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  • Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed

The God Who Hears

Exodus 16:2-15

2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, "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; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." 4 Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?" 8 And Moses said, "When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him —- what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord." 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. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'" 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

***


I.

As I remember it, six months ago now, it began with toilet paper. I didn’t believe the hype so I didn’t stock up until it was too late and ended up being one of those people in the Target parking lot at 7:45 on Wednesday morning, hoping I would not have to fight my way through a crowd to buy toilet paper.


When I got to the aisle luckily there was no crowd but I was faced with a dilemma. There were maybe 15 packages of toilet paper left and, at that point, no signs suggesting a limit per customer. So I stood there. For a long time. And I pondered: do I just take one pack and leave the rest for others? Do I fill my cart, since it seemed as though most people had been stocking up for weeks, thus leading to the shortage? I found myself in deep thought, almost discernment over this issue before I grabbed two packages (we are a family of five) and headed home. Never had I imagined that toilet paper would become such a moral issue.

In the time since then there have been plenty of other shortages: flour, lysol,, peanut butter. And perhaps I’m not alone in having walked the aisles of Target or Kroger grumbling and complaining at the inconvenience.


II.

Perhaps it’s never been easier for us to relate to Israelites’ complaining, but we’d be wrong to equate our need for toilet paper with what they’d been through by the time they got to the sixteenth chapter of Exodus. They are not just frustrated Target customers — they are survivors of a collective trauma. Their “complaining” as the word appears in this translation isn’t just grumbling, it comes from a place of fear known only by those who have experienced deep suffering.

The Israelites are refugees seeking asylum.

They are slaves fleeing the plantation.

They are victims escaping domestic violence.

Their “complaining” comes from a place of terror and that particular place of terror was Egypt - Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Perhaps their voices are loud because, having come from Pharaoh’s Egypt they were used to having their cries ignored. Pharaoh had strategically fashioned a system that used mid-level management - task-masters and overseers to deal with the slaves grumblings, and this system was intentional. He knew it would be a lot easier to ignore the complaints of his slaves if he didn’t have to hear them in the first place.

It was a system that would later come to be used by emperors and kings, plantation owners, corporate executives… Any economic system where the distress of those at the bottom goes unacknowledged and the wealth simply flows to the top with little consideration as to how it got there.


III.

Years ago there was a reality show on TV called, “Undercover Boss”. The premise of the show was that a top executive, usually the president or CEO of a company, would wear a disguise and go undercover to train for entry level positions within their own company.

One seasoned opened with the story of Mitch Modell, CEO of a family-owned sporting goods chain based in New York City. Mitch prided himself on tracking every dollar within his company. Sort of an Ebeneezer Scrooge type, he managed his enterprise from a high rise office building in Manhattan and admittedly had little interaction with the majority of the people who worked for his company.

When Mitch went undercover to work in his own stores, it didn’t take long to discover that the systems and numbers that served him well on paper did not play out so smoothly in real life. His employees feel employees overworked, under appreciated, unheard, and unable to find meaning or purpose in their days.

At one point, one of his warehouse employees revealed that on his minimum wage salary doing hard manual labor he took home only $230 a week. Later, Mitch reflected:

I know I’ve been putting unbearable pressure on our management team about controlling expenses, I just wonder if we went too far… I never looked at it from the aspect of ‘what does the job entail, and are they being compensated fairly?’”

Mitch never looked at it that way because he never had to. The distance between him and his employees and his fixation on the bottom line - meant Mitch was more than willing to stay deaf when it came to his workers’ complaints. The gist of this episode (and pretty much every episode in this series) is: when the person at the top is separated from those at the bottom, the more distance, the more disconnect.

And when that’s the case, perhaps it’s no surprise that sometimes the complaining gets loud.

Now, to compare the Israelites to unhappy shoe store workers clearly doesn’t express the depth trauma experienced by the Hebrew people. But it gives us a starting point to imagine what it would look like for us to move closer to the voices of those in distress in our world and really hear the experiences behind what we might see as “complaining.”

It’s not easy work - both the listening and the work of lifting our voices when we are the ones in the wilderness. It can be exhausting to raise our voice against injustice over and over again when we know that Pharaoh has no interest in listening — but what happens if we go silent? How can the distance between Pharaoh and slave, CEO and warehouse worker, be bridged if the complaining just stops?

Author Toni Morrison speaks about this when she notes how often the works of black writers during slavery, even writers as famous as Fredrick Douglass, left out the most traumatic details of their experiences. She says,

“Over and over, the writers pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as ‘But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.’ In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things and they ‘forgot’ many other things.” (Morrison, 1999).

When we are the ones walking the wilderness, witnessing the effects of Pharoah’s Egypt in whatever form it takes, we need to complain. Being a witness often means raising our voices and refusing to leave out the hard parts when it comes time to tell our stories. These are the memories and the lessons that will give others strength in the hard times to come and hopefully the wisdom to listen more closely, to bridge the distance between us.


IV.

Back to Exodus.

The Israelites complain against Moses and Aaron because it’s all they know to do, but it doesn’t take long for them to realize they are no longer in Pharaoh’s Egypt when they find that their complaints are readily received by a God who listens, hears, and responds to the trauma they have experienced. Whether they knew it or not, that same God was with them in Pharoah’s world, freed them from it, and is ready to create a new way of life for them.

This new way of life looks a lot like the rhythm of creation God established at the beginning. It involves work - but only for six days and then there is rest. There isn’t a ton of extra or excess but there is also no need to hoard, because the people trust that God will continue to provide.

They hold this trust because they know their God isn’t interested in relating to them from a distance or using them for personal gain. Unlike Pharoah’s world, there are no intermediaries between God and the congregation of Israel. Everyone eats their fill and there is time set aside for ALL to rest.

Eventually, when the people strayed from this rhythm (again) and instead of Pharaoh it was Rome at the top, refusing to hear the cries and complaints of those at the bottom, God would interrupt again through the presence of Jesus Christ: the servant Lord, once again upsetting the economics of the empire with the economics of God - multiplying loaves and fishes, turning plain water to fine wine, praising the widow’s mite and chastising those who took advantage of the poor.


V.

Perhaps these are important stories to remember as we continue to journey in our own wilderness right now. We have our own complaints, that’s for sure, some of them mere inconveniences - like trouble finding toilet paper or peanut butter. Some involve our livelihoods - unjust working conditions designed to benefit only the CEO of the company, the ruler of the empire. And still others are far more than “grumblings” but are in fact the echoes of trauma, stories that are painful to tell but must be shared if we are to avoid dark histories repeating themselves.

We have a responsibility - to listen to the “complaints” of others, and to share our stories in ways that do not downplay what the world needs to know about the wilderness.

If the story of Exodus and the story of Jesus’ own death and resurrection tell us anything, it’s that we can be sure we worship a God who hears each and every one of these cries - from the little daily frustrations to deep grief to trauma to fear and back again. And somehow in the midst of our wilderness, God is at work, comforting us, carrying us, calling us to seek a way of life that requires our utmost courage, and trust in the one who draws near to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for the God who hears our complaints and cries - the God who is Emmanuel “God with us” in Jesus Christ.


Amen.


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