Sermon Seeds: Tensions in the Wilderness
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 20)
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Additional reflection on Philippians 1:21-30
Tensions in the Wilderness
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
When God met Moses up on that mountain and gave him his assignment to bring the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses (perhaps gingerly) asked for God’s name: just who – might he say – sent him on such a bold mission? While God’s response is translated in various and interesting ways, most often as “I Am Who Am,” one version is particularly fitting for our story today: “I will be who I will be.” Someone has rendered this as “I will be what is needed at the time.” The wilderness in today’s passage provides a perfect setting for God to be exactly that – just what the people need at that moment in time.
First, Gerald Janzen, in his Westminster Bible Companion commentary on Exodus, provides a bit of “back story” about the development of the faith of the Israelites from the first book of the Bible to the second: their ancestors in Genesis had worshipped God as El Shaddai, the source of the blessings of fertility – fields for planting, pasture for flocks, children for the future (and the work of the present) – a fertility that provided food to sustain them. That’s what they needed at the time, and it was, understandably, the most pressing issue on their minds. By Moses’ time, as we know from our recent weeks’ readings, the most pressing issue for the Israelites was the slavery that held them in bondage to Pharaoh, and as they groaned in their suffering, they prayed to God for release. By the time of Moses, God claimed the name “Yahweh,” heard the people’s groaning and their prayers, and did indeed free them from the mighty empire of Egypt.
Unfortunately, this freedom led them directly into the wilderness, not directly into the Land of Milk and Honey. (Wouldn’t that have been nice? But then where would the lessons be?) So once again, now that Pharaoh and his chariots are floating on or below the Red Sea, the most pressing issue for the Israelites is food, and this wilderness doesn’t look too promising to deliver it. Here, Janzen writes, “a warrior God seems of little relevance, and Yahweh (‘I will be who/what I will be’) needs to be present and active in the old character of El Shaddai” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). What the people needed from God at that moment was food.
The word “manna” is familiar to most folks even in the secular world as a metaphor for any miraculous, happy gift – “bread from heaven,” unforeseeable but needed blessings that rain down upon us, a lovely image indeed. But this original manna story is told in hard and gritty circumstances, in a barren wilderness that makes the former slaves look back (toward Egypt, toward slavery) with mixed feelings. Scott Hoezee describes those feelings well: “In the throes of disappointment (not to mention the swooning force of the sun beating down on one’s head), mind and memory can play tricks on a person. In the case of Exodus 16, Egypt strangely transmogrifies from the ‘house of bondage and the land of death’ into some kind of Club Med” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). There, in the looking backward longingly and looking forward anxiously, is the tension in the wilderness for the Israelites, and the tension in the wildernesses of our own lives as well.
Whatever obscure theological categories and impressive jargon we may use to describe our own spiritual development (and where we are at this point in time), it’s clear that simple things like bread and water are at the center of our most meaningful religious experience. Last week, the waters of the Red Sea could represent every seemingly insurmountable barrier, every intimidating circumstance, when we feel “up against it.” On the other hand, as Christians, we experience the waters of new life in baptism, and we listen to stories about Jesus walking on the water and changing water into wine. (Can you feel the tension between those images, some threatening, and others graced?)
Today’s story, however, is about bread, the basic “stuff” of life (even though we know we don’t live by it alone). Walter Brueggemann writes of “the deep materiality of our faith,” an earthiness, if you will, “that begins in the valuing of creation and culminates in the incarnation, a materiality that knows all along that our bodies count decisively” (Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles). While our religious practices often point us to heaven and to invisible, “spiritual” things, Brueggemann finds great spiritual meaning in something as ordinary and everyday as food. And the source of our food has greater significance than we may imagine. “What happens to our bodies?” he asks. “On the one hand they take in food. We must eat. On the other hand the food that is eaten is transformed into loyalty, energy, work, and care. The one who provides the food we eat governs the loyalties we embrace.”
