Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
“The Fleshpots of Egypt”
We ran into a friend from our cheerleader parent days. Her daughter has graduated IU and is in her first job. She called home recently and complained a little: "I like my job okay. But it's not like I thought it would be. It seems like all I do is go to work to pay bills. There is almost no time or money to do anything fun.”
Freedom isn't like the Israelites thought it would be. And slavery definitely was NOT how they remember it now. The Hebrews in the wilderness fussed at Moses, “If only we had died by the
hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” First of all, I hate the word fleshpots. Teenage boys have been making gross jokes in church about it since 1611 of the Common Era, and still the translators won't pick another word.
Praise the Lord for Eugene Peterson (The Message) who translates it “lamb stew.” “When we sat by pots of lamb stew and ate as much bread as we want.”
There is also a bluegrass band of seminary professors who call themselves The Fleshpots of Egypt. Here they are:
They aren't terrible. They are Lutheran so they play lots of beer gardens. What seems wrong with this pic, but actually isn’t: the guitarist has no legs – just in case you’re prompted to complain about how far you have to walk some days.
But more to the point: Really? That's what you remember about Egypt? Back in the day when you did nothing but sit around munching on fresh bread and lamb stew? Can we fact-check that a little, please?
Exodus 1:13 – The Egyptians got so they couldn’t stand the Israelites and treated them worse than ever, crushing them with slave labor. They made them miserable with the hard labor of making bricks and mortar and back-breaking work in the fields. They piled on the work, crushing them under the cruel workload.
Moses first asked Pharaoh to give the Hebrews three days' vacation, just to go into the desert and worship – a revival, we called them in my childhood church. Exodus 5 says Pharaoh took immediate action. He sent down orders to the slave-drivers and their underlings: “Don’t provide straw for the people for making bricks as you have been doing. Make them get their own straw. And make them produce the same number of bricks — no reduction in their daily quotas! They’re getting lazy.”
13 The slave-drivers were merciless, saying, “Complete your daily quota of bricks—the same number as when you were given straw.” 14 The Israelite foremen whom the slave-drivers had appointed were beaten and badgered. “ 15-16 The Israelite foremen came to Pharaoh and cried out for relief: “Why are you treating your servants like this? Nobody gives us any straw and they tell us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look at us—we’re being beaten. And it’s not our fault.” 17-18 But Pharaoh said, “Lazy! That’s what you are! Lazy! That’s why you whine. Go back to work. Nobody’s going to give you straw, and at the end of the day you better bring in your full quota of bricks.”
So no, they did not in fact sit around eating lamb and fresh bread. However, what they did eat they recognized. And they didn't have to hunt for it, did they? They went from the brick factory to the cafeteria where other slaves had been cooking all day to feed them whatever the Egyptians had decided they'd all eat that day. They've been out of Egypt a month. Thirty days in a row now, they've woken up to a day having no idea what would happen to them. For the 400 years – or 146,000 days – previous, they and their ancestors had woken knowing precisely what each day held. They woke to work, ate to work, slept to work, and bred children to replace themselves when they could work no longer.
They were slaves, born and bred to enrich the Empire. Slaves have no need of trust or faith. Slaves have no choices nor make decisions. No future for which to prepare, nor much to lose in death. Complaining may be the only indulgence a slave has. Then, for the first time in the Bible, this clan born of Abraham (now numbered somewhere around 600,000) is referred to as a “congregation.” In verse 9: Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
They are not slaves; they are a congregation, a people for whom faith is now appropriate and expected. They are introduced the possibility of having a choice: complain or trust? Can you imagine having never made a single decision in your life until thirty days ago, on Friday, September 8, 2017? I remember that day. I went to the balloon festival with Carl and Lily E. We thought about a balloon ride and decided it was too loud, and there was fire involved, so we chose the bouncy house and a rainbow slushie instead. Because free people get to choose, and people who've been free awhile don't think anything of being able to choose.
But the word freedom surely tasted as strange in their mouths as congregation sounded in the ears of the Israelites, as they sat around in this strange place waiting for Moses and Aaron to figure out what was going to happen next. They thought they were dying for sure. And it was all MOSES' fault. Until God explained to Moses that there in fact was NO food crisis but rather a faith opportunity about to rain down on them. And rather than complain, they were going to have to learn to trust God for every little thing from now on, because that is what it means to be free and, coincidentally, what it means to be faithful.
A perceived famine is NOT the same as a real famine. Have you ever opened your fridge or your pantry and thought, "There is nothing here to eat”? Was there? Just little cracker crumbs on the shelf, nothing else? A milk jug that someone put back with seven drops of milk inside so they didn't have to wash it for the recycle bin? At my house, "There's nothing here to eat” means “The muffins are all gone. I don't want to cook. I'm tired of leftovers.”
Here are some pictures I saved for this sermon – from my Korea trip.
fresh and ready to eat:
roasted pig snouts
BBQ chicken feet
Steak tartare w/ caviar
I think it’s easier to believe that manna and the quail miraculously rained from heaven for those special 40 years so long ago than to believe that it had been there all along and the Israelites just couldn’t see it. But what if maybe it wasn't a once-in-the-history-of-the-world miracle?
