Lectionary 18 (9th Sunday after Pentecost), Year B
August 2, 2009
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It's an ironic state of affairs that led the Israelites,
who were liberated from forty years of slavery in Egypt,
to pine for the good ol' days of forced labor.
As slaves they were far from their homeland
and they lacked anything that we'd call freedom,
but they had food to eat and water to drink.
When we meet them in today's first reading,
it has been two and a half months since the Lord parted the Red Sea
for them to pass into freedom,
an event that caused Miriam and the women of Israel to rejoice
with song and dance on the eastern shore of the Sea.
Yet when they left those joyous shores and continued eastward,
they traveled for three days through the desert without finding any food or water.
The people complained to Moses, who called on God,
who provided them with water to drink.
Later they came to encamp at a place called Elim,
where palm trees and fresh springs sustained them.
But after a time they moved on, entering the wilderness with nothing to eat.
And so, two and a half months after leaving Egypt,
the people were tired and hungry,
and they complained to Moses.
That's where today's reading come in.
Not only do they complain about their conditions,
but they wonder if perhaps they were better off as slaves …
"If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt," they say,
"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."
We can rightly question whether as slaves they were really sitting by fleshpots,
large cauldrons of stewed meat, or if they were really eating bread until they were full …
perhaps a few months into their exodus exhaustion and anxiety
caused them to engage in some revisionist history ….
Nonetheless, the Israelites found themselves not only complaining to Moses about food and water,
but also questioning the deliverance God had given them in the miracle of the Red Sea.
In what was becoming a pattern,
the people complained to Moses, who passed the message along to God.
And God provided.
God gave them food to eat.
But in today's story the people didn't at first recognize God's gift. See verses 14-15:
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.
And such was the wilderness period …
God coming to and providing for his people,
but his people didn't quite get it,
they often missed the cues …
stumbling, complaining, beside themselves.
Some say that the church is in its own wilderness period,
a way of saying that it is lost, complaining, and without direction.
Indeed, we can look at the numbers and conclude that something's not going right
for the traditional"Main Line" protestant denominations –
Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and others.
All of our churches are experiencing a nation-wide decline in attendance,
a reduction in the number of congregations,
and a diminishing presence on the national and local scene.
Once Lutheran church leaders were featured on the cover of weekly news magazines,
and Main Line churches featured prominently in the life of local communities.
Yet today, except for stories about sexual misconduct
or denominational debates about human sexuality,
Main Line churches – our Lutheran church included – are rarely in the news.
In some of our older congregations,
black and white photos of past confirmation classes comprised of 30, 40, 50 children
hang prominently as a sort of memorial to a time gone by,
and many who remain in the pews now find themselves
sitting next to fewer and fewer people.
What happened, many ask?
Why are our churches, designed to seat 400 or more people in each worship service,
only welcoming a fraction of that each Sunday?
Indeed, Moses, why have you led us out here? To die in the wilderness?
Yes, some want to look at our church's leaders,
be they bishops or pastors of the past or present generation,
and affix blame to them, to the Moses of our church,
for leading us into this wilderness.
Others look at our society and point to changes in the culture
as a factor contributing to the current state of the church.
As a pastor who is also part of a generation that attends church much less than did our grandparents,
I can definitely posit my theories about why church attendance has declined
since its highpoint in the late 1960s …
but like many in my generation who are weary of the cultural wars waged
between our parents and our grandparents,
I'm less interested in rehashing the debates of forty years ago or assigning blame
than I am in recognizing that, for whatever reason,
there is a generation of people in our society and in our neighborhoods
– my age and younger –
who has spent very little, if any, time in church because, among other reasons,
they were raised by parents who had dropped out of church ….
These are folks who will not come "back" to church when they get married or have kids,
as perhaps had past generations …
… because a large number of them had never been to church much in the first place.
Though our church today may be in a wilderness,
like the Israelites, we ain't dying in that wilderness.
I think it odd that that we always interpret the wilderness experience of the Israelites
in such a negative light …
Surely the Israelites showed their unfaithfulness
by complaining and worshipping false gods during their wilderness sojourn …
this wasn't the Israelite's finest hour. That is certain.
But the witness is clear:
God carried them through a pretty tough period,
leading them through wilderness in a transition from slavery to freedom,
a migration from an alien land to a Promised Land.
God was with them, guided them, led them – remember that pillar of cloud by day,
and pillar of fire by night?
And, as we see in today's reading, God fed them with bread from heaven.
Indeed, it was in and from this exodus and wilderness experience
that some of the most defining aspects of Jewish identity ca
me into being –
the deliverance from slavery, and the giving of the law.
This wilderness experience – a phrase now used pejoratively to describe waywardness –
was a unique time of God's self-expression,
of God leading, guiding, feeding his people …
and it was for the Israelites a formative, defining experience.
Could that be the same for us? If this is a time of wilderness for the church,
can God be speaking to us in a unique way right now,
can God be moving among us,
leading and guiding and nurturing us –
who at times are a kicking and screaming and complaining lot –
could God be guiding us in this time to a Promised Land,
a new era of vitality and growth for the church?
I love that line in today's reading about the Israelites not recognizing the gift of bread from heaven …
Right there in front of them, surrounding them,
a peculiar flaky substance … and they don't know what it is.
It wasn't the kind of bread they were expecting to be given to them.
Sometimes I wonder if we in the church are the same way,
failing to recognize the gift of God set before us.
One of the hallmarks of Lutheran theology is something called the "Theology of the Cross,"
a teaching that highlights that God comes to us most clearly and powerfully in,
the suffering and death of the cross …
That is, God comes to us in the least expected of places.
Throughout Scripture some of the most ordinary events or elements
become the stuff of God's work,
and some of the most marginalized people or situations
are the vehicles of God's saving grace.
Unexpected places … kinda like the wilderness.
Unexpected gifts … kinda like the weird and flaky manna from heaven.
I wonder if we focus too much on who is here or what we have,
or on who isn't here and on what we don't have …
and in so doing we don't see the unexpected yet God-given gifts that surround us,
right there in plain view –
our neighbors, our communities, the places where God has led us,
and the opportunities for fellowship, ministry, transformation these all present.
These gifts might not be what we expect or know how to work with …
a 25 year-old who may have never held a Lutheran worship book,
but who feels a sense of awe in the presence of God;
a few teenagers who may not know the words to the Lord's Prayer,
but who seek a meaning and purpose bigger than them to guide them through
all the challenges of 21st century adolescence;
a couple in their sixties who may not have been to church since their wedding day,
but who yearn for community, meaning, and a place to ask big questions;
public schools that disallow public prayer,
but which require students to serve others;
work and recreation schedules that spill into Sunday mornings,
but which give people ways to use their God-given gifts
to God's glory and in service to others.
I believe such people, such situations, such places surround us and,
as challenging as they may be,
as hard as it may be for us to understand them or know what to do with them,
I believe that these are given by God for the transformation of the church and,
indeed, the transformation of the world and all who live in it.
So … are we able to open our eyes to recognize these gifts, these opportunities,
these avenues of God's working in the world?
Are we able to welcome them to transform us and our ministry?
It was in the wilderness that Israel's identity was formed,
that it experienced the unique self-expression of God.
Will the church, in its wilderness experience,
be equally formed by the presence of God? I believe so.
God has given us so many gifts and opportunities in this day and age,
the possibilities are endless.
Let us look for the gifts of God,
trusting in God's mercy that he continues to listen,
that he continues to provide for us, even if in ways we don't always understand,
and that he continues to lead his people to a Promised Land …
for we know the Bread that God gives us along the way is the true Bread of Life, given for all.