July 5, 2015 | Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15 | Rev. Nancy Talbot-
A couple weeks ago I had the joy of gathering with the children’s community while they reflected on the story of Peter walking on water and Jesus stilling the storm. While the children were sharing their thoughts about the story, one of them posed a favorite question of mine: “Did that really happen?” Did Peter really walk on water? Did Jesus really make the wind stop blowing?” I responded “We don’t really know if it is a true story, whether or not it actually happened or not, but what we do know is there is truth in the story.”
This morning’s scripture reading brings us another one of those biblical stories which might also cause us to ask “Did that really happen?”
Many of you recognize this reading which comes from the section of the Hebrew Bible known to us as the story of the Exodus, one of the foundational stories of both Jewish and Christian traditions. The Exodus narrative tells how the Hebrew people once living in Egypt under the oppressive rule of a cruel and punishing Pharoah, were led to freedom by an unlikely leader named Moses called by God who appeared to him in a burning bush after God heard and saw the cries of his people. Moses then leads the people out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea and when they arrive on the other side they spend the next 40 years wandering around in the wilderness looking for the promised land, wondering from time to time if God was for them or against them.
Our reading this morning describes of one of those many moments when the Israelites, now almost two months into their journey have had enough. They’re tired, they’re hungry, they’re thirsty and they are beginning to think it would be better for them to turn around and go back to Egypt where at least they knew they were going to be fed every day. Surely that would be better than being out there in the desert, lost, vulnerable and alone, not knowing where they are going or how they are going to get there or what they are going to eat along the way.
So, did that really happen?
Interestingly enough there is no historical or archaeological evidence to confirm that the exodus as it is recorded in scripture did happen, no other ancient sources that refer to such an event, and if you look on a map, there is no logical reason why it would have taken 40 years for them to reach their destination even if they did get turned around a few times along the way.
It is highly unlikely that the Exodus is a factually true story and yet the truth of the Exodus has played itself out in the lives of individuals, communities and entire nations countless times across the centuries. That is why Marcus Borg and others refer to this story as one of the meta-narratives of the bible whose purpose it is to tell us something essential about human nature and something essential about the nature of the Divine.
What it tells us about both human and divine nature is that every now and then when we have been enslaved to a particular experience or way of thinking, to a job that doesn’t suit us, or a relationship that diminishes us, or a regime that is oppressive or a system that simply no longer works the way it once did having become burdensome or unbearable, there comes a Divine pull or a nudge or sometimes a full on push that calls us out of those restrictive places and into a greater freedom. And suddenly we find ourselves leaving behind what was once familiar and heading towards a better future, because the impulse of the Divine is always towards greater life. When that happens, as it did for the Hebrew people in our story this morning, it can be very disorienting and very unsettling until we have arrived in the promised or hoped for new land. So much so that from time to time we find ourselves wondering if we wouldn’t be better off back where we started. This is the pattern of the road to freedom.
Over the last several years we here at Mount Seymour have been experiencing that kind of a divine pull, a realization that this space that once served us well no longer serves our current purposes; a realization that the way we have gathered as Christian people has become burdensome for some and unattractive for many; a realization that even if we don’t know exactly where we are going or precisely how we are going to get there, it is time to give ourselves over to being taken into a promising new land, a place of greater abundance and freedom.
This week we collectively took one big step towards that future, crossing the threshold from what has been familiar, into the unknown and towards the way things are yet to be. And true to all epic journeys it has been a disorienting week. We have endured desert like conditions. It has been hot and dusty. I have literally witnessed people getting lost in the building, wandering around in circles not knowing where to find the refrigerator or the bathroom or the office. And although no one has said they want to go back to the way things were, I have certainly had my own moments of muttering under my breath, oh my, what have we done here? Do we have any idea what we’ve taken on? What will the implications of all of this change be? Will it really and truly be for the better? Or have we destroyed something we will never be able to recover? And will we really be able to accomplish what we have dreamt we would be able to do? There have been moments this week when I have thought to myself even if we did want to go back, it’s too late now.
But I have also caught glimpses of the promised new land: ways we will be able to open our doors more widely to the community; ways our volunteers will be better served in the work they are about; ways we will be changed for the better simply because we have opened ourselves up to living together through this change, simply because we have allowed ourselves to let go of what has been in order to embrace and receive what more we could possibly be.
