Sermon Text: Exodus 16: 2-15
Imagine, if you will, that you are on a family vacation and you’re packed in the car, driving hour after hour. You’re close to your destination—perhaps Ocean City, Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach. It has been a long trip in the car, traffic has added time to the drive, lunch was hours ago, and now all of the Oreos, M&Ms, Pringles, and even the dried fruit are gone. The mood in the car is swiftly changing. The kids are irritable, you and your co-pilot are arguing over directions, and everyone is now on edge, complaining that they’re not there yet. What you have on your hands is a good case of hanger. Hunger plus anger equals hanger, and it brings out the worst in us. All of a sudden nothing matters but FOOD.
The Israelites are hangry. They are in the wilderness, it’s been a few weeks since they crossed the Red Sea, and now they are out of food. They finished the pretzels, the Little Debbies, the fruit snacks and the granola bars, and now every exit sign they pass is just a blank wall of green—there isn’t a McDonalds or a Cracker Barrel or a Waffle House to be seen. Not even a Sheetz. Thus, they begin the time-honored tradition of complaint.
And boy, do they complain. Our reading is only 14 verses long and they grumble seven times. Moses and Aaron are in their crosshairs. The people cannot understand why they followed these two crackpots into the wilderness and away from the comforts of civilizations: 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 the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. Oof. Somebody give the Israelites a Snickers.
The Israelites are so fed up with their current situation that they misremember and romanticize life back in Egypt. They are glossing over all of the negative parts of slavery and forced labor and infanticide to glorify the time when they had something to eat.
But before we are too harsh on this tired and traveling people, we must remember that all of this is new to them. They are following Moses and Aaron, these two men who are speaking for a god whom they have only grown to know recently. In the Exodus narrative it took 400 years for God to hear their cries, and now after the Ten Plagues, a pillar of smoke and fire, and a miracle crossing of the Red Sea, they are starving in the wilderness, uncertain of the choice that they have made. They are justified in their worry.
Once again, God hears their cries and decides to do something about it. God promises to feed the Israelites with manna from heaven, this fine bread substance that will coat the ground like dew every morning, except for the Sabbath. It will be a visible sign of God’s care, compassion, and presence. The people will have bread. They will even have meat, stacks of quails in the evening. Every day their needs will be meet.
However, there is something larger at play in this story. The miracles of manna and quail grab all of the headlines, but God is up to something else. Like a potter that shapes a lump of clay, God is in the process of molding the Israelites into a new people. God’s design is to shape these former slaves into the people of God. They have only known life as slaves in Egypt, now they will be liberated from that mindset into something more.
For example, in Egypt they served an empire where they constructed storehouses to keep food. Their example was one of hoarding, competition, and profit on the backs of humans who were abused and broken. It was a system that benefitted Pharaoh and the elites. The Israelites witnessed this behavior and some of them try to emulate it. Some try to save and hoard the manna to create a personal storehouse. They do not trust that God will provide every day. But the hoarded manna goes rancid and is filled with worms. The people must be shaped by God to be different, to learn to be reliant on God as a community. They will be a different kind of people than the Egyptians. A different kind of people from the entire rest of the world, but it will take a long time to shape them. It will be 40 years of work.
As Christians we are also called to be a people , a community shaped by God. Perhaps this pandemic is our own 40 year period…hopefully not a literal measure of time, but a long moment of wilderness and transition where God is shaping us to be something different from the ways of the world.
What community is God shaping us to be? How can we rely on the promises of God to be set apart, to be different, to be better? The Israelites will begin their process by learning about food gathering and distribution, that God desires a different reality than when they were slaves in Egypt. It will start with food and seep into every other aspect of their lives. How will God’s promises shape our lives?
Do we also start with food? We know that people around the world, that people in our community, need a better system of food—delivery, nutrition, available, pricing, the whole system. I was floored at the impact the lockdown had on hunger-related problems in the spring, this period when food insecure families had a harder time feeding their children, a time when the most consistent source of nutrition in these students’ lives were stripped away.
Do we dare to have open and vulnerable conversations about racial tensions and problems? Can we listen to the concerns of those who differ in skin pigmentation to understand their plight? Can we check those who use scripture to promote bigotry? Can we trust that God will provide enough opportunity for all of us? Can we empathize with stories of oppression and recognize the broken systems in our country?
Most of all, do we trust God so that we may be shaped by grace? Can we recognize that we are all in the wilderness together, that we all share a common humanity, a divine spark, and we all need the same measure of God’s love? Can we stop trying to co-opt Jesus and the Bible into petty political divisions?
I am weary of people trying to bottle and hoard God’s righteousness as if their opinions are exclusively correct in God’s eyes. I am weary of people who are so-called Christians who spew hatred and vitriol while reserving grace for only those who think and act like them. When we try to hoard God’s gifts they turn rancid and are filled with maggots. May God shape us from a divided people into a community united by forgiveness, compassion, and grace. May we be shaped by something other than propaganda and talking heads and fear mongering.
Through the gift of constant presence, by morning after morning of manna, and evening after evening of quail, God shaped the Israelites. While we are in a different wilderness now, while we are in a different time with different needs, may a new manna of grace fall on us. May quails of mercy and empathy cover the ground. May we be shaped by God into more than political cartoons and stereotypes. For if we murmur through this pandemic time, and only long for the misremembered version of how things used to be, than we will have neglected God’s presence, we will have squandered our spiritual manna, only to stubbornly cling to our limited, hangry vision of what this world has been instead of what God desires this world to be.
To quote the chorus of an old and forgotten camp song:
Have your way, Lord, have your way
You’re the potter, I’m the clay
Mold me make me as you will
As I’m waiting while I’m still.