Sunday, October 30, 2011

Transitions: Joshua 5:8-12

October 30, 2011

After the second service today, there will be a congregational meeting to vote on an offer we have to sell our old home on South Broadway. Our action today will complete the transition to this facility. If we sell the building, we won’t have to continue maintaining it and can channel that energy into our mission and ministry here. Furthermore, the plans for the use of our old building will provide needed community services. Yet, as any one of you who have ever sold a home know, it’s bittersweet. Transitions are always that way, I think. The text for today’s sermon is from a time of transition in Israel’s history. It comes at the end of the Exodus, when the people are entering the Promised Land. There will be no turning back. The wandering in the wilderness and the manna from heaven has come to an end. At this point, they’re to focus on the future into which God is calling them. Read Joshua 5:8-12


All of us go through transitions—as individuals and as communities. One day we’re happy in school and the next we’re working 9 to 5 (or 11 to 7 in my case when I finished college). One day we’re enjoying the fruits of our mom’s table and the next we’re eating burnt toast and running eggs prepared with our own hands. One day we’re going to work and the next we’re retired and trying to figure out what’s next. One day we’re fit and healthy and the next we’re facing a medical crisis. One day we’re going along fine and the next terrorist are flying planes into buildings. Life is full of changes: always has been, always will be.

The Hebrew people are going through a significant transition. After 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering in the desert, they have finally entered the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now that they’ve come home, two things happen. They are weaned from God’s daily providence of substance and one again required, as we’re told in the third chapter of Genesis, to make a living from the sweat of their brow.[1] The second change is that they are able to freely institute religious rituals without being harassed by their masters or prohibited from doing due to their wandering in the desert. This transition is marked by the reinstitution of circumcision and the celebration of Passover.

Today, we too will be discussing a significant transition for us as a congregation and for our community, as we discuss allowing our old church building to be used for a new purpose.

In my sermon, I am going to focus on the end of manna and what it meant. If you remember the story, after the Hebrew people were safely in the wilderness, having crossed through the sea that closed up and drowned the pursing Egyptian army, they realized they got a few things they didn’t bargain for. They’re free from slavery, but with an entire nation crossing some of the most barren landscape on earth, they quickly realize they were in a tough place. Food was scarce. In Egypt they’d filled their stomach on grains and meat but in the desert, the pickings were slim. There weren’t that many mountain goats and fried cactus for dinner didn’t go over very well.

But God wasn’t going to lose his redeemed people, those who had been purchased for a price in Egypt, so he provided for their nourishment. There was this bread like substance called manna that fell upon the ground every day (or ever day but the Sabbath). In the mornings they’d gather enough for that day, but if they tied to hoard any extra, it spoiled. It was not a commodity to be saved and traded with others. The only day they could “collect” an extra measure was the day before the Sabbath, when they needed enough for two days.[2]

It didn’t take them long to get tired of eating only manna, so God provided them quails for meat.[3] And so, for forty years, their diet consisted of manna and quail, provided through an ultra-efficient food delivery system, fresh right outside their tents every morning. Life wasn’t hard and they got use to it.

A secondary benefit for this rather bland diet is that the kids stopped pestering their moms about what was for dinner. It was always the same—manna and quail, manna and quail, quail and manna. Everyone took it for granted. Everyone ate the same meal. Of course, in an attempt to fight of boredom and to raise money for some mission project, I’m sure the women’s association published cookbooks: Forty Ways to Fix Manna, Manna and Quail Essentials, and the ever popular Martha Stewart’s Secrets for Dealing with a Bland Diet.

But all good things must come to an end and so it was with the manna and quail. Upon entering the Promised Land, the Hebrews held a Passover feast and from then on worked for their daily bread. God’s ultimate welfare system was replaced and everyone was required to follow a plow or chop weeds.

Let me change subjects for a moment and tell you about a friend of mine. Mark was one of my best friends in the 9th grade and I’ve talked about him before. An adolescent hippie who resembled John Lennon (Lennon was still alive in those days, in case any of you are wondering), Mark could blend in with the Occupy Wall Street crowd today. But this was 1971and 2. He was a year older than me, having repeated a grade when he was younger and hit by a car and spent much of the year in the hospital-which looking back on things seems to be an ominous sign. As I’ve told you before, it was the day we got out of school for the Christmas break, when we were in the 10th Grade, that Mark was riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle when a car ran a red light. He was thrown across the intersection and killed.

