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Raining Quails

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Aug 02

Texts: Psalm 78:23-29 and Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

One of the features of The New York Times digital edition is the “Op-Doc,” a series of short video documentaries that’s an extension of their “Op-Ed” section. Recently I came across a short (7 minute) profile of Carlos Cervantes, called “A Ride Home from Prison.” Cervantes’s story is this: at the age of sixteen he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. In 2002, at the age of 27, he was released, after serving ten years.

What makes Cervantes’s story so remarkable is what he has done with his own prison experience to reach out to others. Carlos Cervantes picks up men released from life sentences after California reformed its three strikes law in 2012. Cervantes drives—often many hours—in the dark of night or the small hours before dawn—to remote, high-security prisons, simply to meet men on the day of their release and to guide them through their first hours of freedom. He offers them a ride to the next place where they will find shelter and begin a new life on the outside.

He knows—from personal experience—what if feels like to be worn down, without a community, without support, needing to make a fresh start, shaky, uncertain, and afraid he will fail. The short documentary shows footage of Carlos driving a newly released man, Victor to a house in L.A. where Victor will receive assistance making the transition back into life on the outside. It’s remarkable footage. Carlos is quiet in the car. Doesn’t feel the need to fill the silence, respects Victor’s space, doesn’t give advice. A gentle, understanding, accepting and powerful presence.

Here’s what Carlos Cervantes says about his ministry. “Being able to help someone makes me feel grateful. It’s like a privilege, like an honor. When I do this, its open-hearted. I don’t know who that person is, why he’s getting out, why he was arrested, why he did all that time, but saying, you know what? Regardless of what happened, I’m here.”

“Regardless of what happened, I’m here.” Powerful words. Here is someone who knows what to do with his freedom. He accompanies his brothers through their own exodus, their own wilderness as they transition out of prison.

This morning we read from the Book of Exodus the familiar story of the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt. The people find themselves wandering in the wilderness of Sinai—a strange, unfamiliar expanse. A place where it is hard to get your bearings! And instead of the relative security of captivity—where at least they know they will be fed—they face thirst, hunger and uncertainty. “Not such a great deal,” they begin to think. And understandably, fear grows in them as they face days without provisions.

What will they eat and drink? How will they survive? They complain to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)

One of the things I love about this story is all the grumbling. So human. So familiar. So relatable. How many times has God done something in your life that wasn’t exactly what you had in mind? That maybe caused some grumbling. Led you to some new place that is—frankly—bewildering? How often has life taken a turn that leaves you frightened or disoriented, unsure of what’s next? How often have you felt like protesting—even grumbling against God?

I love the way the Israelites grumble in this story. Our NRSV translation uses the word “complain” for the Hebrew word (lyn). But “grumble” is really a better translation. There’s an undertone here of resentment. Grumbling is something you do when you feel ornery, tired out, at your wits’ end. It’s not a polite, reasoned form of protest.

Think of children on the ubiquitous family car trip, from the back seat, grumbling, “Are we there yet?”

In this story of wilderness wandering and newfound freedom you can almost feel the growth pangs of an adolescent faith. This is a story about a people coming of age. It’s a story about maturing in faith.

The six million dollar question posed in this story is stated flat out in verse 4. Will the Israelites “walk according to God’s instruction or not.” Will they be faithful—even in this hard desert place? Will they look to God for providence and grace?

God says to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.” And then we will see “whether the people will follow my instruction or not.”

And you know the story—God does provide! Now I’m not going to spend one minute of this sermon trying to explain this miracle of sustenance in the desert. What really happened or what this manna was—what sort of substance. The Israelites themselves did not know what it was.
The very word—mahn hu is a folk corruption of the the Hebrew mah hu, which roughly translated means, “what the heck is it?” or “whadda ya call it?” They didn’t know what it was, either. So I’m not going to sweat it.

Exodus tells us that in the morning quail came up and covered the camp and the earth was covered with a fine dew that provided moisture—enough to sustain the people. And they ate and drank. Bread and manna. Nothing in excess. Just enough for each day.

Psalm 78, which we also read this morning, puts it in an even more evocative way.

God rained flesh upon them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
he let them fall within their camp,
all around their dwellings.

It was “raining quail!” I think that would make an excellent name for a heavy metal band, don’t you? “Raining Quail?”

So this amazing God who leads people out of slavery into freedom, provides. Even in the most barren places and unlikely circumstances. God provides. Even when the people are irritable and grumbling. Even when they are confused or they’ve reached the end of their rope. Even when they doubt. None of this is a match for God’s loving kindness—which is poured out day and night in just the right measure.

Why do we grumble? We are creatures of habit. Sometimes we prefer what’s familiar, comfortable or certain. But sometimes we want like crazy to change and it’s just plain hard.

It’s hard to change old habits—exceedingly hard. Science tells us that habits become ingrained in our brain circuitry and that, in order to break a habit, we have to break into the patterns of stimulus and response that have been laid down in our neural pathways. If you’ve ever struggled to change a habit, you know how hard it can be.

Why did the Israelites grumble? One interpreter writes, “The wandering in the wilderness is for Israel the place to knock down the mental frame of being oppressed and to pick up the life of liberty. Here is an opportunity to lay aside the habits of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Eph. 5:8, Rom 13:12)”

Put on the armor of light. Wow—okay—I like the sound of that! Can I get that in a force field that will protect me from all fear and doubt and hunger and thirst?

I feel for the Israelites, don’t you? They’re accustomed to grumbling against pharaoh in Egypt. How easy is it to continuing grumbling against God? It’s an old habit, a well-established neural pathway. This is a moment of awakening for them. God is not like pharaoh: a cruel master. This is a God who parts the waters and leads people to freedom, who sends refreshing dew and rains down bread from heaven.

Maybe if you’re in a mindset where you can’t break free, being hit over the head with falling quail will wake you up! Yup, that’ll do it!

But there’s another angle to this. Sometimes when we are totally awake and receptive we still don’t know what to do with freedom. It may be exactly what we desire, but the responsibility is great.

I am free to take unlimited quantities of fresh, potable water right from my faucet. But if fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce and precious, what should I do with this freedom?

I am free to change traffic lanes without signaling. Not something I make a habit of, but it happens. And if I do change lanes without signaling, I can do that without fear of bodily injury. What do you do when you have that kind of freedom in a society where some do not?

There are many kinds of freedom. I suspect that what was so awe-some to the Israelites coming out of Egypt is that they had a new capacity to determine their own course. That kind of freedom can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Like is was for Carlos Cervantes when he was released from prison at the age of 27. You have to know what to do with that kind of freedom.

God clearly calls the Israelites—and us—to use freedom wisely and for good. To cultivate kindness, gratitude and generosity. To live faithfully in response to whatever our situation might be.

We all have our small wildernesses. It doesn’t have to be something extreme like servitude or incarceration. It can be a medical setback, and unexpected death, a struggle with addiction. There are many bewildering places in which we find ourselves wandering and in need of grace.

The question is: What will we do in this uncharted territory? Will we fall into grumbling or will we open ourselves to the gift of a 12–step sponsor, the providence of bread and manna, the wisdom of elders, the simple assurance of a companion who has walked the way before?

What will you do with your freedom?

"A Ride Home from Prison"

Everett Fox, p. 348.

Rein Bos, Feasting on the Word, p. 293.

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