Text: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Many of you have heard me tell about the trip that Jack McKinney, my former co-pastor here at Pullen, and I took to the Republic of Georgia some years ago. One of the most memorable experiences of that trip was an eight-hour hike that Malkhaz took us on across the mountains of Tbilisi. Some of you have also heard about that hike as I have mentioned it in other sermons. For those of you who have not heard of these stories, Malkhaz’s hikes are legendary and many who have experienced them return to the States with stories of how they “survived” the long trek from the center of town to the picturesque ruins of a 3rd century underground civilization. Until my hike with Malkhaz, I had always thought of a “hike” as an hour or two leisurely stroll around Umstead Park or some other national park. But Malkhaz gives new definition to hiking.
Like all novice hikers, Jack and I started out with great enthusiasm. After all, we were in the gorgeous mountains of the Republic of Georgia. We had no reason to worry about the kind of shoes we were wearing given that Malkhaz had on a pair of sandals that looked like what Jesus might have worn in his day. We definitely thought that the few bananas and olives along with the bit of cheese and few pieces of bread would suffice us in terms of nourishment until we returned to the city for lunch. And so, with a beautiful breeze to our backs and an eager spirit in our hearts, we set out for our hike.
Little did we know that we would, for eight hours, traverse hill after hill, walk through pasture after pasture, experience the sudden change of a gentle breeze to strong gusts of winds that, at times, had us walking sideways. Little did we know that the few bananas and olives along with the morsels of cheese and bread would be shared by all seven of us on the hike plus a shepherd man that we met along the trail. And little did we know that our once comfortable and trusted tennis shoes would leave blisters on Jack’s feet the size of quarters.
About four hours into the hike my and Jack’s early enthusiasm and eager spirits turned into silent, inward groans and awkwardly disguised questions to Malkhaz inquiring about how much further to our destination. At about hour six our groans were no longer silent, inward, or disguised. Our stomachs were growling, our feet were killing us, and we were flat out asking, “Are we almost there?” Hour seven we hit a new low and the complaining started. We protested, “Malkhaz, we have to sit down. We can’t keep going.” There was great doubt as to whether we could actually make it. But to our grumblings Malkhaz just kept saying, “We are almost there.” But he had been saying that for the last four hours. On that day in the Republic of Georgia, I understood like never before the Israelites complaining in the wilderness.
There is no denying that once the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt and entered their time in the wilderness complaining and grumbling marked their journey. And there is also no denying that every time God heard their complaining, God responded. The first grumblings came at the Red Sea as the Egyptian army was pursuing them. They cried out to God, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” A bit dramatic I would say, but nonetheless, God intervened and delivered them safely across the waters.
Three days later, having found only bitter water in the wilderness, they complained and grumbled again saying, “What shall we drink?” To which God provided fresh water and they continued on their journey. And then, as the story goes, on the fifteenth day of the second month, the Israelites again found themselves in another tough situation and they complained again. Hunger set in and this time they grumbled saying, “If only we had died by the hand of God 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.” The bananas, olives, cheese, and bread had run out and they found themselves longing for the good old days in Egypt.
It is worth stopping here for a moment and naming one of humanity’s weaknesses: the propensity to choose safety and security over our very freedom. In that statement I am not saying that safety and security are not important. They are very important. As a youth growing up gay in southern, rural, small-town America, for the first half of my life, I choose safety and security over the freedom to be fully myself. And yet, at a point in my life my freedom to be fully who God created me to be became more important than safety and security. It is not easy to determine where that line is and when to step over it. But it seems to me that one of the places where we challenge ourselves with this question of security verses freedom is in our willingness to risk the unfamiliar. Are we willing to say we don’t know what’s next but we are going to move forward? Are we willing to not have all the answers and follow the longings of our hearts? Are we willing to sacrifice something or lose something or let go of something for the purposes of living more fully, more abundantly, more wholly?
The Israelites were struggling with this question of security over freedom. Oh how we long to be back in Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. By the way, do you know what is meant by the term “fleshpots?” Fleshpots is defined as a place where people are entertained in ways that relate to physical pleasures; a place of bodily comforts. In the reality of wilderness living, the Israelites longed more for their comforts than they did their freedom.
