Saturday, March 31, 2018

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Mark 14:22-25, 32-42, John 13:1-17, 31b-35


Sermon 3/29/18
Maundy Thursday
Mark 14:22-25, 32-42, John 13:1-17, 31b-35


            Earlier in Lent we talked about silence, and how difficult silence can be. As I was writing my sermon that week, thinking about God speaking to Elijah from the silence, I was remembering a moving performance I attended while I was in college. Actors Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe shared a performance called “Behind the Broken Words.” They shared poems and readings and conversation with the audience. It was profound and moving. At one point, they spoke about silence, and our discomfort with it, and then, sitting in their arm chairs on the stage, they proceeded to be silent for what seemed like perhaps three or four minutes. Three or four minutes of total silence on a stage felt incredibly long. It was uncomfortable. And an audience member in the front clearly couldn’t take it, loudly shuffling in their seat and unwrapping some crinkly candy. The actors were visibly amused at the patron who just could not handle sitting through that uncomfortable space, that awkward quiet, proving the very point the actors were trying to make. 
            Tonight, as we celebrate Maundy Thursday, we’re immersing ourselves in the story of Jesus’ last time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And it is a time fraught with tension. Throughout the events that unfold, the disciples remind me of that uncomfortable theatre-goer. They’re awkward. They’re confused. They don’t know what to do or say or how to respond. And yet, Jesus invites them in to these sacred spaces. Jesus invites us in too. That’s why we come here tonight. And we, too, might find the intensity of these experiences with Jesus jarring and uncomfortable. Even still, I believe this is exactly where we are supposed to be. In the Lenten devotional I’ve been reading this season, Walter Brueggemann writes, “A quite remarkable feature of this loss [the death of Jesus] is that Jesus invited his disciples to walk into that loss with him. The Last Supper is an invitation to solidary with him in loss.”[1] Indeed, I think that on Maundy Thursday, we are invited into solidary with Jesus, into sharing with Jesus in three distinct acts: in the foot washing, in the supper, and in the garden. Jesus invites us to join him, to come right alongside him in these actions.
            As much as we want to be by Jesus’ side, though, when the moment of invitation comes, I think we find it to be startlingly difficult. The disciples, who had spent years following Jesus, certainly found it difficult! In John, we read about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an incredibly intimate and humbling action, one a slave would usually perform. Peter can hardly stand it, and he begins to refuse Jesus. But Jesus insists: “If I don’t wash you, you don’t have a share with me.” In our reading from Mark, we find Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. Just before our text for tonight, though, Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed. And now all they can focus on is asking, “Surely, you don’t mean me, do you Jesus?” Jesus means Judas. But none of them, it seems, are sure, are positive that they won’t somehow act to betray Jesus. I wonder how much of meaning of the meal Jesus shares with them they can absorb, distracted as they are by questioning their faithfulness as disciples. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus says, sharing bread and cup. No response is recorded.
            And then, after telling Peter that everyone will desert Jesus, and that Peter himself will deny Jesus three times, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane while he spends the night in prayer. You’d think with these tellings of betrayal, denial, and desertion so fresh, these three disciples would be bending over backwards to prove themselves to Jesus. But what we find it much different. Instead, while Jesus is distressed and agitated, even telling the disciples that he is “deeply grieved, even to death,” three times he comes to speak with them only to find them asleep. Finally, it is too late, and the moment of his arrest has arrived.
            On this Maundy Thursday, as we remember, as we share in these sacred rituals, can we stay with Jesus? Can we accept the invitation to join him in his profound grief? Even if a grieving Jesus makes us deeply uncomfortable, can we sit with him anyway?
            When I was in seminary, I took a unit one summer of a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. Basically, I worked as a chaplain at Crouse Hospital for the summer, and along with spending time with patients, the six of us in the program also had classes three times a week to reflect on our growing practice and theology of pastoral care. Our instructor asked us each to choose a scripture passage, over the course of the summer, that spoke to our understanding of what it means to provide pastoral care for someone. And eventually, I chose the second part of the passage from our reading from the gospel of Mark, where Jesus, filled with grief and pain about his fast-approaching death repeatedly asks the disciples to please, stay awake with him for just an hour. Mark tells us that Peter and James and John fall back to sleep again and again, partly because they are tired, sure, but also, Mark narrates, because “they did not know what to say to him.” When I started my chaplaincy program, I was petrified. All day long, every day, I would have to go into the rooms of patients I did not know. I worked on the NICU, where tiny babies were struggling for their very lives, and I felt presumptuous and out of place, showing up and pretending I had any idea what to do or what to say. I certainly didn’t feel equipped to talk about God with these people who were going through some of the hardest moments of their lives. When I started, I would always introduce myself as a chaplaincy intern who was there just for the summer. I couldn’t have made it more clear that I was temporary, not the real chaplain, not really ready to be fully present with them. But eventually, I started to really learn what I already know, what we all already know from being on the other side of things, from being on the side of grief: hurting people aren’t waiting for us to fix their hurts. They’re hoping we will just sit with them, even in the midst of their pain, for just a little bit. They’re not looking for our words. They’re looking for our presence. Even Jesus, even the son of God, even God-in-the-flesh wants just that: us. Our presence. Our lives. Our willingness to stay, to share, to sit side-by-side. “Could you not keep awake one hour?”
            On this Maundy Thursday, this Good Friday, and even in the loneliness of Holy Saturday, these holy sacred days of pain and sorrow before we share in the joy of Easter: we may sometimes find these services a bit uncomfortable. A bit overwhelming. A bit like we want to shift in our seats. Or like we really must unwrap that candy right now. Or like maybe we’ll just rest our eyes because we don’t know what else to say. Here’s the blessing: You don’t need to say anything. Instead, let yourself feel the water of cleansing and renewal pour out on you. Instead, taste the bread and share in the cup. Instead, just come, and sit with Jesus, just for a while. Amen.  

