Sermon of the Week:
Waiter–This Isn’t What We Ordered
Week eight of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Manna, Stockholm Syndrome, God Provides, Raymond Carver, Murmuring. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
As we have been walking through this section of the Exodus story
my mind has been wandering a bit
maybe not unlike these Hebrew sojourners
six or eight weeks out now
from the ultimate liberation from their captors, from Egypt,
from the events at the Red Sea.
Back then, in the story we heard last week, that liberation
caused them to sing and dance and lift praise to the heavens.
They were finally free!
But that was then.
Six or eight weeks. A couple months.
Enough time for the provisions they brought to thin out.
The water to become scarce.
For children to look up at us with hungry eyes that silently ask if, well, could we eat now please
and you don’t quite know how to answer…
We’re going to stick with the Hebrews for two more weeks in this sermon series,
and we’re going to get a clear look at what it is like to make it just over
the crest of that hill you’ve been climbing for oh so long
only to look over the other side and see…..a long, long way still to go.
A Hollywood ending it isn’t. At least not yet.
The promise, an ancient promise, was a land flowing with milk and honey.
Whatever THIS was….it wasn’t that.
The wilderness, a dry, desolate, inhospitable place
not much food,
nothing really for miles in any direction,
easy to lose your way
no google maps or waze app to give you the shortest path to the other side.
They’d be in that mess for forty years, or so the story goes…
FORTY years, though that number
often was shorthand for “a good long time” or “a generation or so.”
Enough time for kids to be born and grandparents to die.
Enough time for a people to really, really think about who it is, and who it wants to be.
That’s a long time.
It would be hard to be on the move for so long, don’t you think?
After a while, you’d start to doubt yourself.
EditDidn’t we pass by here before?
That tree. This rock. That hill top. Looks so familiar.
Are we there yet, God?
How much longer is it going to be?
When, during their forty years in the wilderness,
would it have been appropriate to ask that question, do you think?
If not after six or eight weeks…what about six months?
That’s about how long it has been since COVID started.
Maybe that’s your frame of reference this morning.
What about four years? That’s how long it has been since our last election.
For me, I’m forty-five years old.
So we’re talking about a lifetime for me.
How much longer is it going to be? How far to the promised land?
When is it ok to ask that question?
In our reading today, it’s been maybe two months.
But maybe that’s enough time
when you’re starving, or your kids are hurting,
or you’ve been disrupted so much…that you’re just done.
Scholars who have thought and written about this passage
often bring up the murmuring of the people, their quarrelling,
the Stockholm syndrome mentality of looking back at their Egyptian captors with fondness.
At least we would have died with full bellies, Moses!
In one example, Donald McKim begins:
“To read the accounts of the people of Israel in the wilderness,
one gets the impression that all they did was complain.”
and McKim even quotes another scholar
who called it “not a casual gripe, but unbelief
which has called into question God’s very election of a people…”[i]
But come on.
I read this story and I can commiserate.
Or, at least I think I can understand what their cry might have been like:
Being in captivity was better, Moses!
At least we wouldn’t have to watch our children waste away,
our loved ones suffer,
our hopes dashed before this barren Tatooine wilderness before us…
In a way, one of the main points of this text, I think
is that when things get tough, it is so easy to miss the broader perspective.
God’s got this. They’re just six weeks out.
They have no idea that this journey to the land flowing with milk and honey
is going to take a while.
And it isn’t going to be on their timetable, following their rules.
They aren’t in charge. God is.
I mean, even the protagonist Moses won’t make it all the way there.
Foreshadowing: He’ll die at Mount Nebo,
the mountain from which he finally sees the valley where the river Jordan flows
where he sees that Promised Land, thank you God!
and finally! He knows his people are going to make it…
even if his story, Moses’s story, ends there on the mountaintop.
The broader picture is of a people who are going through a really, really hard time.
And they just can’t always see that God is there,
wandering alongside them,
ready to give them some order and some structure
so that they can start building a society
and working towards some peace and some justice together.
In the meantime, things are rough.
And so they complain. To their leaders. To their God.
And they say
“What gives? We went through all of that, just to die out here?
