A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017
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 Randy preached 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.
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 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 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 Albertson’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”, and “God will kill us with hunger”. 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?
I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never had the anxiety of wondering where food will come from so I can feed my family. But here’s a fable I heard this week that I can relate to.
There was a woman who returned from a wonderful 3 month sabbatical by the palm trees at Elim. And she sat down to write her sermon, that first week back. At one point, while she was struggling and struggling to write a sermon, she complained to her friends, “I have no idea how to write a sermon! If only I had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when I sat by my laptop and wrote my fill of sermons….”
Her friends heard her complaints and reminded her that only 3 months previously, she used to competently preach almost every week, and that perhaps God, who had called her into this ministry and delivered her in the past would continue to provide for her into the future.
Perhaps that is too minor of an illustration. Perhaps not.
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, to just 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. This week, though, I’m feeling a need to just sit and be.
I don’t know how you are feeling after the needless and horrific violence this week in Las Vegas, plus whatever else was in the news with politics, rolling back human rights protections and women’s access to healthcare and contraception, more hurricanes in the gulf, Tom Petty dying, etc, but I confess it’s been a rough week for my soul. I’ve been screaming at the newscasters on the radio and cursing politicians more than I normally do, more than I wish I were. Finding Christian charity has been challenging for me this week.
Our collective anxiety seems to be higher than ever, as we are told to worry about preventing gun violence in the midst of a culture that won’t address any of the causes of gun violence. I’m feeling frantic and anxious and needing to do something, anything, to fix ALL 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.
Manna is what you need for that day. For me, this week, my manna was in the moments of just enough.
—-Having time to spend with many of you after three months away.
—-Alden drove home to surprise me and we went for a hike one morning.
—-Making dinner for some friends who stayed with us on their road trip across the country.
—-listening to and laughing with Cathie Walker’s family sharing stories of her life as we planned her memorial service.
I didn’t solve the problems of the world, but I had moments of grace and peace amidst the anxiety of the world.
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 it went foul.
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.
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. Amen.