When the Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Exodus, they are doing something that we might actually think, under other circumstances, was kind of good. They are stepping back and observing the time they are in, weighing their current condition against their former one. Weighing one moment against another tells them something important: things are not getting better for them. In a previous moment, they had food in Egypt. In a previous moment, though hardship was everywhere, they had security. Now they have sand. And hunger and thirst. And surely a pervasive sense of uncertainty. They are after all at the beginning of what will be a long, long, period of wandering in the desert. Maybe it’s starting to dawn on them that the journey will be long. Maybe that’s when they look up and decide to lodge a complaint.
We don’t call it complaining, when we notice that things aren’t going the way we want them to go, when the trends are all wrong. We call it “assessment.” “Giving feedback.” We think of ourselves as charting and analyzing our progress so that we can be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, or those of others. Had we been with Moses and the people in those early weeks of their long journey, we might have suggested earnestly, some of us, that we stop and look at the numbers and make a graph that helps us to assess whether God’s promises were really being met. Whether the God of Moses and Aaron was hitting the benchmarks for delivering the people of Israel to the promised land.
Because let’s face it, God wasn’t performing well at all in that quarter. The beginning was great: God went public with a big show of strength at the Red Sea, but now God was underachieving. God was not exceeding expectations. Honestly, God seemed strangely uninterested in expectations.
You hear the language I’m using, a little bit facetiously: the language of performance evaluation, in which hitting benchmarks and making goals and exceeding expectations determines our worth and even our viability as employees; the language of academic assessment, in which all learning experiences have to be measured in terms of explicitly-stated goals and outcomes; the language of the stock market, in which our ability to retire from a job, should we succeed in keeping one, depends upon our ability to analyze investments and predict financial trends. This is the language of wisdom for us. These acts of assessment are the best practices the world can offer us. We are supposed to know where we stand, to know whether we are on track to succeed. We analyze because on some deep level we believe that our fate is in our own hands.
So in our world it’s perfectly understandable that the people of Israel should turn against their leaders, and against their God, and demand outcomes. And it almost seems unfair that God would turn the tables and decide instead to test the people. What arrogance! God, who is underperforming, declares the intention to measure the faith of the people instead of keeping the focus on self-evaluation: “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.’”
Do you hear how God is calling them to live? No charts or graphs, no contracts, no long-term strategies, no benchmarks or points of comparison. It sounds like God isn’t anxious at all. There is bread each day, and everything you need right now is within your grasp. Can you gather up what this moment gives you and then move forward, deeper into the wilderness? Try that on your next job evaluation. Look earnestly at your supervisor and say, “I’ve done meaningful work today. Can you accept that and venture with me into the unknown?” Or imagine your financial planner leaning across the desk and speaking these reassuring words: “You’ve got enough money for today.”
For us that’s a preposterous way to live and God is irresponsible to propose it. And I’m kidding when I suggest that you invite your supervisor out into the wilderness. And if that’s your financial planner’s style you need to make a change.
But I can tell you this: for all our sophistication in predicting outcomes and assessing performances, the wilderness is still out there ahead of us. It’s on the nightly news, it’s in Congress. It lurks on the edges of our conversations. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone use the expression “we are in uncharted territory” in the last several months, I’d have no need for a financial planner. Our physical environment—the weather—and our political system should be enough to challenge anyone’s sense of serene control and predictable outcomes. And of course we are all coping with the wilderness on personal levels as well, in our families and relationships, as we age, as we aspire to complete that degree or envision our futures.
We don’t wander in the same way that the Israelites did but there is something recognizable about their predicament. I think I recognize their nostalgia, too. Wasn’t everything simpler in the past?
And so I’m profoundly grateful, this morning, that God’s promise of daily bread still stands. I’m grateful that Jesus has told us, and keeps telling us, that he himself is the bread of life. That he has gathered us together this morning to harvest the manna with joy and confidence. This is more than enough for today.
And it’s more than a symbol. Taking this identity for us, becoming our manna in the wilderness, Jesus addresses so much more than just our physical hunger, or even our anxiety. Jesus embodies for us the long history of God’s presence among us, the constant care and feeding that have sustained us through uncharted territory not just for a decade or so, but for all time. The meal shared among the people of God, with its roots in traditions that go way back before us.
And if we are uncertain about how to step forward, that Bread of Life tells us everything we need to know. Be gathered up. Be broken open. Be what we share with one another and with a hungry world. Be the bread that God has been for you, for of us together. Go out and be the bread of life this week, with your focus on the present moment, not so much on outcomes. If we are the body of Christ, we are not only fed with a sustaining meal. We are sustenance for the world.
Do we know where human history is going? Are we on track to exceed expectations? What is our performance evaluation going to look like? We do not know. It’s a mistake to allow the language of assessment to replace our fundamental sense of God’s providence. It’s a mistake to believe that we are not being effective if we are not in control of the outcome.
It is correct, according to God, to believe that God’s grace is enough for us. It is prudent to believe that we are receiving the bread of life, and that we are also becoming the bread of life.
Wilderness? Yes. Hungry? Absolutely. Fed? Yes. Improbably, abundantly, with love and joy and grace and gratitude.
Coming back to take another step into the wilderness tomorrow?
Yes. By the grace of God, yes. A hundred thousand times, yes. By the grace of God, yes.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
5 August 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia