Oh How Soon They Forget!
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - September 24th, 2023
Exodus 16: 2-15 (NRSVue)
The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community, ‘Come near to the Lord, because he’s heard your complaints.’” As Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned to look toward the desert, and just then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
The Lord spoke to Moses, “I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”
In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was.
Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."
Life must be particularly hard for mothers. They go through the physically demanding process of giving birth to their children, and spend a lifetime caring, worrying, and encouraging their children. Until children go out into the work world, most do not have even the slightest clue of how much moms (and dads too) have done for their children. It is only then that parents become smarter in the eyes of their children. Notwithstanding all this love, all this sacrifice, all the toil and pain and suffering, the self-denial, and the exhaustion which it takes to raise a child, it is common for children, particularly when in the throes of a tantrum, to exclaim to their parents; “You don’t love me!”; “You never do anything for me!”; “You never give me anything!” These outbursts generally are met with a combination of anger and laughter. Anger because how could someone so close to you be so ungrateful. Laughter because of the absurdity of saying your past two decades of love, care, and concern count for nothing.
Now you know how God feels. For 430 years, God heard the lament of the Israelite people suffering in Egypt. God foretold of this suffering, and that God would rescue them from this pit of despair. Apparently no one in ancient Canaan had a pen to write this down because soon the cries went up that God had abandoned them. Part of me is sympathetic to the Israelites, after all 430 years is a long time to wait for anything. Enough to make you question whether God would remain faithful to the promises made in covenant with Abraham. And why if Israel is truly God’s chosen people, why would God allow them to suffer for so long? Of course history is filled with these kinds of questions. Why did slavery in America last so long? Why were Native American people subjected to such cruelty for so long? Why was Apartheid in South Africa allowed? Why do people suffer under communist regimes decade after decade? I have no answer for this other than to say that God works in God’s time, not on a human schedule. It is in moments like these that I remember God is God, and I am not. Far be it from God to explain God’s ways to humankind. But what I can say is there has never been a time when God was not listening, when God was not caring. For centuries, God made a way out of no way for the chosen people (and we are all God’s chosen people). And still, we are no better than the Israelites, asking God, what have you done for me lately? Oh how soon people forget.
This story from Exodus seems like a special kind of ingratitude. After centuries of enslavement, the Israelite people were miraculously freed, and were permitted to find their own place to live. Implicit in the hungry lament in this scripture is the belief that God owes us something. That God must provide. Perhaps because God so often does provide we get used to that sort of thing. A child rarely asks if there will be dinner. Instead, most children ask what is for dinner, knowing that there will be something because we always have dinner. But why is it that as soon as we face a bit of hardship or adversity that the amnesia sets in. That amnesia which causes us to forget all the times God came to the rescue, usually just in the nick of time. Time and Time again, God shows up in our lives. We would think by now that we would have more confidence in God, but instead, we have amnesia. How can this be? Well, part of this answer is that we humans are not very good at enduring suffering. One might argue that the greatest threat to the modern generation is that we can no longer do hard things. Take for example, the issue of high speed trains. We cannot find an American company to build a high speed train when they are commonplace in Japan and Europe. One wonders if WWII or the race to the moon were contemporary challenges what the outcome would be? Would we win?
This scripture is important because it demonstrates God’s faithfulness, God’s generosity, and God’s walking with us in our times of trial. But it is also a tale about a measured faithfulness. That if we truly believe, then we trust in God not just in the moment, but we pledge our belief that God will remain faithful tomorrow, and always. That is why when the Israelite people first gathered manna from the fields, they took as much as they could grab. But the story here is that God’s bounty requires us to take only what we need, and to leave the rest for others to have some. This concept of taking only what you need seems foreign to modern day America. We worry so much about what if there is not enough (“scarcity”) that we cannot even open our eyes to see the bounty of God’s blessings. That even those who did not have much manna still had their fill. That there was enough for all the people. And those that took more than they needed had their bounty spoiled. Wouldn’t you rather share your bounty than have it spoil.
How might our world be different if we only gathered the manna that we needed? What if 40% of our garbage wasn’t food we throw away? What if we used renewable energy and shared our excess capacity of energy to those who needed it? What if we grew more plant based food instead of slaughtering animals? (Have you ever tried an incredible burger–not bad!). What if we shared more of our wealth or invested our wealth in ways that benefit all people, not just those lucky enough to own shares? What if corporations had to show a public good as a condition for the privilege of being a legal person protected under the law? Why is it that instead of being grateful for the times God has showered us with “manna from heaven,” instead we worry about the possibilities of what if there is not enough? We are kind of like the caricature of the obese child who complains that there is never enough cake, when the truth is no one needs that much cake. That at some point, we cannot even taste the chocolate flavor or the icing. We just cram more and more into our mouths knowing we better grab what we can before someone else does. Have you ever split a dessert in a restaurant? It always seems to be more than enough because in sharing we share the joy as well. When we horde, it is such an unsatisfying moment that we believe that the only thing to make us feel better is more. But more never makes us feel better. More just makes us feel sick. It is in sharing our abundance with others that we experience the joy of connecting as humans.
Church giving is kind of like this. The churches with less do more. Our churches are standing today because someone provided for such a time as this. Might you feel called to do so? Have you seen churches which look like crystal palaces where everyone is proud of their Starbucks quality coffee, but no one can be troubled to serve at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? Kind of a shame that when churches have more and more, do they focus on ways of partnering with churches in need, or do they pave a new parking lot to accommodate the people responding to their slick email and commercial campaigns? And the avarice for money results in warped theology like the Prosperity Gospel. Have these people heard of Jesus? Much of what Jesus teaches is about sharing the wealth and proportionality. Oh, how soon they forget.