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Testing the Mettle

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Aug 05

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16: 2-4; 9-15

I could barely get past the first few lines of our passage from Exodus today without thinking of the complaining and grumbling not of the Children of Israel but of my own kids. Some of you know the bellyaching of hunger or boredom arising from the backseat on a long car ride, or these days its maybe as likely to be the seemingly insatiable appetite for more screen time. I was at an evening meeting a few weeks ago when I missed an especially pressing and precious bit of complaining by my daughter Nellie, which was captured in a voicemail. With her permission, I’d like to share it with you now from my phone. Here goes, and I’ll translate after for those who can’t make her words. (plays voicemail into microphone). In one of Nellie’s more distraught voices – “­Dan, the TV is not working and you are ignoring us. I keep pressing input, input, input and the cable doesn’t come on. Help us!”

To Nellie’s credit, all I had to do it was play the message back to her at breakfast for her to realize how over the top it was. She cracked up herself and the rest of us too! Back to the complaining in our text. Forget about no TV time, imagine how Moses and Aaron felt when the whole congregation of the Israelites were complaining. Some translations actually use the word “grumbling”. The whole congregation grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness! I shudder at the thought of what that would sound like. What intrigues me most is God’s seemingly immediate and then somewhat perplexing response. Already in verse 4, God relents and says 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...”

Set aside for now the fact that God here seems to reward the Israelites for their grumbling by giving them exactly what they want. I might have expected and even liked to have seen God rain down fire or hail or bricks or something a little more, you know, biblical. Clearly I’m just projecting my own gut response to all the backseat-style grumbling in recent weeks of longer than usual car rides. What I should say, is how God-like of God, how patient and graceful of God to give the people what they need. But even still, God says something here that seems odd. God says, in essence, I’m giving you this bread to “test” you.

A little background may help unpack the meaning of this. This is the second time of three times in the same number of chapters where the Israelites are caught grumbling. The biblical scholar Everett Fox points out a theme of grumbling that is carried through these early days of the Israelites time in the wilderness. Our passage comes just six weeks after the Passover and the Liberation from Egypt. This is just one in a series of wilderness stories that embody what Fox calls “a key process: Israel’s passage from enslaved childhood to troubled adolescence, with a hopeful glance towards adulthood [in] (the Promised Land).” No wonder why their complaining about being hungry reminds me of my pre-teen children! Fox continues “transformation always involves both life and death, and so it is not surprising that characteristic theme of the [Exodus] stories is a lack of food and/or water.” Our passage is just one of “three scenes of ‘grumbling’ about the difficulties of survival, with [this] unique Biblical twist: God and the people are “testing” each other.”

What I want to know is what is this testing all about. Quite honestly, I don’t really like idea of a God who gives tests. I sometimes want to cringe when I hear of someone enduring some hardship and talking of being tested by God, as if God sent them the hardship in the first place. What is especially odd about this so-called test is that God seems to give the reward first. There’s a strange reversal here. The carrot comes first, and then God gives them the stick and asks them to try to see if they can use it, maybe to learn conscience, to learn responsibility, to learn what it means to take and receive your daily bread, not more and not less. It reminds me of an unorthodox Economics professor I once had who gave us all A’s for the term on the first day of class and not only that, he actually encourage us to share all of our work! True story, and I learned as much if not more that class.

Could it be, as many have suggested, that God wants to see if they will have the discipline to be able to distribute the bread equally, according to God’s instruction (i.e. to care not just for themselves but for others as well)? Could it be that God was testing their capacity to not take for granted the gifts that already been given them, not just the food, but the freedom from Egypt. Maybe. Could it be that God wanted to test their trust, that if God provided on one day their daily bread (and remember this story when we are saying the daily bread line in the Lord’s Prayer – many think that line of Jesus’ has it origins in this story)? Maybe.

Remember Everett Fox’s analysis that the Israelites, as a people, were still growing up here, maturing into the people of God. They had not yet made it to Sinai, not yet been held subject to the institutions of the law, nor to living in full covenant as God’s people. Exodus is the story of the birth of a great nation and we’re still in its early chapters. And so maybe it was a test of maturity, or better still a test of readiness to walk in God’s ways, to be and to stay in committed relationship with God, readiness to take the risks that God’s love demands and to live up to and to be worthy of the calling to which God was calling them (to borrow a phrase from our Ephesians reading which also makes mention of not being childlike!). Were they ready to live a rationed life of justice where no one would be hungry? Were they ready to believe that God would provide for them, again and again and again, even through those long wilderness weeks, months? Were they ready and mature enough in faith to do what might be hardest of all – to hope that God would see them through to a better day as God had done when they were in Egypt, as God did for them the last time their hearts grumbled and as God will do for them the next time, the next time and the next time? If this is true, then maybe this test is not some achievement-oriented opportunity for the people to either succeed or fail. Maybe this so-called test, and most of what we mistake for God’s test in our life, is more a matter of preparation.

This is not the test of some rigid schoolmaster, but a recognition, that as a nation, as a people, the Israelites were still growing up, still in training, they were still, as a people, in that awkward and deeply challenge stretch of adolescence. For us, it may come as a welcome reminder that there is such a thing as an adolescence of faith! Could it be that most of us who want to throw rocks at God’s windows (see my sermon from last week) are still somewhere in those troubled teenage years, that we are still settling into a more grown-up faith and trust and hope and even a more grown up sense of our calling to be God’s beloved? The good news of this passage is that God gives us bread for the journey, and time to prepare ourselves for what it means to be part of God’s future, of God’s dream, of that hopeful glance and that adult step into the Promised Land. And if we are ever anything like Nellie Baxandall, well, we just might be giving God a few tests too, at least preparing God for the demands of what it means to stand by us in all of our growing ups and down, in all of our lamentations and petitions along the way.

The fact remains – this story, and ours, is about transformation, its about how we learn to survive and live and thrive together, with patience, bearing with one another with love, as we keep growing up through hard times of life and death. Next time you are tempted to think that God is testing you, especially when you can manage to find even a few crumbs of bread on the ground, whatever spiritual or emotional sustenance is enough to get you through the day and no further, you might ask not why me or why this awful test but for what am I being prepared? And where might God need a partner in me, in you or in us who is coming into that next level of hard won faith and spiritual maturity?

I’d like to close on a more serious note with a haunting yet hopeful poem which is called “Imagine the Angels of Bread” written by the American Book Award winning poet Martin Espada. Hear in its title a reversal of the line “bread of angels” from Psalm 78 which references our Exodus passage. What follows is an entire string of seemingly harsh yet beautiful reversals and a bold imagination and even preparation for a new promised land.

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck…
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination…
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
 
This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery…
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
 
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
 
The poem is filled with reversals -- visions of a just future rooted in overturned injustices of the past, of a time when bellies and souls will hunger no more. Are we ready for that? Can we handle the imagination of our reality as we know it so overturned? Perhaps this is the real test of the manna. Its not only the test of what we will do with our abundance – the test of our having ‘pleasure without conscience’. It’s not only the test of that daily question of whether to be grateful for daily bread or whether we will take the gift and its giver for granted. It is those things, to be sure, and yet it’s more. The test is of the mettle of our imagination, the mettle of our hope that God will indeed provide through us and for us all.

Go ahead. Take the carrot and the stick! Take this bread! Take these angels of bread! Take and eat! Take and eat! Taste and live and grow and be ready for and be worthy of a shared future with God who provides and who will never let us stop growing up. Amen.

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