           


[1] Brueggemann, Walter, “Maundy Thursday,” Gift and Task, 126.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Sermon, "Elijah in the Wilderness," 1 Kings 19:1-16


Sermon 3/16/18
1 Kings 19:1-16

Elijah in the Wilderness


            Today, in our last Sunday of Lent before we begin our Holy Week journey, we turn our attention to the prophet Elijah and his time in the wilderness. Elijah is kind of an enigmatic figure in the Bible. We don’t know very much about him. He just sort of starts appearing in the story in the midst of 1 Kings, ready to take on Ahab, King of Israel. Ahab is leading Israel astray. In fact, in Chapter 16 of 1 Kings we read that “Ahab … did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” which is saying something, since the books of Kings recount a long line of kings who didn’t follow God. Ahab marries Jezebel, a daughter of a neighboring king and a priestess of Baal. And Ahab, too, begins to serve Baal, the idol-god of area Canaanite religion. He worships Baal and builds an altar for Baal and all of this, we read, kindles God’s anger at Ahab more than God had ever been angry at all the kings before him.
And then, Elijah appears on the scene. Unlike some of the other prophets of the Bible, there is no book of Elijah. We don’t have any of his writings. But it is Elijah to whom Jesus and others refer, along with Moses, to symbolize the law and the prophets. His place in Israel’s history is hugely significant, even though he appears for just these few brief chapters in 1 Kings. Jezebel has been having prophets of God killed. She’s basically seeking to execute any prophets of God who speak against her, Ahab, their god Baal, and the prophets of Baal. So Elijah sets up a confrontation – Elijah verses hundreds of prophets of Baal. Through a series of tests, Elijah shows that Baal is false and his prophets are false while God is ever faithful. The people fall to their knees, worshiping God, and Elijah seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed. When Ahab tells Jezebel what happened, she seeks to capture and kill Elijah.
That’s where our scene for today begins. Elijah is afraid, and he’s on the run, fearing for his life. He journeys into the wilderness and sits under a solitary tree. He asks God to let him die. Tired, hungry, dehydrated, he falls asleep. But a messenger of God touches him and wakes him saying, “Get up and eat.” Elijah sees food and water prepared for him. He eats, and sleeps again. The scene is repeated, with the messenger telling Elijah, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He eats and drinks again, and he’s given strength for his forty -day journey to the mount of God. He spends the night in a cave, and God’s voice comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God replies, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by.” There’s a great wind. But God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire. But God is not in the fire. And then the sound of sheer silence. Elijah steps out from the cave, and God asks again, “What are you doing, Elijah?” Elijah repeats his complaint. And God tells him to go and anoint a new king. God tells Elijah that Elijah will anoint his successor, a new prophet, Elisha, to follow in his place, and that there will still be seven thousand Israelites who have not worshipped Baal, but instead remain faithful to God.
If our scripture today reminds you of some of the other texts we’ve been studying this Lent, that’s good – it should! Like Hagar, Elijah is fleeing from danger. Like Hagar, and like Jonah, who we talked about at our midweek Lenten study this week, Elijah ends up sitting under a tree, forlorn, feeling pretty sorry for himself. Like Moses, Elijah has been trying to lead people and be faithful to God and ends up feeling overwhelmed. Like Moses, Elijah heads to a mountain in the wilderness when he is seeking a word from God in the midst of his turmoil. In fact, it is the very same mountain, although we hear it called by different names. Elijah’s Mount Horeb and Moses’ Mount Sinai are one and the same. And for both Moses and Elijah, the mountain in the wilderness is a place where they encounter God, and find strength for the journey. Just as for Moses, the strength Elijah receives comes in the presence of God revealed. For Moses, he got to look on God’s back, to see where God had passed by. For Elijah, God comes in the silence.