It is easy to hear that as judgment and to condemn the Israelites for complaining in the wilderness. But to do so would introduce a judgment that the text itself does not make, sending the message that complaint has no place in the life with God which, of course, is not true. The laments in the Book of Psalms give voice to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear, and danger. The laments call upon God to see, arise, and act. At its core, complaining is a turning to God—not away—trusting that God does not ignore, dismiss, or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering, and need.
One scholar noted in writing: “In Exodus 16, the Israelites are beginning their second month of wilderness walking following their deliverance from Egypt. The dangers of the wilderness are real—the Israelites have already faced thirst, now hunger, and later they will face attack. They do not exaggerate their predicament. They are no longer part of the system of labor that fed them in the past. They cannot supply their own needs. They are hungry. Their situation is dire and there is no visible way out. The complaint that there is no food, the fear of the present, and the longing to be back in an earlier time are not constrained to the pages of Exodus. The situation is the same for the world’s poor today, and they are joined by increasing numbers of people losing homes, jobs, health care, pensions, [and] dignity…”
“It must be acknowledged that a complaint does not always contain the best solution.” To simply go back to Egypt, as good and as nice as those fleshpots were—going back into slavery is not a future. Yes, the wilderness is a place of danger and want. AND, it is also a space for learning new ways of relating that are not based on a former identity—for the Israelites the identity and life they lived in Egypt.
In reading Exodus 16 one could surmise that this story is about food and God’s provisions for our physical hunger and thirst. But I would suggest something different. I would suggest that this is a story about the promises of God’s ideals for how we live in community while acknowledging the reality of our times.
In Egypt, the Israelites’ lives and service benefitted Pharaoh. In the wilderness, their lives begin to be reordered and reoriented. In the Sinai Covenant (which comes after the wilderness wanderings) the loyalty of the Israelite people is redirected from Pharaoh to Yahweh. Their service no longer benefits the king and his empire but goes toward building a community characterized by integrity, honor, care, compassion, and freedom for all God’s people—the promises of God’s ideals.
What is unknown as the Israelites exit Egypt is how this powerful and creative and caring God will relate to them in the future. In and through the reality of their time in the wilderness, God’s promise of a different kind of community was emerging. Exodus 16 offers a glimpse of this emerging relationship and community. God hears the complaining of the people. God recognizes their need. And what a beautiful scene it is as the dew lifts and the sun rises and the world turns toward the morning: the wilderness ground is covered with a “flaky substance, as fine as frost.” It is unfamiliar and the Israelites ask one another, “What is it?” What is it?
The eighth hour of hiking, we crest our last hill and there before us as the sun is setting we see the magnificent stone remnants in the distance. “What is it?” I asked Malkhaz. “Those are the remains of a 3rd century civilization.” Malkhaz said quietly denoting the holiness of the ground we were walking on. A whole community, a whole civilization from the 3rd century lived and walked on the ground that I was standing on.
In that moment, I was connected to souls of centuries past, souls who had stood and walked and complained and been delivered just as I have been and continue to be in my life. I recognized, in that moment, that I was part of God’s larger beloved community. Spirit is free from form, but it is also powerfully manifest in some physical spaces in this world where time collapses and we brush against our ancestors. In that moment, I was connected to the one spirit who animates us all, who hears our complaints, and who walks with us on our road to freedom.
In a flash I knew the thirst of the Israelites was worth it. Jack’s blisters were worth it. Our growling stomachs were worth it. God provides. God provides in each moment, as we weigh our servitude against our freedom, as we choose to trust one another and leap into the unknown, as we choose to be community to one another and to God—a community that is marked by integrity, honor, care, compassion, and freedom for all. A community that does not stand in service of institutions and empires. A community that takes only what it needs so that others may have.
God provides in those culminating moments when we crest the hill to find respite, rest, and the rewards of the journey. God offers us the promises of God’s ideals in the midst of our reality. Thanks be to God!