Sunday, October 10, 2021

Phil Kniss: Open hands in the desert

Called To Trust In God: God provides manna and quail
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Exodus 16

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Without fail,
digging into the Old Testament
leads to wondering about the God being portrayed there.
Whether it’s a God who asks a father to sacrifice a son,
and then at the last second withdraws the request,
or it’s a God who seems to wink at, if not approve of,
people who lie and deceive their own family to steal a blessing,
or . . . just about anywhere we turn,
we run into stories not only of strange cultural practices,
but in many ways, a strange God . . .
at least, a God who doesn’t seem a lot like Jesus.
And we haven’t even gotten into the war and conquest stories yet.
What do we do about these pictures of God,
other than quietly avoid them,
which is a typical Christian response?
I get it why some people don’t read the Old Testament much.
They would rather read Gospel. Good News.
But . . . to turn away from the Hebrew Scriptures,
is to turn away from gold,
to miss the hidden treasure.
What we have here is a story of God through human eyes,
which of course, is the only kind of God story that we have.
And here we see what the people saw in God,
in retrospect,
through their own cultural framework.
A limited view, naturally.
But even in these rough sketches of God,
a beautiful picture begins to emerge.
We catch golden glimpses of the God we know in Jesus.
The Gospel can be found right here in these ancient stories.
But, like panning for gold,
we may have to stir up the waters a bit,
to find the piece that glitters.

All that is to prepare us to meet the God of Exodus 16,
who gets angry without good reason, or so it would seem.
The people of Israel, many thousands of them,
are making their way across the desert,
and need—need a safe and reliable source of food and water.
They cannot survive otherwise.
Without it, they die.
One chapter earlier,
they came across a spring, but the water was undrinkable.
They cried out to God about their situation,
and the water became sweet and safe to drink.
Then in today’s story, it’s a source of food they lack.
The Passover lamb they ate the night of their escape from Egypt,
had long ago been digested,
and they were now famished and near starvation.
They were having dreams (maybe hallucinations)
of overflowing stew-pots back in Egypt.
Slavery had an upside.
At least there was food to eat.
Now . . . wouldn’t an all-knowing and compassionate God
be anticipating exactly that response,
and exhibit some empathy for what they were experiencing?
Well, we’re told Yahweh does send them quail that drop from the sky,
and edible manna that settles on the earth like dew.
But, the way these acts of God are described,
we get the impression
God was angry at them because they grumbled,
and that God provided food only under duress,
as if God was just caving into their petty demands.
In fact, in the retelling of this story in the Book of Numbers,
it’s clear that God was deeply offended by the complainers.
So much so, that fire from heaven fell on some of them,
and they were consumed.
So it sounds like, at face value,
these stories tell of a people who cry out to God
because they lack basic necessities for life,
and God semi-reluctantly, if not angrily,
caves in to their demands and gives them what they need.
So what kind of God is this?
What if the people had not mentioned their dire straights?
How long did God want them to wait meekly in the desert,
dying for lack of food and water,
before God sent relief?
God could have rained down manna any time.
Why didn’t God take the initiative to provide,
before the situation got desperate?
And why would God be angry at such a legitimate complaint?
These are things I didn’t understand
when I first heard the story in Sunday school in Florida.
And I still have trouble with it today.