            Last week, when we celebrated the life of Lucy Brassard, her family asked that we include a period of silence during the burial. I’d never had anyone ask me for that before, but Lucy’s son Matt explained that having silent time with God was an important part of Lucy’s spiritual life. So as we laid Lucy to rest, we spent some time in silence, taking a break from words, quieting our spirits. I still remember with crisp clarity the power of God-filled silence I experienced one year at Camp Aldersgate. My youth group had gone to Aldersgate for a winter retreat weekend. It was a sunny day, and the whole camp was blanketed in snow. Our youth group, junior and senior high kids, we’d all gone for a walk in the woods behind one of the sections of cabins. My friends were goofing around, but I walked just a little farther, to a small boat launch on Brantingham Lake. The Lake was frozen over, covered in snow like everything else, and the sun was shining on the snow. And the silence was palpable. I felt God’s presence deeply, in the silence. I don’t remember a particular message from God, but I remember being filled with a sense of peace that I carried with me.
            I sometimes long for that peaceful, God-filled silence. Early in my adult life, I developed a kind of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s when you hear a pulsing that seems to match your heartbeat in your ear. It is most noticeable at night, when everything is quiet, and suddenly the pulsing seems very, very loud. When it first started, my doctor had me go through all sorts of tests to rule out possible causes, and everything checked out. My hearing was fine, my blood was flowing fine, my brain was fine! Sometimes that happens with tinnitus. No identifiable cause. The solution was pretty simple: Nighttime is usually the only time that the pulsing bothers me, and so now, for years, I always sleep with a fan on. But I really miss being able to enjoy deep silence. It makes my heart a little sad to need some kind of noise. And it feels like a great big metaphor for our world, our lives, our society. It isn’t always easy to do: just be silent. Silence is powerful, and it can make us uncomfortable.
            It’s like we can’t function without noise. Like we have to have a constant stream of chatter coming at us otherwise we’ll be left alone with our own thoughts, and we just can’t handle that. I wonder if we can hear God in the midst of the noise. People sometimes lament that God is silent, but Elijah’s experience tells us that God is sometimes speaking in the silence. But if we cover up the silence with our own noise, how will we hear? Part of the reason why we need wilderness time, why we have to intentionally take our spirits to risky, vulnerable places is so that we can find a space for God-laden silence.
            Elijah makes his complaint to God twice. He says both before and after God’s revealing in the sheer silence: “I have been very zealous for you God, very passionate in my service to you. The Israelites have all turned away from you, and killed your prophets. And I’m the only prophet left, and they want to kill me too.” And from the silence, God answers Elijah. We hear the first part of God’s response in our reading today, but the sum of it is basically this: God says, “You don’t have it quite right, Elijah. There are in fact still thousands of faithful Israelites, who have never worshiped other Gods. And also, you aren’t the only prophet. There is a prophet named Elisha that you will name as the prophet in your place. And also, I still have work for you to do. Go, and appoint a new king in the place of Ahab.” I really love God’s response, and all the things God manages to say in a few short sentences. God lets Elijah know that in his fear, he’s not seeing things quite clearly. The situation seems completely bleak to Elijah, but God knows that it is not. God also doesn’t let Elijah off the hook. Even though Elijah says he’s done, God says, “Yes, but I’m not done with you.” And God reminds Elijah that he is not alone. I think this is both an encouragement to Elijah and a gentle chastisement. Sometimes when we’re trying so hard to follow God, and we feel discouraged and face setbacks, we become convinced that we are the only ones who are trying to do what is right in God’s eyes. God reminds Elijah, and reminds us, that there are others – both Israelites, and prophets like Elisha, who serve God too. Elijah isn’t alone, and if he can remember that, he won’t feel like he has nowhere left to turn, no hope. Elijah isn’t the only one in the wilderness. Neither are we.
