“When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’” Exodus 16:15
Everybody wants to change, right? We want to change our health, wealth, looks and happiness? Who doesn’t? Everybody wants to improve our community, country and especially our church or religious center if we have one. We want to make the forms more meaningful, satisfying, and useable by those who follow us. Yes, everybody wants change but then change can really be tough, change can be hell!
In the Hebrew book of Exodus, we read the story of ancient Hebrews getting out of Egyptian slavery into freedom. We read God sent them a great leader called Moses, who came on the scene after 400 years of captivity to lead them back home, home to the “Promised Land of Canaan!” We may not believe the story is a literal one but it certainly displays real life problems of trying to change a situation!
Many of you remember the story. Moses took on the great Pharaoh and his magicians with frog plagues, drought, floods, lice and staffs turning into snakes; how the blood of sheep had to be painted across the door ways so the death angel wouldn’t destroy Hebrew first born boys. Then the run for the desert road north to their homeland, the parting of the waters at the Red Sea, the enclosure over the mighty army of the Egyptians, and on into freedom the people moved. The first stop was Mount Sinai, where the people were given the law and 10 Commandments for living. How exciting it seemed to be.
Then the hard part came; the 250 miles of desert travel to freedom. After a few days and weeks, people got tired and began to complain, running out of food, water, and their usual beds in their usual houses. They didn’t know the run to freedom and renewal would be this hard.
“If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt,” they cried, “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!” What happened? Where did all the enthusiasm for change and freedom go?
Moses was frustrated and cried out to God for help. God tells him people have already forgotten who they are as they were crying out, “Who are we?” But Moses was assured it is not himself they are angry toward but God, the Lord.
There is a part of human nature that craves to be dependent and even a slave rather than be free. We feel quite comfortable in our misery, our sickness and illnesses, with that sense of being victim to circumstances rather than “master of our own fates.” Opportunities to grow and expand seem scary and overwhelming. Like the Blind Bartimaeus, to “see” means to get up and walk on our own. It is much easier to be a complainer than see ourselves with positive choices to live in freedom. Indeed, we love to complain and moan over life, to play the victim role rather than accepting responsibility for ourselves.
Who are we? What are we? We are the free Sons and Daughters of God! What does this mean? That at our very essence, our very core, our very True Selves are eternal, indestructible, and we are free to love and move past limitations the body and world place upon us. To us has been given the power of God to change our thinking from powerlessness to the ability to choose.
So God answered Moses’ prayer and told him He will send the people plenty of food. They will never be hungry for the duration of the trek across the desert. But it will be a brand new diet! He will send manna, food from heaven, as it goes, that the people can go out each morning and pick up for the day, twice as much on the day before the Sabbath. In the evening, they will be able to dress Quail birds for some meat! All would be okay.
The next day, sure enough, the ground is covered with a hoary while frost looking substance called “Manna”. It was a miracle for sure but as they people picked it up and looked at it they asked, “What is it?” And the bible says Moses responded, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”
You probably might know that this is a very symbolic meaning in this story. Bread is the word symbol for “Word of God” or “Life of God.” This just wasn’t food for the body but symbolized food for the soul as well. It related to the idea of “Eating the bread of life” as symbolized in the sacrament of bread and wine. It isn’t the literal food that sustains us but the spiritual food, the understanding that God is with us and therein is our freedom to live in freedom.
At first, the people seemed to think this journey out of slavery was wonderful! How great to be out in an open desert on a new journey with signs and reminders of God’s presence with them. But soon they forgot and longed to return to slavery in Egypt. They’d rather be right back home again in slavery if this was part of the journey to freedom!
People often have this feeling with the arrival of a new pastor or community leader. Hopes are high but when the change occurs in ways we never dreamed, we become frighten and then just plain angry!
When I was first asked to speak here, people seemed excited and relieved. After a month, I was asked to stay longer, to help perhaps lead the small congregation back to being a strong light house again at 2085 Union Road. It was wonderful! I remember that Valentine congregational meeting asking me to stay. Love was heavy in the air!
Soon however, some asked about some of my messages, ideas, and book discussions. It was recommended I reinsert the weekly “Confession of Sin” to remind all of our origin, total depravity. I left out “Gloria Patri” a few times, a meaningless code word to many not accustomed to the history. “What is this?” A few asked. And then that shocking editorial I had published in the 2nd Easter Sunday Buffalo News, suggesting the Jesus story might have been a redo of early versions of the same story in several other nations. What is this “bread” you are feeding us? Some asked. Where is the good food we had back in ‘Egypt?’” We also keeping hearing now about God not being “up there” but “right here” within us. We hear readings from all kinds of other religious traditions that speak of God with us, along with singing bowls, floating smudge smoke, and anointings with hemp oil. We have seen the prayer of sinfulness turned into a prayer of “forgetfulness and remembrance” and people also ask, “What is this? What is this food?”
So we ask, “What kind of church do you want? Do you want a growing, thriving, vibrant place in this community that people look to as a lighthouse of hope and freedom?” Do we want to get out of Egypt into a brighter Promised Land? Or do you want to go back to what it was?
The other evening I turned the local PBS station which was having a fund raiser with a Dr. Joel Fuhrman. He’d written a book called, “Eat to Live” to help people get in physical shape by eating better. He talked about breaking bad eating habits now practiced by hundreds of families in our country. He said the USA is the most obese country in the world, estimating that 80% of Americans are now overweight. We are a nation addicted to bad food!
But what happens when people try to break any addiction from alcohol, drugs, over eating, or over working? They get sick! A stomach and body system used to junk food, to food low in nutrients and vitality will react with serious illness for a time. It will be extremely uncomfortable. It takes, he said, a strong commitment and courage to stay the course.
Tom Bandy, author of the book, “Kicking Habits,” describes how dying churches have bad habits of thinking that hasten their demise. It’s happening all over the western world. To face these habits of thinking and make some necessary changes are difficult. They will cause personal and corporate conflict in the church, and on throughout the whole dysfunction denominational system. Many will refuse to face see such addictions and decide not to “kick them” but just die a slow, steady friendly death blaming the world for being so “ungodly.”
The key for change, for getting across the deserts of addictions to life anew in our lives, is gathering each day in surrender before Tabernacle. Remember how Moses constructed the Tabernacle in the movable tent that led them across the desert? Each day he gathered the people around it to hear the word of God before they moved on. It was the most important part of the whole journey, hearing and following the Word of God.
The key to your life’s renewal and this congregation’s is similar. You and I must gather ourselves and family together each day around a tabernacle place of worship and surrender to a Higher Power, or whatever name you give it. We must confess our addictions to bodies and forms, and kick the bad habits of anger, judgment, and attack. We must move toward letting these go before the Higher Power of the Christ within us, the True us, the Eternal us. And then happiness and peace will come, to us and those around us.
The next step in church renewal and sustainability is fairly simple, but very hard to do on a day to day basis; spending critical time in prayer and silence, hearing the Voice give you directions and assurance that whatever you try, do and fail, God is still with you to teach, forgive, laugh and try again! It means spending similar time in small groups, sensing the presence and ecstasy of God’s Presence before doing anything to “save the church.” If such a commitment is made, you will be led on across the deserts of this world until you finally arrive at Home, Heaven within and Heaven beyond. And you will be a blessing to all others along the way. Amen.
Reflections offered by David Persons on September 18, 2011 at the 1st Presbyterian Church, 2085 Union Road, West Seneca, NY.