by Pete Perry
Exodus 16 (selected verses)
They had been at it for six weeks.
Wandering in the wilderness.
Wondering what would happen to them next.
Dislocated. Not knowing the next place they would sleep.
Anxious that they would not be able to find food.
Scared they would not make it but instead would die in the desert.
So they turned on their leaders, Moses and Aaron.
“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.” 1
We have been at it for more than six months now.
Wandering in the wilderness. The wandering began as we left the life we had know to find deliverance from a different kind of Pharaoh —not an Egyptian one but a viral one.
We too have been wondering what will happen to us. Have we taken the right precautions to stay safe in this wilderness? What about our children? What about our elder sisters and brothers? Will businesses make it? Will our salaries be sustained? And church. Are people still worshiping with us?
We can’t see them. Screen fatigue is beating us down.
Church leaders, can they be trusted to guide us through? Perhaps like those complaining Israelites, we are murmuring, — some of us beneath our breath, some of us out loud, —
“If only we had ignored this virus when life was so good, — when the economy was whizzing, —when we could have donuts and coffee together every Sunday . . . . But you, our leaders brought us out into this wilderness. You are killing this whole congregation.”
We are tired of this. Like those ancient Israelites, we want to go back to the way it was. Maybe there was a cruel Pharaoh back there in Egypt.. But at least there in Egypt there was meat and bread.
Those Israelites lives had been upended. They now just wanted things to get back to normal. But normal, the way things had been, would never return. What lay ahead for them was a whole new world, —a whole different way of being a community.
And God was forming them for that whole new world out there in the wilderness.
You know this story!
They were moving toward Promised Land, the bible calls it, that new world, —Promised Land in the land of Canaan. Out there in that wilderness, the Israelites were not in the middle of an interruption. They were in the middle of a disruption.
Those are terms the Christian educator and astute pastor Rodger Nishioka uses to help us understand what we are experiencing.
An interruption is when what we have known stops. Then, after a while, when the crisis that caused the stoppage is over, —things return to the way they had been — to normal.
A disruption is when what we have known stops. But when the crisis is over things do not return to the way they were, to what we call normal. In a disruption, we get changed. Whatever has happened makes life different on the other side. Rodger is pretty sure we are in a disruption. 2
Just think if you will. Department stores and malls. On the far side of this wilderness will we be frequenting them? Will they exist? Or will online shopping become the norm? Office towers in the midst of our cities. On the far side of this wilderness will companies still lease thousands of square feet of office space packed with people working out of jammed together cubicles in buildings in the center of our cities? All of that was the norm in Atlanta, Charlotte, New York with the accompanying long commute times. In the future will telecommuting become the new norm for professionals and corporate employees? How will that reshape the whole design of our urban areas? Business travel. On the far side of this wilderness will companies still spend millions of dollars on business people flying all over the country and the world for meetings? Or will Zoom meetings become the new norm for such meetings? And how will that reshape our whole airline industry?
Out in the wilderness, the Israelites were in a disruption. God was reshaping them for what lay ahead in that new land they would inhabit. In this wilderness we are in as a church I invite you to consider whether it is, as well, a disruption rather than an interruption for us.
I make that invitation for I am concerned about your expectations. You have heard that the Session has taken action to authorize gathered, in-person worship to resume in our Fellowship Hall. The elders, deacons, and staff are getting ready for this. We anticipate all the procedures to enable this gathered worship will take about three weeks to put into place.
So on a Sunday toward the end of October, these in-person services will begin. Yet, we are still in the wilderness of this journey away from domination by the coronavirus. So these services will not be a return to the way they used to be. When they commence I expect the Session and I will still receive grumbling.
The larger reality is that even on the far side of this wilderness journey the shape of our life together as a congregation will not return to the normal we once knew. For in this wilderness God is at work reshaping this congregation.
I do not know what that shape will be. But I imagine, if we are attentive, —we might be able to discern even now some signs of the way it will be then. For instance, —in this wilderness time we are learning that some of the things we did as a congregation we haven’t missed. So maybe on that far side, we won’t do them anymore. In this wilderness time, we are learning that some people who came to worship out of habit or social customs are now out of the habit or have decided that the social custom of going to church is a thing of the past. So on that far side, we won’t see these people in our pews or in the chairs in the Fellowship Hall anymore. The ones who will be here may be smaller in number perhaps but more committed in faith.
In this wilderness time, we are learning hat the literal physical health of the members of this congregation is utterly dependent on the public health of this community and world.
