14th Sunday after Pentecost
I’m the oldest of four lively children. As an adult I’m very aware of the strain that my siblings and I put on my parents. Raising children does not come with a “How To” guide and the four Wilson children found every kind of way to put parents to the test. Growing up, my father could often be heard to say in both frustration and resignation, “with you kids if it’s not one thing it’s another!” I suspect that something very much like this sentiment could be heard in the grumblings of the Israelites. As they left the Red Sea they immediately encountered a trial in the form of draught. The scarcity of water was overcome by the gift of Elim, where “there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.”(Ex. 15.27) In Exodus 16 as the Israelites set out from Elim they are once more confronted by scarcity. This time it’s a shortage of food. As my father would say, “if it’s not one thing it’s another.” On the surface of the reading, the occasion for such grumbling is yet another occasion of lack. However, the real problem the Israelites face in the Wilderness of Sin is one of memory and identity.
The text sets the problem of scarcity within the framework of communal identity by using two references to the Israelite community (vs.1 and 2 ‘the whole congregation of the Israelites). When the Israelites speak as a community, they coalesce around the idea of lack and need. ‘‘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.” Their communal identity is still shaped predominantly by the memory of who they were as slaves and by their present scarcity. In the Ekklesia Project Pamphlet “How Christians Might Remember Well: Lessons from Moses before and after September 11th” Charles Pinches notes the important ways that our memories shape our identity. The communal identity of the whole congregation of Israel is forming around the wrong memories. They sugar coat the memory of Egypt, calling to mind their full stomachs but not their over worked backs or broken hearts. And most dangerously, they misattribute their deliverance from Egypt to Moses. In the grumbling cited above they say to Moses “for you have brought us out into this wilderness…” In last week’s Blogos post “The Reckoning” Janice Young pointed out the centrality of God’s action in the events of the Exodus. Already the whole congregation of the Israelites have forgotten who delivered them. The scarcity in the text is not one of food but memory.
Their communal memory is in dire need of retraining. It is for this reason that when God acts, God’s concern is not first and foremost to fill their empty flesh pots. In vs. 6 Moses and Aaron tell the Israelites that the result of God’s action will be to remind them of exactly who delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians. “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…” In vs. 11 God speaks to Moses saying that the end result of God’s providence will be more than satiated hunger. “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.” God is acting here to address the failed memory of the Israelite community, reminding them of past acts of deliverance through a current act of deliverance.
This retraining of their memory comes not just in the form of supernatural acts of God but also through the divine mandate of particular kinds of responses to God’s providence. The first response of the people is called for in vs. 4. God will provide the flaky Manna, but the people are instructed to only gather enough for the day. “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.” This people, the people who are sustained by a generous God who has provided for them in the past, are called upon to trust that new every morning God will supply their need. The whole congregation of the Israelites needs to remember that they cannot work to provide for their own future. Rather, they must trust that God will provide.
Indeed, one of the ways that God will provide is by offering enough on the sixth day that the work of gathering may be ceased on the seventh day. In this way, the people are called upon to prepare for and practice a day of rest. “On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” This day of rest is yet one more way that God is working to retrain their memories (mind and body) by challenging the forced labor of Egypt with the joyful rest of the God who rested on the seventh day of creation. Still, they are active participants in this retraining and are called upon to embody their trust in God to provide by resting once a week from the daily work of gathering.
The response of the people is also that of worship. The whole congregation of the Israelites gathers in the desert to hear from one who has been chosen by God to speak God’s word. While Aaron is speaking in the midst of the congregation, they encounter the glory of the LORD a physical manifestation of God’s presence in the midst of the people gathered in God’s name. “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10And 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.” In worship they are reminded of the active presence of God with them in the wilderness.
The last response of the Israelites is wonder. As they are confronted with the mysterious means of God’s mercy they cannot help but wonder. “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.” Here the faithfulness of God has manifested itself in a way that reminds the people just how far God’s ways are from their own. This text is an account of the grace of God, a very material grace, transforming a crisis of scarcity among God’s people. God’s grace intersects with their lack in a way that shapes their communal identity by calling forth practices of sharing and rest, worship and wonder.
As we approach this text in worship, it will be helpful for us to ponder the ways that our memory has been shaped by scarcity and oppression. To worship God well, and to live faithfully in response to who God IS, we must find ways to remember well the God who led us out of slavery to sin and death through the waters of Baptism. This week may we encounter once more the glory of LORD as we gather to worship and wonder the one from whom all blessings flow.