I’ve mentioned before that I took a sabbatical year from pastoral ministry. Pastors are able to take time away from an appointment to a local church periodically for study, renewal, training, and reflection. I was finishing up a particularly challenging appointment to a local church, and I decided to apply for a sabbatical year. The thought of immediately heading to a new congregation to be the pastor, connecting to a new congregation, mustering the energy it would take to start fresh – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t do it. So I applied for a sabbatical year, intending to do some research, and explore the themes of charity and justice that are so important to me. But I will confess: I didn’t think I’d go back to a local church, to being a church pastor, after my year off. I felt like I had been worn down to nothing. I felt like I had nothing left to give as a pastor. I felt for the first time like maybe I was no longer called to ministry, or like the season of my call had ended. I’d had tough times before, but I’d never felt like that: like I was done being a pastor. But that’s how I was feeling when I applied for sabbatical. I don’t want to be overdramatic: everywhere I’ve served I’ve been blessed by wonderful parishioners. But something about this appointment just seemed to drain me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and I felt done. And I tried, really hard, with a lot of energy and dedication in the year that followed, to figure out a different way to serve God with my life other than being a pastor.
            But the answer I got from God? Nope: You can serve me by being a pastor, just like I said. While I was on sabbatical, I kept serving as a pastor, which seems a little crazy. But I served there quarter time – just enough time to preach and do some pastoral care, really. But enough time to never really stop being a pastor. And in that time, that time when I insisted I didn’t have it in me to be a pastor anymore, God reminded me that I’d never stopped being one, and that my call was still my call, and that God wasn’t done with me yet. God set me in a congregation that I couldn’t help but grow to love, and I found myself as part of a meaningful covenant group of pastors who strengthened and encouraged me. God built up my spirit again during that time when I had a different rhythm of life and ministry, and helped me emerge from the wilderness refreshed and restored. God wasn’t done, I wasn’t done, and God had not left me alone. 
            Elijah says he’s done with being a prophet. Done, in fact, with living in the world altogether if it is a world where he’s going to be hunted down by angry rulers. But God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, not without compassion, but nonetheless, what God basically tells Elijah is: “Nope, you’re not done. But I will give you some bread for the journey, some life, some hope, so that you can make it through. And so Elijah finds himself with a full stomach, with a plan of action, with another prophet in Elisha who will become like a son to him, and with hope for the future.
            When have you felt “done”? Maybe you feel like that right now! Like you can’t possibly continue on from here. Like everything hard that has come your way is just too much. I do believe that sometimes God is leading us in new directions, leading us to new things. But I promise this: God is not done with you, and God is not done with the work, the call, the mission, the journey that God has for you. So, get up and eat! Nourish your spirit, or the journey will be too much. Make sure you are letting God feed your soul. Make sure you aren’t ignoring what God sets before you to strengthen you. From the silence, God is speaking to you. Amen.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday


Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday
(Tune: REGENT SQUARE (Suggested: “Easter People, Raise Your Voices,” UMH 304))


At the table, Easter people
Gather now, let voices ring
Lift your hearts to God, Creator
Lift your hearts, and praises bring.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Resurrection people, sing!

In God’s image, we’re created
Called to life from breath and dust.
Yet we turn from God, who loves us,
Building walls and breaking trust
God, forgive us! God forgive us! Holy God, deliver us!

Through the ages, God pursued us,
Calling us through prophets bold
Yet we would not heed the message
Or believe the truth they told
God, Hosanna! We, your people, in your mercy now enfold!

In the right time God sent Jesus
God-made-flesh, God face-to-face
Showing us the ways of justice
Healing, preaching, teaching faith
Sing Hosanna! Sing Hosanna! Jesus, Savior, Gift of Grace!

With disciples he shared supper
Cup of life and living bread
Symbols of his body, broken
Signs of his redeeming love
We remember! We remember! Grace and mercy we are fed. 


Pour on us your Holy Spirit,
We, your people gathered here.
Take these gifts of bread and cup now
Make them be as Christ for us
We, your people, we, your people
with the world Christ’s body share!

Let us live as Easter people
Bound no more by death and fear
We are children of God’s kin-dom
God’s redemption time is here
Now we gather, now we gather, gather for this holy meal!

***

Prayer after Communion:

Blessed, Forgiven, God, we thank you
For this Holy Mystery
Send us forth to love and serve you,
With your eyes the world to see.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Easter people we will be!  


Text: Beth Quick, 2017.


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A Sung Communion Liturgy for Easter Sunday by Rev. Dr. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Book Review: Unafraid by Adam Hamilton

I received an advance copy of Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in the Wilderness in Uncertain Times to review, the latest book by Adam Hamilton, which comes out later this week. Hamilton is pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. This book is published by Penguin Random House. Not positive this is a first, but I think it is, and probably marks an effort to draw a wider audience for his work. 

If you are familiar with Hamilton's other books, you will find Unafraid to have a similar accessible feel. Chapters are short, they contain many personal stories and illustrations, and the book emerges from a sermon series Hamilton preached at his church. It is longer and more in depth than many of his other works, and in terms of style and depth of research, I'd compare it with his earlier Making Sense of the Bible. Paired with his new publisher, Hamilton also makes a clear attempt to reach a wider audience with this work. The book is clearly grounded in his Christian identity, but comments throughout the book are addressed to those who might not start from the same perspective. 

Fear is "False Events Appearing Real," Hamilton quotes from a familiar proverb. (26) Hamilton proposes we respond to fear when we "Face [our] fears with faith, Examine [our] assumptions in light of the facts, Attack [our] anxieties with action, [and] Release [our] care to God." (27) He returns to this acronym throughout the book, sometimes highlighting one particular part of the saying depending on the kind of fear he's addressing. 

Chapters cover subjects like why we fear and why fear is useful, looking at real statistics about crime, terrorism, and illness to help relieve our fears, and how sometimes fear is cultivated in order to hurt and divide. He addresses, chapter by chapter, some of the most common fears. Chapters are devoted to fear of of the other, fear of terrorism, fear of failure, fear of being alone, fear of missing out, fear of a meaningless life, fears related to the future, financial fear, fear of aging, fear of illness, and fear of death. 

Any one of these chapters could be expanded. The book covers a little of everything, which is also one of its challenges. We get as in depth (or not in depth) with fear of the other as we do with fear of missing out, and although the length worked for me on most chapters, I found myself wishing Hamilton dug deeper on what I think are some of the more critical challenges we face as a whole community. Our fear of others can be dangerous, and the ways our fears and privilege intersect needs addressing. What does it mean when people who are in power are also full of fear, and have the power to act on those fears? With mostly equal weight given to all these different themes, it's hard to get into those deep conversations. 

