land. And if everyone gives what they can give, we will have enough. Enough to do the sexy things like keep the lights on and buy toilet paper. Enough to do the visionary things like working to reduce poverty, to address racism, and to feed and house people. Enough to do the unseen or rarely seen things like care for our staff in just and equitable ways, offer pastoral care to the homebound, or buy air purifiers and hand sanitizer to keep us healthy. Stewardship is like manna. When everyone gives to their capacity, there is enough. Justin and I learned this early on. We didn’t have much money when he was in medical school. But we learned that if we paid our pledge at the beginning of the month, we had enough left over by the end of the month to pay our bills and buy our groceries. The months where our fear of “not enough” led us to wait until the end of the month to make sure we had enough to get by before we gave to the church…that was when our pledge went unpaid. The scale of our giving is different now than it was then, but the manna-like nature remains the same. When we give first, and trust that God is in our giving, we have enough. When God gave the manna, God said it was to make sure the people followed divine instructions on their journey through the wilderness. Are we willing to do that? To day by day, trust God to provide for us while we journey?
God’s not asking us to build a rocket ship to lift us out of the wilderness tomorrow, even if we might wish that were the speed at which we could move through uncertain times. God is asking us to be, to trust in God’s provision, day by day, to get us through the wilderness. And y’all just made some promises for Rosie when we baptized her. You promised to care for her, to teach her the faith, to make sure this is a safe home for her, as we do for all the people baptized in this font (and for people baptized in other fonts who find their way to us). Are we willing to trust in God’s provision and make sure that she, and the other children in our congregation and community, get through this wilderness time and to the Promised land? When we’re in a space, literally or figuratively, like the Hebrew people found themselves after they left Elim, it is the time to BE, to trust God will provide, and to attend to what we need for that day. Give us this day, our daily bread.
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.