Tensions in the Wilderness

Sunday, September 24, 2017
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 20)

Focus Theme:
Tensions in the Wilderness

Focus Prayer:
O God, from your providing hand even the dissatisfied and grumbling receive what they need for their lives. Teach us your way of justice and lead us to practice your generosity, so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel made known through your Son Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Exodus 16:2-15

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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Focus Questions:

1. Do you see God as unchanging? Why or why not?

2. How can God be “unchanging” and yet also be “what God will be”?

3. Why do you think the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years?

4. What is a “zone of bereftness” in the story of your life?

5. How would the world be different if everyone observed the sabbath?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

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,” another version is particularly fitting for our story today: “I will be who I will be.”

Someone has also 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.

But first, Gerald Janzen 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.

Hearing the groans of the people

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 the Land of Milk and Honey 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 hunger, and this wilderness doesn’t look very likely to solve that problem. Here, Janzen observes, the people didn’t need a Warrior God to deliver them–they needed “the old character of El Shaddai” to feed them.

Manna means “what is it?”

The word “manna” is familiar to most folks even in the secular world as a metaphor for any miraculous, happy gift–“bread from heaven,” unforeseen 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 provides a vivid description: “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.” 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.

Bread and water and larger truths

Whatever technical, “insider” church language we may use to describe our life of faith, both shared and personal (where we are at this point in time, and where we long to be), it seems 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 we’re “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 if 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.”

Food “transformed into loyalty, energy, work and care”

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?

Whose food do we eat?

As we know after several weeks of exodus stories, “Pharaoh” can stand for 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.”

So the people of Israel have gone from one challenge to another: “The first task is leaving; the second task is believing,” Brueggemann says. We face the same challenges, perhaps in different ways, and God is there, to be What God Will Be, as we face those challenges.

The problems of freedom

It became clear to the Hebrew people, 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 presented huge challenges. The tension between the security of slavery and the gift of freedom is exposed in their plaintive 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?”

The anxiety and fear felt by those hungry Israelites in the stark wilderness may sound quite distant from the experience of the well-fed, who suffer no “food insecurity”–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.

Brueggemann draws a distinction between the concerns of life in The Promised Land and those in the wilderness, and suggests that this week’s story “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, for example, “the wasteland of depression and the scorching sand of cancer.”

“Alternative bread”

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 by blessing and breaking bread. 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 are fed by the broken bread of the Eucharist.

Have we chosen to rely on “imperial bread,” or the “alternative bread” provided by a loving God? We have to wonder today if our senses, our hearts and heads, would even recognize the difference, when we’re bombarded by messages every day, telling us what we need, what we should need and hunger for most. 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, such confusion, at the root of our culture’s urge to excess; is it a fear that there won’t be enough to go around so that all of God’s children are fed?

What is bread from heaven?

Barbara Brown Taylor ties our understanding of manna to our sense of God’s presence and working in our lives when 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.

Taylor 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, when God sustains life by “[providing] 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.” Perhaps, if we stepped back and looked at the big picture, we might question our need for “manna-insurance” at all in a world shaped by justice and generosity–by shalom.

God is God, and Pharaoh isn’t

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 also 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 always 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?

There will still be enough

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 insisted on time for rest, a whole day a week, even if the Israelites were uncomfortable with this “shift in the rhythm of their days,” Janzen writes, even if they thought their survival depended on their own efforts rather than God’s providence. Does that sound familiar? We often claim to need “to put bread on the table,” when we justify our work habits. Janzen notes 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.”

Justifying our habits

Of course, the dream of a day or two each week of real rest is easier to imagine if our economy were shaped in a way that makes it possible for all, not just for some. Here the Bible, and our desire to live faithfully, might helpfully enter discussions about issues such as raising the minimum wage, providing child care for workers, and making sure everyone has enough to live without working two jobs. 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? As a beautiful Jewish prayer says, “Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” One might say that we “work” sightless among miracles, too. Janzen wonders whether we Christians today need to ask ourselves who it is that we really serve, God or Pharaoh. Good question. What does it say about human nature today when even people who consider themselves “free” apparently need a law to make them rest?

In his book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, Michael Harris reminds me of this text and our human need. Ironically, many people are in a wilderness of too much rather than too little–and not just of food and other necessities (and luxuries, too) but of too many electronic screens, Harris writes: too many emails, too much entertainment, 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?

Would it make a difference?

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?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”

Thomas ‡ Kempis, 15th century
“Be faithful to your secret place, and it will become your closest friend and bring you much comfort. In silence and stillness a devout person grows spiritually and learns the hidden things of the Bible. Tears shed there bring cleansing. God draws near to the one who withdraws for a while. It is better for you to look after yourself this way in private than to perform wonders in public while neglecting your soul.”

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.”

Wendell Berry, 21st century
“Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the worldís beauty and abundance.”

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.”

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