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“Wilderness Road to the Promised Land”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30

 

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

 

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The Israelites have escaped the prison of their temporary home in Egypt.  They have become free!  And that means change, A LOT of change.

 

Though they were enslaved, oppressed, and beaten down, they did have food to eat.
Food fueled the Egyptian labor-force.

And these Israelites do not remember what it is like to be free.  They have acclimated.  They have adapted.  They have their comforts, their routines, their simple pleasure – all of which have been uprooted with this run for freedom.

 

The new generations only know enslavement, so they’ve not gotten to exercise their muscles of self-will, of self-determination, and perhaps of self-respect.  Instead of plotting their own journey, they’ve been going along, following the orders of another.

And so this unimagined freedom now calls on them to grow in ways they may have become weak.  They must forage their own food, build their own dwellings, set their own course.  And if they fail to do so, they will be hungry, they will be thirsty, …they may starve.

And these are precisely their complaints to Moses as they journey through the wilderness.  There is no water.  They are thirsty!  The water is bitter.  They are thirsty!  This miss meat.  They are hungry! 

 

And they start to reminisce back to their days of enslavement in Egypt.  THERE they at least had meat.  Better to die a slave, eating meat, than to starve a free soul, they complain.

 

 

And it strikes me, that as we venture into the unknown territory of freedom, we encounter risks, unknowns, fears, and discomforts.  But if we do not venture into freedom, we will surely die, never having lived.  For what is living, if it is not freedom?!

And I think of our journey as a church of God.

 

We see the path by which we came.  Those who came before built this gorgeous sanctuary at a time when churches were busting at the seams in America.  The wars had ceased, the people had returned to faith and family, and babies were being born.  There was a faith in the church, a faith in organizations, a faith in institutions.  And so we came to this point:  education rooms were built to teach the children, youth, and adults about Jesus.  And this large and lovely sanctuary replaced our beautiful first sanctuary – now the fellowship hall.

We can see the path by which we came.   Just as the Israelites came to Egypt at a critical time – to survive famine and to thrive amidst it all – we came to this place because the times demanded it.

But just as the Israelite’s situation continued to evolve until they were enslaved to the Egyptians, we too have continued to change until we have become enslaved to our own building.  It’s simply far too big and aged and exquisite for our small band to easily maintain.  And so we are compelled to look toward a different future.  We must change or face our eventual death.

 

Like the Israelites, we sit at the brink – our food in hand, dressed, shoes on, ready to go.  We have been researching and preparing, praying and discerning in order to envision the pathway forward for our blessed congregation.

And we do not see the path ahead.  We can only see what came before.

And we are uncomfortable.  For in stepping out into the unknown – in negotiating with potential renters and partners in mission and ministry – we lose our sense of control.  We cannot predict next moves.  We do not yet know where our provision, our water, our food, our provision will come from.  And we grow anxious.

 

And we too start to grumble and complain: If we could just keep doing what we’ve always done, at least we’d be comfortable, but now God, have you brought us out here, that we may perish in the wilderness?  …In the places of discomfort and unknown?

God are you bringing us out in order to smite us more quickly?

God, if we’d just kept going as we were, we would die, but at least we’d die singing our favorite hymns…

 

Does this feel at all relevant?  Does it touch on some of our experiences?

 

Transitions are extraordinarily difficult, especially for some of us.  It often comes down to how we’re wired.  Uncertainties can feel intolerably risky.  Loss of control can feel like a death.

Transitions are hard. 

 

…And yet God calls us out.
God calls us out of darkness and into the light.
God is calling us out of death and into life.

 

And that life together will be different.
It will take time to build up and tear down.
It will take planning and starting.  …Stopping and revising and starting again.  …Over and over.

 

Like the Israelites, we will reach places where we cannot see a path forward, where death feels imminent.  But when its God doing the calling, God doing the inviting, God doing the freeing, God provides.  But not before we complain.  And not always before our discomforts and fear.

 

And so we have choices – to trust or to doubt.  Is God leading us?  And if God is, can we trust God?

We have choices – to trust one another or to doubt.  Do we believe that where two or more are gathered in God’s name that God is there too?

We have choices – do we believe that God is using ALL things for good?  Even our individual and collective mistakes?

We have choices – do we believe that God will continue to direct and redirect us as we take faithful steps?  Are we tuning our ears to hear that still small voice saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

 

 

And so, as we follow God out of the land of the familiar, the land of comfort, and the land of our eventual or sudden death,…will we trust?  Will we trust God and one another?

Will we trust God for our provision – even when we cannot yet see it on the horizon?

Will we trust God to meet our needs – providing familiar comforts, even as we journey outside the lines of our narrow worlds?

 

Do we believe that God is doing a work among us?

 

For if we do, then the invitation is to follow. 

 

The Israelites were blessed, in order to BE a blessing!  They were to be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.  THROUGH THEM, the whole world would be blessed!  That was God’s plan.  But they couldn’t do it enslaved in Egypt.
They had to step out.
They had to journey through wilderness.
And God would indeed bless them and make them a blessing! 

 

Will we continue to step out?
Will we continue to release control?
Will we choose trust?

 

We cannot follow God if we refuse to move.
We cannot follow God if we refuse to grow, to be changed.
We cannot follow God if we are enslaved…to sin, to fear, to dissension, … or even to our building.
We cannot follow God if we’re intent on being the Leader and not the follower.
We cannot hold the reigns of control AND follow God.

 

But for those who follow,
Who venture into the unknown,
Who choose radical trust and work to build a new way of life,
There is miracle and wonder, halleluia’s and praise the Lord’s,
There is hard-won peace, provision, milk & honey…

 

THIS is the legacy of God’s children. 

