Rev. Teri Peterson
Whiners to Bakers
September 21 2008, Ordinary 25A
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.’
Does anyone here ever wish they could go back in time? Anyone remember the good old days, when things were simpler, better, golden? What were those days like?
I once went to a retreat where the speaker used the acronym “BITD” instead of saying the whole phrase: “Back In The Day.” After a while, someone shouted “I think it was a Wednesday!” as a way of reminding us that “back in the day” doesn’t really exist—it’s idealized in our memory as a time better than now, a time when we knew what to do, a time we have successfully navigated and survived. Using phrases like “back in the day” or “back in the good old days” or even “when I was your age” (as in “When I was your age, television was called books!”) is a way for us to escape into a time and place that we already know how to handle.
Interestingly, the Israelites have only been out in the wilderness six weeks when they start living in the past. In that six weeks they’ve sung songs to God, praised and thanked God for delivering them, seen God turn water from polluted to potable, and camped at an abundant oasis filled with springs and palm trees. But now, a day into the desert, they’re hungry and cranky and they’ve figured out that they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take or even where they are exactly. And there’s no established religion or government, no social safety net, and apparently no leftovers from the camping trip. So they start complaining, beginning with “if only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!”
Now, I don’t know if you remember what the Israelite people were doing in Egypt, but it goes something like this. Gather straw. Carry water. Make bricks out of mud and straw. Build cities you won’t live in using these crumbly bricks. Work longer hours because straw is hard to find. Pay taxes. Get paid very little. Worry that your children are going to be thrown into the Nile while you’re at work. repeat. That’s what the Israelites are looking back on with such fondness—being slaves of Pharaoh, captive to his every whim for a new city or a new palace or more food. Everything they had was provided by Pharaoh, and that’s not much: no days off, no straw, no safety for their families. And yet, when they’re hungry for one day out in the desert, “I want to be back in Egypt, like in the good old days!”
To Moses and Aaron, who worked so hard to get the people out of Egypt, this sounds suspiciously like whining—as in, “would you like some cheese with your whine?” But God listens—even to the whining. God says, “they’re right—I brought them out, I promised to be their God, and that means providing for them.” So Moses and Aaron tell the people that “in the evening you shall know…and in the morning you shall see” who God is and what God is like. But even before then, the people look at the edge of the camp and they see the glory of the Lord settle into the pillar of cloud that has been leading them…and then here come quails strolling into the camp just in time for dinner! The song we sang earlier from Taize was practically made for this moment—“look to God, do not be afraid, lift up your voices, the Lord is near!” The Lord is indeed near, and listening when the people lift up their voices.
After the glory and the quail, we might think things are going pretty well, but God has more in store. The Israelites wake up to find the first ever Sinai snow day! The ground is covered in a fine flaky substance they don’t recognize, and they ask around... “What is it?” The Hebrew word for “what is it” is manna. The stuff they discover is bread from heaven is named not by its appearance or its function or its taste, but with a question: what is it? It is provided by the Lord, for you. According to the rest of the story, they go out to gather and no matter how much they picked up, everyone had exactly the amount they needed for their families—no one had more, no one had less. It tasted like cakes made with honey—good enough to eat every day for 40 years. It could be baked or boiled, but not stored overnight except for the Sabbath. It was there every day for the taking, except on the Sabbath. There was always enough—no one went hungry and there was no waste. God provided by turning the whiners into bakers.
In many ways, this is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God said, “I will be your God,” and then called them “my people” and had to teach them what that might mean—they had to go through the visioning process and figure out a mission statement (“love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” turned out to work pretty well!). They had to wander a little to find out that God was leading them if they would just follow. They had to look back without the rose colored glasses so they could look forward with hope. They had to learn that God is love, and they had to discern who God is calling them to be. And the very first lesson is to rely on God’s goodness and abundance to provide. That sounds cliché and naïve to us now, and I suspect it did then too—but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread. They learned that God is faithful. They learned that hoarding doesn’t get any of us anywhere. They learned that God’s abundance comes along with justice—it’s not whatever we want, it’s what we as a community need. They learned that they can call on God to hold up God’s end of the covenant and God will do it. They learned that they were chosen to be a community of God’s people, being a blessing to the world, not just a ragtag band of wanderers. Most importantly, they learned that the journey from “if only” to “I AM” goes through a question: “what is it?”
“What is it?” God provided, but they didn’t know what it was or what to do with it, they didn’t understand at first that it would be there when they needed it or that it was both good for them and good tasting. They weren’t used to being provided for—and it takes time for slavery to get out of your system, time to turn from Pharaoh’s non-people into God’s people, time to figure out that God is not just another Pharaoh, time to learn trust and reliance, time to figure out providence—that God will provide, even if they don’t recognize that providence at first.
What is it? turns out to be manna, bread from heaven tasting like cakes made with honey or like fresh popped kettle korn, good enough to eat every day for 40 years. The journey from “If only” to “I AM”, from whiner to baker, involves lots of “what is it?” And throughout our whole journey, God provides, though we may not see or understand or have a word for it. And so God weaves us together, a community learning to trust, learning to look around and ahead rather than only back, learning to bake.
Thanks be to God.