Other really smart scholars can talk about a couple of different kinds of dry, resin-like, edible substances that are found early in the morning in various place in the Sinai. And birds flying from Africa that get blown off course by Mediterranean sea winds and fall dead to the ground. And see, if it’s a natural phenomenon – if something wasn’t a brand-new miracle – I think that will also preach. In fact, I love how that preaches, because I can relate to people who believe that the-way-it-was is far better than the-way-it-is, especially when the-way-it-was is long over and the-way-it-is is new and scary.
They call it a wilderness, but the scripture never says famine. A wilderness is a place that isn’t cultivated, domesticated. Wild things live and grow there, but it isn’t a famine. They will only starve because they choose to, not because there's nothing to eat. Not because God hasn't provided. Complaining: it’s like worrying, except it's aggressive.
Complaining is so easy to do and so difficult to listen to. Amen? Especially complaining about situations that are static. Ever complain about the weather? About traffic? About IU football, or the American congress? – things that never truly change.
Complaining makes demands of others. In Numbers, chapter 11, Moses complains to God about the Israelites complaining to him: 12 ”Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them on your chest like a breastfeeding mama carries a sucking child’?” If it is hard for us to listen to a complaining co-worker, can you imagine what God must go through? Which is why I find it so interesting that faith is the alternative response in the text. Instead of complaining, God says, I want you to trust me. Is trust aggressive? Or is it passive?
If I woke up every morning and my fridge was actually empty but my front yard was knee deep in groceries, how much effort would it take for me NOT to pick up as much as I could carry? Trusting that it would be there tomorrow would take the greater effort, the greater faith. Work as hard as you want, what you don’t eat today will rot and you'll have wasted your time and energy. You don't need manna for tomorrow. You don't need faith for tomorrow. Just today. Try it, God tells the people; see if I don't do exactly as I'm telling you now that I am going to do.
And every day for forty years, the manna and quail was given. Lots and lots of those days they ate it without complaint. But naturally, they got tired of eating the same thing. And they complained. And again said they wanted to go back to Egypt to eat watermelon and fish and cucumbers. But mostly they just wanted meat, which they always got for free back when they were slaves (this is that same Numbers, chapter 11 passage), which really ticked God off and so God said, Is that right? Well how about I just force-feed you quail until it comes out your nose and you can’t stand the sight of it? And God did. And it apparently did not satiate God’s anger, so God wiped out a few of them too, because they were so amazingly, phenomenally, remarkably ungrateful not to be slaves anymore.
Which you might imagine – over time – would have motivated the congregation of God to cease complaining. But has it? Can you remember the last time you complained? Was it today? Yesterday? This week? Was it a kind of perceived famine? Something you were sure you needed, but there simply wasn't enough of it to be found in your life here and now? Your fleshpots of Egypt, if you will.
I made a long list of possible perceived famines for the modern congregation. What would you put on it? Kindness, Courage, Decency, Peace? Wisdom, Security, Compassion, Justice? Nearly everything about which I complain comes back to my craving for more time. As if in some other place or time other people get more done because they have more hours and days than me. As if by working harder I can actually create time itself. Time. We can't bank it, borrow it, buy it, sell it, trade it. We can only receive it – just this one day's worth.
If there aren’t famines, then what are there? How about favorites, preferences, prejudices? I was raised eating fried chicken legs. I could eat this roomful of Carl’s mama’s fried chicken. Fried chicken legs are my favorite. And I’m fully aware of the irony of loving the legs and thinking that those boiled and BBQ’d chicken feet are revolting. It’s not a famine just because it’s not my favorite.
Now grow that reality into every nook and cranny of our lives and our life together; our hearts and minds and spirits; the assumptions and opinions that have been embedded there forever; the preferences, the prejudices, the revulsions, and the blind spots. All the things we couldn’t see simply because we never had cause to look – to look and to see the manna, the life, the spirit of God, that has always been there.
They came to this space between what they’d known and where God wanted them to be, and it was scary, because everything was new and different. And given the choice – which was itself new – they had to learn to trust instead of complain. Of all the questions this text prompts in me, the one that flits around me most is this: what’s the point of faith, if God was going to give the manna anyway?
I’ve scribbled pages of paper to come to this: without faith, the people of God would have starved to death in a world of plenty. They would have been their own taskmasters and still lived like slaves instead of the free people God had called them to be. They weren’t escaped slaves any more; they were a promised and provided-for people who were now going to walk and live by faith – faith in the same God who was with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. And, also, another – the One who called Himself the bread of life who has come down out of heaven. Whoever eats this bread, he said, will do what? – will live forever. (John 6)
May we be found never complaining, slipping back to a place of slavery, to the fears and lies of a life that is over and gone – but, rather, trusting the One who leads us and provides for us day by day by day.
Would you pray with me?