Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sermon - "Into the Wild"

King Street UCC, Danbury CT
October 2, 2011

“The LORD spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"
Exodus 16:11-12

“Into the Wild”

The Exodus story is one of those epic tales that has withstood the test of time.
Whether we believe the details are fact or fiction or a mythological tangle of both, the story of the people of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt is our story.
It’s humanity’s story.
The story of what happens when the chains that bind us are cut and we suddenly find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, learning what it means to be free.

For those of you who have not been with us every week since Pastor Cindy began this series in early September, let me give you the Cliff Notes version of the story so far to catch you up.

It began with the Israelites.
God’s chosen people – the people God called on to become God’s hands and feet in the created world.
God wanted to infuse the Spirit of the Divine presence into God’s people – to bring grace, mercy, compassion, forgiveness into our world on a human scale - and the Hebrew Bible tells us Abraham and his descendents were granted the honor of being the first to be called.

At the beginning of the Exodus story the people of Israel are pinned down beneath the heavy chains of slavery.
So God recruits Moses – who was born of a Hebrew mother and plucked from the Nile river and raised as an Egyptian – and calls him to lead the Israelites to freedom.
God appears to Moses in a burning bush, and Moses, despite his continued insistence that he is not qualified for the job, suddenly finds himself as the divinely appointed leader of a liberation movement.

In the climatic scene in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s chambers,
Moses cries out to Pharaoh – "Let my people go!" - and Pharaoh refuses.
In response, God sends 10 plagues upon the Egyptian people culminating with the death of every first-born child in all of the land.
Overwhelmed with grief and anger Pharaoh reluctantly complies and grants Moses and his people their freedom.
So the people left Egypt en mass, in a group that the bible tells us contained
600,000 men, plus women and children and livestock.
Now most scholars believe that this number is an exaggeration given the area’s population at the time and that the actual number of Israelite slaves was closer to 20,000 men, women, and children.
But that’s still a lot of people to care for on what was to become a long and arduous journey.

Using Moses as a guide, God pledged to lead the people to the Promised Land – the land of milk and honey.
But the most direct route to that land was occupied by the Philistines – and it would take a war to get them to allow safe passage for such a large group of fleeing refugees.

Fearing that violence would cause the already weakened Israelites to flee back to Egypt, God chose to send them on an alternative route – one that took them the long way around, and straight out into the vast and deserted wilderness.

But the fleeing slaves were not left to fend for themselves.
God was with them, always.
Appearing before them and leading them, via a pillar of swirling dust and cloud by day, and a pillar of wind and fire by night.
When the Egyptian Pharaoh realized that he made a grave mistake releasing his slaves and sent his army to retrieve the Israelites, the pillar of cloud and fire moved between God’s people and the advancing army, giving Moses the opportunity to use God’s power to part the Red Sea so they could cross safely to the other side.

And still God never left their side.
Only days into their trek into the wilderness, with the remnants of Pharaoh’s chariots still floating atop the Red Sea, the liberated slaves began to complain to Moses that they were thirsty.
And God heard those complaints and sweetened the bitter waters they had found to drink and led them to an oasis of 12 springs where they promptly set up camp.
It is here where God also promised to protect his weakened and vulnerable people from disease, saying to them, “For I am the Lord who heals you.”

And this is where today’s scripture reading picks up the story.
To the outside observer it appears as if God has placed a protective bubble around Moses and his people, and is determined to lead them unscathed to the Promised Land.
But the people are slow to realize that.
And still they complain to Moses.
This time they are hungry.
And God, hearing those complaints, tells them that they need not worry.
Each day at twilight they shall eat meat, in the form of quails that descended upon the camp, and every morning they shall have their fill of bread in the form of manna – a fine flaky substance left behind by the evaporated morning dew.

There were stipulations of course. The people were told to collect only what they needed for that day – there was to be no storing up of food.
And they were still to observe the Sabbath and do no work on the seventh day, for double the food would be provided the day before.

God was a visible and active God for the people of Israel.
Leading them out of captivity.
Eradicating an army to ensure their escape.
Providing them with water and food to sustain them.
And traveling with them, at least early on, as a physical presence in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire.

And still the people complained.
Still they did not trust that God would lead them out of the wilderness.
Still they did not believe that they had not been left on their own to fend for themselves.

We don’t know why.
We don’t know why despite the pillar of fire, the people lost sight of God.
We don’t know why despite God’s continued interventions, they lost their trust in God.
But we think we know enough to look back in judgment upon the wandering Israelites and lift them up as an example of who we’re called NOT to be.
A bickering, complaining group of ungrateful people who had no idea what it was God was leading them towards, or who it was God was calling them to be.

The opening line of this text says it all:
      “…and the whole congregation complained.”
Now we modern day church goers wouldn’t have any familiarity with THAT would we?

The truth is, we can’t help but complain, we’re human beings.
For the majority of us, if you pluck us out of civilization, no matter how oppressive it is, and drop us in the middle of the wilderness with no food, or water, or shelter, and have us hike miles and miles every day in search of it, and the days turns into months, and the months turn into years, we’re going to complain.
Look what happened after Hurricane Irene when some of us lost power for a few days….take away our ability to cook food, take a hot shower, flush the toilet, watch our cable TV, and recharge our cell phones and we’re going to complain.
I did.
But I at least I didn’t complain to God about my predicament.
That’s what Facebook is for.

