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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Ungrateful Road Weary Children of God - 09/20/2020

Oh these Israelites, right?

They groaned under the oppression of slavery in Egypt – a place where they were of no human value. They were an expendable and regularly replenished resource used by their Egyptian overloads to make bricks and create monumental structures to the gods of others. Those groans rose to the ears of God as prayers of lament. God heard and responded. Moses was sent to deliver them … and just think of the incredible things these people witnessed! Waters turned to blood, the city being overtaken by frogs, gnats and flies, locusts, boils, darkness. The screams in the night when all the first-born people and animals were killed, except for their own.

And it worked. Pharaoh began to fear their God and set the Israelites free. But just after they left, he changed his mind and he and his troops pursued them to where Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites to their safety and the Egyptians to their demise. The Israelites danced and sang on the shore, praising God for the amazing things done to bring them up out of Egypt.

Where we pick up the story today, they are only are a month into this journey to the Promised Land and this isn't even the first time they've complained. Just before this account of manna and quail is the story of how the people cried out when there was no water fit to drink. God worked through Moses to make the bitter waters of Marah sweet and sustaining. And now just after that response from God… “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.”  How could they complain after all that's already been provided for them?

When we hear this story, it's easy to begin thinking of these people as ungrateful. But if we look a little more closely and focus on God's response, I think we find something else going on here.

I think it's about behavior and response … and prayer and God's providence.

***

Did you know Larry and I used to be dog trainers for the Michigan Humane Society in the Detroit Metro area? The training program had been started in response to the high percentage of adopted Humane Society dogs that ended up back in the pound – surrendered by a person who was at the end of his or her proverbial rope because the puppy had become a terrible adolescent dog, or the dog jumped on all the guests who came over, tore up furniture or just had way too much energy to handle.

We had adopted an adult yellow lab mix. We named him Itchy Don Pedro de Ferndale and we took him to one of these training classes. We loved the classes, so we enrolled in more. Then we adopted another dog, Miss Isabeau de Ferndale, and took her to training too. And still more after that. Larry and I are pretty natural dog people, and so it wasn’t long before we were both asked to be trainers.

Our training method was based on positive behavior reinforcement – it's how we communicated to the dogs that we liked the way they were behaving. We found this training method – as strange as it may sound – helpful in parenting too. It's not a complete match of course. Although you might be able to ask your guest to ignore and turn her back to the dog until it stops jumping, you can't really ask her to do the same if your kid's behavior is somehow vulgar or rude.

However, it still seemed to us that our whole family got a lot out of trying to be more intentional about praising and encouraging one another. Certainly, as parents, we must try to influence a child's poor or risky behavior sometimes, hopefully in a productive way. For a long time now, however, and in large part through the experience of being a dog trainer, I've believed a kind word, some affirmation, or telling someone how good they are at something has much more traction. Hopefully we all have memories of things our parents or other caring adults said to us that we hold dearly to who we are today.

These things fall under the realm of pretty straight forward matters of behavior and response. There is a situation, a behavior and a response. The response determines, hopefully, what behavior will occur the next time the situation comes up.

It seems that is what's happening with the Israelites here. Our perspective may lead us to thinking of them as impatient kids on long car ride. We hold the Exodus up as a foundational event in the journey of God's people. It is when God freed the people, so they could live abundantly in God's blessing and in turn be a blessing to all of creation.  Our perspective is more like that of the Psalmist we hear from today:

39You spread out a cloud | for a covering

     and a fire to give | light by night.

40They asked, and | you brought quail,

     and satisfied them with | bread from heaven.

41You opened the rock, and | water flowed,

     so the river ran in | the dry places.

42For you remembered your | holy word

     and Abra- | ham your servant.   R

43So you led forth your peo- | ple with gladness,

     your chosen with | shouts of joy. (Ps 105.39-43)

 

That's a very different tone then that of the complaining people in the wilderness we have in our story today. Their perspective is that of people walking the Exodus, not remembering it.

The situation is that they are in crisis. They are hungry and they are following these sibling prophets and leaders, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And they are going … somewhere, they don't know where, God only knows. To get to this unknown place in some unknown span of time, they are in traveling through some of the most inhospitable land on the planet. That is their situation.

Their behavior is to cry out in their hunger and fear. As much as they wanted to be out from under slavery in Egypt, they still have to learn how to live in that freedom and, more importantly, how to have a radical trust that God will provide for them in this wilderness.

And God's response to their situation and behavior is to hear and answer their complaints. It's as simple as that. The complaints don't kindle God's anger. They have water, bread and meat. Their bellies and minds are soothed enough to continue on this trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land and only by the grace and protection and providence of God. After generations of being enslaved, it's not a level of trust that comes easily or naturally, and God coaxes and nurtures that trust slowly and with steadfast love.

What does that say to us today? … as we pass the six-month mark of this pandemic – our present form of wilderness? Can we find ways to see that our bellies and minds are soothed enough to continue the trek to the post-pandemic world God is leading us to? We don’t know exactly where we are going. Only God knows. Are we able to trust that we can get there by the grace, protection and providence of God?

***

These complaints are also about prayer … talking to God and asking for deliverance and comfort, offering thanks and praise. When we pray we seek God's guidance. We also seek God's providence.

Based on the stories from Genesis and Exodus we’ve been hearing these the last few months – from Abram and Sarai and Hagar to Joseph and now Moses – God's providence is our understanding that when God responds to us, when God answers our prayers, it will be in a manner best suited to our lives in relationship with God and one another. Very often, we do not know what that “best” is – only God can dream it up in all it's abundant, life-giving, loving and glorious ways.

If it were up to us, we would limit it. We wouldn't be able to help it. We'd think about who needed it more, who earned it more, who doesn't even appreciate it or seem to want it. Or we wouldn't even be able to imagine beyond our own individual perspectives and experiences of this world who else might need it. That is not the case with God. God's providence results in a pretty radical economy compared to what we are accustomed to in our culture of strong work ethics and consumerism.

This story we have today from Exodus continues with these verses: “'Gather as much of it as each of you need, an omer to a person ...' The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” (Ex 16:16-18, para)

No matter how hard or efficiently one worked, each person got exactly the same.

No matter how hard or efficiently one avoided work, each person got exactly the same. It was what they needed as determined by God. In a crisis of hunger, the Israelites prayed about their empty belly fears and God responded by providing enough for all.

And like God's abundant economy of manna, quail, water, and live-giving blessings, that great equalization takes place in our community too – at the font and the table. It is actually why we haven’t come around the Lord’s Table in these past six months. Communion in our community is ideally for times when all who want it, have access to that bread and wine of life. And we look to that day when God’s great and sacred economy will bring us to that table again – each one of us getting the same portion, exactly what we need. No more, no less.

At both the font and table we re-enact the behavior of our ancient Israelite ancestors, wandering in the wilderness and growing a radical trust in a God who has and continues to do amazing things for us. From our very human places we are encouraged to complain and give thanks and offer up all manner of prayer to our God who will not write us off as ungrateful, road-weary children, but who will hear those prayers and respond in ways imaginable only to God, and always exactly what we need. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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