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Sermon on Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-30
16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A
When we come upon the children of Israel in the 16th chapter of Exodus, they have just returned to everyday life in the wilderness after what must have felt like a camping vacation. They had stopped in a place called Elim, where they found “twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.” Now, though, they were back to the reality of the treeless, sun-blasted wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, and were not very happy about it. They seem to be facing a food crisis, and they hold Moses and Aaron responsible. “Are you trying to kill us?” they ask. “We would have been better off dying back in Egypt, where at least the food was good and we had some creature comforts.” In their current precarious circumstances, they seem to have forgotten the humiliations of slavery and the backbreaking labor of Pharaoh’s building projects; now they see those days in Egypt in a rosier light. Freedom sounded great on paper, but the reality isn’t living up to expectations, and now they wonder if the whole experiment is even worth it.
God answers their bitterness and hunger with gentleness and generosity, providing wildfowl and manna, bread from heaven, for them to eat. The food crisis that had led to a faith crisis has been resolved by God, so it only remains to be seen how the children of Israel will respond. Will they be able to weather some hardships, trusting God and their leaders to meet their genuine needs, or will they react with resentment and bitterness when things don’t seem to be going their way?
It will take a while for them to mature and develop into the people of God they have been declared to be. They are the nominal people of God, but they still need time to learn to live into this identity. They still need to “become who they already are.”
Becoming who they already are will require a change in value systems, a reorientation from the value systems of Pharaoh’s Egypt, where the strong oppress the weak, where the few dominate the many, where wealth and power define your value as a human being, where human lives are abused and broken. In God’s value system, human beings are creatures made in the image of God and their purpose is not to provide useful work in service of some pharaoh’s vanity and ambition, but to reflect the glory of God.
Such a reorientation of vision and values does not happen overnight. That’s why the Bible tells us the Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years – that was the time they needed to reach full maturity, to become who they already were, the people of God. I still remember the words of an African-American pastor, though I don’t remember his name: He had been asked why services at African-American churches lasted so long. “After what my people hear and experience all week long,” he said, “they need at least a couple of hours every Sunday to get their heads turned back around in the right direction.” In other words, they needed to hear again who they really were, and it took some time for such teaching to correct the demeaning lies they heard about themselves all week.
The Philippians, the congregation Paul wrote to, were also learning to become who they already were. Paul said they were God’s “new creation” in Christ, but the implications of that needed some time to sink in.
Philippi was in some ways like a “little Rome,” in the sense that it was something of a flagship city of Caesar and the Empire. It was an important administrative center, and the official language was Latin. It would have been a difficult place to live as a Christian community.
Paul is writing to the Philippian church members from prison. The letter suggests that Paul may have thought he was facing execution as he weighs the relative merits of “departing” to “be with Christ” versus remaining alive and ministering to the Philippians. The problem with “departing” (besides the obvious fact of death) is that he would be leaving the Philippians without a leader at an especially difficult time: the letter also suggests that the Philippians themselves are enduring some kind of harassment by the Roman state.
Once again, hardship is shaping faithfulness. Paul is encouraging and exhorting the Philippian congregation not to lose heart or give up out of fear. “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel,” he says. Don’t let them intimidate you. You belong to God, not to Caesar. Remember that. Paul sees himself and the Philippians as struggling together, “standing firm in one spirit,” “striving side by side with one mind.” There is evidence elsewhere in the letter that there is some conflict in the congregation, so they are facing both internal and external pressure, and Paul is trying to hold them together. Paul is not as beleaguered as Moses was, he has this congregation’s support and affection, but they also need to be reminded of who they really are. Only in remembering that they are a “new creation” in Christ will they find any reason for the trouble they are facing, or any value in suffering for the sake of Christ, as Paul says they are doing. Only in remembering who they are will they be able to resist the lies and claims of Caesar and the powers-that-be.
The ancient Hebrews and the Philippian Christians were communities who were adjusting to the challenges of a reorientation of values. In both cases, circumstances imposed on them from without – hardship in the wilderness, hardship in the imperial city – forced them to reckon with whether their new value systems were actually going to change their lives. Would the Israelites learn to trust in God’s generosity and love when all they had ever known until now was an ethic of exploitation and competition? Would the Philippians be able to resist the intimidation of the Roman state when all they had ever known until now was an ethic of conquest and domination? God had “redescribed reality” for them, to use a phrase of Walter Brueggemann’s, so their lives were meant to reflect that new perspective.
The covid-19 pandemic has caused many Americans to question the value system of extreme individualism that has characterized American life for so long. As George Packer pointed out in a recent article, "the pandemic demonstrates, almost scientifically, the limits of individualism. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone’s health depends on the health of others. No one is safe unless everyone takes responsibility for the welfare of others.” The virus has made it clear: only an ethic of neighbor-love that is stronger than an ethic of individualism will enable our survival.
The communitarian, neighbor-focused aspect of the Bible is a direct challenge to a pervasive ethic of individualism, in which the language of “rights” gets hyper-extended to the point of excluding and marginalizing the needs of the neighbor. The Bible’s “neighbor ethic” challenges us to reimagine and redescribe what we have long accepted as reality.
How do we redescribe reality with our own lives? In an age of greed and heartlessness, I think of people and communities who are countering the prevailing ethic. I think of people who are mobilizing to get agricultural produce to those who have been left poor and hungry by pandemic-related job losses. I think of people who have risked their own safety by rescuing neighbors whose names they don’t know from the fires in California. I think of lawyers who are working pro bono to prevent evictions of people who would have nowhere to go if they lost their home or apartment. I think of our MPC Deacons who ran a blood drive in the church parking lot yesterday to help meet the health care needs of our neighbors. I think of a group of volunteers here in Prince William County who have started a mobile unit to connect the neediest people in this community with some essential social services. All of these actions run counter to the “me first” ethic of hyper-individualism.
God has called us to be people of God and a new creation in Christ, living by an ethic of neighbor-love. That is our reality. May God help us to see it, describe it, and live into it, as, day by day, we become who we already are.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020