What is It? Title graphic

By Father Bill Rainford

Exodus 16:1-4, 9-15

Between captivity in Pharaoh's Egypt and the Promised Land of Canaan, the Hebrew tribe wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  In the wilderness they met God and they discovered themselves.  We gather now to celebrate their liberation and to extol their wilderness trek as a place of mystery and table of holy food.  The story and geography are not only theirs; they are also ours.  Worship today praises a God who liberates and keeps promises, but who also, hearing our complaints, feeds us in our wilderness.

Sigmund Freud once defined a stage in the birth process as "the place of no exit."  It occurs, he said, when the fetus on the way to newborn baby is in the birth canal.  For a brief moment or longer, there is a pause, that may to both the mother and baby be an eternity.  Contractions stop.  There is no going back, and there is no way to make it all go forward.  It is a terrifying in-between place where mystery takes over and from which life happens.  Which may be why the wilderness story is familiar to us all.  We come into life moving from containment or captivity through the birth canal to arrive in a Promised Land.  Ever thereafter, it would seem, there is in each of us a longing to return to the womb as well as a yearning to enter into a new and exciting world ahead…a part of us knows what it is like to be stuck in-between.

Once the Hebrew children are through the Red Sea, safe from Pharaoh's soldiers, and only a few miles away from where Miriam led them in song and dance, celebrating liberation, they turn against their leaders Moses and Aaron.

Complaining, they cry out in longing to return to the fleshpots of Egypt where they had plenty of bread to eat.  Which of course is true of Egypt and every other kind of slavery.  In captivity there is plenty of food and it is always free.  What they have quickly forgotten are the shackles and having to make bricks without straw.

We are told that the Lord hears their complains and responds.  Quail are sent for meat and, in the mornings, there is a layer of dew around the camp and when the dew lifts, there on the surface of the wilderness is a fine flaky substance, as fine as the frost on the ground.  When they look at it for the first time…my guess is with nose turned up and sulking mouth turned down…they ask, "What is it?"  Which in Hebrew is the word mana.  They never saw such food in Egypt.  "Our mother never served food like that at home!"  They eat it and they are full.  It is bread that must be gathered every day rather than stored up…a new kind of dependency for them that does not require bondage.

The story suggests a kind of life geography that is familiar to us:

It charts the movement from childhood and adulthood called adolescence (in our teens) or, in aging adolescence, the career wilderness through which many move between starting out and arriving at security, stability and status.

What used to be called the "seven year itch," or just the "plateau" or "dry place" in time, in any relationship, when one state of companionship is over and nothing new has yet happened.  In any partnership when liberation, breaking free, or growing up happens and all the promises "out there" are still "out there."

In our maturation it can be those periods of dullness, depression, disappointment, and loss of purpose when melancholy questions of "What if" hound us, and hopes for a better tomorrow mesmerize us.

For some in deep pain, the in-between place is the night darkness ending one day that feels like captivity and the dawn that promises but seldom provides the fulfilled promise of hope.

Whatever wilderness or in-between places you may be in today, notice two important elements of the story.  What changes the situation and insures the wanderer's survival is they're complaining.  This is not a story about a stiff upper lip, grin and bear it.  The grumbling is a sign of liberation and the sound of an unwillingness to be slaves ever again to anyone…even Moses and Aaron.  The complaints mean taking responsibility for their welfare and future…railings that engage them with their world and move beyond passivity and wallowing in being the victim.  It is the complaints that get the Lord's attention and lead to something happening that Moses and Aaron cannot do.

