What Is This?!

September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

“In country town or city, some people can be found – who spend their lives in grumbling at everything around, oh yes, they always grumble no matter what they say, for these are chronic grumblers and they grumble night and day….Ooooooh…they grumble on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, grumble on Thursday too…grumble on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, grumble the whole week through.”  – The Grumblers by Thoro Harris, Copyright 1925

This song would not leave my head this week. It is an old gospel song written in the 1920s by Thoro Harris which I know only because my mother’s family used to perform it during a season of singing ministry in which the Augsburger Family would tour around singing and offering spoken testimony to churches across the country. [Joyce Gingerich, Tabitha’s mom, who is here today, is one of the original members of that singing group] Years after their touring days were over, the family would often still sing together at reunion gatherings and those of us in the younger generation would listen and soak in the words and music embedding them into our bodies and spirits so they could float to the surface years later on a week like this.

“Ooooh…they grumble on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, grumble on Thursday too, grumble on Friday, Saturday, Sunday…grumble the whole week through…”

There is plenty to grumble about these days. We are living in an election year in this country – a country that desires and proclaims freedom yet is built upon and thrives through systems of injustice and oppression. We are living in the midst of a global pandemic. The ripples of that pandemic impact every aspect of our living as communities and individuals. Many of our children are being educated, at least partially, virtually and educators, parents, and caregivers are stretched thin by ‘making it work.’ Some among us don’t have quite enough work on their plates while others are overwhelmed with the added complexities that this season is bringing to their working world. We are collectively experiencing transformation, personally and societally, that is most likely traumatic and we may or may not have the tools and support needed to healthily respond. And that’s just the surface of the grumble worthy things rippling around us.

The Israelites of the Exodus wilderness would likely find us good company. And while we have a multitude of outlets to express our disgruntled opinions through social media and the listening (or at least present ears) of beloveds, friends, and strangers; the community in the wilderness complained against Moses and Aaron directly to Moses and Aaron. They are tired, they are hungry, and likely stressed out from being in a space of uncertainty with no timeline of stability in sight. And in that state of condition we find ourselves in good company with them.

As I have said before and will likely continue to say for a good long while, this is not an easy season we are finding ourselves living in. There is extra energy demanded of each of us daily; sometimes for even the most mundane of tasks. The undercurrent of stress and the heightened anxiety and strain of the past 6 months [4 years, 250 years, and more] with no timeline of relief in sight puts us into a space of liminal limbo.

In times of limbo and uncertainty it is easy to look back to what we have experienced in the past and to be nostalgic about it in ways that comfort us. And that’s where the Israelites are in this passage – they are nostalgically remembering the full pots of meat and overflowing bread baskets of their life in Egypt. Nostalgia – and particularly comparison of what we idyllically remember versus what we are experiencing in this moment often offers easy fodder for grumbling.

That kind of comparative nostalgia also has the capacity to invite us into thinking very flatly. It focuses our attention so acutely on one item, one issue, one moment in time, that we fail to see the bigger picture surrounding it. We lose perspective and more easily write-off the complex context in which that moment took place.

The other month as HMC youth gathered together via Zoom we played a game called ‘Zoom-in’ which visually exemplifies this…I’ll give you two examples. I’m going to share my screen in a moment and it will show you a very zoomed in section of a larger image – your job is to guess what the big picture is of. If no one guesses correctly on the first image, I’ll zoom out a bit more and a bit more until by the fourth image you will almost definitely know what it is. Feel free to put your guesses in the chat box at any point and I’ll try to keep an eye on that.

[And if you were part of that youth gathering – please enjoy the images but don’t guess!]

Example I – What is this?  [Package of Oreos]

Example II – What is this? [Shopping Cart]

Even with these super familiar items, when we focus tightly on just a small section of it, we lose track of what it is a part of.

The Israelites, hungry and without stable shelter in the wilderness, are grieving the loss of abundant food stores and roofs over their heads. Yet the food and shelter of Egypt came at the price of servitude, they were enslaved under Pharaoh. These are memories of false security – security experienced only through the cost of oppression. Yet, in the hunger of this moment, those pots full of meat and overflowing breadbaskets of memory are looking pretty lovely.

Grumbling ensues. Now, I’m not here to profess against grumbling. Sometimes, grumbling is important. By that, what I mean is that speaking, naming, and claiming the struggles we are finding ourselves in the middle of can be a healthy way of validating our current context so that we can actually respond to it, instead of reacting against it. It’s important to say things like: this is hard, this is painful, this is stretching me.

God seems to understand this. We see in the Exodus text that God isn’t off-put by the grumblings of the people. Instead, God responds with presence and provision. God seems to be able to cut through the chatter of the grumbling to understand what it is the people are really struggling with and offers a response of expansive hospitality. The people are hungry – so they shall have meat and bread. This is God zooming out – seeing the bigger picture of the context that the people are in and instead of getting angry that they cannot seem to see the journey of revolution and transformation that they are taking, God zooms in to respond to the immediate point of tension, the conflict at hand that is preventing the people from being able to thrive on the journey.

