The Sunday Sermon: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017
Scripture: Exodus 16:1-15
So, I’m using a lectionary reading for the second week in a row, and that means that the commentaries and interpretive materials for this passage from the sixteenth chapter of Exodus are plentiful. Now, I use two sources most regularly to “spark” my imaginations and find the spirit-inspired message for us, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, on any given Sunday. But I went to more this week because I became intrigued.
Both my “regular” sources noted the same thing fairly early on in their exploration of this periscope. So, I went to a few other commentaries, more peripheral for me, but still always helpful. They all, too, made this observation, in one way or another:
Preaching this text may require some pastoral restraint in comparing the Israelites narrated behavior of complaining (or grumbling or murmuring, as other translations have it) to the modern-day congregational dynamics of complaining, grumbling or murmuring.
In other words, most preachers today have an almost innate tendency to compare the Israelites complaining to Moses with their own congregation’s complaining to them: We’re tired. We’re hungry. We did that last year. We heard that before. You wore that same tie two Sundays in a row. Apparently, that’s a strong draw for most preachers. It’s there, of course. Even the actual word “congregation” used here, and rarely used anywhere else in the Old Testament, pulls us to our most immediate contexts, our own congregations. But …
All those same commentaries, after noting this tendency, warn against it. “Don’t do it,” they tell me. Their reasons have more to do with how this approach takes the focus off what we should be revealing, namely “God.” In the terms of my own interpretive practice, it puts the “anthropology” before the “theology” and that’s a no-no. But my main reason for not starting with congregational complaining has more to do with this: (Are you ready?) You all don’t complain so much.
(Pause for laughter and/or surprise.)
Honestly, you don’t. Not in the way the ancient Israelites in our reading do: “You have brought us to this place in our lives together to kill us with hunger”, metaphorically speaking, of course. More like “to bore us with another sermon about how love is only thing that will truly save us! If only we had left last summer before another year started.” No one is complaining with that level of pain. The “grumbling” and the “murmuring” here have to do with trying something new, or getting more involved in what we are doing, not wishing we weren’t doing it. That’s a much different kind of complaining. And a decent amount of that grumbling comes from me!
No, my focus, my spirit, moved to what it is the Israelites in our narrative are complaining about. Namely, what “was” and what “used to be” as compared to “what is” and “what is coming to be.” Nostalgia and the memory of some sort of security and understanding is so seductive. Even when that memory includes an oppressive situation, such as the Israelites ultimately experienced in Egypt. At least they had shelter and knew when their next meal was coming, however meager. The journey, the exodus, and insecurity is so … frightening. But security is always false, and insecurity is always real. Religion in general, and our faith in particular, don’t offer us worry-free, problem-free lives. They enable us to live fully in spite of the insecurities in our lives, and to do so with courage.
We are on a journey ourselves, together, away from that which binds us and toward a promise, moving always toward “God,” perfect love and peace … Shalom, they called it. We are on an “exodus,” in an exile of our own. We’ve left childish thinking behind, with all the security of its comforting, but binding, naivete and we’re out here in the wilderness seeking a deeper understanding of the mystery at the center of our lives. And we’re looking back on how wonderful it was to be … oblivious, childish, dependent.
We’ve crossed that Sea. We did that last week in our scripture reading and proclamation and we did it years and years ago in our own lives of faith, somewhere between childhood and adulthood. We left the world of pre-critical thinking behind, as comforting as we now know it could be. And we rejoiced in our “exodus.” The Israelites sang songs to the Lord, the songs of Moses and Miriam, as they began their journey out of Egypt. We sang, as well: Oh, the joys of critical thought! We understand now why thunder sounds and rain falls and winds blow. We understand now how tectonic plates shift and how the sun heats the earth. We understand the principles of economics now and how money can be used for the common good. But …
The winds and rain destroy island communities. The tectonic plates shift beneath densely populated cities. And the wealth intended for all people is being disproportionately enjoyed by only a few. Where is the compassion we once knew? Where is the love we once experienced? Where is the God of our childhood? We have come out into this “wilderness” singing only to realize that we have lost the thing that can make sense of … it all. We most commonly called this reality “God.” “God” has lost meaning. Who is God when the winds blow at 175 miles an hour over corrugated metal and cardboard homes? Where is God when the earth quakes and opens beneath buildings fifteen stories high? How is God when men, women, and children around the world and in our own communities are hungry and cold?
And so we have been complaining as we go, too. It’s a desolate place, our own wilderness. Full of hurricanes and earthquakes and fires; rife with suffering and struggling and starvation; plagued by greed and self-interest and gluttony. Have we been led out here to die in the midst of this mindless desire for the power to intimidate anyone weaker than we are? In the midst of a meaningless need to be sure we sustain ourselves no matter the cost to others? That’s not what we imagined as children in Sunday school, or at home around the dinner table, or at school pledging our allegiance to liberty and justice for all. Wouldn’t it have been better to have remained in ignorant bliss, unaware of the harsh realities of the world, “eating our fill” of our captives food?
Well, it’s too late for that in any case. We’ve crossed the river. Our captors have been washed away – ignorance and bliss drowned in the waters of education and knowledge. We’re on the journey now and there’s no turning back, no “un-learning,” or “un-knowing” what we’ve learned and come to realize. The wilderness stretches out before us and we are anxious, worried, even full of complaints. But we are not alone.
Our Exodus scripture puts it this way: In the evening (in the wilderness) quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp that lifted, producing a fine flaky substance – Bread, Manna, from Heaven they called it.
We have each other and this community, our “church” with its tradition and its promise. We gather and we study, we talk, we share, we remember, we hope, we discover who and where and how “God” is in our lives now, powerfully at work in ways we have yet to fully understand – through us.
Our manna from heaven is in our gathering together. It is a touch or a smile from the one sitting next to you, a prayer and a song we sing together, a memory from long ago and an experience we haven’t even shared yet. It is communion with one another. It is the promises of a baptism. This is the bread that sustains us on our journey. God is not “out there” looking in on us. God is right here looking out on the world through our eyes, providing every day all we will need to nourish and sustain ourselves. Providing for the wilderness journey we are on together.
God is … and we are. Next week is World Communion Sunday and the weeks that follow will find us in the midst of our annual stewardship season. What might it mean this year to take care of the Holy that takes such good care of us? We’ll see …
In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit … Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 24, 2017