by David Baer, October 8, 2017
Text: Exodus 16:1-18
When I was 19, my family went for a camping trip in the Oregon Dunes. Now, this was a remote area with no facilities. Afterward, we came back to my grandmother’s apartment building in Portland. It was a high-rise with a fancy lobby and a reception desk, and ordinarily we would have expected to wait for the concierge to call upstairs. But we had been four days and three nights without a shower. Our hair stuck out at odd angles. Our clothes showed the dust of the trail we had hiked out on. I’m sure the odor was something else as well. Anyway, he took one look at us, and then at the leather couches and glass tables in the waiting area, and he said, “No need to wait… You all can go right up!”
What I remember about that trip, besides the reception at my grandmother’s building, was carrying a 50 pound pack down the three-mile trail to the campsite. We had to pack in all our supplies. My uncle had a purification kit, which he used on water he drew from a nearby freshwater pond. I remember a lot of freeze dried noodle soup. All this is to say that this was an outing that required a lot of planning and preparation, just so that we would have our basic survival needs met.
There were seven or eight of us on that four-day trip. In the Exodus story, on the other hand, according to the scripture, there were 600,000 men, and women and children on top of that, who left Egypt to set out for the promised land. They had eaten their fill of the Passover meal, but they had followed God’s instructions to burn the leftovers. They have no food to sustain them on what is going to turn out to be a 40-year odyssey. So this seems like a poorly planned expedition, to say the least—what on earth are they going to eat?
Today’s story starts with a complaint. “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” Now, tell me if I’m wrong about this, but a lot of our conversation involves complaining. People complain about the weather. Students complain about how much homework they have to do—and so do their parents! Workers complain about the hours they have to put in, or the ridiculous hoops their bosses make them jump through. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about complaining. It’s part of the social grease that helps us connect with each other. But what’s going on when we complain?
When we complain we’re expressing a feeling of powerlessness. We’ve been traveling along a certain path, and we’ve come to an obstacle that we’re not sure we can get past. We make plans to do stuff outdoors, but the weather messes them up. We want to succeed at school and work, but we’re not sure we can do it. If I had confidence that I have the power to do everything I wanted to do, then I wouldn’t be complaining. Now, maybe I’m wrong in my complaint. Maybe I really do have what it takes. Maybe my boss thinks I’m doing a terrific job. It doesn’t matter… I don’t actually have to be powerless. If I feel powerless, if I feel out of control, that’s when I complain. When I complain, I’m describing how I feel about a situation.
This week’s heartbreaking news from Las Vegas brings me first to prayer—for the victims, and for all the awful unseen ripples that every act of violence sends out through countless communities that grieve, the families that mourn and also face the practical realities of a missing parent or spouse. And I pray in gratitude for police and paramedics that race toward the danger to help others, when everyone else is trying to get to safety. But I also lift up to God a complaint, because when one of these attacks happens, I feel absolutely heart-sick, but I can also predict that it won’t be long before it happens again. And that’s partly because of policy, and partly because of cultural attitudes about guns, crime, and violence. But I complain to God, because it’s hard for me to see how the things that might make a difference are going to change. In scripture, this is a situation that calls for complaint, for lament, and for openness to embracing the power of God to take us beyond what we dare to imagine.
The stakes are as high as they can be for the Israelites too. They are in real physical danger. Now, remember that the Israelites are the descendants of Jacob, Isaac, Abraham and Sarah. They’re a special family that God promised to bless with many descendants and a land of their own. What’s more, God promised to bless all the families of the earth through their family. Last week we heard about how they were held captive as slaves in Egypt, and they cried out, and God remembered God’s promise, sending a reluctant Moses to lead them out of captivity. Now some time has passed. God rained down plagues on the Egyptians until their king, the Pharaoh, allowed them to leave. And when Pharaoh sent his army after them, God drowned that army in the sea, while the Israelites crossed safely to the other side. To use the Bible’s expression, God rescued them with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Their liberation was an amazing, miraculous event!
