Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The 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.’
4 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.
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘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.” ’
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When 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.
I have heard that it is a curse to be told “may you live in interesting times.” And, while I’m not sure I’d call our current times cursed, they are certainly interesting. And, by interesting, I mean exhausting, frustrating, and difficult to plan in. They are certainly plague-ish, minus the frogs. Just about the time I feel like I’ve got a good idea about how to move about in the world as safely as possible, something new, and often bad, happens. While I’m not exactly yearning for normal, I could really use a dose of predictable for a while. As I read today’s scripture, I felt some resonance with the Israelites. Their lives have been interesting. And they are very tired of interesting.
These days, whenever I read this story of freed people missing the place of their enslavement, I remember that Margaret Atwood quote from A Handmaid's Tale: "Girls, I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary." This Israelites were longing for the ordinary, even in the midst of the extraordinary. This Bible story confirms what the newer novel tells us. People are capable of adapting to many difficult situations. So many hard things can become ordinary. When that happens, a new situation, even a better situation, can become terrifying. In the face of frightening uncertainty and predictable ordinariness, some would choose the ordinary, even when it is slavery, rather than reach for the extraordinary, even when the extraordinary promises liberation and grace and new life.
When we encounter the Israelites in the desert in our reading in Exodus, we learn that many of them would choose a terrible ordinariness over extraordinary uncertainty. The story tells us that these people have experienced the great power of God. They have seen the plagues that rained down upon Egypt at God's behest. They had run across the floor of a sea, with the waters churning safely at their sides, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army was unable to do the same. They had followed a miraculous pillar of fire and cloud towards freedom. And, yet, they had grown deeply afraid. In their fear, they began to complain. They will complain about a lot of stuff in the next 40 years in the desert. The very first thing they complain about is the food... or the fear that they won't have enough of it. What is the use, they say, of escaping Egypt if we are just going to die of starvation here in the desert? Yes, we are now “free,” we guess. Are we going to be able to eat?
This is the temptation of the ordinary. As slaves, at least they knew what to expect in their days. Back-breaking work, abuse by overseers, food enough to allow them to work, and a little sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Day in and day out, they understood what was expected of them. And yet, even though life was hard and they cried out to God to save them from it, the Israelites had grown accustomed to it. Oppression had become ordinary. In fearful times on the road, when nothing seemed ordinary or even like anything that had ever happened to them before, the fear would overcome them. Their bellies rumbled and they looked at the desert, and in moments of terror, they, as Dr. Stephen B. Reid describes it in his commentary on this text, misremember slavery as a time of stability.
Now, to be fair, it was probably reasonable for the Israelites to be worrying. They were in the wilderness after all, and the wilderness, as we have discussed before, is a hard place to live. Scholar Wil Gafney points out that, at this point in the story, they've been in the wilderness for a while, probably six weeks. It has been six weeks since the miracles of the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the plagues in Egypt. It has also been six weeks since they left the oasis with fresh water and abundant food. They are six weeks into a journey that they don't yet know will turn into 40 years, and they are definitely getting worried. Let’s remember what it was like for us last summer, six weeks into Covid precautions. I’ve looked back at emails I wrote and conversations I had wondering when we could “get back to normal.” I had no idea what the next year would look like. And, I’ve had food, cable, and a job the whole time. I haven’t been living on the run in the desert.
I appreciate Dr. Gafney’s reminder that the Israelites had actually had a great faith... that's what had gotten them six weeks into a new life of liberation in the first place. But, in the midst of the sand and the dwindling provisions, they needed a little renewal. They needed something to remind them that if God had gotten them that far, God would make sure they got the rest of the way. Who here hasn't needed their own bit of manna and quail in order to have the courage to take the next few steps towards liberation? The gift here is that God heard their needs, and, instead of dismissing them as whining, God provided them with a way to keep going and a lesson on how to take enough without taking too much.
One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training is that, at some parts of our lives, we develop coping skills to survive adverse situations. Spiritual maturity comes when we learn that the skills that were able to help us in one situation aren't always the best skills to use in other situations. When I read about how God responds to the people's complaints, it reminded me of that lesson. God doesn't lash out at the Israelites and call them big whiners. God doesn’t say, hey, if you don't like freedom, you can turn around and go back to where you came from. Instead, God constructs for them a new way to order their lives, a new rhythm based not on the Pharaoh's whims or on their greatest fears, but instead on creation and God's recreation of life within their people.
God promises to feed the people and asks them to harvest their food on a particular schedule, so that they do not begin a cycle of hoarding that can be tempting when people believe resources are scarce. God assures them that there will always be enough. In the verses that follow today’s reading, you can see the change in their lives. Slowly, their habits shift from away from the terrible ordinariness of slavery back into stride with God's creation. All of their work becomes their own work once again, oriented to their communal well-being and needs, not pharaoh's whims and power. Each family will be able to gather all they need. If they fell back into scarcity thinking and tried to hoard food, the extra they collected would rot. So, they learned to take just enough, because they didn’t need to hoard. God would always send more food. As their lives shifted from oppression into provision, their sense of the ordinary became readjusted, this time for the better.
Something I have heard persistently in response to the pandemic is people wondering what comes next. Some of the wondering about what comes next is planning. Some of it a deep need to spend time thinking about something other than the unpredictable, un-ordinary, overly interesting time we are in. Most of us, at least some of the time, really need things to feel normal again, whatever “normal” means. At the same time, we’ll probably realized that some things about “normal” were insufficient. Or, at the very least, will not be the things that sustains us on our next steps through the desert. Did you see the article about how emergency Covid aid lifted so many people out of poverty? That is certainly a kind of sustenance that wasn’t available before but is helping people now. If the normal is returning them to poverty, I don’t really want to do that. I hope we can learn something from Exodus, not just about God, who will provide in abnormal, extraordinary ways in abnormal, extraordinary times, but also about ourselves, as we might hear echoes of our own fears and insecurities in this ancient story. What is God providing us right now that sustains us in our desert? And, how can we let these gifts from God realign us out of oppression and into the stride of liberation. We can’t live like we used to. Too much has changed. But, we can learn to live differently. And, the new ways we will learn to gather what God has sent to us will probably be the ways of living that carry us through to the promised land.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Exodus, Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2536
Stephen B. Reid: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-exodus-162-4-9-15-5
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1986)
Good news about an unintended side effect of the financially-based Covid relief measures: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/us/politics/covid-poverty-aid-programs.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.