Will we follow God boldly into the wilderness unknown? 

 

 

 

“Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 15
Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


This passage from Micah is a curious one.  Micah paints this picture of God in court.  God has a controversy with the chosen people.  And the mountains and hills, the foundations of the earth, are hearing the case.

In this case, God asks the people, “What have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!”  And then God goes on to list time after time in which God delivered and rescued the people.  All along, God had instructed the people to remember their history, to tell the stories, to keep God’s saving acts at the forefront of their common memory.  But in all likelihood, they haven’t been doing this, for God has to lead them, story by story, through a remembering of God’s generous and saving acts.

I hear this exchange, and I cannot help but hear it like the conversation of a parent & child.

In my wife’s parent’s home, if you use the restroom (which inevitably you’ll have to at some point), you will see an array of inspiring poetry and anecdotes pinned to the wall directly in front of you.  And they all hail the mother:  the mother who provides, the mother who sacrifices, the mother who loves unconditionally, the mother who is always there…  On and on you read accolades to a mother’s love!

And can you guess who put them there?

Yes, her mother!  😊

In this courtroom scene painted by Isaiah, God’s frustration with the people, reminds me of a mother who is simply put out with the entitlement, lack of gratitude, and forgetfulness of her children.  After all, she has provided, she has been there, she has rescued, she has had mercy, she has had compassion, she has given and given and given…  Yet still her children want more.  Still her child feels slighted.  Still her child is irritable when asked to do something for the family…

Can you imagine the scenario?

God has rescued, saved, provided, showed compassion, taught, healed, guided the people.  And yet, they are weary.  Yet, they have a chip on their shoulder.

And so the listing begins.  From a child’s perspective, this could be what they’d call “guilt-tripping,” but the Mother, the Father, they start to list all the ways they’ve poured themselves out for this child (much like those must-reads on the bathroom wall at Incy’s childhood home).  And even this feels like a concession because what had God instructed them to do?  To REMEMBER the deeds of the Lord, to write them on their doorposts, to tell them to their children, to erect monuments to remind the people of God’s love and salvation.  AND YET STILL, GOD is having to remind the people of all the ways they have been blessed.  GOD.

Can you sense the irritation?  Can you sense the long-suffering of the parent?

God has rescued time after time.  God has delivered.  God has guided.  God has provided…

And yet, it is never enough.

Never enough.

Does that ring a bell?

And then the flavor in the courtroom changes.  For the first time, we hear from the people.  And they say:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Again, in this I hear the plea of a child, “What can I do that will ever be enough?  Will this be enough for you?  Will this?”  And the child lists thing after thing…to the extreme.  It’s not, “Will a ram be enough for you, God?” but “Will thousands of rams be enough for you?”

And what are children doing when they talk in these extremes?  What are we doing when we talk like this to our parents?

We are actually making a statement about how picky they are, how demanding they are, how difficult they are, how impossible they are!

So I am not sure whether the people are actually feeling remorseful at this point, or if they are simply complaining back to their heavenly parent, defending their actions with the complaint that God is too picky and impossible.  And maybe it’s a mixture, as most things are.  Perhaps they feel a bit guilty but defensive, as it feels impossible to meet God’s expectations.

And this is where God boils it down for them. 

Yes, God has taken the firstborn of sinners in the past.  God did that in Egypt when the Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go out of slavery…

Yes, God has instructed the people to bring sacrifices:  the fruit of their fields and flocks.

But what God is truly wanting is

Justice,

Kindness, &

Humility. 

Justice.       Kindness.       Humility. 

And isn’t this what most parents are wanting too? 

Do what’s right.

Be respectful and kind.

And don’t start thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.  We all make mistakes….

So brilliant about this instruction is it’s mercy:  injustice is never okay, but we all go there from time to time, so be kind, make it right, and stay humble.

Since none of us will ever completely and fully do justice, we need humility to keep us open for correction, for repentance, for growth.

THAT is what is pleasing to God. 

My grandfather was a minister as well.  And while he was passionate and articulate, he also embodied many of the societal sins of his day.  He would not allow his wife to study alongside him, though she very much wanted to.  He wouldn’t allow her to speak in church.  He required her to eat just as much as him, which wreaked havoc on her body, and he was a harsh man to live with.  But as he aged, he kept on growing.  He was passionate in his beliefs, but at some point he knew better than to think he knew it all, and so he held even his most beliefs up to the light.  And over time, God was shaping and molding him, polishing the beauty in him and sluffing away the evils, making him a much kinder and more open person to know.

When I was young, we were all afraid of him.  But in his final years, we could talk with him.  And he would share what God was teaching him – that women too were preaching, full of the Spirit, for example.  And in the end, he gave me his entire library.

It is never enough to get everything right. 

It is never enough to be resolute and passionate. 

We always need humility. 

…Because God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and God’s ways are higher than our ways.

God is giving the people a touchstone.

God is giving the people a way.

No they will not get it right all the time, but they are to try.

They are to try because it absolutely matters that we do what’s right, what is just.

But knowing that they will not always get it right, kindness and humility are a must.

The whole package.

Are we…

DOING justice?

LOVING kindness?

And WALKING humbly with our God?

Like a loving and understanding parent, our God knows we are made of dust.  God knows we are both full of beauty and harm.  And so God has given us this guide.

May we,

In our homes,

In our families,

In our workplaces,

In our schools,

In our neighborhoods,

Behind the wheel,

In our society,

In our political life,

In our hearts,….

DO justice, LOVE kindness, and WALK humbly with our God.