Lectionary Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Let us pray: O God, come to us this morning. Lead us through our lives with your provision; speak to us through your Word, and may it guide us and feed us all our lives long. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
This is a moment for the people of Israel. They have come out of Egypt, after the ten plagues, after the Pharaoh has changed his mind at least as many times. Moses went and argued for the people again and again; God gave him miracles to perform. The people walked away from their slavery at last.
Pharaoh regretted it instantly, of course, and sent his army after them. And yet God parted the Red Sea, allowing the people of Israel to pass through safely to dry ground and destroying the Egyptian army. The people are free at last.
They journey into the wilderness, on the way to the promised land, the land that their ancestor Abraham inhabited and that was promised to them. They stop at a few oases; they are getting closer. They set out again, from the oasis of Elim and reach the Wilderness of Sin. (Sin, by the way, is a place name which means moon, and not sin as in turning away from God). Here the people begin to gripe and moan: “We’re hungry”, “At least in Egypt we had food,” “we’re going to starve out here, there’s nothing to eat.” And God hears the people, and promises them food–and that evening so many quails overran the camp that the people could eat their fill, and the next morning the ground was covered in a flaky white bread-ish food–and the people have food, food that God provides through their entire wilderness journey. No matter what kind of barren wilderness they travel through, there are quails and there is manna. Even after they’ve doubted God so severely that they’re sentenced to forty years wandering in the wilderness, there are quails and there is manna. Only when they reach the promised land, the land of milk and honey and abundance, does the provision stop.
But let’s back up. Our reading from Exodus today doesn’t go quite that far into the future, focusing instead on the events around that very first occurrence of quails and manna.
The people are hungry; they’re in a wilderness, barren rocks and maybe some scrubby plants as far as the eye can see in every direction. What is there to eat? How are they going to feed all these people?
And so they turn to Moses, because of course they do. They always do. He brought them out of Egypt, after all. “Egypt was so great,” they say, “why did you have to bring us all the way out here? There’s nothing to eat! At least in Egypt there was always meat. There was always enough to eat. You know, that was pretty great. Man, that was really nice.”
I’d like to pause here and point out that the Israelites are in fact practicing some super selective memory skills right now. Endless meat? Always enough to eat? These people were slaves, not nobility! The only people who had meat all the time were nobles, the richest of the rich who could afford to have other people look after hordes of animals that could provide meat for their table for every meal. A gaggle of slaves who could barely meet their ever-increasing quotas of bricks were not eating meat every day. And enough to eat? I’m not sure a pharaoh who ordered all the male babies slaughtered and took his anger with Moses out on the slaves was all that concerned about making sure his slaves had enough to eat.
I mean, I sympathize. Memory is like that. Sometimes I look back on high school and think, “Man, I was so much better at getting things done then. I was so focused and productive!” Or I think of college and go, “It was so awesome to have interesting classes, and people from my dorm to hang out with.”
And then I read my journals. I’ve journaled since elementary school, and one of the benefits is being able to go back and read them, and remember: “Nope, I was just as worried about getting things done in high school. I was just as convinced then as I am now that I wasn’t doing enough. I was just as likely then to stress-read piles of fantasy books.” Or college: “Yes, classes were interesting, but it was a lot of work. And there may have always been people around, but they didn’t always remember you. They didn’t always know you. You didn’t always like them or want to be around them. Having people around doesn’t prevent loneliness.”
And don’t we do the same thing? “Oh, it was so awesome when we had more people in church! It was so wonderful when we had all these clubs and so many children in Sunday school!” “Remember when everyone went to church?”
Of course there were wonderful aspects of all those things. There is nothing quite like worshiping in a group that fills the space and hearing all those voices singing together. I agree, it’s wonderful to see your church people at a time other than Sunday morning, and having lots of children around is an absolute joy.
But those times were not perfect. There are problems when people come to church, not because they want to worship or learn about God, but because everyone goes. Because it’s what all the managers and bosses do, and how am I going to get hired if they don’t know who I am? Because there’s nothing else to do on a Sunday, anyway, because everything else is closed. If nothing else: there may have been a lot of people, but we as a church failed them in some way, because they stopped coming when they didn’t have to. We didn’t show them how important our faith is, and how much it impacts all parts of life, and why church is worth being a part of. And the church, then as now, could be oblivious about issues like racism and civil rights, or the gifts of women, or problems like sexual abuse and power dynamics playing out in churches.
I know I see this differently than most of you. I wasn’t born then; I didn’t experience church like that. Churches packed to overflowing with everyone from town has never been my experience of church. Pastors being the most respected person around wasn’t how I interacted with any of my pastors. Church being THE thing to do was never how I was told about church. And, I mean, I’m OK with that.
But again, I’m from a different generation and a different experience.
And I know there were wonderful things about church as it was that I’ll never experience, things that are worth mourning and remembering and gathering wisdom from.
But the past is never as good as we remember it.
The past is never as good as we remember it, and that time of unlimited church growth and cultural respect is not coming back.
It’s not coming back, just as the good parts of the Israelite’s time in Egypt were not coming back. To follow God, they had to go forward. Into the wilderness: into discomfort and danger, into the hard, hard work of figuring out who they are when they’re not slaves, who they are when they’re following God together as a people. Into the unknown. Into places where no one wanted them.
But God didn’t just throw them into the unknown and the difficult, then drive away waving and wishing them good luck. No, God stayed with them, as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God provided for them, in the form of quail and manna. God gave them instructions in the form of the Law, showed them who God is and how to live well. God gave them a destination, a land that was good and fertile and enough for all of them.
And just so, as everything changes around us, God has not thrown us out into a time when everything is changing, and driven away waving and wishing us the best of luck. No, God is still with us. God is still providing for us. We take communion as a reminder of God’s presence: when I say the words about the bread and wine, I am not forcing God to be present, and I am not doing some kind of magic. Instead, God is already here. I am simply reminding each of us that God is present, that God wants to be with us and love us, that God wants to move in our lives and speak to us.
And God is still providing for us. You found me, sure, but you also have so many people who care about this church and work for it. You have so many stories of ‘almost not enough’ and times you came close to disaster and were able to veer away. And you’re still here, worshiping and reaching out to the world.
We may in the wilderness, walking towards the promised land, waiting for the time when God will give us all that was promised. We are in a time of change, of struggling with old habits and finding new ways to be faithful. But God is always with us. God always provides.