Even when our basic needs are being met, wandering in the desert for a few weeks has a way of playing with our mind.
Whether it’s the hot sun beating down on our head, or the fact that we can’t just pop into the kitchen for a cold drink or grab a snack whenever the mood moves us.
For the Israelites, who for years had been supplied food and shelter by their captors, however meager, being asked to trust that God would provide for them by sending them wandering quail and dewy bread was a hard leap for them to take.
Suddenly the slave encampments back in Egypt seemed like Club Med.

This is the tension we experience when we wander in the wilderness.
In the “in between” place where we’re no longer WHERE we once were, or WHO we once were, and we are not yet where we’re going to be, or who we’re going to be.
We’re in the process of becoming.
Becoming something different.
Becoming someone new.
Becoming who God is calling us to be.

God was calling the Israelites to be something new.
They had spent hundreds of years living as slaves in Egypt and were completely dependent upon their captives for survival.
They needed to learn how to live as free people again.
And that does not happen over night.
Which is why God didn’t just clear a path through the land of the Philistines and lead the people directly to the Promised Land.
They needed to spend some time learning to trust that God would provide for them.
That God would provide the resources – bread, water, materials to build shelters and clothing.
And that they were to use these resources wisely; to resist the urge to hoard or take more then their fill, insuring that there was enough for all.

For the Israelites it took about 40 years to learn that lesson.
Just enough time for a new generation to be born into freedom, and to embrace that freedom because it’s all they’d ever known.

The Exodus story continues with us. We’re living in a time where the resources God has provided are becoming scarce.
Fresh water, food supplies, and fossil fuels are all being used at rates that exceed their ability to be naturally replenished.
And with the world’s population at over 7 billion and growing there’s little hope that these trends will ever reverse.

But while some envision a future in which wars will be fought over natural resources and society as we know it will break down into a kind of Mad Max “every man for himself” existence….there is hope that things can be different.
That we as a people can learn to live without the chains that bind us – our dependence on fossil fuels, the imbalances of our food distribution systems, and our propensity to waste water - and to learn to live free, trusting that the divinely sent manna we gather each morning will be enough to sustain us.

It sounds like a fairy tale doesn’t it? - a tale like the story of the Exodus, worthy of repeating in church on Sunday morning but one that has little basis in reality.
But in reality, we’ve already seen it happen.

It happened in Cuba, just 20 years ago.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Cuba’s economy went into a tailspin.
This nation of 11 million people was almost completely dependent upon outside resources to sustain it.
The supply of oil was cut by more than half – and the food supply by 80 percent. Cars stopped running. Electricity was available sporadically. Lacking substitutes for fossil-fuel-based farming, food production was devastated. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the first year of the crisis.

But you may be surprised by how the people responded.

Without fuel for cars, Cubans walked and rode bicycles. People could no longer commute to far away jobs and thus found jobs within their own communities. Self-sustaining neighborhoods become the norm, with people relying on corner markets and local businesses for most of their resources. People got to know each other, and learned to care for each other.

City-dwellers planted urban gardens on every available plot, and reverted to organic farming to reclaim soils destroyed by chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
These local farmers reconnected with their neighbors and willingly supplied free food to elders, schools, workers, and pregnant women.

To increase food production, the government divided state farms into smaller private farms and cooperatives. Farmers replaced fossil fuels with labor-intensive practices, animal power, and Cuban-developed biofertilizers, resulting in increased productivity.
Less fuel meant less machinery, smaller farms, more crop rotation, better soil, fewer bugs, and less need for pesticides.

To help people survive, the Cuban government even expanded their free, localized medical system.
Doctors and social workers lived in the communities that they served and were considered an integral part of the social fabric.
Increased physical activity and the healthier diet lowered rates of heart disease and diabetes.
And despite its status as a Second World nation, Cuba’s life span and infant mortally rate is now equal to that of the US.

Cuba adapted, survived, and thrived because they mobilized their entire culture. They made changes requiring cooperation, adaptability, and openness to alternatives. As one Cuban remarked, “When we were told we needed to reduce energy use, everybody did it.”

But all these changes didn’t happen right away.
It took time and multiple false starts before people learned to work together to ensure their own survival.
Twenty years later we can look back at the results and see that the people are better off having been freed from the shackles that bound them,
but when we’re forced into the wilderness that freedom feels initially like punishment, and there’s no telling how we’re going to react.

Like the Israelites, at first we’re going to complain.
We’re going to look around and notice that the comforts we once had are no longer there.
And we’re NOT going to recognize that those comforts were actually holding us in place, keeping us from growing, keeping us from answering God’s challenge to live differently in this world.

Whether its our over dependence on our world’s dwindling resources;
our tendency to hold onto our love, mercy, and forgiveness as if they were scarce commodities rather than flowing from God’s abundance;
or our reluctance to open our hearts to new ideas, new ways of living, and new ways of being church in this ever changing world.

We hold on to our dependence, our fears, and our old ways because we don’t like how it feels to be in the wild.
We like to feel safe, and secure, and when God call us to move out of that place of familiarity we feel the urge to dig in our heels and say, “No, we won’t go.”

But like the Israelites – and the people of Cuba – sometimes we don’t have a choice.
The world changes around us and we’re forced to adapt – or die.
Sometimes God pushes us out into the wilderness and says, 
    “Go, learn how to be the people of God. I will provide for you.”
And we have to learn to trust that that this is true.

We are the people of God.
Our manna, our daily bread, is the world that God has created for us.
And our Promised Land is the Kingdom of God – the peaceful, grace-filled world that we are    building together, with God’s help -  but is still yet to come.


For those interested in learning more about how Cuba survived after being cast into the wilderness, you can watch the fascinating and hopeful documentary "The Power of Community" on You Tube.

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