Still, this is easily a resource I could use in my congregation, because I know people are feeling very afraid of so many things they're encountering in our ever-changing world. Hamilton's work is engaging and strikes me as a great conversation starter for communities and groups who want to find a way to talk about something as uncomfortable as what we're afraid of. 

I'll leave you with my favorite sentence: "So many of us live our entire lives paralyzed by fear, just a mile from the Promised Land." (21) Yes. How can you move beyond fear to the places where God is leading? This book provides a solid starting point. 

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Israel in the Wilderness," Exodus 16:1-30


Sermon 3/4/18
Exodus 16:1-30

Israel in the Wilderness


         We’ve talked about how Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he confronts temptations that would take him away from God’s vision for the redemption of the world, where he goes having just been reminded of his identity as God beloved’s child, Jesus’s time in the wilderness is our model for wilderness time, and a major model for the season of Lent. We seek to go to the wilderness because Jesus does. But the other primary wilderness story in the scriptures is the story of Israel in the wilderness. God’s whole people, the Israelites, spent forty years in the wilderness as they journeyed between Egypt and the Promised Land. Through a strange series of events, the Israelites had become slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were the workforce in Egypt, and the Pharaoh was cruel to them – demanding more and more work, and eventually instructing that male Israelite babies should be killed at birth, because he was frightened they would take over and rebel against the Egyptians. God called Moses, and his brother Aaron, to lead the Israelites to freedom, to a Promised Land, a place the Israelites could make their home. Moses manages to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, out of a life of slavery and oppression. And you’d think from there it would be: “And they all lived happily ever after.” But no. Again, for a variety of reasons, the Israelites don’t march straight from Egypt to the Promised Land. Instead, they spend 40 years in the wilderness, learning from God, becoming a people, preparing for their new life. This is the other primary story that grounds our Lenten season. In Judaism, the Exodus, Moses leading the people to freedom at God’s direction, is one of the main stories that shapes Jewish identity. This week and next, we’ll spend some time with this story, today looking at a text near the beginning of their journey through the wilderness, and next week hearing more about Moses toward the later part of the journey.
            Some important things happen before we arrive at our text today. Back while they’re still in Egypt, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to leave, and not only that, but while they are still in Egypt, God already gives them instructions for how every year going forward they are to have a Passover celebration to remember how God led them to freedom. Before they even leave, God is helping them to make plans to remember what they’re about to do. That should tell us something: God knows they are going to need to be reminded. They’re going to forget, something that probably seems impossible in the moment when they can almost taste their freedom. They’re going to forget how much they longed to be free. And so before they even leave, God prepares a ritual that will help them remember who they are, where they came from, and how God has been with them.
In fact, they forget almost immediately. The Israelites prepare to cross the Red Sea, escaping Egypt, with the Pharaoh and his armies chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. They’re still mid-escape. They complain bitterly to Moses, saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But then God led the way and Moses brought the people through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and his armies were defeated, and they were free.
            Fast-forward two chapters to our text for today. The Israelites are now in month 2 of what we know will be a 40 year period in the wilderness. That’s .4% of the total time they will be spending in the wilderness. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for a long time – hundreds of years, in fact, according to the scriptures. And after just about 45 days of freedom and this new life, after hundreds of years as slaves, the people are complaining again. The people apparently are ready to go back and be slaves, now remembering their life in Egypt as “not so bad” after all. The Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, “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.” Fleshpots, by the way, are places of luxury and unrestrained living. This is how they now describe their lives as slaves, 45 days later. It would be laughable if it weren’t so very sad.
            As a reader, I can’t help but think, “You have got to be kidding me! You ungrateful, complaining, miserable people! How can you have forgotten that you were slaves? How can you have forgotten that your children were being slaughtered? How can you have forgotten the relentless work that kept increasing and increasing? And how can you not believe that the God who brought you safely from Egypt will also be faithful to the rest of the promises made to you?” Perhaps you, like me, want to give the readers a bit of a good shake.