Brueggemann has written on this manna passage in several of his works, where he often makes the connection between our loyalties and the source of our food – is it Pharaoh and his system, or is it God, who gives in abundance but calls us to walk in faith, in trust, not hoarding but sharing to make sure everyone has enough? As we know, “Pharaoh” can represent more than a long-ago, long-dead historical king. “Pharaoh” is everything that traps us and keeps us down and draws us into a system that mangles the “system” of God, which tests us, perhaps, and lays great expectations on us: will we trust in God’s providence? Will we share with one another? Fear and anxiety, which disable trust, keep us strangely trapped and tied to the systems that oppress all but the few at the top. We find ourselves identifying with that system, whether we realize it or not: are we people of Pharaoh, or people of God? Brueggemann warns, then, that “we must pay attention to what we eat and to who feeds us” (Cadences of Home).
So the people of Israel have gone from one challenge to another: “The first task is leaving; the second task is believing,” Brueggemann writes in The Covenanted Self. We face the same challenges, perhaps in different ways, and God is there, to be What God Will Be, as we face those challenges. It became clear, out there in the desolate wilderness, where abundance was hard to see, let alone taste, that life wasn’t going to be suddenly easy, and that freedom itself provided huge problems. The tension between the security of slavery and the gift of freedom is exposed in their question to Moses and Aaron about bringing them out to the wilderness to die. According to Hank Langknecht, “Misery and fulfillment will be part of either life. Which misery is the more bearable misery; which fulfillment is the more fulfilling?” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
The anxiety and fear felt by those hungry Israelites in the stark wilderness may sound quite distant from the experience of those of us who are well-fed, who suffer no “food insecurity” – that is, some but certainly not all of God’s children. However, we all spend time in both places, the wilderness and the land promised to us – times when God seems far away, and times when we feel secure and blessed and God seems close at hand. In his commentary on Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Brueggemann draws a distinction between the concerns of those who have reached The Promised Land and those who were lost and hungry and uncertain in the wilderness on their way, where “the primary concern is anxiety about survival; in the land, the temptation is complacency about self-sufficiency. The story of manna is not for all of life. It is for life in those zones of bereftness when the problem is not self-sufficiency but despair, need, and anxiety.” At one time or another, all of us experience those “zones of bereftness,” and that includes Christians, Scott Hoezee writes, for we can still experience “the wasteland of depression and the scorching sand of cancer” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).
It’s not difficult for Christians to see the line that goes from Moses and manna to Jesus on a hillside responding to his agitated disciples about the hungry crowds. Brueggemann urges us to reflect on “alternative bread,” bread blessed and broken, not the controlled bread of a controlling emperor. (We might also consider the Inner Pharaoh that tells us to fend for ourselves, and leads us to believe that we can.) As Christians, we remember bread shared long ago, Brueggemann writes, and in the Eucharist is “the relentless enactment of our conviction that only broken bread feeds, only poured out wine contains the power of new life” (Cadences of Home). An entire sermon could focus on the question of whether we have chosen to rely on “imperial bread,” or the “alternative bread” provided by a loving God. And have we chosen, even when we’re blessed with manna from heaven, to hoard it just as the anxious Israelites did so long ago? Is such anxiety at the root of our culture’s urge to excess – is it a fear that there won’t be enough to go around for all of God’s children to be fed?
Barbara Brown Taylor ties our understanding of manna to our sense of God’s presence and working in our lives. In her sermon on this text, “Bread of Angels” (in her book of the same title), she asks, “what makes something bread from heaven? Is it the thing itself or the one who sends it?” She reflects on our own inclination to misinterpret or complain when we don’t get what we pray for, and our failure to see the “ordinary” and “transitory” things God is providing every day. She also provides a beautiful connection with the story of Jesus and the feeding of five thousand, which reminded the people of this earlier story of manna in the wilderness: “Jesus is God’s manna in the wilderness, the one who reminds us day by day that we live because God provides not what we want, necessarily, but exactly what we need: some bread, some love, some breath, some wine, a relationship with this ordinary looking man, who comes from heaven to bring life to the world.” Of course, she also admits to storing up food herself in her cupboard, and calls this her “manna-insurance, just in case God does not come through” (Bread of Angels). Perhaps, if we stepped back and looked at the big picture, we might question our need for manna-insurance in a world inclined toward justice and generosity.