But . . . take heart!
There are some glittering pieces of gold in this story.
So let’s shake the pan a bit and have a look.
I see in here a glimmer of God’s extravagant mercy,
mercy undeserved by the recipient,
as always, a gift.
The gift of God’s presence in plenty or in want.
In fact, the long story of how they got to this place—
how an work-force of thousands of slaves
could escape from Egypt—
slaves on whose back Egypt built its economy—
that’s a huge glimmer of God’s grace.
God noticed their suffering,
and worked out an elaborate plan not only to bring them out,
but to have them leave with “good riddance,”
and piles of valuable jewelry and marketable goods.
That miraculous escape was fresh in their minds in today’s story.
It happened only days or weeks earlier.
Yet . . . many of them are longing to go back.
But we sort of get that, don’t we?
We still see that happen today,
when someone newly freed,
misses that shred of security and predictability
they had when they were in an abusive relationship
or lived in a country that oppressed them.
people would rather go back into abuse or oppression,
than face a frightening and uncertain future.
So maybe God’s anger is easy to understand.
Because we ourselves have known that kind of anger,
after we go to great lengths to help someone
find freedom from addiction, or from abuse,
or some other oppression,
and then we watch this person we care about so deeply,
and have invested so much of our love and life,
turn right around and go back into the arms
of that which held them captive—
choosing oppression over love and freedom.
At the very least, God’s anger here in this story
has less to do with people begging for food and drink,
and more to do with people who God loves
rejecting God’s generous gift of love,
and wistfully yearning for the scant benefits of slavery.
We see God here as a spurned lover,
a lover who poured out all his love and longing and power,
to carry out the greatest rescue operation in human history.
And they want to go back.
I guess some anger seems justified here after all.
But I see another piece of glittering gold.
The story of manna itself is rich with grace and Gospel.
God offers the former Israelite slaves a new and gracious gift—
it is called, “enough.”
Something they don’t have much experience with.
They knew all about having terribly little, as slaves.
Or having a great surplus, as they left Egypt
loaded down with riches and jewels.
But what was this concept called . . . “enough”?
Notice how the manna was dispensed, and I quote (vv. 16-18).
They were told, “Everyone gather as much as you need—
an omer for each person in your tent.”
The Israelites did as they were told;
some gathered much, some little.
And when they measured it by the omer,
the one who gathered much did not have too much,
and the one who gathered little did not have too little.
Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
Now, the text is a little ambiguous,
but to me, it sounds like getting manna wasn’t the only miracle.
God performed a miracle of wealth redistribution
as they scooped it up.
If a young man with a big scoop and a strong back
happened upon a spot with an extra heavy layer of manna,
and an old woman with a small scoop, & arthritis, & poor eyesight,
went out and found only a small amount of manna,
when they both returned to their house,
they both ended up with one omer per person.
Not too much, not too little. Exactly enough.
And the story gets better,
later in chapter 16, right after the part we read,
God comes through with another gift—Sabbath.
One day a week they could rest from the manna harvest.
The sixth day of gathering would yield a double amount,
and it would keep for two days.
If they didn’t prepare, and went out on the Sabbath anyway,
there would be no manna.
Furthermore, there would be no hoarding of manna.
Any other day, if they picked extra,
trying to stockpile it for the next day,
it would be full of maggots in the morning.
Except on the Sabbath,
it would stay fresh, for exactly one extra day, no more.
The gift of enough.
The gift of Sabbath rest.
These gifts came from the hand of a loving God—
a God of Grace and Gospel.
Pure gold!
When the community lived as God intended,
following God’s direction,
basic needs were met.
Some, who worked extra hard,
ended up with less than their labor produced.
And thus, persons less able to labor,
still had enough.
It’s a beautiful story, after all!
It’s a Gospel word for us still today.

Life isn’t always fair.
Some people work hard, and work well,
and don’t see the fruit of their labors.
Some people cannot, or do not, put in the time,
and their needs still get met.
God never struck a deal with the Israelites, or struck a deal with us,
that we would always get what we deserved, what we worked for.
Sometimes, work and results are out of balance.
Reminds me of a song by one of my favorite singer-songwriters,
Sarah Jarosz.
She was at the Red Wing festival this summer.
The song title is “Johnny.” Look it up sometime.
It’s not a religious song,
and I don’t know Sarah’s faith orientation,
but her words speak Gospel truth.
The refrain, which she repeats often, says,
“You might not get what you pay for,
you know that nothing’s for sure.
An open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.”
Our faith does not rest on God giving us what we pay for.
Our faith rests on God being with us, in the wilderness.
An open heart, as well as open hands,
sometimes still leads to disappointment.
I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, from experience.
Our open hands are not always filled
with what we expect, when we expect it.
Our open heart may get wounded.
But what we are promised by Yahweh,
is that we won’t be left alone in the desert.
The God who sets people free,
will not abandon them to their freedom.
God will stay with them,
looking for open hands,
looking for open hearts.
What God wants from us while we’re in the wilderness . . . is openness.
Not longing for old securities.
Not turning toward Egypt, to go back to old captivities.
Not hoarding the excess we unexpectedly end up with sometimes.
Just . . . open hands, open heart.
Yes, openness looks a lot like the wilderness,
but these strange stories from the Hebrew scriptures reassure us—
we aren’t the first ones in the desert to get a great gift—
a God who is loving, who is full of grace,
and who looks a lot like Jesus.

Join me, will you, in reading together, in response,
the confession printed in the order of worship.

one God who Provides, God who sees and knows our need,
we fail to rest, and trust in the God of enough.
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our hands.
one When our enough does not seem like enough,
when we claw and grasp and compete, out of desperation,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our hearts.
one When we forget your provisions in the past,
and see only the emptiness facing us now,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our eyes.
one When we descend into a spirit of entitlement,
when we fear walking into the unknown, 
without everything already in hand,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our lives.
one Receive the Good News. 
God the Provider is with us, and that is enough.
We are forgiven. We are open. We are loved.

—Phil Kniss, October 10, 2021

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