Bread in the Desert

Scripture: Exodus 16:1-18

Diana Butler Bass - thriving congregations to come will center on gratitude.

Take That, COVID - by Diana Butler Bass - The Cottage

This morning, let’s give our permission to recognize that we have been in a wilderness of sorts.

Wilderness means a lot of things to us - especially to any of you enjoy traveling or camping and getting out in places where there are less people and more stars.

In the stories of the Bible, wilderness represents those times when we are wandering - when we are in between one place on the way to another - when we are searching for truth and meaning - when our lives have been up-ended.

As we continue to endure this pandemic and try to keep ourselves and our families safe, we have been in a wilderness of sorts.

As some of us have lost family members and loved ones, we have wandered in a wilderness.

As we have sorted out what life looks like now and how to make sense of this new reality, we have traversed a wilderness.

One of the things that happens when we are in this in between state is that we tend to lament. We tend to moan about what was lost. We grieve. We hurt. We long for things to return to normal even though we know there is no normal to return to.

Diana Butler Bass reflects on this in a recent article, where she wonders what the church is going to look like coming out of the wilderness of these past few years. She recognizes the power of lament - the importance of expressing our grief and pain to God - but she contends that gratitude and joy will be the marks of the church to come. She writes:

“Gratitude and joy are absolutely necessary to move a traumatized, grieving people toward liberation - into the light of fearless living.”

To journey into the wilderness, like we have the past couple of years, does mean that we will contend with loss as people, as church, as families - but we know as people of faith that wandering through wilderness is part of this journey. And that we will end up in a different and potentially better place than when we begun.

I think our scripture this morning invites us to think about this wilderness moment and what God is up to in the uncertainty and pain of it all.

In the Exodus story we receive today, the people move from Egypt and into the wilderness.

And something familiar happens. As the people of God enter what they perceive as a barren land, where nothing grows, where there is no food or water, they panic. They begin to complain to their leaders, Moses and Aaron. They would prefer to go back to oppression, back to the old way, rather than live into this uncomfortable, uncertain place where God is leading them.

Is this a crisis of leadership? Or is it a crisis of imagination?

Think about all the times we have been asked to change - by spouses, by friends, by our doctors, by society - and often, we get a tiny bit uncomfortable and want to go back, even if back there was a terrible place to be. Even if we know it is not good for us. Even if our doctor says, you must stop eating this or doing this or you will face an early demise.

Some of us dig in. Some of us are stuck. Change is hard, even when everything is on the line.

The people of God, though separated from us by two thousand years of history, look and sound a lot like us. We wanted freedom but now that freedom means living in a new way and adopting new values and letting go of the way things used to be - we complain. We wish we could go back rather than step into that new reality.

Of course, as we hear this Exodus story, we reflect on the incredible things that God does to reassure God’s people.

The good news is that the wilderness, this dry and barren place, is actually where life happens. It is where God lives. In verse 10, the text says, “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.” God appears to the people - something that didn’t happen back in Egypt. God is present in this dry and barren place, this in between.

And God does more than just show up - God provides the people meat each evening and bread from heaven in the morning.

The people are invited to move from their complaining and grief into joy each morning - that God provides.

For me, this would be like waking up to fresh Dunkin Donuts all over our lawn each morning and finding perfectly cooked medium rare steaks waiting for us each evening.

Now, I admit Lorel and Shirley Morrison told me once that manna, this bread from heaven, was surely plantains - and maybe they are right. Or maybe it is Dunkin Donuts to Krispy Kreme if that is your thing.

The key is that God met them in their need. Met them in their complaining. Met them in their uncertainty and provided all that they needed.

Of course, there is an ask.

All the people must do is live counter to the way of Pharaoh. Whereas Pharaoh stored up his grains in huge storehouses, God has opened God’s storehouses to feed and sustain the people. Whereas Pharaoh kept his best for himself, the people are to take just what they need, no more or no less, and trust that in God’s economy there will be enough to go around. Whereas in Pharaoh’s way, the people worked everyday, in God’s way, the people are commanded to rest.

Where Pharaoh’s way was constant lament and a never-ending cycle of production and fear and terror, God’s way is one of gratitude and joy. There will be enough. God will meet us when our bellies rumble with hunger, when our bodies faint, when we aren’t certain if we know the way.

This value is a deeply theological value. If you meet someone who truly knows God, you will experience God’s abundance in their presence - with how they share resources, how they love others, how they use their time. Someone who knows God knows that there is more than enough to go around - there is more than enough in our world to feed the hungry - there is more than enough love to be shared with suffering, marginalized people.

Think about our own story as a church - a church that has faced challenges during this pandemic where it seems like there would not be enough to get us through - and somehow God has gotten us through. Where it seems like we don’t have the budget to make an impact and then through the generosity of people lie you, through unexpected gifts, we find ourselves able to fill blessing boxes with food, provides for hurting neighbors with gift cards and food boxes and support, or in recent days realize we are blessed to support Afghan refugee families making their way in the wilderness that is a new country.

Think about your story - think about the unexpected meals from friends in this past year. Think about the love and support and renewed relationships that helped you get through. Think of those times when your gas tank - or even your spiritual tank - was running close to empty and God reminded you of the beauty and goodness all around.

God has shown up in this wilderness with bread from heaven. Praise be to God!

Imagine what might happen if we embraced this abundance - this gratitude and joy more often?

Imagine what might happen in our political system if leaders didn’t focus so much on how little there is to go around - and some of our politicians act like there is so little to go around even as they pass a budget with trillions of dollars for defense spending. Imagine if they realized how many abundant resources existed enough to provide things like dental care for poor neighbors or expanded medical or mental health access to people who needed it.

Imagine if we as a church, as we lived into our future story, took more risks knowing that those wilderness moments are where God was ready to reveal God’s presence?

Maybe God is calling you to step into the wilderness too, to trust more deeply and move to the place where you need to be to serve others.

These Exodus stories challenge us as people of faith to trust God in the midst of change - in the midst of our own wilderness moments. I know it’s hard to do that. As individuals. As a church. As a country.

And yet there is God waiting for us each day with bread for our journey, with sustenance and nourishment to get us through. We have reason to be thankful - we have reason to celebrate, to be filled with the joy of God.

At the end of Exodus 16, the people of God were invited to keep some of the manna in a jar to remember, to tell stories and point back to God’s goodness and with it all that God was trying to teach them.

That God would provide. That they did not have to return to the way of Pharaoh. That God would meet them in the wilderness of their lives.

As followers of Jesus, we find the same re-membering at the Table of the Lord, when Jesus shared bread and cup, enough for all as a symbol and act of God’s grace and generosity. So, as we close this time of reflection, I invite you to reflect on those things you are grateful for and those places in your life where you need God’s abundance to flow anew. Share those things in your chat or write them on the provided slips of paper as the music places and prepares us to receive Jesus and the bread of life anew at Christ’s table.

(posted 10/17/21)

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