Food, work, rest. While much has been beautifully written on this down-to-earth text about the human need for food and the need to trust in God’s abundance (one wonders how many problems of scarcity and lack and suffering come from hoarding), there is another profound human need that surfaces in this short story. And this need also exposes the difference between Pharaoh and the God-Who-Will-Be-What-Is-Needed. In this text we hear about sabbath, regular rest from work, something that our driven culture rarely practices. After all, we’re too busy working to store up what we may need or want later (that “manna-insurance,” perhaps?). And the Pharaohs of this world (including our Inner Pharaohs) have laid heavy quotas on many of us, so the workload isn’t voluntary. What do you think the world would be like if everyone took (and were able to take) one day of real rest each week? (Two would be better, of course.) What if sabbath were a spiritual practice that shaped us, day by day, into people of inner calm and trust in God? Isn’t the world, the earth itself and its people, in need of rest?
Perhaps the lesson in this story about rest is not as dramatic as the image of bread from heaven, but it’s closely tied to it. God tells the people not to hoard the bread but to trust that even if they take a day off, there will still be enough to eat. Contrast and compare once again the demands of Pharaoh and the expectations of Yahweh: as Gerald Janzen observes, both Pharaoh and Yahweh “scattered” the people, sending them out in search of something. For Pharaoh, it was straw so they could make their daily quota of bricks (how much more does the text need to sound like our experience, with our own daily quotas of “bricks”?). But for Yahweh, the people are scattered to look for bread, something for their own good, not for the glory of Pharaoh and his ostentatious building programs.
Food and rest, both of them needed, were both denied by Pharaoh, who wouldn’t give the slaves a day off to rest. But Yahweh did give time for rest: “For Yahweh,” Janzen writes, “six days of work is enough, and on the seventh they may rest from the gathering.” But the Israelites are uncomfortable with this “shift in the rhythm of their days,” and they think their survival depends on their own efforts rather than God’s providence. It seems that “part of what God has to heal the people of is a deeply ingrained but flawed sense of the relation between food and time” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). We often use the expression, “to put bread on the table,” when we justify our work habits. For all of the talk about what it means to be Christian in our culture (and this conversation currently seems to focus mainly on sexuality issues rather than, for example, on money and possessions and greed, or on forgiveness and peace), we rarely hear “sabbath” mentioned in the same sentence as “faithful” or “the Bible.” In our fatigue and stress, our anxiety and anger, our greed and hostilities, are we showing signs of our own tensions in the wilderness? Janzen wonders whether “the question in principle for Christians is whether we have ceased to serve God as the Lord of time and have begun to serve Pharaoh instead.” What does it say about human nature today when even people who consider themselves “free” apparently need a law to make them rest?
I just finished reading a book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris, that reminds me of this question and this need. Ironically, we’re in a wilderness of too much rather than too little – and not just of food and other necessities and luxuries as well, but of too many electronic screens, too many emails, too many social media calling to us…distracting us from ourselves, in a sense, hindering our ability to be still, to be quiet, to be open to God. Do you agree?
When leading stewardship workshops on tithing, I often asked participants if they thought the church, and more importantly, the world, would be different if everyone practiced tithing (something the Bible tells us to do, but that’s another sermon!). Everyone would raise their hand. Likewise, when I asked if they thought the world (not just the church, but our families, our workplaces, neighborhoods and nations) would be a different place if everyone actually observed the sabbath, every hand went up. Today, everyone seems to acknowledge that we are too tired, too busy, too stressed, and each one of us admits to our great need for rest from gathering those daily quotas of straw, our human need for time to acknowledge the source of our blessings and the grace that sustains our lives. How else can we live our lives in gratitude and trust?
For further reflection:
From a penitential prayer offered in Jewish homes at the start of Sabbath:
“Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
Aristophanes, 5th century B.C.E.
“Hunger knows no friend but its feeder.”
Elie Wiesel, Night, 20th century
“Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 20th century
“The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow.”
Frank McCourt, 20th century
“After a full belly all is poetry.”
