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The Wilderness Way

I once heard someone say that you shouldn’t raise any questions in a sermon that you aren’t prepared to answer. That statement still baffles me. I wouldn’t know where to begin, if not with questions. And this is exactly where I want to bring them: to other people who are hungry for a word from God and who have come to study, pray, to wrestle it out—and in the process, to discover freedom from the things that bind them. If I believe anything, I believe that all of life belongs in this room—that there is no corner of our lives from which God wants to be excluded. In my mind the church is much less a staging ground for people with answers, than it is a way-station for people willing to keep company with questions.

Our ancestors in the faith knew something about that kind of life. If the Bible is in some sense our family scrapbook, we need to credit those who came before us for preserving all kinds of family lore. Our foreparents didn’t need always to show themselves in the best light, or to tie up their stories into neat packages. And they weren’t afraid to ask questions; questions were intrinsic to their faith. What they have left for us aren’t ancient versions of curated facebook pages, but a candid record of their complicated journey with God.

The people aren’t happy as today’s text from Exodus opens. They have left behind slavery in Egypt, but they aren’t sure they’ve made a good trade. They knew how things worked in Egypt. Out here in the wilderness nothing is familiar and anxiety is high. So they do what human beings do—they look for someone to blame.

Moses and Aaron are natural targets. Wasn’t all this their idea anyway? Sure, the people say, we might have died if we’d stayed in Egypt, but we wouldn’t have starved to death. Where is the food source? Did nobody think about that?

In all their fixation with Moses and Aaron, the people leave God out of the picture. Does that surprise you?

Or maybe that question is too uncomfortable in 2017. After all, where would we say that God is in the pictures coming out of Dominica, Mexico City, Syria, Somalia?

In our passage from Exodus, God’s presence is clear, at least, to Moses. God hears the people complaining in the wilderness and says to the prophet, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”

At first glance this looks like a tidy story: the problem seems to be the people’s hunger; the solution, heavenly bread. But maybe it’s not that simple, for God goes on to say:“In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” What looked at first like a test for God, turns out to be a test for the people.

It seems that the wilderness is the place where God and the people will sort out what kind of relationship they are going to have. And manna is the first sign that everything has changed. From now on, food will be a gift, not the wages of slavery. But the flip side is that it can’t be hoarded; it has to be gathered every day. In this way the people will be taught to trust.  Every day they will have need; every day they will experience God’s provision. But the best gift of all is the seventh day; the whole day will be given to rest and remembrance and celebration—not even gathering will be required;

These two practices: receiving daily bread and learning to rest are the essential first steps on the journey from slavery to claiming the freedom intended for God’s children.

Might it still be so? Our gospel reading suggests it might.

Jesus’ friends want to know how to pray the way that he does, so Jesus teaches them. Simply. In their common language. He assures them that God knows what they need before they ever ask. Still they are—we are— to ask. And we is the right pronoun here. The whole prayer is written in the language of community. God is “Our Father” not “My Father”; we ask for “our daily bread” not what each of us needs individually.  Undergirding this prayer is the deep affirmation that God sees the needs of the whole world, and that we are to pray for the needs of the whole world, for all of us are equally God’s children.

We are to pray this daily prayer so that, in time, it can shape us—so that we will be drawn into the life that Jesus shares with the one he called ‘Abba’.

Long relationships cannot help but form us. Your love for Bob and Marla is witness to that. But today I want to tell you a brief story about a long relationship that I know well. (I do promise that I will not tell stories about my parents every week!)

My parents have been married for 62 years. My father is a morning person; my mother is not. Every morning, for their entire marriage, unless one of them is traveling, my father has risen early and made just the right amount of coffee—enough for each of them to have two cups. Then he takes it to their bedroom, wakes my mother, and joins her in the bed—where they will sit for most of the next hour, sharing the sound of the first birds, laughing over crazy dreams, anticipating the day ahead—all as they sip from their favorite cups.

If my father dies first, the early morning will be the hardest part of my mother’s day. Not, of course, because of the coffee. It is easy enough to program a machine to ready hot brew at any specified hour. What the coffee has come to symbolize is the day-in, day-out relationship they have shared for all these years: in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow.

In something like the same way, the provision of manna was not just about meeting the people’s caloric needs, it was about God’s saying to them, you can trust that I will be with you every day, that I will never cease to be your God or to tend to your needs. Live in daily relationship with me. I am trustworthy, and I love you.

And when Jesus teaches us to pray the way that he prays—he is asking us not only to trust God with our own vulnerable lives, but to lend our lives to the fulfillment of God’s purpose. You will remember that we pray for daily bread after having prayed that God’s will would be done on earth. We must not pray that prayer if we are not willing for our priorities to be overturned. God is asking us to be trustworthy, too.

Earlier this week an op-ed piece ran in the NY times, lamenting that after a decade of progress combatting world hunger, the numbers “spiked last year….11 percent of the world’s population went hungry every day…almost one in four children under 5 years of age.” The United Nations food agency is clear on the matter: “There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, yet 815 million people go hungry.” According to the article, “The report didn’t specify precise factors that drove the decade of success…. But it stressed rising civil strife and climate disruption in explaining the sudden downturn.”[i]

Friends, to ask “Where is God” in all the world’s pain is also to open our hearts to the question of “Where are we?” Do we live in a posture of such radical trust that we lean daily on God for provision, or have we filled our storehouses, just in case? And are our eyes open to the needs of the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, wherever they may live?

Ultimately, though, if we want to know where God is in any situation, we look for where the love is. So, in that hands that continue to pull away rubble even though the building is unstable after the earthquake, God is there. In the relief workers who will not give up on war-torn villages, even at the risk of their own safety, God is there. And in the cars of University students who drove for nearly seven hours yesterday so they could be at the memorial service of a man who died tragically this week, because that man was the father of a student they have come to know in the last month—God is there.

 

God wants to be in our hands, in our hearts, in our voices, in our pockets

wherever there is need. May it be so, to the glory of God.

[i] The Editorial Board, “World Hunger Haunts the U.N. Festivities” The New York Times, September 22, 2017

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019.
She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served.
Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible.
In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents.
Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way.
When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation.
Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.