God’s people are complaining. It is just the middle of the second month after their midnight escape out of Egypt. The Israelites have set up camp in the Wilderness of Sin. Miriam’s victorious song by the Red Sea has hardly faded before the joyous choir turns into a grumbling mob. The thrill of freedom has already evaporated into the hot desert air, and the people have formed a “Back To Egypt Committee.” Now, they whine and complain to Moses and Aaron. Remember the good old days in Egypt? We had plenty to eat then. We had meat to cook for our families. We had plenty of good bread. Now here we are, out in this hot desert, living in tents and starving to death. It’s your fault, Moses. It’s your fault, Aaron.
The members of the “Back to Egypt Committee” have selective memory. They have forgotten how a harsh Egyptian Pharoah and his taskmasters forced them to toil for long hours in the broiling sun. Forced them to make bricks without straw, forced them to push and pull heavy equipment, to build whatever Pharoah demanded be built. Back in Egypt, they had no rest, no Sabbath. They had never had pots full of meat or unlimited bread. They scrounged for whatever food they did get. They were slaves to the Egyptian empire. As one writer has noted, “Prior to their liberation, the Israelites knew only life in Egypt, an empire where they constructed storehouses for food (Exodus 1:11), where they were exposed constantly to a hoarding, competitive ethos, and where human lives were abused and broken in order to fuel the hunger of the elite.” In other words, the ten percent lived off the backs of the ninety percent.
Back in Egypt, the Israelites had cried out to God for deliverance, for mercy, for freedom. God heard their prayers. God promised to save them, and God did—through Moses, who led the people out of slavery to freedom. Now, as the people complain and blame, God intervenes again. God tells Moses that God is going to provide for the people—despite their lack of faithfulness. But it seems that God has a specific set of requirements for these whiny Israelite. God says 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.”
God is doing more than just testing obedience. God wants the people to depend totally on God for their daily provision so God is going to send meat every evening and bread every morning. Moses and Aaron tell the Israelites how God wants them to gather the manna. But no one really knows why God is telling them to gather only enough food for one day except for the sixth day. It could have been so much easier if God had explained. “Okay, people, here’s the deal. Just gather as much as you’re going to eat that day. Trust me when I tell you that if you get greedy, gather more than you really need and try to hoard your supplies, you’re going to wake up the next morning to find that the bread is full of worms and smells horrible. But on the sixth day. . .that’s different. That day, you can gather twice as much bread as on the other days. That’s because the seventh day is Sabbath. The day I want you to rest. To enjoy each others’ company. To thank Me for all I have provided.
God didn’t explain because God wanted the people to have faith. Do the people have faith? Do they trust in God? Of course not. They think they know better than God—just as God’s people have thought since that long-ago day in the Garden of Eden. Moses and Aaron deliver God’s instructions about the bread and meat. They also remind the people that it is the Lord who is providing bread and meat. That it is God’s glory they will see in this food. They say God “has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” In other words, “Stop shooting the messengers. This exodus was God’s idea. Your God.The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Sarah and Hagar.The God of Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. Remember that when you were slaves, working in the hot desert sun all day long, you cried out to God? God heard you. God freed you from Egyptian slavery. So stop complaining.The Lord your God will always provide all you need—even in the wilderness.”
God does provide for the people in the wilderness. God provides quails every evening and bread every morning. Of course the people have never seen this kind of bread—bread in frost-like wafers. But God has provided from the very desert itself. You see, a special bush grows in parts of the Sinai Peninsula. When insects suck its sap, some is excreted “in the form of globules that crystallize in the sun and fall to the ground. This sticky substance is rich in carbohydrates and sugars and can support the life of a starving wanderer.” Why haven’t the people seen this manna? Perhaps they saw it but just didn’t know what it was or how to use it. Perhaps they just didn’t notice it. Perhaps they are spending too much energy whining, pointing fingers and blaming their leaders. They think they remember that in Egypt, at least they had plenty to eat. Yet they have forgotten how brutal their lives were in Egypt. All they see now is a harsh desert terrain where days are brutally hot, nights are cold and sand stings their eyes when the wind blows. Where a person can easily die from starvation, thirst, or exposure to the elements.
God’s people do not want to see God in the midst of difficult lives. They want the kind of life they think they had. God’s people do not want to rely on God. They think they can take matters into their own hands, make things right. But they cannot. Finally, when God’s people struggle beyond their own abilities and resources, then—and only then—does God provide meat and bread in the wilderness. It is theirs for the taking, even if the meat and bread look strange. “Man-hu?” or “What is it?” Moses explains about the “man-hu.” “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” The Lord’s bread. Given to us and for us. Given by God.
The whining, complaining and blaming did not end with the children of Israel. Throughout the millennia, God’s people have behaved this way. For example, today, we look back and remember “the good old days” when people could go out without having to lock their doors. When folks were more polite. When more people could think more reasonably, and were less hardened into extreme political viewpoints. We want to forget difficult economic times. We forget about the endless series of wars in this country and in the world—the wars that have been smoothly justified by the people in power—most of whom have not had to fight them. We want to forget the centuries that African Americans were treated like animals, not human beings.
In the Church, we also have selective memory. Back in the good old days, the pews were full and financial giving was strong. People in the culture cared more about faith. Sunday School was full. The youth choir was strong. Yet I wonder how good our memories are. I wonder why we spend so much energy looking back than looking forward. The present and future always looks more daunting than the past. It’s easier to complain about the bread we don’t have now—or the bread we think we don’t have now—than to open our eyes and see God’s manna all around us. As one writer has noted, “I think the main reason we romanticize the past is that we know that we can get through the past whereas the present and future is still undecided. Kind of a “better the enemy you know” way of thinking; sure, it wasn’t perfect but at least we know we could get through it.”
In every age, people have had difficult lives and difficult times. Challenges which are personal, local, national, global. Yet the important thing we must remember is that our God—our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer—is not just a God of the good old days. God is. God is not “I was. I used to be. I’m done now.” No. “I am who I am,” God told Moses out of a burning desert bush. “I will be who I will be.” The God of your grandmothers and grandfathers. The God of your mothers and fathers. The God of your sons and daughters. The God of your grandchildren, your friends, your neighbors. Your God. The God who will be with you from the first breath you take to the last. The God who will walk with you beyond that last breath as you are born into Eternity.
God tells us this day to look around. God has provided for each one of us, and for this community of faith, in so many ways. Think about how much God has blessed us here at St. Philip’s. God blesses us with your gifts and talents, your generosity the support you offer each other, with your radical hospitality, with the smile and handshake of God’s peace to another.
My brothers and sisters, there is plenty of holy manna to go around. Do not—like our Israelite brothers and sisters—continue to look back at the past with selective memory. Instead, look around you. Now. This day. Here, you will find God’s holy manna. Here for the taking. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. Given for you—and to you—by God—this very day. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Amy Erickson, “Commentary on Alternate First Reading,” from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/18/2011&tab=2 . Accessed through http://www.textweek.com.
 Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, Editor, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988), 147.
 Geoff McElroy, “Desert Scribblings: Exodus 16:2-15,” from http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/2008/09/september-21-2008-nineteenth-sunday-after-pentecost.html. Accessed at http://www.textweek.com on Sept. 16, 2011.
Picture of manna from http://www.wellsbiblestudy.com/MANNA-005S.JPG
Picture of Wadi in Sinai Desert from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Wadi_with_Acacia_on_Sinai_Peninsula.jpg
Picture of McJilton taken by Susan Shillinglaw