Now the thrill is subsiding, though. The hard reality is setting in. The people are in the wilderness, on their own, and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The Israelites grumble saying, the Egyptian slavedrivers were cruel, but at least they fed us. Their powerlessness and fear well up inside them, and they lash out at their leaders. They gather around Moses and Aaron and complain. They scapegoat their leaders, because they don’t know what else to do: “You’re trying to starve us!” they say. “It would have been better if you had God kill us before we even left Egypt.” The people’s dread is so heavy that it outweighs the ecstasy of liberation, and so they turn on their liberator.
But the complaining is not about Moses and Aaron. Complaining isn’t ever about reality. It’s first and foremost an expression of feeling. The people have realized that they are powerless in the desert, that they don’t have the resources to feed themselves. They’ve been called out of one form of life–slavery, oppression, suffering–toward a new life in a far-away home God has promised them. They’ve been called to journey with God across the wilderness toward that new home, and they’re beginning to realize that they can’t get there on their own.
God listens to us when we complain. Even if we’re being unfair, even if we’re being ungrateful, God hears us. Just to hammer home the point, the text we read says not just once but four times, “the Lord has heard your complaining.” God sees through the hurt and anger to the anxiety that grips the Israelites. And God answers them. “I am going to rain bread out of heaven for you,” God says, “and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” And the people get what they need. Quails cover the camp at night, and in the morning there’s a fine, flaky crust all around them. “What is it?” the people ask, or “Man-hu’?” in Hebrew. Manna, the bread from heaven, takes its name from this question; it comes from our bewilderment and confusion when God sees through our complaints and provides exactly what we need.
This new life is fueled by trust. It’s for the sake of nurturing this trust that the people need to stop in their tracks one day out of every seven. God tells them to gather twice the usual amount on the sixth day, so that they can enjoy a day free from work and wandering. This is the first place in the Bible where God invites human beings to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. It’s a glimpse of the rich and blessed life that awaits the Israelites at the end of their journey, when their struggle will be over. We need Sabbath. We need a break from the craziness that rules our weekdays so that we can be reminded of where God wants to lead us. Sabbath-keeping forces us to stop our activity and striving to see that God is the one who provides for our needs. And when God does this, it strengthens our trust. We can believe that our journey is really taking us somewhere, and that we’re going to make it.
There’s another way that God is working to strengthen the trust of the Israelites. The manna that the people receive is only enough for one day, no more or less. When they go out to gather, some seem to be picking up more than others, but in the end everyone has exactly the same amount, exactly what they need to feed their family for that day. What about tomorrow? The manna will be there again tomorrow. Today’s manna is for today. Later on some of the Israelites don’t trust that the manna will be there tomorrow. They try to save some of it as a hedge, in case God fails to deliver the promised food. But it spoils and turns rotten, because you can’t save manna. You have to eat it today. What’s more, have you ever thought about where the manna they tried to save came from? If you can only ever gather enough for one day, that meant they had denied themselves part of the nourishment God was offering them. They had cheated themselves out of today’s blessings because of their anxiety about tomorrow, because of their lack of trust.
God’s manna is all around us. We have food to eat… and more than we need, enough to share with our neighbors through the Center for Food Action donation basket in the hallway and in countless other ways. We have community… How many times have I seen folks make themselves vulnerable at our time of joys and concerns only to be approached after worship by so many others who had experienced the same thing? This kind of community is a gift, it’s something we need every day on our journey, and it’s bread from God. But you have to take it, you have to eat what’s being offered to you today, because it won’t last the night. There will be food for tomorrow tomorrow, but take and eat what you need today, now. Reach out to receive the nourishment you need today.
And give thanks to God, who hears our complaints when we’re lost, when we’re not sure we can make it through the wilderness on our own. But give thanks, because the fact is that we’re not on our own. We gather together with the promised presence of Christ. We receive the bread of God’s word, and it’s enough to satisfy, enough to open our eyes to God’s unwavering devotion to a wandering, complaining people, enough for today, enough to strengthen us for the journey home. Amen.