If I were to ask you what the top five best moments of your life were, I am willing to guess that the main ones that come to mind would have less to do with material possessions and more to do with people, places, experiences, and memory making.
We live in a society that always seeks the biggest, best, fastest, and newest, and yet, many studies have shown that when someone actually gets the object that they think they want, they often are only satisfied with it for a short amount of time before they think about the next thing. Take phones for example. Someone might want to save up for the newest IPhone only to receive it and it become outdated within a few months. Suddenly the new phone seems to have much better technology, is much easier to use, and has additional features which we suddenly feel we cannot live without.
It has often surprised me, in fact, that the countries which are the richest economically have the highest rates of stress, anxiety, and depression compared to poor countries. There are some people who struggle with mental illness due to chemical imbalances within their brain which cannot be helped, but can be managed effectively with the right treatments, yet, there are many others who struggle with discontentment simply because they have too many options and opportunities than they could possibly ever desire. Perhaps hard to imagine for some, but there are actually Millennials (people in their 20s and 30s) who have gone into debt trying to keep up appearances on social media by going on trips or wearing clothes they cannot afford and in recent year a new phrase has been created called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). It seems that while social media has many benefits, one draw back is that people spend money to impress people they don’t even know or even like. On my own Facebook page I have over 1300 friends and yet there have been times when I have felt lonely. There are many other Millenials who feel the same way, they have many followers but when it really comes down to facing a tough day, they hardly know who to call to cheer them up. In many ways, online friendships have replaced real ones, status updates have replaced authenticity, and fear of missing out has replaced being truly grateful and savouring the present moment.
Today’s Scripture passage deals with a chronic case of despair syndrome. In Exodus 14, God miraculously brings the Israelite’s out of Egypt, saving them from their slave masters and drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. How is it then, that the Israelite’s forget God’s provision so quickly – that they swing from celebrating with song and dance in chapter 15, only to complain and accuse Moses in chapter 16 of bringing them out in the wilderness to die? It seems that even though the Israelite’s are no longer physically enslaved, they are still enslaved by their old mindset of want and their old beliefs that they won’t get what they need.
During the Israelite’s complaints, they revert back to the classic “good old days” mentality. They remember Egypt as being much better than it actually was. Looking back, they forget that they were slaves and being treated mercilessly. They forget that they feared for their lives, weren’t able to practice their customs and traditions, and were overworked, instead, they see it as the better option. They ask Moses why he has brought them into the wilderness to die, suggesting that it would have been better to have stayed and died in Egypt. They list off cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, and garlic showcasing that the land was lush and vibrant and provided for them compared to the desert they are now in, and they question Moses’s competence as a leader to give them what they think they need. In this moment of anger, they forget the miracles God gifted them with in the desert: guiding them by a pillar of cloud and fire, sweetening the bitter waters, and providing an oasis of springs and palm trees in the middle of the desert.
At first glance, it is easy to judge the Israelite’s for their childish behaviour, and yet, it is so easy to fall into this trap ourselves. Sometimes it is easier to stay in the proverbial pit that we know so well rather than risk going into an unknown fire. Sometimes we may complain about our job, and yet we might not know how to make it better or we might fear what it would look like to stand up for ourselves or even walk away entirely.
To a lesser degree I faced something similar when I eventually left an organization I had worked for for over 7 years. During the first lockdown I felt that God was stirring my heart to go back into ministry and pursue ordination (something that had been on my mind for several years and which I had trained for in seminary). I began to feel these stirrings but at first I was too afraid to make the leap. Eventually I decided to begin meeting regularly with a spiritual director. In our first session together, the spiritual director told me that sometimes people stay in the same job because they are used to it, familiar with it, and know what is expected of them but that God wanted to use me for something far greater if I trusted Him. I put in my resignation the next day and began my journey with the United Church which I am currently on. Just like the Israelite’s there are days when it hasn’t been easy. There are days when I look back remembering all the wonderful things about my old job, about living in Scotland, and about all the wonderful people I met. Sometimes in the midst of academic assignments, job searching, and trying to find my bearings, I compare my present reality and think about the “good ole days,” but when I re-centre my thoughts on my calling and vocation, I am filled with gratitude and remember that I am on the right path.
In my reading of this Scripture I saw two ways to look at this story and I want to present both of them to you now.
The first way is to think about how the Israelite’s always wanted more and truly seemed to suffer from selective memory. They would ask God for something they needed, God would provide, they would be content, but then they would worry and fret about what was coming next. We often see this in society as well. How many times have we heard a child say that they will be happy and never ask for anything ever again if their parents or grandparents simply get them that one new toy or take them to Disney World? Well the parents save up for the skateboard and when the kid bounds down the stairs on their birthday and unwraps their gift they stare in amazement, express thankfulness and whiz down the street, only to see a TV advertisement or something in the store and ask their parents for that the next day.
Unfortunately, most adults don’t outgrow that phase either. How many times have we heard someone say: I’ll be happy when I get a job, I’ll be happy when I get a raise, I’ll be happy when I get a promotion, and I’ll be happy when I finally retire. There is always something more to be striving for.
I’m sure many of us have also met someone who keeps hoping to win the lottery. Sometimes people will say if they won the lottery they would truly be happy because they would be able to pay off all their debts and start with a clean slate, and yet, studies have consistently shown that many lottery winners actually end off worse than they did before they won. Many winners become depressed, lose all their earnings within a few short months or years, and sometimes even get divorced as a result. In other words, getting the biggest, brightest, and best does not always make us as happy as we thought it might.
The second way to look at this text is to remember how difficult it is to receive. It is important here to remember that these were not just a few rogue individuals who complained to Moses and Aaron but the entire assembly. A nation about as big as Chicago or Toronto, and a whole generation who had grown up under the oppression of slavery. It was difficult for them to imagine that God would graciously provide for them without them having to do anything on their part except receive what was given. Receiving the manna had nothing to do with their individual or collective skill, cleverness, strength, or industriousness, rather it had to do with them graciously accepting.
In my own life I have travelled to many poor countries and it has been humbling to receive from the people there. At first, I almost didn’t want to accept food and hospitality from them because I knew that when they were offering me something it meant they were having to do without, and yet, to say no to what they wanted to give me was to insult them and to deeply hurt and offend. Therefore, even though everything inside me was saying I should be the one to provide for them, I knew that I just needed to be a guest and let them be the Host.
There are many opportunities in our lives when we are guests. Sometimes literally, but many other times metaphorically. There are times when people give us a genuine compliment and we might blush and be quick to backpedal and tell them that they are just flattering us. There are times when we actually need the help of another but we might be too shy or embarrassed to request it thinking we wouldn’t want to trouble them even though we know we’d do the same for them in a heartbeat without having to be asked twice. There’s a great line in one of my favourite hymns “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” that says “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Or, if church music isn’t really your jam you may know this line better “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, for I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. Lean on me, for it won’t be long, ‘till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
In this coming week we will face many opportunities and some obstacles. I’m sure there will be moments when we will feel utterly amazed and grateful, but there might also be times when we feel helpless, anxious, and afraid. It was like that with the Israelite’s. I learned a few years back that anger is a secondary emotion and one of its prime causes is fear. The Israelite’s were likely afraid because they didn’t know what was coming next and perhaps even felt out of control with all the uncertainty. When we feel out of control and anxious this week, we can rely on the Hand of God, the fellowship of our church and the support of our closest friends and family. May we go into this new week believing and daring to dream the impossible, journeying in gratitude, and receiving the love of others just as we extend grace and compassion to them. Let it be so. Amen.