This morning’s Scripture is one of the grumbling stories of Exodus. Maybe it’s familiar. The people have been suffering in slavery in Egypt. God gives them a leader in Moses, and then takes on the power of Pharaoh with a series of plagues. And then, with Pharaoh on their heels, God brings them up out of Egypt, the waters part, and they cross over into freedom, headed to the land of promise. The waters close in on Pharaoh’s troops, and there the people are, on the other shore: Free.
From there, they travel in stages. They go about three days into the wilderness and find some stagnant water. And they grumble: “Moses, the water here stinks. We have nothing to drink!” And so God makes the bitter water fresh, and assures them, “Remember, I am the God who heals you.”
They go a little further, in this morning’s Scripture, and they grumble again: “Moses, there’s no food here! Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us all here?!?!” And God brings them food – quail in the evenings, and this thing called manna in the morning. That day, and the next, and then the next.
Then, after today’s story, they go a little further, and find that there’s little water in the desert, so they grumble again: “Moses, there’s no water here! Did you bring us all the way here, into this desert to kill us, and our children, and our livestock!” And God tells Moses to strike a rock, and water comes from the rock.
The people are thrust out into this journey. And it is hard. And they grumble. And what they don’t yet know – is that they will travel on through this wilderness – grumbling at the hardship – for forty years.
These grumbling stories from Exodus come up regularly in the lectionary, in our worship; sometimes we read them during Lent, when we’re thinking particularly about a wilderness journey.
There’s a way of reading these stories that offers a critique of the grumbling. And maybe there’s a point to be made about that in the text – the people do give us a lot to work with – I mean they are rather over the top with the grumbling – “Oh, if only we could be back in Egypt where we sat in front of fleshpots – big pots of stewing meat. What were you thinking, Moses? Did you bring us all out here in the desert to kill us?” They are... vocal.
But I’m not interested this morning in critiquing the grumbling. Because here’s the thing:
The Hebrew people grumble... because they are a month out into the wilderness, and there is no food, and they are hungry.
The Hebrew people grumble... because they go even miles further, into the desert, and there is no water, and they are thirsting.
The Hebrew people grumble, because this journey is hard, and because their need is real.
And God listens. God takes their grumbling and their deep human need seriously. So let’s take their grumbling seriously too, and see what we see.
Who knows what the people thought when they left Egypt. They were in slavery, and they were promised freedom. And weeks later, they find themselves free, but in the middle of a desert – with families to feed – and no food to eat. Nothing around them is familiar. Their usual ways of living and surviving however they can are gone. And they remember Pharaoh’s bread and Pharaoh’s meat – probably not accurately – because they’re forgetting the slavery. But they grumble to Moses: “We had food there. We don’t have food here.”
And God listens. God replaces Pharaoh’s boiling pots of meat, with quail – and Pharaoh’s bread, with bread from heaven. God says, “In this wilderness, it’s you and me, and I will provide. Every night, there will be quail for dinner. And every morning, you’ll go out and gather this bread that I will send, and it will be enough for that day. And then the next day, there will be enough for that day. And then, for next day. And then, for the next. Day by day by day. And then, every week, on the day before the Sabbath, there will be a two-day portion, so you can still take your Sabbath rest.”
After God says that, that evening, there is quail. And in the morning, they find the ground covered with this mysterious flaky substance. It will later be described as “like white coriander seed; the taste of it was like wafers made of honey.” They call it manna, naming it after the question that they asked, “What is this?” – this new bread that sustains us in this wilderness – just enough for each day, and then for the next.
So let’s notice a few things here, and the first thing I notice is compassion, compassion for these people out on this journey that’s so much longer than they ever expected. As biblical scholar Michael Chan describes it, they are in that “uncomfortable space between departure and destination.” They’ve left where they’ve been, but they’ve not yet arrived where they are going. They’re travelling “by stages,” and each stage of the journey brings new hardship, and with each stage, the destination seems even further away than when they set out.
This journey, for them, is starting to feel like a long haul.
And there’s compassion, because that feels closer to home these days – fresh – this sense of being on a long-haul journey. I’ve started to hear folks in our community use that phrase – “long haul” – to describe our journey through pandemic – and through everything else this year has brought.
We started out back in March, with a sudden jump into sheltering in place, and physical distancing – our collective effort to “flatten the curve” to help slow the spread of COVID19, so that health officials and medical professionals could build up our capacity to care for those with COVID and for all the other medical concerns that are a part of our life. And maybe it seemed like we just needed to do that, and we’d see light at the end of the tunnel.
And then May and June arrived, with a surge in COVID when we nationally relaxed our vigilance, and the horizon moved out further, and then, it started to feel like we just needed to make it through the summer. And then, the systemic American racism that we’ve allowed to persist for centuries was laid bare yet again, and again, and we were mobilized with new urgency to respond to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake.
The COVID pandemic, out nation’s persistent, enduring endemic racism, and then, the persistent howl of climate emergency, reminding us again of its planet-threatening urgency. In these recent weeks there have been wildfires and choking smoke, and ominous orange-sky days, and hurricanes, too. We find ourselves on a long-haul, somewhere between departure and destination, with this groan welling up in our bones.
So I’m not going to critique this people, wandering out in the wilderness, grumbling because they have no food. I may just sit down with them and do a little grumbling and groaning of my own.