How dare you do that to us.
We trusted you.
We trusted God. I mean, God seemed legit
with those locusts and frogs and pestilence and all that
and that was a powerful thing God did
making an interstate highway in the middle of the red sea for us
but THIS is how our story is going to end? This is it? Really, Moses?”
But even if there feels like some judgment against them, the people, as you read the story,
even if you see the author suggesting that God is testing them, prodding their faithfulness,
testing their strength of resolve…
my question is: who would have withstood all of that anxiety?
Community is fragile.
Our sense of security and our trust in one another and our leaders, equally so.
And it takes work and commitment and a shared purpose
to keep us united, to keep us working together to solve problems
and to maintain hope in tomorrow.
I don’t know if you knew this,
but Moses is often lifted up for his leadership qualities.
I have a book in my office on church administration that I first read in seminary, for instance,
with the title “When Moses Meets Aaron.”
The book is about staff supervision, and how to manage a team.
It is just one example of how Moses provides inspiration for thinking about leadership,
in good times and challenging times.
Moses had his share of challenging times, difficult leadership.
I’ve been thinking how hard it is to lead this week.
You can turn your attention to all sorts of different topics when you read Exodus over several weeks
and one fascinating topic is the fragility of good leadership
because of the limitations of our perspective and the anxiety we have over our suffering.
The reality is that the murmuring we find in today’s reading won’t be resolved
by the amazing gift of Manna in the morning,
that flaky, sweet, miraculous gift of bread, every day,
or by the nourishment of roasted Quail every night
and twice as much the day before the sabbath
so they’d have enough to observe properly while observing the day of rest.
In this observation, McKim is right.
The complaining continues, as we see as the story unfolds over the next several chapters.
There are moments of profound thirst,
thirst that will be slaked by the water that Moses will divine from the rock.
There the people challenge Moses, just like they do in today’s reading.
Then again, there’s the story of the Golden Calf, if you remember,
which happens sometime after the story we’re going to read next Sunday.
Next week we’ll look at the ten commandments,
the decalogue, which Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive when he meets with God…
But there are also lots of other laws and customs and such that God wants to give Moses
lots and lots of them
and it would take Moses quite some time to jot it all down
and the people become impatient with the whole thing
and they melt down all their gold and fashion it into something else for them to worship
right after God told them not to do that…
it was right there, in the ten commandments…you shall have no other Gods before me…
reminding all of us that many people would touch a hot stovetop if someone told them not to do it
just to stick it to the one who warned us about that…
reminding all of us that that tree we’re not supposed to eat from in the middle of the garden
might be the very one we’re tempted to try….just a nibble.
You read these stories and your heart aches,
because you see people making bad choices and misdirecting their fear and showing impatience
all because they’re genuinely hurting, honestly afraid, listless and searching
and, in truth, because they don’t trust that it is going to be ok.
They lack the proper perspective.
And you look at Moses, who is flabbergasted
and who has to be looking back at God with a look that says
What in the world have you gotten me in to God?
I told you, didn’t I, back at the bush-that-would-not-be-consumed
that I wasn’t the one for this, that I couldn’t do this,
that this was all a mistake… I told you…
And you look at God….
and God answers
by providing bread in the morning, and quail for dinner in the evening…
by providing water at the rock
by showing that our idols are never quite enough,
because they aren’t the true God,
the one who provides for our needs
the one from everything ultimately comes
the one who, in the end, has got this, has got you, that you can trust, because you’re going to be ok.
But I feel for Moses here,
just as I feel for the people.
This is the stuff of tragedy, really,
where people find themselves in a no-good, very-bad situation
where some people make poor choices
and act out in their insecurity and their anxiety.
Among other things, this is a leadership story,
and there will be moments, thankfully, where everyone settles down,
starts caring for one another,
and things get better.
I don’t know what to tell you about all of our leaders these days,
but I do know that when times get tough
the good leaders I know struggle under the stress of it all.
I mean, they’re human too.
And if their goal is to genuinely help, to guide us forward
to build a better world,
then they’re going to feel the same challenges that the rest of us do.
