Pastor Steve Molin
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and his Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
So it’s August. By now you have perhaps taken your family vacation to such exotic places as Fargo, and Waterloo, and Omaha. And though the destinations are all different, the road trips are essentially the same: adults, tense from the navigation, and children cranky all the way from the back seat. “When are we going to get there?” they call out with regularity. “Stay on your side; mom, he’s not staying on his side.” “I have to go potty!” I love Tony Campolo’s speech that he gave to his children every time they departed for a vacation. “When we get in the car, your bladders will be empty and the gas tank will be full, and we will not stop until the gas tank is empty and your bladders are full!”
Road trips have always been this way. Complaints, tension, murmuring, unhappiness. But when the trip is over; when the travelers arrive at their destination, the complaining ends and the trip becomes a marvelous memory that could not be appreciated in the middle of the journey. “Wasn’t it good?” we say to each other. “Didn’t we have an amazing time together!”
The people of Israel were held captive in Egypt for 430 years. 430 miserable years! That’s twenty-one generations being kept as prisoners in a foreign land. Years of appealing to the pharaohs of Egypt could not bring their release. So God decided to send plagues; ten of them to make the Egyptians’ lives miserable enough to let the Israelites go. God sent grasshoppers and frogs and hail and boils upon the bodies of the Egyptians. Nothing worked. And then one night, God sent the 10th plague, the Angel of Death. God instructed Moses to tell the Jews to get ready to travel. Kill a lamb and eat it, and then use the lamb’s blood to paint the doors of your homes, because the Angel of Death will come and kill the first born of every family. But the Angel will “pass over the homes of those whose doors are painted.” Pass over. Passover. This is where the highest of Jewish holy days gets its name. And the next morning, when all the Egyptians are grieving the death of their children, the people who had been held captive for centuries calmly wandered out into the wilderness.
I imagine the people singing, and dancing, and praising God for freedom. The road trip went well, but not for long. The Israelites began to cry out to Moses, “How much farther now? Are we almost there? We’re tired. We’re hungry. It would have been better for us to die in Egypt than for you, Moses, to bring us out here to starve to death in this wilderness. At least in Egypt we had three square meals and a warm bed at night.”
I think I know how Moses must have felt. On our family road trips, when the roads were well travelled, and the signs showed us the way, I could handle a little complaining from the back seat. But when I got lost; when I didn’t really know how far it was, or when we were going to get there, or even where I was, I became angry, and frustrated, and afraid. Trust me, it’s happened more than once!
It wasn’t Moses’ idea to lead these people out of Egypt. It was God’s idea, and God didn’t even provide a map. And now all the wrath of the Israelites came bearing down on Moses. He was afraid for his people, and maybe just a little bit angry at God for this awful wilderness journey. But then God spoke to Moses, “Moses, tell the people I have heard their complaining, and I am going to do something about it. I will rain bread down upon them every day. Every evening, quail will come and provide you with meat. Tell the people that this is a test, to see if the people will trust me.”
And true to his word, God sent bread every morning and quail every night. And some failed God’s test. They worried that God might not provide it tomorrow or the next day, so they hoarded more meat and bread than they could eat and stashed it in their tents. And the next morning, maggots filled their tent and devoured the food. From that point on, they trusted God…because God had heard their complaint.
I have been a pastor now for 30 years and I’ve heard my share of complaining. I’ve heard people complain about the coffee we serve between services, and about how much money the church wastes on paper, and about how unfair it is that visitors take some of the best parking spaces. Seriously, I once had someone suggest that we put up signs that say VISITOR PARKING in the farthest corner of the parking lot.
But it’s when hurting people come into my office and describe the wilderness of their lives that breaks my heart. I have listened to people who, through their tears, have described the death of a child. I listened to a man one day who sat down and said, “I’ve lost everything. I lost my job, my home was foreclosed, and my family has left me.” His story reminded me of a line from the book Tuesdays with Morrie. When Morrie was asked about Job and all the loss he experienced in his life, Morrie responded, “I think God overdid it.” But I was also reminded about something my Jewish friend in Sioux Falls once said, “I think God gets too much credit and too much blame for the things that happen in this world.”
But still the complainers come to us; to Pastor Linda, and me, and to pastors in any church. We are the Moses in their lives and they come to complain to us about God. You have had surgery after surgery, or you have a mountain of financial problems, or you have a fractured family, or you harbor guilt or pain, and the pain is killing you. So you come in to complain about how unfair God is. About how absent God can be when our lives are hard. In fact, maybe that is your complaint today. You find yourself in a wilderness place and you are hurting, and frustrated, and angry, and lonely, and afraid, and you don’t know whom to lash out to. Like most pastors, I’m a great listener, but I don’t have many answers. Compassion, yes. A hug and a prayer and a cup of coffee, yes. But when it comes to human suffering, I’m a lot like Moses; I am wandering in the same wilderness you are.
But also like Moses, I have some news for you. And in fact, I think this is the whole point of this story that we have heard from the Book of Exodus today. And the message is this: GOD HAS HEARD YOUR COMPLAINT. The gift God gave the Israelites was not the manna and the quail. Can you imagine how bland and boring a quail sandwich tasted after a couple years of the same thing every day? No, the gift God gave those wilderness wanderers was evidence that their complaint was heard. And if God is aware of our puny lives wandering in the wilderness, there is hope.
Today, in this very church, there are two distinct groups of people. Both know who they are, and both have a responsibility. Some in our midst are broken today; wandering in what seems to be a wasteland without hope or future. Your job is to cry out to God your complaint. Day and night, tell God of your brokenness and your pain. Don’t grow weary, don’t stop. God will hear your complaint; that’s a promise.
The second gaggle of people are those whose lives are relatively comfortable, calm and at peace. Your job is to cry out to God as well. Tell God of your gratitude; tell him of your realization that he is the source of all good things. Praise him. Praise God. And then ask God if there are those in this church who need a listening ear, who need a tender touch, who need a quail sandwich as evidence that God speaks best through the actions of the Saints. Your time of wilderness will come, and they will be there for you. But today you are the answer to the peoples’ complaint. Today, you are the manna to those in need. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2012 Steven Molin