Monday, May 7, 2018

5-6-18 “Let Go: Leaving Behind What We Don’t Need”

5-6-18   “Let Go: Leaving Behind What We Don’t Need”

   As you know, Lynn and I like to travel when we take vacation. Staying at home, a staycation, doesn’t provide the rest and relaxation that we need, or at least that I need, so we go away whenever possible. If our kids still lived at home it would be more difficult to be able to get away as frequently as we do, and we know that at some point in our lives, when we’re older, it may be more difficult for us to travel, so as the saying goes, 
we “make hay while the sun’s shining.” 

   But one of the issues we have at times is knowing what to take with us on vacation, especially clothing. For example, when we left on vacation to Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, on the day we left it was in the 30s, and it snowed on us nearly the entire trip down there. The following day it rained. The day after that it was sunny and 75. The next day was windy and in the 40s. And then the next three days were mostly dry with daytime temperatures in the 50s and low 60s but very  windy. So, figuring out how to pack for those kinds of variation becomes a challenge without just taking everything - which is sometimes what it seems like we do.

   What to take is one thing, but other times the question is what to leave behind. With all of the wildfires in California, or the flooding that has occurred around the country, we see in the news all the time people who have had to pack up and leave their homes, sometimes with little or no notice. And we see in the aftermath that sometimes they took little with them, that they were forced to leave behind nearly everything they owned. Some, who had experienced this kind of emergency evacuation before, had essential documents, photos, and those kinds of things already packed in bags or boxes they could just grab and go. But others had to just grab a few things, some clothes or whatever, and escape. In either case, the vast majority of what they had accumulated over a lifetime had to be left behind.

   Do any of you watch those home-remodel shows on HGTV? I always enjoy watching the show “Good Bones,” about a mother and daughter team who rehab homes in Indianapolis. They buy the worst house in the neighborhood and sometimes the things they find left behind are absolutely disgusting. 
Whether it is a refrigerator full of rotting food or a toilet full of something else, they empty everything that was left behind into dumpsters, stripping the house down to the studs before they even begin the process of giving that home a new life. Thinking theologically about it, you can see it as a real death and resurrection cycle.

   Somewhere in the midst of these various examples of deciding  what to keep and what to leave behind in life, we find something akin to what the people of Israel encountered in our story today. After all the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh and all the curses brought by God on Egypt - including the final curse of the death of all the first-born of Egypt - when it was finally time for Israel to leave Egypt, there wasn’t time to call Two Men and Truck to neatly and orderly pack up their goods for the move - they had to skedaddle. They didn’t even have time to allow for their bread to rise, they had to eat and run. They grabbed some food, they grabbed some valuables and they were on the road. 
   So as we catch up with them today, they’ve been on the road for two weeks and they’re getting that aching feeling that many get when they’ve been away a little too long - they want to go home. But where is home? They’ve been in Egypt for centuries, but as slaves. Is that home? Well, in the spirit of "choosing-the-devil-you-know-over-the-devil-you-don’t-know," the Israelites have already begun to selectively forget how awful their situation was in Egypt when confronted with the difficulty of their current status.

   So what do they do? They complain. Oh, do they complain. In fact, complaint becomes a regular part of their travel litany. In chapter 14 they complain about Pharoah’s army chasing them down. In chapter 15 they complain about thirst. And now in chapter 16 they complain about hunger. In each of the first two episodes they complain to Moses and Aaron, and God intervenes and remedies their situation, but here they act as if God has never done anything for 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.”
   How short are their memories, right? It wasn’t the Lord who threatened to put them to death, it was Pharaoh. God saved them! And they weren’t leisurely sitting around dining from pots full of meat and eating their fill of bread, they were being forced to produce more and more bricks with less and less material. 
No, the harsh servitude the people endured in Egypt, described in the earlier chapters of Exodus, bears no resemblance to this revisionist description of the plenty they claim they enjoyed there. Their hunger, along with their recurring lack of trust in God, leads them to what seems to be a willful forgetfulness. 

   And theologian Callie Plunket-Brewton suggests that God uses this episode as a test - a test of the faithfulness of this largely unknown people. She writes that, “while Moses and Aaron appear to be frustrated with the people, the text portrays God as focused on the people and their needs rather than disturbed by their demands. Indeed, the complaint and the occasion that prompts it provides God with an opening to learn more about them by means of a test.”