I want to be clear: I’m not talking about me, or The Kirk specifically.
Generally speaking, together we’ve been doing a good job at working through our anxiety
and sharing responsibility among our leadership
and sustaining ourselves with a deep sense in trust with where God is leading us
as we follow Jesus out into the world…
but it would also not be honest if I we didn’t acknowledge here
that even among us there’s a fair amount of stress about everything.
Given all the things that 2020 has wrought, we should expect that we’d feel that
from COVID disrupting our way of doing church
to our collective listening to how we can participate in a new call toward anti-racism
to the ongoing strain on our public institutions,
particularly after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg this weekend, may her memory be a blessing.
But when you look around, at your friends, your neighbors, maybe in your own heart
and you ask yourself, how are we doing as a society,
how are we treating one another
how are we managing our stress
maybe it is true that some of us are doing ok, all things considering,
and some of our churches are doing ok, like The Kirk,
but wow does it look as if, when you look at things as a whole,
we don’t seem to be doing all that great.
I happen to know a lot of good people, of every sort of perspective, left, right, and center,
who serve on local school boards or boards of county commissioners
or even elders on church sessions in places all across the country,
and the flack that many of them are dealing with is palpable.
So, too, is maybe a deeper sense from other voices, helpful voices,
that just want to do something to help out but know that they can’t right now
that they just have to wait and walk through this wilderness time
trying to do what they can here and there—maybe they can go gather the manna,
maybe they can volunteer to cook the quail,
maybe they can bring some food to people who are unable to prepare it themselves —
people who are just trying to help where they can, thanks be to God,
praying that it’s going to be a shorter wilderness experience than the Hebrews had to endure.
So here we are, the people starving and crying out that it would be better to turn back,
and Moses turns to God, and God provides.
God will not let God’s people starve. They will have bread.
The people in the story don’t have the benefit of perspective.
They don’t see what we see, as the readers.
They don’t know that they’re going to make it to the promised land.
In that moment, they ask, and God provides.
And we have to hope and pray that God will do the same for us,
in our own moments of stress and chaos and need.
And at the same time, we do our part to help,
feeding the hungry, seeking clean water for those who thirst
breaking the idols of our own age, idols like racism and nationalism,
because we follow a God who feeds the hungry and satisfies the thirsty and welcomes the stranger.
Sometimes, a bit of perspective would be helpful for us, too,
even if there are voices trying to share some with us.
I mentioned at the beginning
that my mind has been wondering a bit as I’ve sat with this story this week
And my mind went to this little poem that I found
in a sermon that a mentor of mine, Mark Ramsey,
once offered about different topic.
“No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”
And I was grateful for a reminder of how important perspective is.
How, when you’re in the throes of a stressful situation,
how hard it is to look ahead
and to trust and to pitch in…
how, in retrospect, often there is so much good that can happen
so many possibilities that open up that we just didn’t think possible from when we are there
true reasons to hope, reasons to be thankful, and to do our part…
In the end, the Hebrews had to trust God to lead them through the wilderness.
They couldn’t do it on their own.
They had to learn how to manage their fears.
They had to experience a God who not only liberates but who teaches them to be thankful
and who gives them a feeling of responsibility for others.
And the Israelites would look back on this moment
and remember that it was in God’s hands the whole time.
It might not have been the way that they wanted it.
Their dinner might not have been what they ordered.
But they made it through. Because God’s love is steadfast. God’s promises, sure.
And they can inspire us to follow, and to lead by our example,
even during the most challenging of days.
May we find our own strength in their example
and in the witness of good people,
leaders among us who seek to do the right during hard times
who open the doors of compassion and welcome and equality and hopefulness
and in the efforts of those who follow
to join where they can to love their neighbor and to create communities of peace and justice.
May it be so.
[i] From Feasting on the Word, Year A, Proper 20 “Exodus 16:2-15: Theological Perspective.” Supplemental. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). McKim quotes from Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical Theological Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 285
[ii]Available at https://wordsfortheyear.com/2014/12/29/gravy-by-raymond-carver/ (accessed September 21, 2020)
Image: Nicolas Poussin, Gathering the Manna in the Desert