As we notice this long-haul lament – this grumbling and this groaning – theirs – and ours – the next thing to notice is this: God listens. The Scripture says it three times in 14 verses. God listens. God hears the people grumbling in the wilderness. God takes their need seriously. And God provides. Not just in this grumbling story, but in each of them.
· The water is stagnant. God listens. God makes the bitter water fresh.
· There is no food. God listens. God provides quail in the evening, and manna in the morning.
· The water runs out. God listens. God provides water from the rock.
God provides enough each day for the living of that day. God isn’t so much interested in critiquing the grumbling, but rather in establishing a relationship of trust. It’s as if God says, “In the wilderness, it’s you and me. I will listen to your need. I will provide. All I ask is that you lean into that. That iss how we’ll get where we’re going.” Michael Chan says it like this: “An important lesson from the wilderness is that Israel does not travel alone, and neither do we. The God of the desert is a gift-giving, life-sustaining, and prayer-hearing God.” But in the wilderness, the challenge is to believe those claims are true.
And so, it’s also important to notice this: On this long-haul journey, what the people are doing is living. Yes, they are somewhere between departure and destination. Yes, each new stage in the journey brings a new challenge. But what lies before them. Every day. Is life. What they are doing over the long-haul is living life.
Over the course of their 40 years in the wilderness, the Hebrew people will raise and nurture their families. They will have babies. They will gather manna in the morning. They will rest on the Sabbath. They will get some commandments, and they will learn with each other and with God how free people live. They will learn from mistakes, sometimes not easily. They will create with God new patterns for their worship – they’ll make a portable ark and a tabernacle tent – a moveable place where they can meet God in the midst of their journey. They will figure out with God and with each other new ways to live and to care for each other, ways to order their lives, to sustain their lives, and to make meaning over the long-haul. They will raise up a new generation. And they will live, and move forward, until that day when they do pass over into a land of promise.
They are on a long haul, but the world doesn’t stop with that diagnosis. With each stage of the journey, they find not only a challenge, but God’s new provision. They find life to live, with meaning, each day. And then the next.
And so this Sunday and for some weeks on into October, we’ll be embracing a worship theme we’re calling “Long Haul Living” – with an emphasis on LIVING. We’ll name the challenges of this, our long-haul through pandemic – our journey from hurt toward healing, our journey from separation to connection, our journey from weariness to daily renewal and sustenance. And we’ll sit with stories from Scripture and look for ways that our ancient siblings found life to live in their various long-haul journeys.
And so this morning, I want to give us two invitations – two specific ideas for spiritual practice that might sustain us in these days – practices for long-haul living.
The first is to do a little grumbling – grumbling that names honestly our need and the need of the world, and then brings that need to God, and looks for God’s provision. It’s that simple. Grumble, and then pay attention. I invite us at the beginning of each day this week, to pray with these questions:
· What do I need? What does the world need?
· And then pray, “God help me live life today.”
· And then, at the end of the day, pray reflecting on these questions: What need did I experience or see this day? How was it met? Where does it persist? (Now remember, the people in the desert didn’t recognize that manna at first – so they named it “What is it?” What is the manna? What is the “what is it” that is sustaining you?)
· And then thank God for God’s presence in the day, and ask for help tomorrow.
Day by day by day. This prayer takes seriously our need and the deep need of the world – and names it – grumbles it out, and then looks for manna.
And the second invitation is to think a little this week aon this question, “What are you already doing that is sustaining you and sustaining the world?” The invitation is just to look at the new things we are doing in these days of pandemic and protest and see if we’ve already discovered and created new spiritual practices that are feeding us and the world. Maybe you are writing postcards that are empowering people to vote. That is a spiritual practice that is opening up individual and collective freedom.
Here’s one I’ve noticed. These masks we are wearing. Back home, when I go for my morning or afternoon walks, I’ve noticed that I keep my face-covering down when it’s just me and then pull it up when I see a neighbor approaching. They do the same. And then, masked, when we pass by each other, we wave or say hello.
For me, it’s become a kind of a greeting. We can’t shake hands, or stand too close. But we can put on our mask as an expression of our care for each other. I like passing by folks, who in their actions, are communicating, maybe just for a moment, that they are thinking about, and acting for my well-being – and I for theirs.
In these long-haul days, what are you already doing that is sustaining you and others? Along with your need, name that too. Do more things like that.
So two practices for the week – our “something to do” – (1) name your need and the need of the world, and look for a bit of manna, and (2) reflect a little and see if you have already created, in this long-haul time, ways that are giving you life – ways that are bringing life to the world.
Let’s notice just one more thing, and then we can pray. This is a long-haul journey. But the long-haul journey through the wilderness is not forever. The wilderness is not forever. At the end of Exodus, chapter 16, this manna story ends with this note: “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” Manna -- God’s daily “What is it?” – is the way that God sustains the people each day, every day, of the long-haul.
And some day, they arrive. They arrive at the land of promise – and the manna stops. They arrive in a place of new life – having lived life through the long haul. On the long-haul, and in all its hardship, they have drawn closer to God and to each other; they have become a people, a community; and they reach a place where they can build something new – taking all the life they have lived, and learned. And they can plant there, and nurture there, life that will sustain them, and all the generations that will follow, all the way down to us.
A little manna in the morning. A little water from the rock.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 See Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus” in New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol.i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), for more on manna and for general background on the text.  Michael Chan, Commentary on Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573  Id.