   She continues, “The test itself is multilayered. 
On the surface, the test enables God to know the people’s response to the gift of manna: will they follow God’s instruction and gather only what they need according to the day? Will they respect the Sabbath? The answers to these questions seem to be the overall purpose of the test according to 16:4, but the test also serves another, perhaps more important, purpose: the gathering of manna in the wilderness -- with specific amounts brought in on certain days -- creates a structure in the people’s lives that is a reliable constant in the turmoil of their wilderness wandering,” she concludes.
   Turmoil. That’s a good way of describing what they’ve been going through. The video that we began worship with today, Tina Turner’s song “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” speaks to the idea of constant turmoil as well. Think about these song lyrics through the lens of our story today: 

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can't make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains
We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

   Life beyond the thunderdome. The Urban Dictionary defines a thunderdome as  “turbulence, utter mayhem, a state of violent confusion, commotion, or turmoil.”
   The life of the people of Israel must have felt like life in a thunderdome. In a rush to gain their freedom the people of Israel left behind the remnants of their old lives. In order to escape they couldn’t pack up everything - they packed some things and left behind others - never to return. And now, searching for something reliable, something they can trust in, a sense of insecurity grows within these people about where they will live, what they will eat, how they will survive. With each complaint they have raised toward their leaders, their needs have been met. But instead of learning to trust in God, like Pavlov’s dog they become conditioned to the idea that by complaining often and loudly their leaders, or God, will do something for them. 

   God, wanting to break this cycle and desiring to truly develop trust within the people, provides bread for them - manna. And it comes with very specific instructions. The people gather in the morning what they need for the day and no more, except on the day before the Sabbath when they gather enough for both days. There are no days on which the manna fails to appear. Although neither the reader of this saga nor the people themselves are yet aware that this journey to their new land will take forty years, the narrator notes that this provision of daily bread lasts the entirety of the trip (16:35). In this way order is established in the midst of chaos by means of this rhythm of divine provision. 
The people come to God on a daily basis and God feeds them on a daily basis. And that is a message given to us every bit as much as it was given to Israel.
   This story of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, which continues long past the end of our reading for today, begins with the people complaining about the lack of food and longing for the false memory of bread and meat in Egypt and concludes with Moses’ declaration in response to the peoples’ wonder at this new and unexpected food source, “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” And so laid out before them, and us, is the difference between the former reality of their lives in Egypt and their present reality in the hands of a trustworthy God, who provides for them even in the wilderness; the idealized and unwarranted memories of Pharaoh’s food are to be replaced with the genuine memories of the bread from God. God is telling the people to let go of what they misremember as the “good old days” in Egypt, and embrace that the world is changing, that God is present in the change, and that God will provide throughout the change, if they are but faithful.

   This story also suggests to us that often times, the things we no longer need, those things that we need to leave behind are not only physical. Sometimes it’s a condition, a feeling, an attitude, a belief, or an idea that we need to walk away from, leave behind, or abandon. The idea that we somehow don’t need God is an idea to be abandoned. The idea that we don’t don’t need one another is an idea to be left behind. The belief that the God of all Creation is a tribal God who cares only for minority of people is an idea to be rejected. The mindset that all in the world would be just fine if everyone just believed the same way we do, lived the same way we do, goes against the diversity with which God created all of this, and should be vacated. It’s the kind of thing that leads people and nations into the stress, chaos, and thunder-dome of a wilderness so intense and so debilitating that we turn away from trust in God and rely instead on complaint and those who would echo and amplify our complaints. As the people of Israel long to go back to what they have convinced themselves was a better place and a better time, God’s grace pushes them forward into God’s preferred future, by providing strength for the journey in the form of food and a structure to their days and weeks by the instructions regarding the keeping of the Sabbath.

   In preparing to preach this text, I couldn’t help but think of so many people of you who have experienced upheaval and uncertainty in your lives, who have experienced illness, pain, disruption, and loss. It is natural for us, when faced with the wilderness of conflict, turmoil, and chaos that some life events force upon us, to want to retreat into our past, into our memories; to complain about how unfair is life, to question how loving is God, and to even turn to some other god that we, like the people of Israel, craft from our own hands. But we don’t need other gods; as the song said, we don’t need another hero.

   This story gives the wonderful promise of God’s provision, meant to be reassuring for all of us. It also serves as a guide for us when we’re in the midst of stressful or difficult times to let the rhythms of religious observance -- daily prayer, daily time in scripture, and weekly worship, for example -- bring order to the chaos. It is in prayer that we recenter our lives and our thinking in the love and will of God. It is in scripture that we find the ongoing reassurance that God is love, and that God does provide when we are faithful and trusting. And it is in the spirit of worship in community that we are reminded that God calls us to come together, not be apart, and that God reminds us as we share time together with others who have experienced turbulence, chaos and pain in their own lives from within our community, that God’s work of healing, restoration, and resurrection takes places in the presence of the people of God who journey through the wilderness together. Each of us has a story that speaks to the presence of God and that, given the chance, can be inspirational and strengthening to others in the community who are dealing now with what you faced before. Whether you realize it or not, sometimes you are the daily bread that feeds and restores another soul.

  And so as we prepare as a community to come to the table of the Lord today, be reminded, that this bread, blessed and broken by Christ, is “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” We are called to let go of anything else that we hold on to or that holds onto us, that we might be fed from the hand of God. And we are called to not only receive the bread of life, but to be the bread of life for others. Amen. 

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