Proper 13 (18), Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
1 August 2021
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Two years before I was born my parents became vegetarian. As it happened before I was born, I only know the family lore. My father had been ill, my mother feared to be widowed, and my father went to see a naturopath. He was encouraged to eat less processed food and they became vegetarian. That’s all I know, and it may not be 100% accurate.
I came along two years later and became the first prenatal vegetarian in my family. I am bringing this up not as some sort of accomplishment, the opposite is true: It is no hardship to give up something you have never had.
The point is that it wasn’t easy for a vegetarian to navigate the Germany of the seventies, and eighties. And yet, navigating the commercial culinary landscape was easier than being someone’s guest where I was torn between revealing my handicap – because it might make the host change the menu and implicitly be a rejection of what they had intended to offer you, and hoping that there would be things on the table I could eat and thus I would not have to inconvenience anyone.
I was a seminarian in the summer of 1989 and one of my friends had been invited to a wedding in East Germany. He had met the couple when a group from his congregation had visited their congregation a couple of years earlier. I had been to East Germany only once before and I asked whether I might be able to accompany him. We arrived late on Friday evening. Our hosts were waiting for us with pickled herring sandwiches, expecting us to be hungry from our travels.
They did not know I was vegetarian and coming from the West which was so much more affluent I did not want to ask for special treatment. So for the first time in my life I ate a pickled herring sandwich. Two half-litre bottles of beer helped me wash it down. The next day I told our hosts that I ate neither meat nor fish and I would be fine eating salad and potatoes or whatever there was. They replied that if I lived where they lived, I wouldn’t be vegetarian but would simply eat what was available.
I was sure they were right.
I am not telling you this story to say that I may have eaten the manna God provided but would have drawn a line at eating quails. I am simply confessing to you how hard it is not to be in control.
The Israelites complain against Moses and Aaron. It is their first day away from Egypt. They had just escaped through the sea and sung God’s praises. And now they are in the wilderness and want to go back and be slaves.
It is the perpetual puzzle of the Exodus story: God delivers the people again and again, yet the people do not cease to rebel.
And while it seems strange that they would complain immediately after their miraculous rescue from Pharaoh’s army, it does make sense, for they suddenly realize that they have traded a life that was predictable for a life that is not predictable. They are in the wilderness, they have no home, no crop, no livestock. All they have is God’s promise.
I remember landing at JFK at age 23, not knowing a soul in that big city and thinking to myself, “What have I done?” That is not unlike the people of Israel wishing themselves back to Egypt.
In a way then, the rebellion of the people in the wilderness reminds us of the rebellion in the garden and in the building of the Tower of Babel. In the garden the serpent had promised that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would be like God and the Tower of Babel stands in stark contrast to Jacob’s ladder. The Tower of Babel is driven by the desire to be like God, while Jacob’s Ladder serves for God to come down.
To be like God is perhaps the ultimate description of the desire to be in control. The industrial age has taken this desire to new heights, as humanity has been able to master more and more things and produce greater and greater wealth. When we buy a gadget today we expect it to be outdated with a few months, and not only because that is how the marketing department of the tech companies want it.
The problem with the control we have exercised is that we have believed ourselves to be in control and are slowly realizing that we did not foresee many of the effects of the technologies we have developed, climate change being the most obvious one, yet many could be named here.
As Wendell Berry said in a lecture some years ago, “Of course, science can cure cancer; but science also causes cancer.”
The Israelites complain because they want predictability and predictability means control. And yet by embracing control and predictability we close ourselves off to God who wants and needs our trust to lead us into the promised land.
And yet the biblical story unfolds with God’s call and promise, not through human control.
God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises to lead them into a land he will show them. They do not know where they are going.
Israel is called out of slavery into freedom and lead into the Promised Land, yet they do not know where they are going. Their freedom consists not only of being free from slavery but also by being free of controlling things.
The disciples are called to follow Jesus, they are called into a relationship not of control but dependence.
The church is called to be God’s presence in the world, not knowing that this would require us to accept people who are different from us, thus not being in control of who is in and who is out.
The problem with predictability and control extends to the life of the church where we turn truth into dogma and examples of sainthood into rules. Both are gifts:
The truth of God in Jesus is a gift, yet if we reduce it to statements one must subscribe to, thus it becomes closed to the presence of God.
The example of saints is also a gift, and I include ordinary and every day saints, yet if we turn their acts of love into rules, it robs us of the freedom to answer to God and others in love.
You see that the story about growing up vegetarian was not about being vegetarian at all. It was about my frustration at trying to control things I could not control.
Following Jesus requires trust that God is in control and I don’t have to be.
That God is in control and we do not have to be is a gift. It is also a gift that God did not weary of the Israelites and that God will not weary of us.
Let us pray:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.