I’m not sure what drew me to Mark; perhaps it was his usual style. One of my best memories of Mark occurred during the fourth period lunch. My lunch break was at fifth period and fourth period I was in Ms. Gooden’s math class, in a room that faced the front of the school. A day or two before, they’d painted the flagpole and some guy hosted himself up to the top and painted it as he lowered himself down. This gave Mark and idea and he told me to be on the lookout during his lunch period. Mark, who was kind of a loner and generally didn’t draw much attention to himself, went over the pole and shimmied up it. At the top of the pole, with the flag wrapping around him, he was looking right into the 2nd story windows and for a few minutes, as everyone on lunch ran to the front of the school to see the spectacle and classes on the second floor ground to a halt as teachers and students looked out with mouths gapped open and while teachers and administrators gathered to coax him down, Mark swung like a monkey from the top of the pole. Then he climbed down and was led away by the principal. I didn’t think I’d see Mark for a few days but he was let off with a good chewing out. It was hard to be too mad at Mark, for he didn’t harm anyone and this was at a time when racial tensions were running high and, at least, Mark didn’t cause a riot.

God provides for our needs. I had never thought about Mark in this way until years later I read Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies.[4] Lamott writes about how God in very surprising ways looked after her during her trials and I realized the role Mark played in my life and wrote down my memories of him. At school during the ninth grade, I hung out with two groups of people. Some of them were like Mark, but the other group was a little more gang-like. My ninth year was a tough one because we were in a different school and didn’t want to be there and those who had attended that school the year before didn’t want us there, either. It was the first year of cross-county busing in the South. There was a lot of strife and some of the other guys I hung out with got in lots of trouble. Mark had this live-and-let-live attitude and his questioning some of the things going on kept me from getting too involved with some of the others and from finding myself in too much trouble. His subtle friendship was important in ways he’d never know. God provides and watches over us, especially during transitions. Sometimes God chooses a strange way to care out his business.

God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness in a very special way. But the free food wasn’t to continue. For once God provided them with a homeland, they were required to participate with God as co-creators as they toiled to raise their food. Of course, God didn’t lead them into the land and abandon them, just as God doesn’t abandon us. God remained at their side. Having protected and provided for them during the wilderness, they could now fulfill the role which God had destined for them.

God desires that we mature, that we get to a point that we can be responsible and take care of ourselves and fully participate with him in the role assigned to us. When God carries us, as he did with the Hebrew children in the Exodus, we learn we are to depend on God. When God leads us to a new place where we can be productive, we shouldn’t forget that lesson but instead give God thanks for giving us the means to take care of ourselves.

Those of us here at First Presbyterian Church have seen evidence of God providing and being with us. Look at this building and consider what it means. Think about our mission team that’s in Costa Rica right now? Even this summer, when I was on sabbatical, look at how well things went. I felt God’s presence with me in my travels. From the sermons I’ve read that was given by both our members and some of the international pastors, I know God was also with you. And today, we’ll mark another transition… We have an opportunity before us. But to seize it, we’ll have to leave part of our past behind, and that’s bittersweet. But that’s the way it is with all spiritual growth. Jesus tells us we must be born again; the birthing metaphor certainly implies a significant transition.[5] He also tells us that when we’ve put our hand to the plow, for us not to look back, a lesson learned the hard way by Lot’s wife.[6] The Apostle Paul calls us to let the past die as we become a new creation in Jesus Christ.[7]

Throughout our journey with Christ, we’re often called to leave the past and to have faith as we are led into new places, situations or encounters to which God is leading us. We’re to respond to such calls in prayer, making sure that it’s God’s desire. Then we’re to respond in faith. We’re to move forward knowing that God provides. God has been faithful in the past and will continue to be so in the future. That is our hope, that is our faith, and that is at the core of the gospel message. Amen.

©2011 Jeff Garrison and First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI

[1] Genesis 3:19.

[2] See Exodus 16 and Numbers 11.

[3] Exodus 16:13 and Numbers 11:31

[4] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).

[5] John 3:3

[6] Luke 9:62, Genesis 19:26.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:17. See also Romans 6:6