Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Shelley Varner Perez
Trust builds over time. Yovanny and I had been friends for several years. We both attended dinner at a friend’s house a couple of times a month, and we went to the symphony together several times. A turning point came when I sprained my right ankle. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk to the bus stop. I couldn’t rely on myself to meet my needs; I had to rely on others to help me buy groceries, get to work, and make it to physical therapy appointments. Yovanny heard about my bum ankle and sent me an email offering to give me a ride anytime I needed. I accepted, so that Sunday he picked me up for church. He lived in Vancouver, and I live in SW, and church is in NE, so I knew it wasn’t a convenient offer for him to make. He came through for me at a vulnerable time. That experience deepened our friendship.
Thinking of today’s Scripture from Exodus, I imagine it’s tempting to give the Israelites a bad time as overly dramatic complainers. Looking back just one chapter, we find that God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. God provided for their escape through the parted Red Sea. Then without water, they rightfully grumble, and God provides through Moses. Shifting to today’s passage, they are now only 45 days into a journey we know will be 40 years. It could be tempting to dismiss their plight. To see them as dramatic. Or whiny. Or ungrateful for their release from captivity, from slavery, from bondage. And while we may know something about being beholden to dark times in our lives, my guess is we know little about the feeling of being released after being held captive or after escaping from slavery. In the context of where they’ve been, their panic is understandable. In the context of lack of an itinerary, no Google maps warning of delays, no forecast other than “trust me here” from Moses and Aaron on behalf of God, it makes sense their nerves wear a bit thin. They are hungry. Their children are hungry.
You and I too are familiar with uncertainty. That gut-wrenching, mind-in-over-drive, worst-possible-scenario, bargaining, non-stop running scenes in our minds, panicky, can’t-take-full-deep-breaths kind of uncertainty. We’ve faced it with our health, or our loved ones’; on an application for a job or housing; wondering who will take of us when we are sick or aging or down on our luck. Somewhere on a wandering journey that seems to go in circles making what feels like no progress and where we feel no better off, we have experienced uncertainty.
The Israelites faced uncertainty in their wilderness sojourn. They don’t know where their next meal will come from, and they don’t have the resources to in the wilderness to gather the meal themselves. Vulnerable and unsure of the source of their next meal, they grumble. Their memory fails them as they have stilted recall of what it was like to be in Egypt. They remember only the parts of Egypt that counter their current distress: they had food, and that was preferable to where they found themselves presently. And there was considerable uncertainty, not only about food sources but also about the One they were following. They were in a new relationship of sorts, or at least a new level of relationship. They were still learning about the LORD, YHWH/Adonai; the Egyptians, worshipped multiple gods and Pharaoh was worshipped. So, the Israelites were still in the early phase, the getting-to-know-you part, of their relationship with God. There is some suggestion that God was still getting to know the Israelite people: how well they would follow the instructions to gather only enough for that day. Early relationship dynamics and power struggle. Can they be trusted? Will they come through? Are they going to do what they say they will do? Thus, the questions about food and faith in the wilderness.
Think back to your own experience of relationships. Do you remember those early stages of a new relationship? Feeling hopeful and tentative at the same time. Not sure what comes next. You’ve had a couple of solid experiences together, and then something unexpected happens. You start second-guessing. Maybe this wasn’t right after all. Maybe it’s not a good fit. Maybe they aren’t who I thought they were. Maybe this isn’t going to work out. What have I gotten myself into? We have a narrative started about who the person is, and we’ve filled in or glossed over many of the gaps to keep the narrative cohesive. Then something happens that disrupts the narrative. It shakes our trust in the other person. Without much to build on, we can make quick assumptions, or we revert to self-preservation and self-reliance.
This is what happens to the Israelites. God had aided in their escape from Egypt. God had given water when they ran out. Then there was a gap in God’s showing up: a gap in time lasting long enough they began second guessing the relationship. Without their basic needs being met, how could they put all their trust solely in this God?
Shifting to today, to 2018 in NE Portland at Grant Park Church, I ask: Do we put our trust in God? To what extent? For what purposes? With what limitations or caveats? And what does trusting God even look like in 21st century United States? There is food insecurity among some groups with questions about where the next meal will come from, especially during the summer when children are out of school. For others, with 24-hour grocery stores filled with foods shipped in from around the world, credit cards that allow us to spend money before we make it, the mostly-reliable infrastructure supplying water, electricity and sewer services; with all of this what does trust in God look like? For what do we need to trust God, practically speaking? And if on a practical level we can rely on ourselves, be self-sufficient, using modern technology and comparatively abundant resources, is trusting God even necessary?
What happens when trusting God in our daily lives to meet our daily needs is not necessary? What happens then when we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances when trust in God is needed? Do we remember how? Have we developed it? Where do we find it? Does the infrequency of needing to trust in God make it a shaky possibility when we do? What happens when our sustenance and our nourishment are not a daily factor? Do we in the U.S. know how to trust God and when? What can we learn from the Israelites about trusting God? What do we lose if we don’t put our trust in God?
Several thoughts here: First, trust takes time to develop. Think about how you cultivate trust in other relationships: by being curiosity about the others’ intentions. By exercising patience. By recognizing there will be misunderstandings. By demonstrating mutuality through listening, sharing gifts, and having mutual exchange. Through connection. Through vulnerability. By providing space to share grievances or disagreements. Over time, these behaviors develop trust in human relationships and in relationship with God.
Second, we may not always recognize the gestures or outreach of the other. “What is it?” the Israelites said when they saw the manna. It wasn’t what they were expecting. There may be a rhythm or pattern to the way God shows up in our lives or in the world around us. Without close attentiveness to that pattern and intentional time dedicated to discerning the pattern, we might miss it. We might miss God showing up. The Israelites had leaders in Aaron and Moses who helped them see when and how God was showing up, and we too can look for spiritual leaders who help us discern God’s showing up in our lives. Maybe that is Pastor Jeremy, or a spiritual friend, or even a book from a spiritual teacher, or time with a spiritual director. The rhythms of the spirit, both ours and God’s, are sometimes discerned in groups.
Third, trust is built when we recognize God hears our complaining and draws near. God does not reject us in our time of need. God provided quail in the evenings and manna in the mornings. Not just once. Repeatedly. Daily. God gave them their daily bread. God listened, and God provided sustenance and nourishment. God responded. God did not dismiss or overlook or minimize the people’s concern.
Today the invitation is for us as a congregation and for us as individuals to gauge our trust level toward God. Is it where we want it to be? Are there steps we want to take to improve it? If we have grievances, grumblings, or complaints, are we at a stage where we are ready to be upfront with God about those? Are there practices or patterns from the past that have been helpful or unhelpful? What do we hope for in our spiritual lives and in our relationship with God? Who might be able to assist us? Are there things we hope would be different if we choose to work on trust in God? Not a passive trust, but an active, dynamic, give-and-take. A trust that carries us through daily struggles, and larger societal concerns like family separations and political discord. Are we ready to deepen our trust in God? Draw near, for God has heard your cry, and God is listening.