Rev. Teri Peterson
one day at a time
6 October 2013, NL 4-5, World Communion
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 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 towards 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. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: “Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” ’ So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. For six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.’
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day.
The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.
This week, while I was home sick, I ran the latest software update on my iPhone. 45 minutes after I began, I joined the ranks of people on the internet bemoaning the loss of the familiar icons, the strange new motion effects, the excessive whiteness of the interface. It was incredible how different the same exact thing could look, and it added a new thing to whine about while I was coughing and moaning on the couch.
Of course, any issues I may have had with the previous version of the iphone software were immediately forgotten when I saw something frustrating about the new one. And any benefits of the new update were pushed aside for the sake of remembering the good old days when everything was familiar.
It seems that even a preacher who needs to write a sermon about the whiny Israelites is not exempt from human nature.
The Israelites were just a few days into their brand new life of freedom when they began romanticizing their past—how great it was, back in Egypt, when we could eat whatever we wanted, however much we wanted…notice they’re not saying “how great it was back in Egypt, when we were slaves making bricks without the right supplies and our children were being tossed into the Nile…” No, it’s all whitewashed rose colored good old days glasses for this trip down memory lane.
I know the Israelites are not the only ones who’ve ever decided to live in the past. For some reason we all seem prone to longing for days gone by, when things were better than they are now. The church—not just this congregation, but the Capital-C Church—can often be found reminiscing about the days when there were no kids sports on Sundays or Wednesdays, and classrooms and sanctuaries were filled to overflowing, and the pastor was miraculously always in the office and always visiting people and always praying and always translating theology into normal language. We like our nostalgia about the days when politicians paid attention to statements from churches, when the church building was the hub of social life in the community, and when we had more than enough volunteers and money to do everything we ever dreamed.
We forget, of course, about the injustice prevalent in those times—when women were paid even less than they are now, when people of color were excluded from many parts of society, and when people who practice other religions were looked down upon in nearly every community, even right here in the northwest suburbs. We, like the Israelites, look back at the time when we sat at the feasting tables in Egypt and long for those days…forgetting that right here, right now, God is setting us free from the tyranny of nostalgia.
The people cry out, just as they had cried out in Egypt, and once again, God hears them. God wasn’t faithful just the one time, God wasn’t powerful just the one time, God didn’t provide for them just the one time—God is faithful and powerful and will provide. In the past, in the present, and in the future. God sends meat and bread, and the people don’t quite know what to do with it. Somehow, no matter how much they gather, no matter how hard they work, each person has exactly enough. And when they try to ensure tomorrow’s ration by saving some of today’s, it rots overnight. When they gather enough to take a day off, still they insist on going to work, as if they are still slaves. Perhaps those fleshpots of Egypt weren’t so bountiful after all—if their most ingrained behavior is to be constantly gathering and squirreling away food.
But God is faithful in the past, in the present, and in the future. Which means that the Israelites need to learn to live with God in the here and now—not always looking back and romanticizing the past, and not always looking ahead and trying to secure the future. Every day, God provides exactly enough. And slowly, little by little, their habits of slavery—the habit of constant work, of hoarding, of trying to get ahead, of fear—those habits begin to dissipate.
It takes a long time to learn to trust God. Not just to say they trust God, but for their intellectual knowledge of God’s goodness to translate into the way they live and act in the world. A whole generation has to grow up knowing only this life of relying on God before the message sinks in. And once the Israelites get back out there in the world with other people and competing gods, it continues to be hard work.
They’re not alone in that difficulty, of course. Still today, it takes a long time to learn to trust God. We say we believe a lot of things, we think a lot and have plenty of opinions. And our intellectual knowledge does not always translate into actions that witness to God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness. We have just as hard a time as the Israelites when it comes to living in the here and now with God. We look back and try to reclaim the good old days. We look forward and fear for the future, and scramble for ways to secure something that is out of our control. We try to work harder, faster, better, in order to get ahead. And yet when it comes to God’s grace, God’s providing, God’s glory and love and wonder—there is exactly enough for today, for each of us.
What would happen if we lived as if we trusted God’s grace to provide, rather than always looking back or ahead and neglecting the now? It might look like spending time in God’s word, getting to know God’s character and love so we can better see it at work in the world. It might look like constant gratitude. It might look like sharing our resources with people in need, without asking them to prove themselves to us. It might look like talking with our legislators about systems that fail the least of these. It might look like prayer that involves more listening than talking. It might look like filling out a pledge card that stretches us a little bit. It might look like opening our minds and hearts to a completely new idea. It might even look like failure sometimes.
I suspect that trusting God in the everyday would mean a lot more direct communication and a lot less gossip and triangulation, a lot more grace and a lot less suspicion. Trusting God in the everyday would mean asking for help when we need it, confronting bad behavior when we see it, and speaking with love in every syllable. Trusting God in the everyday would mean praying for our leaders—in the church, in the community, and in the nation—and also asking them what we can do to help move the world into something that looks more like the kingdom of God, where no one goes hungry, no one dies because they don’t have insurance, no one sleeps outside in a snowstorm, no one worries about a lack of clean water, and people are supported in crisis and in joy. That’s what happened out there in the wilderness, even if only for a moment: the Israelites became God’s people, trusting the One who provides enough for everyone.
This is one of the things we proclaim when we pray “give us this day our daily bread.” And it’s the main good news at the communion table. We say it is a feast, and that conjures up an image of overflowing excess, like a thanksgiving table with a 20 pound turkey for four people. But if there’s one thing we learn from this story of the gift of daily bread, it’s that God’s feast is not excess for some and hunger for others: God’s feast is exactly enough for everyone. At this table we have enough for everyone—not to gorge ourselves on carbs, not to fondly remember feasts of old or to wonder how we’ll pull this off again next year, but to feast on grace, one day at a time.
May it be so.