This sermon was given by Reverend Jason Carle, Pastor of Overland Park Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kansas on January 20, 2019. The following is a transcript of the scripture lessons and sermon.
Old Testament Lesson
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 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.”
Then 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. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So 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, and 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?” And 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.”
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And 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. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “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.’”
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When 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.
New Testament Lesson
Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
I believe that, as a people, as individuals, we have two ways of thinking about ourselves. One of those is the “Popeye Method:” I am who I am. These are people with a groundedness in who they are and they don’t actually care about what anybody else thinks. They are going to be that way and you can like it or lump it.
Then, there are other people who are in process, one might say, charitably. People who are still trying to figure out who they are. And these can be of any age, not just children. They’re open to see who and what they’re going to be. Often times when I think about the second group of people as a group of people who are still trying to become someone. I will tell you that I am still trying to become someone. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a center or know who I am, but I feel like I’m always trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be because I don’t feel like I’ve completely arrived there yet.
To be fair, I think that’s where most people are. Most people are just afraid to admit that they don’t think they’re who they should be. As people and communities, we’re always trying to figure out who we’re supposed to be. That’s a challenge. That’s hard, because in the midst of a chaotic world, we like something firm to stand on, and we want it to be ourselves. The reality is that it’s hard to do that in a chaotic world.
The story that we read today from the Old Testament is the story about a people who were trying to figure out who they are going to be. The reason why they are trying to figure that out is because they are, quite literally, infants. If you remember the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, the people of Israel are running away from Pharaoh and have only been slaves. That is their whole identity and who they have been. They’re running away from Pharaoh and manage, thanks to God’s providence, walk through the waters to reach the other side and they are free.
I can empathize with the process because they were a people who had been defined by one thing, and they get out of the chaos and look around and say “So what’s next?”
As I’ve been reading through Exodus recently, it seems to me that, in Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea is the birth of the people. And what comes right after birth? Infancy. And the only thing that infants do is, well, cry, sleep, eat, use their diapers–but they want to eat. That’s where the people of Israel are right now. They’re looking around in the wilderness, with nothing there for them, and they say “It was better back in the womb. It was better when we were constrained and had no freedom.” And they don’t understand or have the capacity to examine and determine for themselves. They had been a no-people, and now they had to begin the work of becoming a people, and in particular, God’s people.
They are in the process of becoming, and the only way that they learned how to become a people was by God showing them the nature of who God was. They had seen God and the mighty works God had done against the Egyptians. But now they were in a different place, under threat from the creation that God had himself created. And it was into this place that God told them that it would rain bread and quail and that they would have enough.
Now, flocks of birds landing, that’s not so unusual. Mana from heaven, though, many of us we think that is some crazy miracle stuff. But in the Sinai peninsula, there are these insects that will work during the night and regurgitate and form this flaky crust in the mornings that you can actually pick up and eat. See, here is the thing that we need to remember: God, in all of this, is working through the world that God created. God was present in the world and the people of God had to pay attention to how God was working in the world. As these people who trying to figure out who they are called to be, there are two lessons that they learned from this.
The first is that God provides. The people of God have a world in which there is more than enough for all to be fed. There is bounty everywhere. The question is whether or not we will share what we have. The people are sustained by God and God’s creation.
The second thing they need to do is that they have to pay attention. The people were out in the wilderness and they could not see what was in front of them. But God was able to open their eyes. We, too, as God’s people are called to be a people who are becoming the people who pay attention. People who pay attention to the world around them. We naturally pay attention to the things we think are important. If something is important, we make time for it, take care of it. As people who are shaped by God and who are called to be shaped by the values of the Kingdom of God, we are called to pay attention to how God is working in the world.
It is very easy to be distracted, to pay attention to something else or not pay attention at all. Here is an example. The U.S. government is shut down. In our own metro, there are literally thousands of people who aren’t getting paid. Some of them still have to go to work. I have many opinions about what needs to happen with all of this, but the most important thing we are called to do is to share. To look out for those who are crisis at this time. The reality is that we will hear, more and more, that there are workers struggling. I’m starting to get phone calls from people asking for assistance. We are as a people going to be asked how will we serve? How will we be the ones who provide mana? How will we be the ones who are able to share?
We can do this through our church, we can do this individually, but regardless I am trying to get us to be mindful of the fact that it can be easy to pay more attention to the theatrics in Washington or football games. It’s just that our focus must be on those areas of our lives that we are able to concretely share God’s passion and care for those around us.
In the story of the loaves and the fishes, the story tells us that, where God is, there will always be enough. And I believe that God is present in the shutdown and other areas of our lives: God is present. Our calling as God’s people is to be actively engaged and to help meet the need. Pay attention. Be the mana that people are looking for as they are saying “We are hungry.” How will we meet this?
The good news is that God is enough. God will never not be enough. A friend of mine once said that the bad news is that there are a lot of problems. The good news is that you have the tools to address them. Look around. Use your tools. Be God’s hands and feet, loving and caring for the world. Amen.