18 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
From the moment they had achieved their freedom from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel complained: they escaped Egypt, they sang some songs of celebration, and before the chapter is even over, they complained about not having water to drink. Not asked for water, but complained about not having water. So, God gave them water. Then, just a few verses later, they complained about not having enough food to eat. Just a few months in, they already longed for the days of slavery and complained to Moses, “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). So, God gave them quail for dinner, and manna for breakfast, and continued to give them manna every day. And then soon afterward, they complained about water all over again. And so on and so forth for forty years while in the wilderness.
Our first reading this morning from Numbers is one such example of this complaining in the wilderness. It was not the first time they complained, and it wouldn’t be the last. “The rabble among them” (AKA, the non-Israelites who happened to be with them) “had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!” And they started longing for Egypt. “Remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt… for nothing… they reminisced… the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic, oh the garlic! The yummy, yummy garlic! And now, all we have is… this… this… stuff… this… manna, this dreadful manna, yet again. What’s for dinner tonight? Manna with a side of manna. Oh, can’t we go back to Egypt?” Of course, they completely ignored all of the terrible things about having access to that delicious food, like the slavery, the oppression, the beatings, the murder of their baby sons, and so on that they had been complaining about for decades.
God’s response, as we heard in the reading, was to give Moses some helpers to help carry the burden of the complaining, but God also gave the people more food. If you look at the insert or in the bulletin, you see that we read a few verses, then skipped a few verses, then read a few more, then skipped a few more, and then read again. In those skipped verses, God gave them meat, not just meat for a day, or meat for a week, but an entire month of meat, so much meat that it would “come out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you” (Numbers 11:20). And yet, despite a month of feasting, the complaining didn’t stop. Read a few more chapters and you will hear the people complain all over again.
Why did the people complain? The Lord has freed them from oppressive slavery. It may not have always come immediately, but the Lord kept on providing them with enough water and food to survive. And the Lord had promised to lead them to the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. Life may not be great now, but they were alive, and the future ahead of them was wonderful. So, why did they long to return to slavery instead? Why did they fear moving forward and want to revert back? Very simply, they lacked trust. They did not trust God, so the apparent uncertainty of freedom and the future seemed less desirable than the certainty of slavery and the past. It’s an odd and perverse kind of security that slavery provided them, but now, while experiencing the seemingly insecure and uncertain wilderness, they longed for it. God kept on telling them that the wilderness was secure because God was with them. God kept on providing for them to show them that, yes, the wilderness all would be fine if they would just put their trust in God. And yet, they couldn’t. They didn’t trust.
I don’t know about you, but I identify with them in their insecurity, their difficulty in trusting God so completely while in the wilderness. And I suspect many here do, too. I find it to be one of the greatest spiritual challenges that I encounter in my own life, and in the life of so many with whom I speak. How many times have we been unnecessarily anxious about the future? Or the present? How many times have we worried about what would happen with a job, or a move, or a relationship? How often have we worried about our kids, or our parents? How many times have we worried about whether or not we would have enough money? We worry, we get anxious, because, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we forget. We forget to trust God. Instead, we trust in our bank accounts. Or in good grades or performance reviews. Or in another person. Or in ourselves and our own abilities. Isn’t that what we are so often taught: Don’t trust others, be self-sufficient, be in control, make it all on our own? And yet, God keeps on saying: “Trust me. Trust me. I, the Lord, will provide. I will provide you with everything you need, because I love you, more than you can possibly believe. That risk you’re scared of taking: it’s fine, it’s going to work out. It may not work out as you think it will, as you imagine it will, as you hope it will, but it will work out, one way or another, and it will be fine, it will be good, because I, the Lord, will be with you. Trust me; I will provide.”
That kind of trust does not seem to come easily to most of us. It takes hard work. It requires that we take risks, and see what happens. It requires us to step outside of our nice and easy comfort zones, and see that God is there in the wilderness, too. It requires that we let go, give it up to God, work with whatever comes our way, and try to find the goodness of the Lord there.
Right now, our parish is starting our annual pledge campaign, and in a couple of weeks, those of you on the mailing list will receive your pledge packet. Many of you - all of you on the mailing list - received a letter recently from Betsy and me about using your pledge not only as an opportunity to support the valuable ministry of St. Mary’s, but also as an opportunity to deepen your spiritual life. For those that are too new to St. Mary’s to consider making a pledge, or those who are just visiting St. Mary’s, please don’t stop listening, because I hope what I’m about to say will apply to you also even if you’re not going to be giving here. A financial gift or pledge to St. Mary’s, or another church, or to any institution really, is not just valuable because of the money that we or the other institution receives, but the gift is valuable in the very act of giving, in the act of offering that gift. It is valuable in the act of giving because it offers an opportunity to the one who gives to work on his or her spiritual life. Jesus truly was right in saying that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving helps us work on our spiritual lives in many ways, but one of the most important for many of us, and the most relevant given the message we are hearing in our reading today, is that giving helps us develop a greater trust in God. This is especially true of a gift that stretches us, a gift that takes us out of our personal comfort zones with our money, and forces us to work on trusting that the Lord truly will provide. As we strive to make that pledge, we can see our trust in God grow over the year as we realize that we truly do have enough, as we discover the abundance that God has already given us. It was a story that I heard over and over again, until I tried it for myself, and confirmed that it was true for me, too. The Lord will provide. Money is a wonderful place to work on this trust, because money is something that our society so obsesses over, so worries about, perhaps even idolizes. I won’t claim that my trust in God is as firm and confident as I would always like it to be, that I’m as anxiety-free as I would like to be, but my trust in God has grown significantly since I started pushing my comfort zones with money, by giving more, and realizing the abundance that God has truly given me.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, trust in God, and God alone. Let go of your fear, let go of the certainty of life in Egypt, and step out into the uncertain wilderness, so that the Lord can lead you to the Promised Land. Take a risk, move out of your comfort zones, so that you can find the Lord that is waiting to comfort you. Trust the Lord to provide in ways that are more wonderful than you can imagine, because God loves you more than you can imagine.