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How Soon We Forget

September 19, 1999, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16;

How soon we forget; it is one of those truths about being human. Let me illustrate: As you sit there, are you aware of the blessing of easy breath? Do you remember the last time you had a head cold or sinus infection that left you unable to breath through your nose? How soon we forget. Are you aware of the blessings of sight? Have you ever been deprived of it for a few days or weeks? One of the things I am learning with this broken foot is how much about our lives we simply take for granted until they become limited in some way. By the way, there is no pain involved with this, just the annoyance of crutches, and the bother of limited mobility. I have a new appreciation for what life is like for those of you who use canes or wheelchairs, the anxiety involved with being in a crowd, especially with charging children, and the frustration and chagrin of having to depend upon others to do simple things for you, like carry your coffee cup, or bring you a book or a piece of paper off the printer. More, I have a new appreciation for a phrase that was virtually unknown years ago: handicapped accessability. I will do my best not too soon forget.

But we do too soon forget. That thought came to me again and again this summer as I read my way through the Bible. One of the joys of summer is having several hours each morning, uninterrupted, to read my way through large portions of the scripture, not just a chapter of the Old or New Testament, but Epistle, Gospel or Psalms, five to ten chapters at a time. This summer I re-read the Torah. Making my way through the story of the exodus and wilderness wanderings, I kept asking myself: “Why didn’t they get it? Why was it so hard for them to learn to trust God and obey God’s commandments?” Chapter after chapter told the same story with different circumstances. No sooner would God intervene to save Israel, than in a heartbeat, they were off wantonly disobeying, or chasing after other gods. As I left Torah behind and ventured into Joshua and Judges, the same was true: crisis, God’s response, exuberant but transient joy, followed by more stubborn, almost intentional unfaithfulness. No sooner would God rescue the Children of Israel than they were again, in the words of the Bible, “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” How soon we forget.

Today’s lesson is a perfect example. Freed from slavery in Egypt, rescued from Pharoah’s pursuing chariots with the miracle of the Red Sea crossing, followed by provision of water in the desert, the children of Israel still have not gotten it. Now they are panicked over food. You’d think that by now they would have learned. But no, again they turn on Moses and complain: “Why have you brought us out into this wilderness to kill us of hunger. Better that we should have died at the hand of the Lord in Egypt, at least in Egypt there was plenty to eat.1 Reading the story this summer I wondered at God’s patience.

But then one day in August, in the midst of my pious reading of this story, I got a phone call telling me about a crisis. The details of the crisis are not important; my response is. Almost instantly I began to fret, which then gave way to anxiety, and finally fear. Then I found myself unwittingly scheming and plotting in ways that, as I began to think about it more, would be most unfaithful were I to act on them. On the other hand, not to act would seem imprudent. Patient trust, or self-determined action; which would it be? And so went the argument in my head until it suddenly dawned on me: “Wait a minute Fred, you are no different than the rebellious crowd following Moses. Your reflexive action is to forget God and God’s ways and head out on your own. Has God ever not been faithful to you? Then why are you wasting this time and energy in worry and anxiety? Do you have any reason to believe that God will be any less faithful to you now than God has been in the past? How soon you forget.”

Now I tell you this story, not because I think I am an exception among us, but because I think that each of us can recognize that pattern in our own lives if we think about it long enough and are really honest with ourselves. A crisis appears, whether of our own making or not, and we begin to fret, worry, and perhaps, even scheme. For those of us who are Christian, at some point in the process, we are reminded of God’s promise to us, in a sermon, a Bible study, a conversation with a friend who promises to pray for us. Days pass, anxiety comes and goes, as we find ourselves sometimes more, sometimes less, learning to live out of God’s hand. And then one day, the crisis comes to resolution. Sometimes it is a way so unexpected that we call it “miraculous.” But more often than not, it is resolved in ways that seem quite normal, perhaps even coincidental. Initially we are grateful. But soon the memory has faded into the past and we are back to living out of our own resources; back to living on our own. Not nearly so much time is spent in prayer, or in worship, or in reading scripture listening for God’s instructions. Worship and Christian education get set aside for other things. The daily spiritual disciplines slip -- after all, we have so much to do. We haven’t time. Our schedules press God to the margin of our lives – at least until the next crisis. Then, when the inevitable crisis comes, we ask ourselves, “Why is it God tests us so?”

