From Grumbling to Reorienting in Exodus

October 16, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Two Sundays in September I was grateful to preach in two different but both vibrant Presbyterian congregations, both times on what are sometimes called grumbling or murmuring passages in Exodus chapters 16 and 17. These times of study and contemplation on Exodus has gotten me thinking about the nature of journeys, and orienting ourselves to where our feet are hitting the path today — a path that sometimes feels unclear, but is important for us to consider or else we may stumble rather than stride into God’s promised and promising future.

It reminded me of the sport of orienteering, which is a competitive sport. If you’ve seen the reality TV show The Amazing Race, you’ve seen a type of orienteering. Orienteering is a timed race that combines racing with navigation. Participants use a specially created, detailed map to travel a specific route.

A standard orienteering course consists of a start, a series of control sites through unfamiliar terrain that are marked by circles, connected by lines and numbered in the order they are to be visited, and a finish.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have maps of life with all the control sites marked by circles in the right order and a finish line? Have you prayed like I have for a map like that for your own life? Maybe the obstacles to be avoided clearly marked and color coded: red for danger, yellow for despair, and green for a must-see-and-experience-target-location.

Most of the map would likely appear to be ordinary days traveling from one point to the next. That’s sort of what the Exodus story is like too. There were some extraordinary days described in the events of Exodus chapters 1 through 15: babies saved by royals, bushes burning but not consumed, plagues visited and peoples escaping, seas parting and more.

By the time we get to the readings in Exodus 16 and 17, the characters in the story are getting nostalgic for the past. Who could blame them? We’ve been there too. Hungry, thirsty, and tired humans tend to yearn for what we once had. In this case, Israel yearned for the fleshpots and fountains of Egypt, forgetting all too fast their enslavement to Pharaoh. The grumbling people Israel oriented themselves toward their past where they were able to taste and see sustenance that Pharaoh provided and a life they understood.

God provides

Since we know about the promised land ahead of them, we might be tempted to have them oriented toward their future. That future was unknown to them, merely a promise. Instead, they were simply trying to survive a trying time in the desert. How does God respond to their complaints? God simply provides food, quail in the evening and bread in the morning. How much food does God instruct Israel gather daily? That’s right, enough for that day and on the day before the Sabbath, enough for two days. God provides gifts but they are for the present day and moment, not some far off promised future. God goes on to provide water from the rock at Rephidim.

In my mind, the God given gift featured in these chapters is bread. Six times, bread is mentioned: the bread that filled them in Egypt, the bread that would rain down, the bread that the Lord provides. Five times bread is referenced to using the Hebrew word, le-hem. You likely know this word in combination with Beth, the Hebrew word for house… Bethlehem… house of bread. The story is remembered most for the one and only other reference to bread in the text, manna, an Aramaic word that translates as “What is it?” or “Who is it?” that indirectly refers to the frost and dew-like starchy substance Israel found each morning for their journey.

What is the best possible response to the gifts God provides? Is it nostalgia for the past? How about longing for a promising future?

The Future is Here

Neither answer is satisfactory! Instead our text today clearly calls us to live in the here and now; to orient ourselves where we now stand!

Put simply, “The Future is here!” That’s what one of my colleagues who directs the theological education office for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said recently in an article about the wave of retiring pastors who are baby boomers and the shallow well of seminarians and younger pastors to replace them. Jonathan Strandjord says “We are in the middle of a (retirement tsunami), and that the clergy gap (which is larger than it has ever been) is only going to continue to widen” until the Church responds. The same is true in the Presbyterian Church.

The future is now. The promise is now. The call is to live faithfully now. God’s gifts, God resources for our journey, this holy pilgrimage, call us to focus on today and trust God with tomorrow. Our siblings who have experienced great pains, both natural and unnatural disasters are justifiably grumbling and lamenting. They need us to embody God’s presence tomorrow and always, but they need us most of all to respond today to make sure there will be a tomorrow.

Biblical scholars talk about Israel’s time in the wilderness as a time of testing. Israel was living in between a period of exit and a period of entrance. We are living in that same in between time.  I wonder how we will choose to be oriented? Will we grumble and orient ourselves toward recreating the past? Or will we murmur against God, living unsatisfied until we arrive to some promised future? I hope I will, you will, and we will instead orient ourselves in the here and now trusting that our faithful action now will, in decades to come, be considered not just a journey, but a holy pilgrimage when God and neighbor can give thanks that the needs of the Church and the world have been met in full measure.

 May that be our aim.