As one person put it, we are learning that “none of us are safe until all of us are safe.”
So on that far side will a big missional focus of this congregation become working to assure everyone in this city and the surrounding area has access to quality preventative health care?
Like it was for those Israelites, this wilderness experience for us is a disruption, not an interruption. There is a whole new world coming for this congregation — a promising new world. Yet there will not be a return to the way things were.
In the meantime, it is hard. We are tired. We are scared about what is happening to our life —as a church, as a nation, as a world.
Will we make it to that far side? Why not give up and just return to the land of Pharaoh, — return to the way we want to go about our living, — return to the land of just letting this wretched virus take its toll, —kill off an estimated 1.4 million of us in this country 3 including who knows how many within this congregation, —to get us to “herd immunity”? At least if we did that, those of us surviving could eat and go on our merry way.
Those Israelites could not see how they would be sustained in that wilderness. Out of that fear they cried out in anger against their leaders. God heard their complaining. And God provided. Quail in the evening. Manna in every morning. Not much is said about the quail in this story. But a lot is said about manna.
Do you know what the Israelites called it? “Man hu” was their word. Literally it means “what’s that stuff?”
I wonder if their word for it is kind of like the word we have for leftover broccoli in the refrigerator, — “what’s THAT stuff?”
I wonder if it is similar to the word some of my grandchildren use when asparagus or spinach is put on their plates.
One Hebrew scholar says this about manna: —“A type of plant lice punctures the fruit of the tamarisk tree —(found in the Sinai desert) — and excretes a substance from its juice, —a yellowish-white flake or ball.
During the warmth of the day, it disintegrates but it congeals when it is cold.” 4 Sounds appetizing doesn’t it? God gave it to the Israelites to test them, — to see if they would rely on God’s providence to see them through, —to see, as the writer of Deuteronomy says, — if they trusted God “to do [them] good in the end.” 5
Every morning “what’s that stuff” was on the ground. For forty years! I bet those Israelites got tired of it. Having to depend on that stuff to make it through the wilderness got old. Yet, God provided. It was always there — fresh every morning. And it sustained them each and every day —“until they came to the border of the land of Canaan,” 6 —until they came to that far side, that Promised Land.
In this our passage through the wilderness, I heard a clip of the recent testimony Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, gave to a Senate sub-committee. He said, “these face masks, are the most important powerful public health tool we have. They are our best defense. I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, — because the immunogenicity maybe 70%. And if I don’t get an immune response, — the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.” 7 His comment stirred my imagination about what God’s provision for us in our wilderness right now looks like.
What is the manna God is giving us each day to see us through this hard passage?
It hit me, could it be science? Science. The science the public health experts have been offering us for months now. Science. The simple science that masks, social distancing, — washing hands, staying away from crowded indoor spaces slow the passing of the aerosol droplets of this virus. Science. Is that the manna God is now providing to sustain us? It may not be appetizing. The scientists sometimes get some things wrong and have to change their recommendations a bit. Yet, now the preponderance of public health scientists are telling us the same thing. These simple things work.
We may not like its demands. Wearing a mask is a nuisance. Not gathering in crowds indoors cramps our desires. Social distancing limits our desire to shake hands, hug, — welcome people to sit around our table. It gets old. Yet is science the manna God is providing for us to endure through this wilderness? Is it the manna that will see us to the far side, — see this congregation through to that side in a way that honors and cares for each member of the body?
Is it what God is giving us testing us to eat it, so to speak, — testing us to depend on it as a way of seeing if we trust God’s provision and trust God’s desire “to do us good”?
That stuff? You’ve got to be kidding! Eat that stuff?
The Israelites ate it. They “ate it for forty years, until they came to a habitable land . . .” 8
God is offering it to us right now.
First Presbyterian Church, Greer SC
27 September 2020
1 Exodus 16:3
2 Interview of Dr. Rodger Nishioka by the Rev. Lee Hinson-Hasty, Director of the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) August 10, 2020 https://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/does-the- pandemic-represent-an-interruption-or-a-disruption/
3 The Cost of Herd Immunity in the U.S. — Likely involves more than a million deaths; “That cannot be our price” by Kristina Fiore, Director of Enterprise & Investigative Reporting, MedPage Today September 1, 2020. medpagetoday.com
4 Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991, p. 182
5 Deuteronomy 8:16
6 Exodus 16:35
7 Dr. Robert Redfield. US Senate testimony. September 16, 2020
8 Exodus 16:35