Welcome to the Desert

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20), Year A

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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 this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 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. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Exodus 16:2-15

The Exodus story has captured the imagination for thousands of years, with its vivid imagery, captivating plot, and iconic moments, it is no wonder that it has been a foundational story for billions of people over thousands of years. Alongside its religious and cultural importance, the Exodus story continues to be the center of debate about what scenes are fact, what are myth, and how much of the story can be understood as history. Though for all the speculation, explanation, apologetics, and archeology, our scene today I have no doubt is 100% accurate. Our scene this week, as well as last week, I am convinced happened word-for-word.

How am I so certain? Was it not but a few months ago that from this very pulpit I criticized the very idea of accepting pious speculation and tradition simply at face value? How can I be so sure? It happened thousands of years ago, and we’re reading this story through thousands of years of translations, misinterpretations, corrections, propaganda, truths the world isn’t ready for, how can anyone know, let alone some guy in a pulpit wearing a funny dress?

The answer is rather straightforward, I know it just as well you know that the sky is blue and the grass is green, I see it. I’m watching it unfold right now before my eyes, on TV, in the news, everywhere. So are you.

Now before you call an ambulance saying “yeah, this jerk says he sees the ocean splitting, magical quail appearing in a habitat they never could survive in, and heavenly bread, he needs some help”. I’m not talking about the quails. It’s never about the quails… The quails, the mana, the Red Sea splitting, these are incidental. Sure, they are the interesting things that make us remember the story, but they aren’t the point.

Too much time and trouble has been spent speculating about the quails, the mana, the Sea. Maybe they were really peacocks! Maybe the mana was a rare algae displaced from unusual weather patterns that might explain the supposed plagues! Like a volcano! Oh maybe the sea crossing was just Moses knowing the tides! Those details aren’t the point, sure with God, all things are possible, it could be a perfect accounting, or maybe there were no quail at all, that’s not the Truth that the Exodus story is trying to convey. You don’t have to believe them exactly as written to see the Exodus story unfolding before your very eyes.

So, what then are we seeing, with such clarity and certainty? Why, the complaining of course! “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 this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”, or my favorite line from last weeks’ reading “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”

In our present circumstances, complaining is all around us, “Oh if my neighbor weren’t so selfish, all this would be over!”, “Why do they have to protest so loud?”, “Why can’t we all just get along?”, “Oh if only things could go back to the way they were!” “If only we had died as slaves in Egypt…at least we had bread”.

You see before, when I read Exodus and heard the Israelites’ many, many, many complaints, I always assumed that the author was exaggerating for the sake of drama. I could buy the parting sea, the mana, the quails appearing from the sky, but surely people can’t be that faithless, especially after all they had already been through. Yet here we are, witnessing it before our very eyes. These past few months have been an eye-opening lesson in social psychology.

For a little context, this week’s complaint about hunger in the desert comes approximately six weeks after crossing the Red Sea. Six weeks is how long it took the people from witnessing God save them from Pharaoh’s army, from singing songs praising God and His wonders, to complaining that they are hungry. Of course we understand that living in the desert isn’t easy, they are in real danger of starving if they aren’t smart, but their complaint is so stinging. They say to the one that saved them, “why did you bring us out here to die? I want to go back, at least when I was a slave I had food!”

This is how we see the Exodus story before our very eyes, and how we know that ancient tale to be true. We didn’t last any longer than the Israelites before we started complaining again. “Why can’t we just go back to normal?”, “Oh it’ll all be over by Easter”, “Oh, it’s alright, it’s only in Northern Virginia, we’re fine here” “We have to re-open, otherwise what will happen to the economy?”

“Were there not enough graves in Egypt?”

At the beginning of this experience, I had been trying to understand these events in the context of the Babylonian Exile. That we just needed to take this time to hang on, draw upon our faith for strength, and once things got back to normal, we could rebuild. Now as the experience has drawn on, it has become clear that the Holy Spirit is telling us that this is an Exodus story. “Normalcy” the way the world was before, that was Egypt. We worshipped the idols of comfort, fear, privilege, and economy at the expense of the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised all over the world. We were held captive by fear, fear that raising up others would cost us what little security we had clawed out of a system that unjustly pits us against one another so that the powerful can remain in power. We complain and fight against ourselves over pennies, or even five more dollars to give the poor a better life, while letting pharaoh keep us captive. This moment in history, this day, this moment, this is our journey out of captivity into a promised land. Or at least it can be, if we seize our opportunity.

Welcome to the desert. It’s not pleasant, in fact is an arduous and dangerous journey, but this is the journey that can lead us to a promised land. We constantly hear grumblings and murmurings, people raising golden calves to “normalcy” because they cannot see God in the desert. In these last days we have learned that many of our assumptions about economics, work-life balance, and which workers are “essential” were no more than assumptions. We have also seen miracles, learning that with enough collective will and just a little faith, we really can move mountains and radically change our society.

We are still in the desert, the promised land is still beyond the horizon. But because we have been rescued from fear, from death, by our Lord, we know that there is a promised land for us. It is our task to move forward, to turn this story into an Exodus. We are constantly tempted to run back to Egypt, but we must hold fast to the promise and for the sake of all those we have already lost along the way, we cannot go back. All of us have given up too much just to go back to the way things were.

What then can be done? We are hungry in this desert after all, how will we survive this, let alone make it to the promised land? What’s striking about this week’s scene in the Exodus story is that when the people complain about their hunger, God sends mana for them. But that miracle is not the surprising part, after all we have seen time and time again how God saves and God provides. No, what is most interesting about the mana is that when the people first see it, they don’t even know what it is, they have to be told that it is food that God has given them. They had been so used to the food of their captivity that they could not understand heavenly food even when it was sent to them. The mana is also more than food, it is a task and a test whether the people are willing to follow where God is leading them. As our own Exodus story is unfolding, we know that God is providing for us, and at the same time He is asking us to follow Him.

It might be time to start checking the dew in the morning, or perhaps looking in places where we could not even imagine God providing for us.

As we gather the mana and carry on our journey, remember the wisdom that Moses gave to the people when they had finally reached the end of theirs:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

-Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Chose life. Amen.

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