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When we were expecting our first child, we were living in a fairly small townhome in Vancouver. The smallest room had a pullout couch and a television in it. It was our guest room and family room rolled into one. With a baby on the way, we knew that eventually we were going to want to move him out of our room and into his own room. And so began the process of clearing out and discarding things from the family/guest room to make space for our new arrival. Of course, it wasn’t only one room that had to be transformed. Anyone who has welcomed a child into the world will know that you also have to make room for the stroller and the pack and play, the highchair and the swing, the books, blanket and bottles. Unless you live in a mansion, all this means you must let go of unnecessary clutter and sometimes things you have cherished dearly in order to make room for new life.
Throughout the season of Easter we have been using the process of metamorphosis that a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly to help us consider the resurrections and transformations we go through in our own lives and how that happens. It’s been quite remarkable how much we’ve been able to identify with these incredible insects.
Last week, Rev. Carla told us about how when the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis it has to hang in place, waiting for its wings to dry out before it takes flight. She reminded us of the liminal or in between times when we too have to hang in there and wait for the fullness of time to arrive after a significant change in our lives before we are ready to take flight in a new direction.
This week, I learned that after the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, not only does it have to wait for its wings to dry, it has to discard the waste that had built up while it’s been metamorphosizing inside the chrysalis. It actually excretes meconium which is the same substance a human infants excrete when they are born.
So the butterfly, like us, has to get rid of what it no longer needs, in order to leap into the future, both the muck of the meconium and the beauty of the chrysalis.
One of the interesting things for me in this process, is that what gets discarded is what has previously sustained and nurtured the process of growth. Isn’t that so often the case when we go through a transformation? We reach a point where either by our own choice or by choices that have been imposed upon us by others or simply by life circumstances, when what previously fed and nurtured us, no longer does. We outgrow or sometimes simply outlive our former lives, what we needed in the past is no longer what we need in the present.
Our children move away from home, our partners die, the work we once loved becomes draining, we retire, the former way of being church no longer works and suddenly not only do we have to let go of or discard the past, we also have to seek out new forms of sustenance. Going back to the way things were before just doesn’t work anymore.
The butterfly doesn’t fit back in the chrysalis ever again and it is no longer nurtured and sustained in the same way it was when it was a caterpillar. In fact a butterfly actually grows a completely different set of tools for feeding. Caterpillars have mandibles they use to bite and chew leaves. Butterflies grow a straw-like proboscis so they can drink nectar from flowers. They have an entirely different diet than their former selves.
Today’s scripture reading from the Book of Exodus is one of my favourite passages in the bible because it so beautifully describes the process of liberation and transformation we go through when by choice or by circumstance we find ourselves leaving behind an old way of life and seeking a new one. In this story, the Hebrew people, like butterflies, also have to acquire a taste for new food.
In today’s reading the Hebrew people have been set free from years of slavery in Egypt and the oppressive rule of the Pharoah. Their dramatic departure under cover of night while being chased by Pharoah’s mighty army has led them through the Red Sea that miraculously parted when their leader Moses put out his staff and commanded the waters to rise. After landing safe on the other side they have danced to the sound of tambourines sung songs of freedom and celebrated their release from captivity.
All of that took place two and a half months ago and the people are now exhausted from their journey. Their destination, the hoped for promised land is nowhere in sight and they are wondering how long this whole process of liberation is going to take. They have started to complain about their leaders, Moses and his brother Aaron the ones who got them into this mess. They have started looking back on the life they once had and thinking maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. They are beginning to think that a lifetime of slavery, when someone else got their food for them and they had enough food to eat, might be better than the hard, hard work this new life, this life of freedom was turning out to be.
If you are a parent, this is the moment when the initial glow of parenthood has rubbed off and you realize this parenting thing is going to be a long road and you’re not sure you’re going to make it. And you are remembering fondly all those Saturday mornings when you got to sleep. This is the moment after you’ve left an abusive or unsatisfactory relationship or you’ve finally quit or been fired from a job in which you felt trapped when suddenly the initial euphoria of having been set free has worn off, reality is sinking in and you’re starting to wonder if you’ve made a huge mistake. It’s the moment you wish you had appreciated the person who is no longer with you a little bit more because you know in your heart there is no going back but you fantasize about going back anyway. This is the moment the butterfly thinks that maybe being a caterpillar was actually a perfectly fine way to be in the world because at least when you were a caterpillar you knew where your food was going to come from and you knew how to be a caterpillar.
When the Hebrew people complained against their leaders Moses and Aaron about not having the sustenance they needed in this strange and unyielding wilderness, the Lord says to Moses “I have heard my people’s complaints. I am going to rain down bread upon them from heaven, each day, just enough for them to gather one day’s worth.”
And so the Lord does rain down bread on the people, but it’s not anything like the bread they have been used to. This is a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost of the ground. So instead of giving thanks for the food the Lord has provided for them the people say “what is it?”
The sticky substance, sometimes called manna, which in Hebrew literally means “what is it?” has long been thought to come from the excretions of plant lice that feed on the local tamarisk trees in the Sinai peninsula. Apparently, Bedouins still gather it today and bake it into bread. A daily portion is the most anyone ever gathers or else it will rot.
Now I might also say “what is it?” if you put that in front of me to eat too. Eating the excretion of plant lice does not sound particularly appetizing. And yet what a beautiful metaphor this is for the way that the Divine, the way that life itself provides for us, enough to nourish and sustain us one day at a time. And how true it is that when we have had to discard so much of what was familiar to us in the past, it takes time for us to acquire a taste for what is new. And how beautiful an invitation this story extends to us to reconsider what we think is and is not “of God.”
We’re so used to noticing the sacred in the ways our souls have always been fed and nurtured, in the spectacular sunset, the miracle of birth, the joy of great company and the taste of beautifully baked bread. But what if God can also provide for us through the ordinary, the practical and particularly through the messy things in life. What if, we too, can adapt to new circumstances, just like the butterfly, just like a new parent, growing and developing what we need to live in our new conditions. If we really trusted in these truths, perhaps we would be more willing to let go and leave behind what we know and to have faith that we will be supplied what we need, one day at a time.