What Is This Stuff?

Exodus 16:2-15                                                                       September 24, 2023

The Exodus story moves from one disaster to the next. At the burning bush, God said, “I have heard the cry of my people, and I will save them.”  Now, the freed people are in the wilderness, wondering how to get their next meal. Some rescue! Apparently, the mighty deliverance of God is not a straightforward reversal of fortune, where all we must do is pray and wait. There is an enormous gap between the Red Sea and the Promised Land, a wilderness to cross that will take a generation to accomplish.

Listen to how upset the Israelites are:

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Better to be oppressed with a full belly than set free to starve. Tyranny in Egypt looks pretty good right now. My guess is their view of the past is full of nostalgia. Did they really eat their fill and have big pots of meat as enslaved people? When confronting the uncertainty of the next meal, we amplify the past. We often long for a perceived golden era, like the 1950s, where we felt more united, except you couldn’t vote in the South if you were black, a woman couldn’t have a checkbook, forget being an out gay person. The 1950s was the golden area for churches too. I know because every church I have served has used it as a measuring stick. We forget all the downsides of the past when the present is uncertain.

We might expect Moses to push back against the complaints. “So you want to go back to Egypt? Did you forget the whip and lash, the hard labor that ground your joints to dust? You are free now. How about some gratitude? We are past the Red Sea, and there is no going back, so suck it up.”

But notice God’s response. “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.”  God shows extravagant generosity to calm peoples’ fears. Food is a basic need for survival, and not having it can make us desperate. Most of us have not been so hungry that we would do anything for a meal. God doesn’t just deliver one meal. There is a plan for daily gathering of bread, even enough so they don’t have to work on the Sabbath.

We noticed at Bible study that it says four times, “God has heard your complaint.”  God hears. The drama begins at the burning bush when God tells Moses, “I have heard my peoples’ cry, I have seen their oppression, and I have felt their pain.”  God is unlike Pharoah, who hardens his heart whenever they ask for something better. This God named “I Am” is a present God who is connected and compassionate.

Believing in this kind of God is hard if you haven’t felt heard your whole life. God probably has more important things to do than listen to me. God has universe-sized problems. Black holes are swallowing galaxies. Countries are sitting on nuclear warheads, and forests are burning. Why would God care if I’m hungry, sad, or afraid? We can go too far into thinking we are the center of the universe and God is deeply interested in whether we find a parking spot. But the witness of scripture is God hears and cares for human beings. As David says in the Psalms, “Lord, you have searched me and known me. Where can I go from your presence that you are not there?”  Jesus says, “Seek and you will find, ask and it will be given, knock and the door will open.”

How can anyone believe this possible when we have few examples of people listening to us? How many of you feel genuinely heard and understood? Studies keep finding we are chronically lonely. Who has time to listen when we have so many places to talk: Facebook, Twitter (sorry, X), TikTok, Snapchat? We learn to read, write, and speak, but listening is not treated as an essential life skill. But listening is one of the great gifts we can offer someone, so much more valuable than all our advice. Imagine a God who hears, where change happens because of divine listening.

God not only hears but delivers bread. The Israelites wake up one morning to find a flaky substance left by the morning dew. They look at it and say, “What is this stuff?”  Moses and Aaron say, “This is the bread from heaven God has given you.”   Perhaps they hoped for a multigrain loaf, French baguette, or even a pita round. This stuff isn’t like any bread they had eaten. So they called it manna, which means “what is this.”

Manna is likely a natural phenomenon on the Sinai Peninsula. The fruit of the Tamarisk tree secrets a resin that congeals and flakes in the cool morning air but then disintegrates as it warms. This resin can be harvested, rolled into balls, and even baked. But you must devour it before it spoils and attracts ants. The command to gather enough each day and don’t attempt to hoard it fits this description. Remember that Moses had been a shepherd out in the wilderness and knew how to survive in the environment. He was showing them the resources that existed in this strange new place. People had to learn to live off the land, catching quail as they were blown in by the sea breezes and harvesting manna in the morning. The wilderness can sustain life if you know where to look.

Manna saved the day, but it wasn’t the banquet people expected. I wonder if the word started as a complaint. “Let’s go gather whatever that stuff is.”   But manna became a metaphor for discovering God’s provision where you didn’t expect it. Initially, people couldn’t believe they had to eat this stuff, which didn’t resemble food as they knew it. But they learned to survive and claim this unusual resource as a gift from God. A new life was possible, but it wouldn’t be sustained like their past life in slavery. The wilderness generation had a new economy.

What might be our manna today? What looks strange and unlikely at first sight but is actually a resource for faith? God provides, but we can hardly recognize the grace. Post-Covid, the church is going through a time in the wilderness. People’s habits and attitudes about church have changed. A top summer story is numerous articles about the de-churching of America and the Great Resignation of pastors.   There is no crossing the Nile again and going back to the way things used to be. We will have to find new ways to thrive in this changed world. Here are a few things I came up with to think about:

First, since manna was naturally occurring, it was God’s gift through creation. My central preaching theme since summer is including more creation-oriented spirituality in our worship and prayer life. Finding God’s presence in creation can help us renew our divine connection and be a bridge to people who aren’t familiar with the church or not keen on sitting in the pews.   Connecting to nature is a gift post-Covid when being outside was safer. A creation-based spirituality may be an effective evangelism tool based on wonder more than doctrine.

Next, I think our model of faith is too pastor-driven, too dependent on looking for the Moses who will lead us to the promised land. As much as I love preaching, it may not be the best vehicle to lead us to the future. We need to talk more and have great, sacred conversations where we learn from each other. You learned much with Peter Ilgenfritz as interim as you talked about where you were. We had interesting conversations as we constructed our new mission statement. What should our next sacred conversation be? What would be a brave and bold conversation to lead us through the wilderness?

Finally, we must consider manna as something we find outside the church. We must search off the beaten path to see where God’s spirit might be stirring. One of the most powerful services we have had this year was the service of remembrance on overdose awareness day, the 716 Candles service. The initiative came from outside the church, yet people saw we had something that no other group could offer: a sacred space to hold grief and search for healing. We will always be relevant if we can figure out where we can touch the world’s pain with compassion. We can create a space where people can be imperfect, even broken, where they find room to heal after crossing the Nile and the spiritual food they need to move forward.

 In summary, here’s how we might find manna. A creation-based spirituality, more profound and sacred conversations, and seeing the pain we can help heal. Like the Israelites, we have survived the great plague. Covid was a great disrupter of how the community functions. But we crossed the Red Sea and have life ahead of us. When God shows us the way, we might say, “What is this stuff?”  Letting go of the way we have done things is hard. But it beats starving. So let’s work together to find the manna we need.

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