Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
August 5, 2018
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.” – Exodus 16:3i
Forty years. It’s a long time. For forty years the Israelites wandered in a wilderness. Babies born, people died, some fell into dementia, and hunger pecks at a people’s patients. Forty years. It is little wonder that they complained – and complain, they did.
There was a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine many years ago that caught this complaining spirit. It was a picture of the Israelites escaping Pharaoh’s army through the parting of the Red Sea. Moses was perched on a rock above the people holding up his staff as huge columns of water parted. On the exposed seabed the people are seen walking to freedom. One of the fleeing people turns to the person beside him and says, “Well, it is a little damp underfoot.”
It is important for us this morning to see that they were looking back and not forward. They were remembering the days of old. In the midst of their present difficulty they could not remember the bondsmen’s lash. It was a romanticized vision of what had been rather than a courageous step into an unknown future. How golden their yesterdays looked when they could not see beyond the difficulty of the moment.
Are we that different? Are there times when your present pails to your past, when what has been looks better than what might be? And the future can be fraught with peril. Who is to say that any given direction is better than another? This is why coming of age in America is so difficult. The young people who do not have a sense of calling, who do not know what they want to do with their lives, live in a drifting universe of possibilities without purpose. So the wilderness is not an easy place to be and you may be there today – unsure of tomorrow and longing for a more solid past.
They could not go back, of course. How would Pharaoh receive them? With open arms and forgo the humiliation they had caused him? They may have longed for a former era but it was closed to them.
And this church. How often have I heard how the sanctuary used to be humming, how the choir was large, the coffers filled and children aplenty? This church was the central Protestant witness not only for Bradford, but for the region. With longing eyes we look back to what has been. But the past is never perfect. In the midst of numerical success I believe you lost your focus. Did you live out the words read from Ephesians: lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Or did you allow the forces of evil to invade the church? Did power become a goal? Did one person’s opinion become identified by some as the will of God and thus justify the dismissal of the minority? Did you fall into bickering and turn Saint Francis on his head by seeking to be understood rather than to understand. Ah, the fleshpots of Egypt are not as far from us as geography may indicate. Our past, while grand by numerical measure, was our wilderness.
Let me suggest that in the realm of the Spirit, it is clearness of vision that matters most. Proverbs 29:18 says it well, Where there is no vision, the people perish…(KJV) Lose sight of loving each other in truth, and you lose sight of your calling.
I do not know where God intends to take us. The churches of New England are in decline and we must do what we can to address this problem. But perhaps the decline is not God’s judgment but part of God’s purpose. Maybe “church” as we know it is in the midst of a transformation. Maybe God is telling us that upkeep of our buildings and clinging to the past are a detriment to serving Christ who called us to feed the hungry, cloth the naked and visit the imprisoned. Maybe the vision of past glory is a false god and the One who said, “Behold, I make all things new,” is doing just that.
So that’s it. It would be blasphemous for me to presume to know a future God has yet to unfold. But I do know this: God is doing the unfolding. It is not always ours to know what God has planned so we must live in trust. We journey into an unknown future and to judge it by our past is to lose sight of God’s promise for tomorrow. Perhaps the poet Rilke said it best, “We learn by going/which way we are to go.” Be not afraid, for lo, He is with us always, to the close of the age.” Let us pray…..
i Exodus 16:2-15
2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The 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.” 4Then 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. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord.9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“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.’“
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
4I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” 9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.