The response to the complaining is the mana.  Heavenly bread is there to be picked up every morning.  It doesn't look like the bread they were given by Pharaoh to eat in Egypt.  It is a food that mysteriously appears only on the way…in the wilderness.  Such bread is not back across the Red Sea, nor is it ahead beyond the Jordan waters.  It is wilderness food of the hour.  In the wilderness a new connection between the Holy and the ordinary…the human and divine…hunger and mystery.  It does not happen in Egypt or Canaan.  Which is hard for the Hebrew wanderers to remember.  Nobody wants to be hungry in the wilderness…to travel forty years, or forty months, or forty weeks, or forty days, or forty hours, or forty minutes through unknown and threatening terrain…without map or sign or food to eat.  Like then, when the moments come in our lives that we want to get through, around, beyond, over, and into the Promised Land where things will be better or normal or at least familiar and manageable.

It is like the lady from the east driving across country for the first time.  Once past St. Louis and the Mississippi River, she puts on blinders for that endless dash across the flat, hot, and boring plains of Kansas.  She spends a full day through Kansas listening to talking books and dreaming of what it will be like to reach Denver and the Rocky Mountains.  That night, sitting in her motel, she realizes that she has spent a day of her life seeing nothing.  Kansas was only some place to get through.  She ponders how so much of her life is like driving through Kansas.

Wilderness places, where we can grumble and grow up, are the in-between places (like Kansas) in our lives that we deny or endure, suffer and simply survive.  Instead we talk ourselves out of being where we are, by recollecting where we have been and dreaming about where we are goingAnything, but enter into where we are and where mana waits all around us.

What happens to the Hebrew nation can happen to churches.  In our in-between, wilderness, and interim time, we avoid dealing with the now by telling stories of:  when this land was filled with giants; when they had to set up chairs in the aisles on Sunday morning; when worship was vigorous and exciting; when education was challenging and life-giving; when this congregation was an empowering place for social and political change.  Or we ponder the future and a new priest that is out there coming in our direction bearing milk and honey.  Anything but face up to the hunger of now and listening to the grumbling and looking for that peculiar food that is all around us waiting.

To be in a church that takes the wilderness and the interim time seriously, can be like a learning laboratory or school that enables us to see this life geography in our own lives.  It can mirror how we may be in just such a place in our city, and neighbors, school, and job, in our family, and even within our own souls.  Egypt never looks so good as from the other side of the Red Sea, and we begin to wonder why we ever left.  The Promised Land will never look so good once we step across the Jordan to find that someone is there before us.  The future, rather than a free lunch, is always an agenda of struggle and anguish.  Egypt and Promised Land bracket where life always waits.  Living for a promise and a dream or reliving only an idealized past makes us oblivious to the Holy place of the passage we are in.

Ask yourself, sometime this afternoon, what in-between place or wilderness place you are experiencing in your life.  Where are you in strange and even uncertain territory?  If you have difficulty naming such an in-between place in your life, ask instead where you are hungry…hungry in heart or soul or even empty arms.  How much of your days are filled with recalling the bread of Egypt?  How do you grumble?  In what way do you let yourself complain?  Or how do you fake it, pretending that you have plenty to eat, though starving, swallowing the hurt and the tears?  How do you avoid the Kansas/wilderness places of your life by reliving the wonders that were your Egypt?  How do you deny your in-between place by dreams of the future, promises that will come true when it will all work and all will be well?  What do you know of mana?  What is your wilderness food…the people and nourishment…that you never had in Egypt?  What is the "What is it?" MANA that might be your growing-up food?

Honor your past and relish the good memories.  Dream dreams and cling to promises and possibilities, but also, though the journey may be long and tedious, seem endless and pointless, wandering often bewildered, savor the wilderness…stay awake in the stuckness…feel the hunger pangs, live the complaints.  Remember our spiritual mothers and fathers in their long trek and wonder how your in-between place may be, as it was for them, where God is waiting and where a banquet of mana is prepared in your honor.

Leaving this place, step into your wilderness, where you will experience the hunger we are and the world around us "is."  Grumble.  Complain.  In response, God promises the mana will come.  Though you do not know what it is or even like it, eat it, grow up and go on.  Be yourself, the mana others are seeking, and feed them with God's hope of liberation and new life.


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