Today we’re starting a new sermon series to give nourishment to our Summer of Caring and Service. We begin in the wilderness. I invite you to imagine how the people were feeling. Only a few months ago, they never thought they would be in this position!
What happened was Pharaoh had been oppressing the Israelites in Egypt. They lived in a system of violent subjugation, and they knew it, and God knew it. With help from Moses, God made a way out of slavery by making a path of dry land through the middle of the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to walk across. When the Egyptian soldiers came after them, God closed up the sea drowning the slave catchers and their horses.
It could be, the Israelites imagined arriving in paradise, land flowing with milk and honey. Now their miraculous escape was more than two months ago, and they find themselves here. In the wilderness. I mean seriously? This is the Promised Land? This is what liberation looks like? The people complained out loud. Why did God bother rescuing us only to bring us here? What is God even doing…
According to the scripture, one answer is testing the people. The Bible says God heard the whining and moaning of the whole congregation, and the LORD said to Moses: “I know! I will test the people to see whether they do what I say.” And so the LORD our God decided to give the people the food they were craving, but here’s the deal. They must only gather enough food for that day. No missing a collection, and no hoarding extra. Let’s see if the people can follow my test, so says the LORD. Or…
So says the human people who crafted the stories that we find in the Bible. If you’re wondering whether the LORD our God actually tested the people, or whether that’s what the storytellers decided, then yeah. I’m wondering that too.
Only a few months earlier, the Israelites had no idea that they would wind up here. And oh my friends, we get this. Only a few months ago, we thought the pandemic would be an event. Once it hit, we rallied and surged with crisis adrenaline. We leaned into caring, and serving, and staying at home. But the disaster didn’t end! We thought we would arrive safely on the other side, and if there is an other side, we sure haven’t reached it yet.
People are still getting sick. People are afraid they’ll die in isolation without being able to say goodbye to the ones they love. Some funerals have been indefinitely postponed. Some of us are thick in grief. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some are reeling from canceled plans. Some of us are drowning from being locked inside. How long O LORD? What is God even doing…
When this is our question, it makes good sense that we would come up with a theory, so we human people have been saying, “Surely God must be testing us.”
If God is testing us, that means God is still in charge. This is somehow part of her plan. Even better, if God is testing us, then there’s something we can do to get an A. We human people love tests; they give us a mastery of knowledge, a method of overcoming the unknown with measurable information. It makes perfect sense! No wonder we want to decide that our experience of struggle is really the opportunity for us to prove to God that we are worthy.
It’s just… I’m not so sure it’s true. What kind of God pours out suffering on a people just so she can stand back with her clipboard and see whether we’re faithful enough to pass her test? That’s not God.
As it turns out, even in our story for today, God is doing something else entirely. The first thing God does is listen to the people who are complaining. He doesn’t just hear that they are complaining, God hears what they’re saying, and he realizes what the problem really is. Then the LORD our God lets his own heart be moved by the sorrow of the people.
The next thing God does is show up on the scene. Moses told Aaron to tell the people to draw near and lift their eyes. In the middle of the wilderness, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud so the people would know God had heard them.
Next in the story, what God does is provide food. Not metaphorical food. Not conceptual food. Actual food. In the evening, the people would eat meat from the quails. In the morning, they would eat bread from what they quails left behind. And yes, it is exactly what you’re thinking.
The facts are these. First: manna is quail poop. It looks like coriander seed and tastes like wafers with honey. Second: when the people were starving and weeping in the wilderness with no end in sight, God interrupted their suffering to give them something to eat.
This meal plan was not a prize reserved for those who exhibited the most righteousness. Everybody needs dinner; everybody gets dinner. We human people keep inventing tests, and evaluating test results, and deciding that God must be doing the same, but the LORD our God keeps on interrupting our tests with mercy.
Food is a tangible expression of grace. In the middle of all our elaborate schemes to figure out who’s really at fault or who really owes what, God comes into the room and says in her mom voice, “You all need to stop now. It’s time for lunch.”
Imagine if one day we could believe this grace is the truth. Taste and see the LORD is good! Imagine if we believed it so vividly that we couldn’t help but share it; if we learned to respond to what people needed instead of what we think they deserve; if we let our own hearts be moved.
Decades ago, I worked as a camp counselor for a summer. Church camp is terrific. The food at camp— was a struggle for me. I typically avoid red meat. Usually that worked out okay, until the day it did not. I didn’t plan to do this, and I’m not proud of it, but when I got up to the lunch line and saw there was no non-red meat option, I complained out loud in front of everybody. I said to the camp director, Donna, “What am I supposed to eat?” I saw her eyes flash in anger. In the most furious calm voice she said: “There’s always peanut butter.”
And she was right. And I knew I was wrong. How ungrateful! How unprofessional! I’m literally getting paid to be at camp, come on. What kind of example was I setting!
That night at dinner, the camp director needed to speak to me in the kitchen. I thought I could see where this was headed. But then she said, Gail, the woman who cleans the camp, wanted to see me. She was standing by the stove: “I’m a vegetarian so I always bring something for myself.” She started dishing up a bowl with rice and broccoli. “Here I made vegetable stir fry. I have extra and Donna thought you might want some.” (Yeah.) I’m telling you, it was amazing! I wish this dinner on everyone I know.
The way I remember it was this. I started to say something to Donna, but before I could finds the words she said: “I knew what the problem was;” Semicolon. Now you and I know, there would be many correct second halves to that sentence. Like: “you were being entitled and ungrateful.” Or “you weren’t exhibiting camp ethos in front of the children.” A lot of things were the problem! If this were a test I would have failed. But Donna went with: “I knew what the problem was; you were hungry.”
Donna made the decision to look past my behavior in order to see what I needed. Make no mistake, that is the work of grace, the work of God.
Imagine if we learned how to to do this for each other —if our first instinct was not to judge someone for rioting but instead to ask: What need do they have that is going unmet? Could I help meet that need? In our world, asking this question is not a common first impulse, but what if it could be. Because maybe this other person is not really lazy, or criminal, or out to scam the system. Maybe they’re not really a spoiled camp counselor or a thug. Maybe this person is harboring a deeper need, and maybe, it’s up to us to see that.
Back on Food Pantry Sunday, Mike Miller, President of River Bend Food Bank shared this insight with our church. He said, sometimes folks get worried about whether the people who come to food pantries are legitimately in need or whether they’re taking advantage. Well rest assured, after years in this profession, he has developed a test to determine whether someone really needs the food. Goes like this: Did they show up at the food pantry? If so, that’s it. They need the food.
Instead of worrying about somebody else’s deservedness, we could see their need and help address it. The LORD our God will hear our condemning and complaining. God hears our protest and is moved with compassion. God allows her own heart to break. Her tears get mingled with our tears. And when we are on the streets, or in jail, or in the wilderness, Jesus comes into the world to go with us.
“I know what you need,” he says. Here sit down. This is my body. Take and eat. This is the work of grace, the work of God. And you and I know, it could be our work too. Amen.