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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Life in the Wilderness: Quit Your Whining

Pentecost 14A 2011
Exodus 16:2-15                                                                                             
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 toward 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. 
One of the persistent themes of conversations I’ve had with people this past week, as we begin to genuinely recover from Hurricane Irene and examine how we felt during and after the storm, has been how stressed everyone felt after the worst was over.  Of course, as the wind was howling and trees were crashing down around – and sometimes on – our homes in our powerless dark, our stress levels were off the scale.  But two weeks later, so many people have shared with me that they still feel tired and anxious and on edge, as though they continue to carry a great burden.  These are people who came through the storm relatively unscathed.  Vicki and I, for example, only lost power for three days and had one significant limb come down from a tree in our back yard, but we’ve been aware that our baseline stress level – not counting parishioner emergencies or crises at Hallmark or the Orioles edging towards losing 100 games – is higher than normal.  I think we’re still recovering from the storm.
But, it seems to me and to almost everyone I ask, we all seem to feel on edge.  The stock market roller coasters up and down, and we wonder if we’ll be able to eat in retirement.  The news celebrates yet another governmental impasse, the debt continues to climb, people continue to search in vain for work, the weather gets weirder and weirder, loved ones fall in front yards and parking lots or get sick for no clear reason.  We are uncertain people who live in uncertain times with uncertain leaders.  Is it any wonder that the best of us feel numb in our souls, while the worst of us numb ourselves with drugs or destructive behavior or with the brain-destroying fare displayed on our television screens and video games?
The Hebrews had participated in the most miraculous display of God’s salvation in history.  God had sent seven plagues upon Egypt, culminating with the death of firstborn Egyptian children and the sparing of Hebrew children.  They had crossed the Red Sea as God drove back the waters with a strong wind, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army had been drowned behind them.  A cloud of smoke and pillar of fire had led them into the Wilderness with the promise that a new land filled with milk and honey lay before them.  And what was their response to these stunning signs of God’s love and power?  We should have stayed behind in Egypt where we had food to eat, instead of coming out here to die in the desert.
The Hebrews in the wilderness remind me of the skits years ago on Saturday Night live featuring Doug and Wendy Whiner, who managed to drive everyone around them insane with their nasal complaining about everything.  They go to a fancy French restaurant and whine that they can’t eat anything on the menu because they have diverticulitis, and want the chef to make them macaroni and cheese.  They get on an airliner and whine about everything so much that when the flight attendant announces that the flight is overbooked and they need some passengers to volunteer to give up their seats, the entire cabin rushes for the door.  Yes, the Hebrews are in a place they’ve never been before.  Yes, they are surrounded by uncertainty and confusion.  Yes, there is not a Food Sphinx around every bend where they can get food.  But wouldn’t you think that they might get a clue that a God who can create a universe, bring plagues, save children, roll back the waters of the Red Sea, and defeat the mightiest king and army on the face of the planet might be able to find them some food and water?  No.  Better a known evil than an unknown good.  We should have stayed home in Egypt and died building pyramids rather than pursue freedom.
The Hebrews, of course, are us.  So how might we stop our whining about what we don’t have and begin to open our minds and hearts and lives to the God who not only has blessed us over and over and over in the past, but who wants us to live futures overflowing with grace and mercy?
Listen to the people who are more attuned to where God is that where God isn’t.  The Hebrews, no doubt roused by the most cynical and trouble-making in their number, take their complaints to Moses and Aaron, who are God’s agents and witnesses.  Moses and Aaron listen to God, and point out what God is doing in the world.  Pointing out where God is at work in the world is the primary mission of the church, says theologian David Harned.[1]  What everyone else is doing is to point out all the places where they don’t see God.  I haven’t watched television news for many, many years, so on those rare occasions that I do watch it, I am astounded at its utterly sensationalistic focus.  Why is a murder in Utah a story on Richmond television news?  Because there weren’t enough rapes, robberies, and murders locally to fill twenty-two minutes of programming.  If it bleeds, it leads says the old aphorism.  Seriously, church:  stop watching and listening to news – with the possible exception of the weather.  Stop listening to talking heads on TV or radio.  Read news that is a week or a month old instead, news that has been seasoned by thought and deliberation and time.   The twenty-four hour news and opinion cycle feeds on sensation, violence, disaster, and fear.  It is a primary source of emotional and spiritual stress in us all, which is its objective, so it can sell us alcohol, lust, drugs, toys, vacations, and entertainment to numb or distract our dis-ease.
Where are the Moses and Aarons of our day?  Look around you:  we are surrounded by people who have amazing stories of God sightings (which is the focus of Julie Martin’s Wednesday night class).  I’ve heard some of you tell astounding tales of near-misses during the hurricane.  Yes, Margaret Boyle had a terrible fall and concussion this week, but it happened when she was surrounded by church members who loved her and cared for her until the Rescue Squad came:  it could have happened when she was home alone.  Mary Lou Frassmann fell this week in her front yard and broke her arm, but she told me that before she went outside, she put her cordless phone in the pocket of her robe – something she never does.  We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the horrible events of 9/11, but for every tragic story of lost loved ones there are two stories of miraculous sacrifice and courage and healing.  At lunch last week Bishop Kammerer told me a postscript to the story in her sermon about the United Methodist churches that opened their doors after 9/11 for prayer while other churches were padlocking theirs. After 9/11 Muslim women in Charlotte were afraid to go out to grocery stores to buy food for their families.  United Methodist women in town wrapped scarves around their heads and accompanied their Muslim neighbors shopping as a sign of love.  In the midst of terrible anger and fear, God’s people could see where God was at work to save and to heal.
Amazingly, instead of letting these whining amnesiac Hebrews starve as they deserved, God fed them with quail and manna.  They weren’t fed because of anything they had done to deserve it:  on the contrary, it was so much more than they deserved.  But God loved them in spite of them forgetting the miracles that had just happened and their whining about the slavery they had left behind.  Nothing, St. Paul would say two thousand years later, can separate us from God’s love.
The Trappist monk and spiritual giant Thomas Merton was once asked how he could believe in God, given all the evil and ugliness and injustice in the world.  “You’re asking the wrong question,” Merton replied.  “Given the unlimited capacity of human beings to destroy the world, hurt each other, and reject the image of God within themselves, that there’s any love and hope and beauty left in the world, how can you not believe in God?”
Let’s quit our griping.  Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with the world, and we’re responsible for most, if not all, of them.  But, as I like to say, we are so much better than we deserve.  And in a world that uses hate and darkness and violence and fear to sell us what can never heal, let’s be Moses and Aarons, pointing out where God is still feeding his children, still forgiving their forgetfulness, and still listening in love through the whining.

[1] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster, 1968

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