Why does God test us so? Because we soon forget, and head out into life as though we were on our own. Consequently, God needs to get our attention, and get us back on the path that leads to life. You see, God’s tests are less “pass - fail” than learning experiences designed to turn around those who too soon forget.

When I was a second lieutenant in Navigation Training in the Air Force, the Instructing Officer would always remind us of Air Training Command’s official policy on testing: “every test is to be a learning experience.” My fellow officers and I learned that was true, tests could be learning experiences. But, we also agreed that we would have felt much better about those tests if the grades had not been recorded or used as a criteria for whether or not we passed the course. But tests, if they are really good tests, do both, they teach us -- they get us on course, and they get us through the course. When God tests us it is God’s way of teaching us things we need to know about living with God as God’s person, and about getting us back on course. And more often than not, its about the basics of life.

Every crisis in Israel’s life, up until and including today’s lesson, was about the basics of life: safety, water, bread, meat. And in each crisis, the real question was “Can we trust God to provide this for us?” The people complain. God speaks, and Moses and Aaron pass on the word: God will provide meat to their fill in the evening, and bread in the morning. That evening quails appeared with an abundance that was well beyond their need. Rising the next morning, they found “a fine flaky substance as fine as frost on the ground.” Later we read it was “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”2 What was it? Manna, bread from heaven, just as the Lord had promised.

But the test is not over yet. To make the learning more complete, God pressed some limitations on this new gift. They were to gather as much as was needed in their household for the day, but not one flake more. Now some gathered more than they needed, and some not enough. But the text tells us that when it was measured, each had just what they needed, and not one bit more.

Notice the providence of God at work. God gives us just what we need. For if God were to give us more, how long would it take for us to forget from whence it had come and who was responsible for it in the first place? It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the Israelite with the largest hoard of manna proclaiming that he had a right to it because he had worked so hard for it. Imagine the disappointment of those who had broken their backs to gather more than they needed. They must have howled just like those first laborers in the vineyard who had worked all day, but found that those who got there at the last hour received the same pay. They each received just what they needed. God gives us what we need. It has led me to conclude that “enough is best.” Otherwise we begin to get confused about where things come from, to whom they really belong, and from whose hand we are living. They were to gather only what they needed for one day, and trust God for the next.

Under the circumstance you would think the people would have been obedient to that command. But, they were not. Someone in the congregation had a better idea. There was a textual scholar among them who quickly found a way to interpret God’s command in such a way that it did not mean what it seemed to say. And so they willfully violated the command. The next morning, the judgment was evident to all. What had been saved was foul, rotten and filled with worms, a melting ooze.

Here is the second lesson to be learned from this test. Forget God and God’s ways, and life gets foul and rotten. Consider those for whom enough is not best. Consider those in this town working absurd hours in the hope of making partner in the firm, and in the process ignoring their spouse and children. Why are there so many second, and even third marriages on Wall Street? Jesus called it gaining the world and losing your life in the process.3

But the test is more complex: God throws in an exception to the rule. The people could only gather enough for the day except on Friday, when they were to gather enough for two days, so as to be able to observe the Sabbath without the work of gathering. Miraculously enough, on Friday nights the saved manna did not spoil. But only on Friday nights. All other nights it would rot. In this way God was helping them remember who it was that provided the bread, less they too soon forget, and come to think of the manna as simply a natural phenomena. God was teaching Israel what it meant to belong to God and how to trust God with its life. It was not enough that they had been freed from slavery, nor even enough that they should follow to a land of promise. They were to be God’s chosen ones, set apart to be the people through whom the rest of the world would come to know God and God’s saving ways. To do that, they needed to learn not only who God was, but what it meant to live as God’s people.

So too for us. Paul writes “lead your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What does that mean for you? What does it mean with regard to your time, talent, relationships or your other resources? Are you trusting God’s gifts for the day, or working and worrying yourself to death because you doubt God’s care and providence for tomorrow? How soon we forget. God has given us the gift of the gospel with its message that as we live lives worthy of it, Christ will be sufficient for our every need.4 Like the laborers in the vineyard, each of us will be given what we need for the day. Those who forget, can expect a test.

  1. Exodus 16:2-3
  2. Exodus 16:31
  3. Matthew 16:26;Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25
  4. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

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