I need to start this sermon by making a confession. I did not come up with the title. My dear husband did. It’s one of the perks of being a clergy couple–we frequently talk about sermons and other aspects of our ministries over morning coffee. A few weeks ago as we were contemplating the lectionary texts for today Richard said, “I think a good title for a sermon on this text would be “Bread and Whine.” (And not the kind of wine you drink…)
Bread and Whine. That pretty much says it all. Bread, as in God’s generous provision and care for us, and whine, as in the way we can get stuck in fear, hopelessness, and self-pity.
John did a great job last week inviting us into the magic of stories. He reminded us that while we at Forest Hill are committed to practicing rigorous Biblical scholarship, there’s also a time to simply delight in a Bible story for its own sake. And of course whenever we listen to Bible stories we have to come to grips with where we fit into them. I loved John’s question–“What’s your story?”–and it has caused me to think all week about stories of how God has cared for me and countless people I know and love. So as we contemplate today’s text let’s continue to think about where we find ourselves in the whole narrative that Linnea just read so beautifully.
In today’s lesson, the song of Miriam has scarcely died down before the people of Israel are complaining about Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. To recap last week’s story– after God has brought the children of Israel out of bondage through the Red Sea, Miriam leads a group of women in song and dance, praising God for their liberation.
“Sing to the Lord,” Miriam commands, “for he has triumphed gloriously! Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
But the celebration is short-lived. Soon the whole congregation of Israel is–you guessed it–whining about being led into the wilderness. Memory is a funny thing, often subject to revisionism, as in, “Those were the golden days” when in fact they weren’t so golden.
We humans tend to do that. Part and parcel of complaining is often romanticizing the past because the present isn’t living up to our expectations. This is the case with the Israelites. Suddenly they’re remembering life in Egypt as if it were a five star hotel and spa, when in fact, it was absolutely brutal, so much so that they had to cry to God to set them free.
I’d like to invite you to participate in something akin to a customer satisfaction survey. Think about whiny people you’ve had to deal with–perhaps your children, clients, employees, even family members or friends. How would you rate that experience on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being least enjoyable and 10 being most enjoyable. Customer satisfaction surveys are important, you know!
All joking aside, I think we’d all have to admit that dealing with whiners and complainers can be utterly maddening. I remember as a mother trying to be patient when my young children whined. I would do okay up to a point, but when my patience wore thin, I gave up all hopes of ever being named “Mother of the Year.” Which is why today’s story from Exodus really takes my breath away– God responds to the Israelites grousing and ingratitude, not with impatience or anger, but with stunning generosity. “I am going to rain bread from heaven,” God says through Moses. And he gives them instruction on how to gather the food he will rain down upon them. Better still, as the Israelites look toward the wilderness they see the glory of the Lord appearing in a cloud. Finally God says to Moses, “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.”
Wow! Can we just take that in for a moment? God gives bread in response to whining and his very presence in the midst of the wilderness.
Truth be told, there’s a part of me that really gets the Israelites’ complaints. I’m not a wilderness kinda gal. I’m a major “J” on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, meaning that in relating to the outer world and living my life on a day-to-day basis, I prefer things to be neat, orderly and established.
Wilderness is anything but that. It’s unbounded, uncharted, and unfamiliar. The Israelites have gone from an existence that’s structured, albeit cruelly, by their slave masters to a life that promises rewards in the end, but is only at the beginning of taking some kind of shape.
Over the years I’ve observed that familiar pain can actually seem preferable to unfamiliar gain, and we will often give up on the possibility of new life and growth because we’re afraid to journey through the wilderness to get to the promised land. So we stay in relationships and situations that deaden our souls; we continue to practice poor habits of body, mind and spirit; and we refuse to look at ourselves and take responsibility for the things we do to hurt ourselves and others.
In our defense, journeying through the wilderness can be daunting. The Israelites wandered around, often in circles, for 40 years out there. But let’s not forget that the Israelites were never alone as they wandered–God was with them every step of the way, in spite of their whining, complaining, and at times, downright disobedience.
So what will it be–bread or whine? On what will we focus–God’s presence with us or whining about the challenges we face?
Let me be perfectly clear that I believe there is a subtle, and very important, difference between whining and lamentation. Many people have reasons for lamentation — injustices, losses and burdens which must be given voice. And certainly we must always speak out and stand up to injustice. I worked for years with a grief program called, “Growing Through It. ” It was called “Growing Through It” because we believed that people moved and grew through grief precisely by naming and claiming the suffering they were experiencing. And sometimes we even feel whiny in our grief. But the kind of whining I’m talking about is a different phenomenon–it’s a place of being stuck, of forgetting that God is completely trustworthy.
I suspect that whining is often born of fear and heaven knows we are all facing more fearful, depressing news every day. Neuroscientists also tell us that our brains have a negative bias: our ancient forebearers had to constantly ask “What’s wrong with this picture?” so as not to be eaten by a saber-toothed tiger or clubbed by an enemy. But neuroscientists also tell us that we are not so good at creative problem solving when we allow ourselves to marinate in hopelessness and fear.
The Israelites were hungry and probably disoriented as they tried to make sense of the life they were now living in the wilderness. They weren’t so sure this new program was working. But wonder of wonders–they ended up having a powerful experience of God’s loving care that was unexpected and unmerited.
The fun thing about this story is that the Hebrew word for manna–the bread God rained down from heaven–means “What is it?” Can’t you just imagine the Israelites bending over this odd, white, flaky stuff and saying, “What is it?” It probably wasn’t what they wanted or imagined as the solution to their problems, but if I could paraphrase the words of the great theologian Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you look real hard you’ll see that God gives you what you need.”
As with our forebearers in faith, God offers to companion us in the wilderness and respond to our deepest hungers, even when we, in all our humanity, get stuck in whininess or doubt. But we have to be on the lookout for God’s grace. We have to be disciplined about calling to mind the many, often surprising, ways we’ve been sustained and fed. As we move toward the Promised Land of a just and loving world for all people those memories are critically important. I believe in the deepest part of my being that those memories will nourish and strengthen us so we can continue to participate in God’s vision of justice and wholeness for all people. You know, the communion meal we share each month–the one where we break bread together–is also known as Eucharist, from the Greek word for giving thanks. Calling to mind and practicing gratitude for God’s goodness is nothing short of bread for our souls and strength for our journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
Thanks be to God.