After 430 brutal years of slavery, the people were free. In an extraordinary series of miracles from the very beginning of the book of Exodus, God calls Moses, confronts Pharaoh with plagues, parts the Red Sea. But it only takes them 45 days – a month and a half – after 430 years, to start complaining. If only we had died as slaves, they say. For YOU have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger. And what does God do? In the chapter right before this one God brings manna, bread, every morning, enough for the day. Chapter 16 ends by telling us that for the entire 40 years in the wilderness, this absolutely blows my mind to think about, God provides manna, every morning, sure as the sunrise.
The traveling continued in stages, and they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water. In the verses to follow no one comes off well. The people had JUST been given manna, enough for every day for 40 years. They quarreled, the NRSV translates, the root of Meribah – the place name which appears at the end – strive, contend. This is related to the word for lawsuit. Initially this feels comic, like when you are with a young child and after complaining of hunger you get them a snack and instead of the good manners you have, of course, trained them to have, they ask for a juice box. But it is more.
Juliet Schor, in her insightful 1998 book, “The Overspent American,” says that, “Oddly, it doesn’t seem as if we’re spending wastefully, or even lavishly. Rather, many of us feel we’re just making it, barely able to stay even. But what’s remarkable is that this feeling is not restricted to families of limited income. It’s a generalized feeling; one that exists at all levels. Twenty-seven percent of all households making more than $100,000 a year say they cannot afford everything they really need. Nearly 20 percent say they “spend nearly all their income on the basic necessities of life.” … Overall, half the population of the richest country in the world say they cannot afford everything they really need. And it’s not just the poorer half. We always want more. No matter how much we have. Just a little more money, just a little nicer kitchen, a car that is a little more reliable, a nicer phone, a job where I can make a little more and have some flexibility. Just a little more time. That’s mine. Just a little more time.
While the people don’t come off well, the leadership doesn’t fare much better. Why do you quarrel with me? Moses blasts. Why do you test the Lord? While his theological point is interesting, Moses slides himself in there, collapsing his agenda and God’s. Preachers LOVE texts where the PEOPLE quarrel, despite the faithful leadership Moses has been showing. That’s how we feel sometimes, we wink to each other. And while any group talking about anything for more than a second leads to some grumbling, dividing leader and people doesn’t do any good. Moses felt self-righteous for a minute, but I bet his throat could have used a swig of water, too. The cycle repeats with added emotion. Then God, despite God’s infinite patience, seems to get tired. Moses, go there, take some guys, take that staff. Now. Go. I’ll be standing in front of the rock at Horeb, Sinai. Go there. Smack the rock, water will come out. Then you can drink.
I am tempted to read this as snide: Whiners, take your stinking juice box and quit complaining. But, the Bible tells us over and over, like the psalm last week, that our God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. Here in the wilderness, God and the people are building a relationship. This is another one of those stories that is not too complicated to understand, but really, really hard to live into. As one scholar writes: “Moses obeys. Yahweh delivers. Water comes; Israel drinks. The crisis is averted. The narrative tells all this in one brief sentence—no trimmings, no commentary, no explanation, no embarrassment. We are given only a simple, bare act for all to see, a lean story for all to hear. It is a situation in which Yahweh sustained life, but in lean, precarious, anxiety-producing ways that require deep trust.” Over and over in the texts in the wilderness, and countless other points in the life of the people, God provides. God provides enough. God provides enough.
But not in a way that doesn’t require something of us. God didn’t hand them a fresh skin of water each morning. God has Moses and the leaders walk out, ahead of God’s people, and strike a rock. Go out. Risk something. I promise I will meet you there. There is something about the intersection of our risk and trust and God’s provision. It is a tricky tension in our lives and in our homes. It’s a tricky tension in the church. It has been an interesting financial year around here, and I must confess there were times when my faith wavered. A variety of factors – some we understand; some I don’t think we will – led to a significant budget gap as January began. In the neighborhood of $230,000, of which half was a roof on this Sanctuary that was older and in poor condition and we realized we had to do something.
The Session knew that there were great initiatives we wanted to fund, putting in place a long term maintenance schedule to be good stewards of aging campus, adding $20K for Haiti, and the Neighborhood Mission Team, and other local partners whose work is so important to Durham and beyond. So they did something that I wasn’t sure was a good idea at the time. They said, “Let’s pass the budget where it is because we believe in it, and let’s tell the congregation where things stand.” I sent you a letter; the Session called or emailed every member. They stepped out. And you responded. Many increased your pledge. Some gave an extra gift. One was moved to step in and make a gift to pay for the roof. I was anxious and grumbling, but the Session took a step forward in faith – in you, but even more so in God. And God met us there, and moved in your hearts and checkbooks. We’re not quite there, and we have been through the budget a handful of times and some groups have given a little money back that they realized, as they year went on, they didn’t need quite as much. A gap that was around $230K is now close to $40K. We’ve got a bit to go, and we don’t need to let up now, but we can see the finish line in a way that was hard to imagine nine months ago.
Stewardship in our lives, and in the church, is about a lot of things. It is about how much money the church thinks it needs for the year for all sorts of amazing things. It is about how much money you think you have and how much you think you need in your lives and homes. We’ll talk about all these things as the weeks go on. But even more fundamentally, it’s about a choice we make about the nature of our relationship with God.
In seasons of uncertainty, what will we do? In whom will we place our trust? We want, and we want, some perfectly normal things but also way much more than we need. And we wrestle. Or in issues in our world, in a season filled with cultural turmoil and conflict, natural disasters, and near to overwhelming human need. It’s enough to make me doubt God’s goodness sometimes. But this story, as well as the broader witness of Scripture, doesn’t offer us tidy solutions. It does offer us a truth we are bold to proclaim, over and over again: Our God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, sticks with us. This God never leaves us alone. This God says, when you risk; when you step out in faith; when you put in the time or when you decide to make a gift in faith; when you TRUST, I’ll meet you out there by the rock at Horeb. And we’ll do something amazing together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 We don’t really know how long, but Exodus 12:40 gives us the 430 number.
 This insight comes from the Rev. Anna Pinkney Straight’s paper on this text at The Well, 2010.
 Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), p 6.
 Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, TEXTS FOR PREACHING: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, YEAR A, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995) page 202.