This week, Eastern Mennonite Seminary had a guest speaker: Padraig O Tuama – an Irish poet, theologian, and peaceworker exploring the idea of thriving in ministry. Cindy and I virtually sat in on a couple of sessions with Padraig and it was wonderful [I think there are recordings available on the seminary website or Facebook page if anyone is interested]. One session was about cultivating a spirituality of conflict. Padraig challenged us to consider conflict as a landscape for spirituality instead of treating conflict as an earthquake or an interruption. This spoke to me in relationship to the current context we are living in – this is a time layered with challenges, conflicts, and tension personally and societally. What might it mean for our living to approach the tension and complexities of life as the holy ground of landscape upon which we are currently journeying instead of repeatedly being shaken and jarred by the challenges we encounter?

Tomorrow is the International Day of Peace as designated by the United Nations. The theme for this year’s celebration is “Shaping Peace Together.” I love this theme for two reasons – one because it taps into the creative side of peacemaking through the use of the word shaping – peacemaking is an active process. The second reason I love this theme is because of the word: together. Peacemaking is something we do in community, in relationship, it is not a solitary act done for a solitary reason. Peacemaking is not just active – it is interactive. It shapes the community for the welfare of the community. And again we see that exemplified by God in the Exodus text as God actively engages with the hungry ones in the wilderness, offering them resources to meet their needs.

Padraig O Tuama also reflected on the reality that peace work is hard and demanding work. It takes effort. It takes a willingness to show up and participate. It takes energy to ask the questions that need to be asked and sometimes it takes even more energy to consciously explore what those underlying questions really are. To be people of peace engaged with conflict also means to be savvy about what it is we are interacting with – that is to say – we should not avoid conflict, instead, we should work to engage it without being hoodwinked by it.

If we want to see an example of this in action we need look no further than the landowner of the story we heard from Matthew 20 today. Here is an individual addressing conflict on multiple levels and not being hoodwinked by it. The landowner, through their actions, addresses a cultural conflict of disparity between wealth and poverty. Instead of squeezing as much labor out of the workers as they can, for as little cost as possible, the landowner offers the opportunity of adequate resources to all people. When the time comes to pay the laborers for their work, the landowner doesn’t zoom-in and tally who worked how much and what does that mean they deserve – instead, the landowner zooms-out and understands that all people have needs and all people need resources to meet those needs and, in response, first offered the opportunity of work to each person and then pays each worker the daily living wage.

And just like in Exodus – grumbling ensues. “What is this?!” Says the first one hired. “Why am I, who labored all day in your fields only getting the same amount as those that only worked one hour?!”  The grumbling, in this instance, feels really familiar – it is zoomed in on the individual, on their own calculations of the worth and value of their participation in the moment and it misses the bigger picture of justice and community. The landowner is not hoodwinked by cries of unfairness – they stand by their decision reminding those first hired that they got nothing different than the amount they agreed to work for. This act of equal payouts by the landowner isn’t about fairness – it isn’t an economy of hierarchy and power – it is an economy of love, rooted in equity and a commitment to the thriving of all people. This is God’s love and peace in action.

I’m sort of shaking my head and laughing at myself as I make my way through this sermon and preach about the importance of zooming out on our grumbling moments so that we don’t get stuck in our isolated perspective bubbles and possibly miss the context or impact on the community at large…because wasn’t it also me just a few months ago – or maybe last year – who preached about the importance of macro photography where zooming in on a subject helps us to see more detail and that paying attention to a small piece of a picture helps us actually take in the bigger picture with more awe and understanding?! Yes, that was me…and yes, I still would preach that message too. This zooming in and zooming out is a yes, and moment – paying attention to both the micro and the macro are essential. For we are individuals, we live in the micro moving from micro-moment to micro-moment, and we do that living and moving within the context of many macros – our family units, our communities, our work environments, our culture with its structures and operating systems, and the global community. These are intertwined experiences. They are in relationship and sometimes – much of the time – in conflict and they are the holy ground upon which we live.

It is on the ground that the Israelites find the manna God has given them. And it might be one of my favorite moments in scripture – after the dew settles, they see a fine flakey substance and they say: “What is it?!” For they do not know what it is. I imagine it as a wonderful moment of simultaneous curiosity, exasperation, and humility. It is a very human moment – of admitting we don’t know everything [what is it?], of being weary and tired of having to labor through every next thing [you’ve got to be kidding me, what is this now?], and of being surprised and curious about what it might be [what is it?!].

What is it?

It is the bread that God has given you to eat.

The life-giving provisions and works of God in this world are not always recognizable to us.

And yet they persist.

May we too persist at paying attention when we find ourselves grumbling or asking: What is this?! What is this! What is this?!

In those moments, may we remember to practice zooming out when it feels like too much for us as individuals to bear so that we may remember we are not alone on the path, and zooming in on the specifics of a micro moment of need or action for ourselves or others when the systems and state of the world feel daunting or scary. May we remember that it is in both the micro and the macro that love is persistently and actively present offering us each sustenance and grace.