Starting in the Middle
Exodus 16:2-4, 11-15a
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “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.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
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.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
You only get one first sermon as “the new pastor.” So, no pressure. Just so long as it’s not too long that people get bored, but you have enough material that it’s not too short and people think you don’t have anything to say, and so long as you say something interesting but not too provocative because you don’t know where their buttons are yet, then you’re fine. So we’ll see how it goes.
But it’s good to finally be here – to be settled and unpacked and in one place: to have an apartment with furniture and to know all the stops on the Orange Line and to enjoy a little stability.
This morning’s lectionary text from the book of Exodus begins with quite the opposite feel – a people without a home, newly unsettled, all packed up and on the move, reminders of their precarious situation around every corner, tired, hungry, irritable.
Out of Egyptian slavery, the Hebrew people followed Moses and Aaron around the wilderness on their Exodus journey. There were plagues upon the Egyptians, and a release of Israel from bondage, guided forth by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and a harrowing last-minute pursuit by the Egyptian army, and a grand parting of the sea, and an astonishing escape from the clutches of the Pharaoh. And now they journey in the wilderness toward a new home yet unknown.
And they murmured, and they grumbled, and they complained. It’s just what we do when we’re together in groups for long enough. Especially when we’re tired and hungry. It’s a firm rule we teach seminary students in the introduction to pastoral care – you can’t be an effective, alert, attentive caregiver if you’re tired or hungry. And these murmuring, grumbling Hebrew travelers were both.
It’s hard to be in-between – in the middle of the journey with reminders of your precariousness and instability around every corner. There’s something nice about settling down, unpacking, getting situated, knowing the routine. The Hebrew people remembered it longingly, despite the fact that their old routine was one of slavery. And we crave it too – no longer in the precarious middle of in-between, liminal space, but settling in to a stable pattern, knowing what comes next and how to get from here to there.
But you know as well as I do that it’s fleeting. All the settling down and unpacking and getting situated and making ourselves at home to achieve the stability that we so enjoy – it never lasts for very long.
Change is our milieu.
The standard advice for a new pastor is “don't try to change anything in the first year you’re at your new parish.” When colleagues shared that advice with me upon my call to OCBC, I thought, “I’m going to Old Cambridge because I like that church so much, why would I want to change it?”
But whether we’re trying or not, change is inevitable on our collective journey as a congregation.
We’re a people on the move, me and you. We’ve been on parallel tracks for quite some time – at least a year-and-a-half wondering if our paths would converge. I’ve logged 21,000 miles by air and by car since April 2014 in order to finally arrive at this place with you. You’ve traveled as many miles in emotional and relational and spiritual twists and turns on your collective pilgrimage of faith: saying good-bye to a pastor who was with you for the better part of two decades, learning and growing together with two stellar ministers who loved and companioned you in the interim, grieving the loss of good friends gone too soon, welcoming new members on the path you’ve followed and blessing others as they go on their way to pursue other paths on the journey.
Now we’re here. Together. In the middle of our journeys, now converging in surprising ways.
The Hebrew people journeying through the wilderness finally had enough of hunger pangs and they murmured, and they grumbled, and they complained, and another wonder occurred. Just like the plagues that released them and the parting of the sea the saved them and the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them, now quail covered the camp and when the morning dew lifted, bread covered the ground: manna in the wilderness, bread from heaven.
And after all of it, when the story reaches its climax and their hunger pangs are finally relieved by inexplicable means, they survey the arc of their journey – released and saved and guided and fed by the hand of the Divine – and they take a look at the bread spread out before them to eat and when they see it, they look at one another and said, “What is it?”
And the Good News according to John: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were where they had left them, they got into the boats and went searching for Jesus. When they found him all the way on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “When did you come here?”
“Listen,” he said, “you are looking for me because I fed the crowds with the loves and fishes and you enjoyed yourselves, but I’m not in the foodservice business. I’m on a journey that is guided by God – without a home, unsettled, all packed up and on the move, precarious situations around every corner. Do not work for the food that perishes but for the sustenance that endures.”
And they murmured, and they grumbled, and they complained.
“What sign are you going to give us?”
“What work are you performing?”
“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
When you had no home, all packed up and on the move, precarious as a situation can get, you ate manna in the wilderness. And they looked at one another and said, “What is it?”
It’s good to be here, isn’t it? Together, you and me? We’re a people on the move. Change is our milieu. Twenty-one thousand miles, good-byes to long-time companions on the journey, warm greetings to new sojourners on the way, emotional and spiritual twists and turns on our collective pilgrimage of faith. And who knows where the journey will take us?
But someplace between getting settled in and being on the move, in the midst unpacking and getting situated and throwing it all in boxes to make a hasty getaway, somewhere in the middle of stability and precarity, our questions arise again and again:
“Jesus, when did you come here? This is not where we excepted to find you.”
“What work are you performing, that we can see and believe we’re really following the right path?”
“What sign are you going to give us that we’ll know we’re going to be okay and a little stability is on the horizon?”
“What must we do to perform the works of God, faithful to our call?”
And we murmur, and we grumble, and we complain. Because you know as well as I do that it’s fleeting. All the settling down and unpacking and getting situated and making ourselves at home to achieve the stability that we so enjoy – it never lasts for very long.
Change is our milieu.
But now – in the middle of our journeys, now converging in surprising ways – even now the table is set: bread of life, cup of salvation.
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the sustenance that endures.”
“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes will never be hungry.”
“Eat of it all of you.”
And even now, on our way to the table, we look at each other in the middle of our journey together and ask: "What is this?"