Unlike our reading this morning what I haven’t experienced this week is grumbling and complaining. In fact I have been astonished at the grace and generosity with which people have shown up and gone the extra mile and made accommodation after accommodation as we live into this new reality. But maybe that’s because it’s only really week one of our journey and our Exodus story this morning takes place six weeks after the Israelites have set their sights on the promised land. Six weeks in to the journey the excitement of the new beginning apparently starts to wear off.
So it’s really in anticipation of that moment six weeks down the road from now or maybe even six days from now that I share today’s reading with you. Although we might be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done this morning, I am certain it won’t be long before the charm of wandering around trying to find where so and so put the toilet paper is going to wear off and we too will start to grumble. It is simply in our nature.
And yet what’s true about life is that it’s often when we are most fully our human selves that we catch a greater glimpse into the nature of the Divine. Those moments when we are confronted with our humanity and we have no other option than to trust in a greater design are the very moments we discover how blessed we really are.
It is now six weeks since the Israelites have left Egypt. They have had a lovely sojourn in a place called Elim just this side of the Red Sea where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees to shade the dusty travellers. It was a refreshing and relaxing place to be after the confusion and clamour of the escape out of Eygpt with all its death and destruction and with hope in their hearts the people have set off once again. They have arrived now in a very different place on the journey, the wilderness of the Sinai, where food is scarce and weary no doubt from the constant movement they have started to complain bitterly against Moses, his brother Aaron and God. “You have brought us out here to kill us with hunger” they protest. “If only we had died back in Egypt where we had our fill of bread.”
Now you might think that the God of the Old Testament would turn around and smite them for this offensive behavior, after all it was God that brought them out of Egypt, but instead God hears their cries and says they will be provided for, not enough to stockpile for the duration of the journey, but enough for them to gather up each day and twice enough once a week so they won’t have to gather on the Sabbath.
Bent on freedom, determined to get them to the promised land, attentive to their needs, God provides, bread from heaven, enough to nourish and sustain them, not too much just enough for one day’s journey at a time. Just enough for them to grow their trust and patience in God’s provision for their lives.
One of the paradoxes of being set free and sent forth on a journey to a new land is that often what sustains us along the way is the promise of what awaits us on the other side. Already this week despite my wonderings about whether or not tearing down our walls was such a good idea afterall, I have found myself looking at our newly created café space and imagining the people who will gather there and the activities they will engage in and the ideas they will generate about being church in new and exciting ways. More than once I’ve observed volunteers commenting on what it will be like when the Thrift Shop has a permanent home and how wonderful that will be.
Imagining the future can sustain and carry us a long way down the road to the promised land. Afterall it’s the imagined future that has propelled away from the limitations of the past. But the danger of focusing too much on the promise of our destination is that we will miss the gifts we are being given along the way from one day to the next, the daily bread that nurtures and sustains us when we grow weary and helps us bear each other’s company, and reminds us that this project we are engaged in is being designed by something much larger than you and me.
So as our dream of arriving in the promised land of a newly renovated building draws closer, we might want to ask ourselves from time to time what has been your daily bread this week? What has nurtured and sustained you and allowed you to stay on the path before you?
I myself have been fed by many things this week but most of all by the graciousness and flexibility with which people are supporting each other in this time of transition.
I’ve always loved the part in the story of the manna in the wilderness when the Israelites awaken to find the bread from heaven covering the ground in front of it and they look at it and say “What is it?”
Apparently, if you go to the Sinai peninsula you will still find Bedouins who gather up a flaky sticky substance and bake it into bread. It’s actually the excretions of plant lice that feed on the sap of the local tamarisk trees. Some people believe this is the manna referred to in the Bible.
I love the way that suggests that what sustains and nurtures us along the way to the promised land doesn’t always look or seem very appetizing, isn’t necessarily what we would chose for ourselves and comes sometimes from the most unappealing and unattractive places.
It speaks to me of the promise that we are given what we need even when what we need isn’t necessarily what we want.
Did the story of the Exodus really happen? Did God really rain down bread from heaven even when the people grumbled and complained? I don’t know if it really happened way back when but I do know it is happening to us right now and I pray that it is happening for those who truly are enslaved in our world and truly do need deliverance to a real and present promised new land and that somehow you and I can be their daily bread.