Relying on God

Sunday, June 2, 2024
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

Exodus 16:4-12

Years ago, when I was in college, I worked at a Lutheran summer camp and – let me tell you – I loved camp. I ate and slept and breathed camp. Camp was the place where I learned to value God’s good creation and learned what faith formation of our young people could look like in the woods and where I found both myself and God amidst a generally very euphoric four summers on staff.

After graduating, the realities of adult life led me to many other places – both out of state and out of the country – and I spent years away from my beloved oasis in the Northwoods, with memories and lasting friendships to sustain me.

I was called back many summers later on a trip with friends and I was so excited to go back walk those wooded paths that I knew by heart, to smell the familiar smells, visit all my favorite lookouts and let the memories wash over me. A friend of mine had sort of warned me that this might be harder than I was imagining. He said, “Steph, remember that everyone’s first summer at camp becomes for them the exact and only way that it should be.”

And sure enough, when I got to camp, it was different. For one, I didn’t know anyone and the faces of those leading and welcoming me were new. This used to feel like home and now I was a visitor. They had built new buildings on site, which meant that they had also removed – had torn down – the dilapidated, but beloved, buildings of my time there. The crafts my campers had made had been replaced in the decade prior with new art on the walls. Necessary fire-prevention and tree removal on site meant that the views and the wooded paths were different. It felt like everything had changed and this holy place that I loved was unrecognizable.

Upended expectations often bring out the worst in people and I’ll admit that I was probably pretty inconsolable in my griping.

And speaking of griping, in today’s scripture, the people of God find themselves once again complaining to Moses and to God in the wilderness because another thing that often brings out the worst in people is long journeys in adverse conditions and what we could call a sense of being “hangry” – hungry and angry. It’s one of a series of narratives in what has come to be called the “murmuring tradition” – the people are mumbling and griping and seem to be remembering fondly what used to be, even as they misremember some details. They have forgotten the inequality and terror of Egypt. They were free now, but hungry. In their hunger, we find them questioning just how bad it had really been because at least they were fed! Nostalgia was telling them those had been “the good old days” and they wanted to go back.

Any accuracy about these memories – whether they really were well-fed in their previous experience or not – isn’t the point. The point is that the gap between their nostalgic memory and their experience of change now has them doubting their leaders (Moses and Aaron) and doubting God. They had convinced themselves, in their misery, that God used to bless them, but now they weren’t so sure.

I wonder if you recognize this sort of thinking in our world these days. A sense that things used to be better or used to be less complicated or used to be clearly blessed by God, but now, we’re not so sure. Nostalgic longing for a misremembered history is a powerful force and there are so many ways that our nostalgia makes it impossible for us to see God’s presence and action right in front of us.

It wasn’t until a year later, when I brought my daughter up to camp for her first time, that I began to glimpse what I might have missed in my own nostalgia and memories. This time, I recognized the joy I once knew as kids splashed in the waters of Lake Vermilion, only this time with updated waterfront protocol: they were safer. And I watched as Bible stories were told around the campfire through song, even if the verses had changed or the actions were different. I watched my daughter come to life in those same woods, even if the views were different now. I watched counselors instilling faith and a sense of belonging to even the most marginalized kids over dinner tables in ways we had never considered in my time on staff. God was still abundantly present in this place; working and moving us together toward something new.

God responded to the Israelite’s despair quickly and abundantly, answering their complaining with compassion. God hears their prayers and sees that even if incorrect, their concerns are understandable and God is compassionate and loving. Before Moses can even bring their complaint before God, God responds, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day… On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

Like God does so often in scripture, God responds to them with sustenance. With food. With the very thing that calls us together across dinner tables and buffet lines and campfires and dining halls. The thing that requires us to unharden our hearts as we pass the salad or dish one another up or break bread.

God gives the people the thing that calls them to unharden their hearts; calls them back to each other and to God. To ease their hunger so that they can see more clearly that different isn’t worse; that change and newness are simply fresh expressions of God’s goodness. God replaces their skewed memories of a “better time” under Egypt’s exploitation with new, real memories of equitable food for them in the wilderness.

What memories do we need God to replace? Or maybe more accurately, what nostalgia can God help us break through in order to experience the abundance of God right here, right now, even when that looks or feels unfamiliar to us?

Today reminds us that we can rely on God and that it’s easier to do so when we unharden our hearts. When we eat together. When we do what we will do in a few moments at the communion table; where Christ joins us and offers us abundance beyond our wildest imaginings. When we recognize God’s sustenance for what it is – an unearned act of compassion and an unwavering promise to sustain and accompany us always.

When I stopped and opened my heart in a familiar but changed place – at camp – I could see that God was and had always been faithful. That if I stopped and really looked at what was happening in and through these campers, it was still the faith of our ancestors, but now in the new language of our children; a language that at times felt new for me, but not new to God.

When I unhardened my heart toward that which was different, I was able to hear God saying, “I will sustain you now, just as I did before. You will be filled. You can breathe deeply of this promise.”

God says that to us today, too. “I will sustain you now, just as I did before. You will be filled. You can breathe deeply of this promise.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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