            But I wonder. I wonder if we are so different than the Israelites. I think, like them, we often think that the misery we know is better than the unknown future. Our fear and anxiety about what is yet to come, or our knowledge about the hard work that waits ahead of us can even cause us to reflect on our past with distorted vision, forgetting about the painful situations that we were trying to escape, forgetting about the injustice and hurt we suffered, remembering only the good moments. This kind of thinking – fear of the unknown future, and trying to forget what we’re escaping in the past – is part of the thinking that keeps people trapped in abusive relationships, or caught up in cycles of addiction. The road of healing, the road of recovery can seem like an endless wilderness, and maybe things weren’t really so bad before.
But thinking this way, acting this way, like we’d rather face the misery than the unknown isn’t limited to more extreme situations. I think about a friend in ministry who’d been serving a church for several years, and things were deteriorating. She loved her congregation, they loved her. But they had reached a point where she couldn’t lead them to the next step as a congregation. And people were starting to resist her leadership, resist her pushing them. She felt strongly it was time for a change – for her, and for them, so they could both thrive. She asked for a new appointment, and received one, a church that seemed like it would be a great fit, a congregation that was seeking just the leadership gifts she could bring. But the new appointment meant a big move for her, and a lot of changes for her family, and suddenly, she was heartbroken that she would be leaving her congregation. Suddenly, she felt like she was being torn away from the place she loved. And she did love her congregation. But I had to remind her that she had known for some time now that a move was right for them and her. I had to remind her that this was what she wanted, and that God was at work in her life and was bringing her to a new part of her ministry. It was a painful time of transition. And I can tell you, when she left her own church and started her new appointment, it was not immediate by any means that she started to feel like God had brought her to the right place, that she wasn’t looking back over her shoulder at the congregation and community she’d left. It was a lot of hard work, the transition. But eventually, eventually, she put down roots in her new home, and grew in her new ministry setting, and found a place where she could envision her life as a disciple unfolding for a long time to come.
            This week I was texting with Danielle Atria. I’m pretty sure the praise will embarrass her, but I have to tell you that Danielle takes her faith seriously, and she reads the Bible regularly, and often texts with questions about what she’s reading. I love her dedication to learning and growing in faith. After a chat this week, she sent me a little saying from an app she has that has inspiring quotes which said, “You dishonor your future when you build an altar to your past.” We often don’t know where God is leading us when we commit to being disciples of Jesus Christ. But our future with God is always better than an altar that ties us to anything else: painful pasts, or beloved pasts. What past are you trying to hold onto? What is it that you fear about the future toward which God is leading you?  
            God answers even the unwarranted complaints of the Israelites. God rains bread from heaven, a substance the Israelites call “manna,” which means, appropriately, “What is it?” What it is is a gift from God in the wilderness, reminding them that even though they’re not sure what is going to happen next, their journey with God is where they belong, not back as slaves in Egypt. The people immediately try to store it up, still anxious, still planning for a future where they are alone and abandoned, but it won’t keep. It spoils if they try to store it up. It’s just for the day. The must learn to depend on God, and the daily manna is a sign that God plans to be with them today and every day. They can trust in God. And so can we.
            A dozen years ago, retired Bishop Judy Craig was our guest preacher at Annual Conference. It was the year I was ordained – a special year for me. She is a dynamic preacher, a prophet, and I was blessed that she, along with our Bishop Violet Fisher laid hands on me at my ordination. Bishop Craig preached on this text that year. She said “God who led them also fed them.” But, she said, being fed by God is something we need daily. Being fed by God isn’t something that “keeps.” Being fed by God isn’t something you can put into canning jars and store up for later. “What we need today is not for tomorrow,” she said. That’s one of the reasons we’ve focused so much on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving this Lent. They’re practices for each day, opportunities for God to be our daily bread. In the midst of this unmapped wilderness, this place where God is leading us, where so much is unknown, and where our fear can lead us to long for the past, or to store up whatever we have in front of us, this is known: God is with us in the wilderness. Our future belongs to God. And God will feed our spirit day by day if we keep coming back, ready to receive what God wants to give. The God who leads us also feeds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.