Dan Jones originally preached this sermon on Exodus 16:2-16 at the Freedom Church of the Poor’s September 20th service. Learn more about the Freedom Church and RSVP for our next online service here.
On a first reading, I had some trouble connecting deeply with this story, for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s hard to imagine us today on the other side of the Red Sea. I look around and see much more of Pharaoh’s empire, and of the march to the sea, than of a society already liberated. We are still clearly under the rule of Pharaoh today, living in a society that serves and worships wealth and not God. And second because I really sympathize with the Israelites here: it feels like a cop-out, an abdication of responsibility, when Moses tells the Israelites that they aren’t grumbling against him and Aaron but against God. I think I’d be grumbling too.
But the content of that grumbling is important: They weren’t just grumbling about being hungry. They were saying let’s go back to Egypt, that it was better there and they never should have left. But there was no going back. The Sea which split had closed back up. There’s a lot in common with this story and the story of the splitting of the sea and the midrash of Nachshon. In both cases the Israelites are faced with the difficulty of actually winning and claiming their freedom, and in both cases they basically accuse Moses and Aaron of trying to kill them, and say they should have stayed in Egypt.
But this time is, of course, different. They’re on the other side of the Red Sea now — that was the whole point. God delivered them with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, that they would know that there is another power besides the wickedness of empire, and another way to live together. And yet, it’s almost like Pharaoh had somehow snuck across. Like he had swam right across that sea and started whispering in people’s ears. People who had just been willing to sacrifice everything to get away were still held back. The ideas of Pharaoh still had a stranglehold on their ability to seize the opportunities in front of them.
And that certainly speaks to us today. There is a very real sense in which we’re in the wilderness today as a society. The old ways just aren’t working, they can’t work, there is no going back to them. We are in the desert and we will either find a new way to live together or we’ll perish. We’re in a time of great decision, a time of transition. The failures of the old way have been revealed and exposed for everyone to see in this pandemic. This system has been laid low by its own wickedness. God’s will should be clear to all of us, that we can no longer allow anybody to go hungry, homeless, sick without treatment, locked up, killed by the police. That we have to stop closing hospitals and turning them into luxury housing.
“The failures of the old way have been revealed and exposed for everyone to see in this pandemic. This system has been laid low by its own wickedness.”
And yet, those in power are acting as though things can go on as they had before. Billionaires are accumulating more and more wealth. There is no real relief, only partial delays, for the mass majority of people. They’ve turned the pandemic into an opportunity to continue voter suppression, while police violence has not abated, and if anything has gotten worse. They have taken this as an opportunity to expand their wealth and power.
And so even though God’s will should be so clear, even though everything around us cries out that we must make a fundamental change, that we must reorganize and re-found our society, we are surrounded by grumbling. The old ways of thinking still have a stranglehold on us. They want us to go back to a situation that both was not good for us, and that’s just impossible to go back to in any real way. And so they grumble.
And in this context Moses’ response resonates profoundly. “You aren’t grumbling against me, You’re grumbling against God! Who am I that you’re grumbling against me?” On the surface it does sound like a cop-out, but we also see this all the time. People who are opposed to the kinds of change that is needed act like they’re complaining about or denouncing one thing, when they’re really opposing something much more fundamental: The grumbling from those in power about masks, about social distancing, about lock-downs, about the Federal debt, about absentee ballots, about unemployment benefits, about the antifa boogeyman, red-baiting, and on and on. They’re really grumbling against the sacredness of human life. They’re really grumbling against sharing the immense wealth of our society, devoting the huge resources of our society to meeting the needs of the vast majority of people regardless of whether or not they can or should go out to work. They’re grumbling against the will of God, which is showing us how we need to reorganize our life by showing the absolute failure of the current system. And they’re trying to make the current crisis into narrow and separate issues, when we should be pushing for a total reconstruction of our social life.
But in this story from Exodus, the grumbling against God isn’t out of malice or self-interest, but just because the old ways of thinking still have a stranglehold on us long after the material conditions change, long after the old ways of thinking don’t serve the new reality. What was needed now should have been clear after the plagues and after the Red Sea but it just wasn’t. That experience wasn’t enough to allow the Israelites to build a new society. And so God sees that the people need more clarity on how to live together in a new way, and sends a test, an education.
And that test, that education, is the manna. The commandment is for everyone to eat their fill, and only their fill. To not store up food as a means of accumulating wealth and power, but as a means of securing rest on the Sabbath and a celebration of abundance. At first the people don’t know what to call it, which is almost always the way with anything new and necessary and life-saving. They basically end up calling it “what-do-you-call-it” (from man-hu in Hebrew). And this is such a valuable lesson: God teaches us how to live in action before passing down the written law. This story takes place before Sinai. When God realizes that the Israelites need a new way of living, which means that they need a new way of thinking too, he starts by showing them, by having them live it, before telling them. They act their way into a new way of believing, into a new faithfulness.
Today I want us to think about what manna is today: Who and what is making visible what should already be clear about the direction we need to go? Who is breaking the stranglehold of old ideas on our thinking, through action, through a living example and a living call? And I thank God for the upcoming Medicaid Marches in that light, I thank God for the people staying in the streets, for the Freedom Church of the Poor, for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This is our manna, to feed this movement for this moment. This is the living example that helps us see where we need to go and to break the hold of Pharaoh’s ideas on a society that can only survive if we move forward.
And for those of us who are a part of this movement and who have taken responsibility for it, it’s important that we take another lesson from this story of the manna. This crisis we’re living through is bringing people forward every day. Our manna is everyone who is hurting and turning around and fighting back. It is not enough to rely on the leaders who have already come forward, and who in many cases are overburdened and overstretched. Just like the manna in this story, that force which feeds our movement — poor and dispossessed people in a battle for their lives — is renewed every day, and every day we have to go out and gather it. That means finding people in the struggle, identifying leaders, bringing them into organization and community to sustain them and help them develop.