Additional reflection on Philippians 1:21-30:
It has been said that one way to see the church is as a “base camp” as we “climb the mountains” of our lives. Mountain climbers need a place of safety and supply where they can re-charge their batteries before going back out to the heights and the striving, the tumbles and the perils, of their lives. The base camp isn’t a place to be comfortable, no matter how much it may look that way to some observers (and members, alas) of the church. We come together, in a sense, for the sake of our going back out again, in mission to the world that God loves. For several weeks, the lectionary turns our attention to the theology of the mystic Paul as it is expressed in his letter to the Philippians.
Read in bits and pieces, Paul’s thoughts are hard enough for the preacher to grasp, with years of study and tools of exegesis at hand. But to the ears of the believers in the pews, our own “mountain climbers,” perhaps his exhortation to live their lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” is most accessible. For Paul, writing from prison and no doubt on the minds of these good friends and supporters (who have provided generously to the wider mission of the church at that time, and have earned his gratitude), his present circumstances put him in a win-win position. If he dies, he gets to be united with Christ. And yet, even in life, caught up in his mission and his call, he lives and breathes in Christ, too. That is all that matters.
What about most of us mountain-climbers, though? What about the ordinary life of faith of ordinary people, perhaps without the mystical heights of Paul’s theological insights but still lived with the same hungers for goodness and healing, and the same longing to give glory to God with the gift of our lives? Today’s reading doesn’t draw a picture of solitary recluses who seek spiritual growth alone; instead, it affirms the life of the gathered community of believers living, working and praying side by side for the sake of the gospel. In their first-century way, they did what we strive to do today, whether raising funds at our flea market for the refrigerator for our food bank, or learning to forgive, one day at a time, or singing our hearts out on Sunday morning and learning to trust our lives to God. In their suffering for the sake of the gospel, their worries over their church leader and teacher, their good and generous stewardship, their sense of mission beyond their own place and time and loved ones, they were doing what we are doing week in and week out as we see beyond our own lives and look up toward what heights we might reach, climbing together, side by side.
Of course, bickering must have happened, and grudges and competition and differences of opinion. Human beings are human beings in every century and place. What are the words in this passage that rise up off the page for your congregation in this hour? What is the fruitful labor in which you are engaged? What progress has been made, and what joy have you known, together? What do other churches and people of faith, inside and outside the United Church of Christ, hear about you? How is your church a shining place of hope for the surrounding community in which you minister? How does it give hope to the world, and offer rest and re-charging to those who are also striving to reach new heights in their life of faith as they also seek to be part of God’s transformation of this world? In other words, how is God still speaking to your congregation through the long-ago letter of a prisoner who found joy in hearing about the faithfulness of a church that had taken the gospel to heart and was striving mightily to live it out? How might the generosity of the church at Philippi help your church to see its own generosity to the wider church, such as Our Church’s Wider Mission, in a new way? In what way might your church as a community (the “you” is plural) see itself as “privileged” to suffer? In what ways does it suffer, or has it suffered, and how does that bear fruit?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
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 towards 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.”
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
O give thanks to God,
call on God’s name,
make known God’s deeds
among the peoples.
Sing to God,
sing praises to God;
tell of all God’s wonderful works.
Glory in God’s holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice.
Seek God and God’s strength;
seek God’s presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works
God has done,
and the judgments God uttered,
O offspring of God’s servants
Abraham and Sarah.
children of Jacob,
God’s chosen ones.
Then God brought Israel out
with silver and gold,
and there was no one among their tribes
Egypt was glad
when they departed,
for dread of them had fallen upon Egypt.
God spread a cloud
for a covering,
and fire to give light by night.
and God brought quails,
and gave them food from heaven
God opened the rock,
and water gushed out;
it flowed through the desert
like a river.
For God remembered
God’s holy promise,
and Abraham and Sarah God’s servants.
So God brought God’s people out
God’s chosen ones with singing.
God gave them the lands
of the nations,
and they took possession of the wealth
of the peoples,
that they might keep God’s statutes
and observe God’s laws.
Praise be to God!
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
I will extol you,
my God and Ruler,
and bless your name
forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name
forever and ever.
Great is God,
and greatly to be praised;
God’s greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor
of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works,
I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds
shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame
of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding
in steadfast love.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturg