Only when you trust someone, do you begin to really get to know them.
Such was a life lesson I began to learn from all of the youth group trips my parents forced me to attend, beginning in the 7th grade.
Every fall, when the air was crisp and cool like it is beginning to feel right now, the motley crew of suburban churchy teenagers and I along with our leaders would board a bus headed for the mountains. Though many of us attended with the hopes of hanging out without our friends, usually our youth leaders would have something else in mind as a purpose of the weekend: group bonding.
Sounds simple enough, but the measures such leaders would take to teach us how to trust each other always seemed extreme to me. I will never forget the fear that came over me as a scrawny little 7th grader on my first fall retreat when I was introduced to the “trust fall.” Some of you may be familiar when this activity too from similar workplace retreats.
The concept of the trust fall was simple: each participant in the group would be asked to climb up on a large platform, in our case, built into a tree, and stand with their back to the group assembled below with their hands crossed like this (place hands across chest). The group standing below would lock their hands together to their corresponding partner. And, then, as the person up on the platform, you’d be asked to fall backwards “depending” that your group mates would catch you.
While the whole activity takes merely a few seconds from start to finish, the emotional toil of preparing for and processing the experience afterwards took much longer. For, as much as I wanted to be the “cool” new 7th grader, I could remember how I felt about being such in a vulnerable position of being held, carried and supported by older kids that I barely knew.
But, after (with much encouragement) submitting myself to the trust of the trust fall, feeling like I was on top of the world, like no other experience– for even though I shed a tear or two in anticipation of the actual fall, the group still accepted me. In our trust of one another through this exercise, we began as a group, the experience of really getting to know each other.(Watch out church council members… we are having a retreat this Saturday).
In our scripture passage for this morning, no matter if they liked it or not, the Israelites were also facing their own version of a “trust fall” experience as well. For since we last journeyed with them last week, when courage had been their intention in crossing the Red Sea, in no time, they faced new challenges. For as much as they thought they knew this God who had told them to walk across the sea on dry ground, they were realizing that the adventure had only just begun. Maybe they didn’t know this God as well as they thought. . . . for life was getting just a little bit more scary than they imagined.
The land they found themselves in was somewhere around the Sinai Peninsula, a geographically barren place. Differing from the lush vegetation that the Israelites had enjoyed in Egypt next to the Nile River, the change in scenery meant that gathering basic necessities for life was all that much more difficult.
And so what we hear them doing as our passage opens in verse two is complaining– saying the grass was greener on the other side of life, literally.
But such outcries weren’t new to the story. Such was what had happened when they stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army soon approaching saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die?” and such was also what they said when it became apparent only three days later that water was going to be hard to come by in the desert
Yet, protection from their enemies and water was not their only need. Soon the Israelites voiced concerns for food in verse 3 saying to 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 into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
We hear these words coming out of their mouths and our first instinct is to judge and say shame on them for complaining, but the truth be told, they really did have every reason to voice their concerns. Like I felt climbing for the first time up on that platform getting ready to fall into the arms of my just as inexperienced peers, so the Israelites had never seen or done anything before
like this either.
None of them had attended Boy Scout camp and gotten their “how to survive in the wilderness when your leader doesn’t even know where you are going” badge.
None of them had gone on a pre-mission trip to plot out the locations where food and water could have been.
None of them had been given any sort of road map so that in this crisis they could at least muster up some of their own intellect to figure out what might be next.
They were where they were because they were following the deity they knew as Yahweh after all, so seems fair, doesn’t it that a lament to God was in order?
After all laments are all about giving voice, as one theologian writes, “to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear and danger. [To lament is to] call upon God to see arise and act.”[i]
So, in their laments, they were actually turning toward God in the hopes that in making their requests known, that God actually heard them.
But the thing is about laments, which we know from the times when we make them in our own lives too, is that the solutions we come up with are not always the most level-headed solutions or even the best scenarios at all for getting us out of our predicaments.
For the Israelites, their complaining lament focused on going back to Egypt. They wanted to go back because it was a land, even with all of its oppression was a place where they at least knew the rules.
They knew that they only had themselves to trust there. And if they put their head down, worked hard and sought to do as they were told, then hopefully their slave masters would show pity on them. And, at least at the end of the day in Egypt, no matter how hard it was, they earned food by their own hands to put in their mouths.
However, only when you depend on someone do you actually begin to get to know them.
But, this journey, as it began at the Red Sea and would continue for many years to come would not be about what life was like in Egypt. It was and always would be about God and getting to know Yahweh who had called Moses to be their leader many years ago by saying: “I AM who I AM”
You see, the time for self-sufficiency was over, working hard to earn their own keep or even having a predictable life routine. The journey in the wilderness would be about getting to know this God who was leading them with a cloud by day and a fire by night– and some surrendering was in order. To know this God, they’d have to first depend on him.
As we continue to read this passage, we see that the provisions of God, came from the heavens– and no matter if you believe this part of the story was an actual miracle or just some circumstances of chance– the message is still the same: the ways of God were different from life was in Egypt. And now, out of Egypt, what the people were most to learn was all about this God. And as the Israelites
got to know this God, they too might have to say to one another, “What is it?” because it was going to be nothing like they’d ever seen done before.
I love verse 15 for this very reason, for when the bread came and the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” for they didn’t know what it was. And the actual translation of “what is it?” is the word manna which we know the bread as in our Bibles today.
In every morning that the people gathered the bread and in every evening that gathered the meat, promised by God as their provisions, they were practicing faith. They were relinquishing control. They were being intentionally dependant
I can imagine that countless of the people had never been that dependant ever before in their lives. They’d never seen anyone they could depend on other than themselves before. They’d never really seen the point before. And, I can imagine as this challenge was placed before them, that they didn’t like it very much either. But, it was their calling regardless: to trust God.
I shared with all of you last week that on September 30th a dear friend and mentor of mine, Joseph Smith, who had preached here once before and with whom I had served at a previous congregation, had died.
Joe, for those who knew he was a man who worked hard his entire life serving in various ministry position through the DC Baptist Convention that Washington Plaza Baptist is a part of. He worked almost too hard sometimes. His wife Margaret of over 50 years was always encouraging at him to take a break, slow down, stop. But, that was not how Joe rolled.
He regularly spent hours of his time in his study organizing his preparations for anything he was in charge of and always thinking of ways that he could be most helpful to those in the sphere of influence in his life, even when he was said to be “retired.”
However, out of nowhere, most unfairly, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, though not a smoker, over a year and a half ago. Recently, after chemo and a series of blood conditions developed as a side effect of his treatment, Dr. Smith was weak and fragile only taking baby steps around his house with a walker. The man who had gone and did some more (more than anyone ever asked him to do) was now utterly dependant on family and friends who could look after him.
In one of our last correspondences with each other he wrote me about how hard it was to be the one in need of the visit instead of being the pastor making the house calls. He told me how much it ached him when he no longer had the energy to be the first one to reach out or contribute to the care of others. He hoped people would not forget him in his time of need. Though such a sentiment came to me through a comment he posted on my blog, the feelings he shared were a modern version of a lament of how hard this dependant
stuff is for all of us.
I don’t want to be one of those preachers who stands here before you this morning and says that God sends onto this planet drought, famine, life-shattering illnesses like cancer in order to teach us how to be dependent creatures. Sounds too much like a sick plan of an abusive Father, rather than a loving God to me. Because I don’t believe in a God that willing places us in harm’s way just to teach us a lesson. I don’t believe in a God who is that evil like that.
But, what I do know is that God desperately wants us to know who God is. And, sometimes the trajectory of our lives, in this broken world of ours will take a turn into the wilderness, unavoidable to us: a place where all seems lost.
And it is in the wilderness, like no other time in our lives, that we can learn about who God really is. A God who says to us, I hear you, I see, you and even if the provisions I provide look like manna (“what is it?”) still you will be nourished. Still you will be full.
So, today, I ask you, where you do you want to go to church?
Where you want to make your house? Do you want to live in Egypt? Or do you want to be on the journey to the promise land?
If you want to go back to Egypt and what has worked for you in the past, then know there is no freedom there. There is no leader here who knows your name. There is no hope here that life will be better tomorrow; just more of the same.
But if you want to go to the Promised Land, if you want to abide in the presence of the One who knew you before you even knew yourself if you want to know the One who says I am the beginning and the end, then, dependence is a word that has got to come into all of our vocabularies.
For our calling is to get out on the ledge a little more and to fall into the arms of a God who can be trusted is in fact not as a bad as we thought it might be– for when we make our laments, when we tell God what is really on our minds, some “what is it?” might just be falling to us on the horizon.
Let us stand still and in whatever state we find our lives in today: receive. Singing together, “Here I Am Lord.”
[i]Elna K. Solvang “Lectionary for August 2, 2009: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15.”