Great Expectations – A sermon for the start of #gc2019

2/24/18

Exodus 16:1-5
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 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.’
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. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’

What do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? That might just be the single most important question that we should explore at every age and stage of life. When expectations aren’t met, we rarely have better answers to give others than dramatically oversimplified sayings. It starts with small things. I remember back in 2010 being so glad to be an adult. I was out of seminary and in a career where I could support myself for the first time in life. It was going to be this pristine time where I had life under control and no longer had to save allowance for months to get what I wanted – and then the house and car broke down in the same month. And my dad was ready with his quite helpful answer – Welcome to adulthood!

He meant it as a joke… mostly… and Sallie and I recovered fine. But too often that simplistic kind of throw your hands in the air answer seems to be about the best we can offer, especially when life isn’t as easy or predictable or simple as we expected. Baby won’t stop crying? That’s parenthood! Boss being a jerk? At least you have a job!

And when we don’t simply shrug our shoulders and say too bad, it’s often because we want to give clear purpose and meaning to the struggles of life. I have to admit, there are few things I personally find less helpful when something bad happens, than for someone to say, “don’t worry, it’s all part of a bigger plan.” Whether or not it is part of plan, it still hurts. And that knowledge does nothing to help. More often than not, I’m better off recognizing how often things just sort of happen. And how present God is in the midst of it all. I know God is present every step of the way and that God’s heart breaks every time any one of ours does. Being held when things are not what I expected makes far more difference than being able to name some sort of master plan or purpose behind them.

The best answer we can offer when little things don’t turn out as we expected is usually the simple gift of presence. We can show up for our loved ones and be willing to sit with the pain or anger or grief or betrayal or whatever else they are feeling. No pithy words needed. No attempt to reveal some greater puzzle being laid out in time. No rush to fix the problem and move on to the next thing. Just the gift of presence and the willingness to hear whatever needs to be said. Patient presence is often the greatest gift we can offer when reality falls short of our expectations.

But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? A pastor friend of ours told us a story that I will never forget. Unmet expectations nearly derailed his marriage. He had been married for a while at the time and things were going alright as far as he was aware. Then came a Saturday morning that started just like so many others, but eventually changed everything. He was playing video games on the living room TV. She was busy rushing around the house cleaning and getting other chores done.

At some point, the chores came to a halt and she’d had enough. She was angry and gave him a piece of her mind. She was busy doing all the important work around the house and he was lazily playing his pointless games and doing nothing to contribute. That’s the way their first real fight began. He had some choice words to say in response and everything just escalated from there. It turns out, in his family growing up, Saturdays were reserved for doing whatever you wanted. So if she was doing chores, that’s because she wanted to do so and it wasn’t his fault.

In her family growing up, Saturdays were always the day for cleaning and laundry and whatever else needed to get done. She figured he was just being a jerk by making her do everything. We all bring expectations from our childhood, many of which we don’t even realize are unique to the way we were raised. And if we never voice our expectations to the people we love, we’ll almost always wind up fighting over things they may not even know about. Even what it means to fight is dramatically shaped by our expectations.

For my friend telling the story, this first real fight brought him to life. His parents fought all the time growing up and this felt like the first time his marriage was actually real. She, however, was distraught by the whole thing. She was convinced that their marriage was pretty much over. They had both lost their cool. They had yelled and screamed. Her parents had never said a cross word to each other in front of the kids in her whole life. She expected that every married couple was happy enough not to fight and with one real fight all hope was lost.

Of course not all couple fight all the time; his parent’s fighting just gave them plenty of work to do to find forgiveness and healing. And there are no couples who never get upset with each other; her parents just had their fights in private. But we only know what we know and our expectations naturally flow from what we’ve experienced. Being aware of our expectations is one of the single most important skills for learning to cope when life doesn’t live up to them. If my friend and his wife hadn’t figured out their expectations and figured out how to make their own kind of life together, they wouldn’t still be married so many years later. When marriage didn’t live up to their expectations, they had to compromise on the things that don’t matter…  and build on the things that do.

They made the changes that make a marriage. But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Sometimes it’s not just a relatively small thing like a broken down car. Sometimes it’s about even more than a marriage. Sometimes everything about your day to day life can change completely. And the weird thing about being human is that change can feel very wrong, even when change is absolutely for the best.

God’s people named Israel were confronted with one of those jarring challenges to their way of life. For them, it was an incredibly positive change that had them questioning everything. Our reading for today finds God’s people on the journey toward Mount Sinai, halfway between slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law. The people complain that they are about to starve and God responds by raining down manna from heaven.

A little background to understand what’s going on – all the way back in chapter 12 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God sets this whole story in motion. God called Abraham to go to the land that God promised to show him. So Abraham left his homeland and went. The rest of the old testament revolves around the promise of this land. Sometimes God’s people are faithfully living in the land. Other times, they are in exile, meaning for one reason or another they are kept far away, unable to know the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Exodus represents one stage of that journey. At the start, God’s people are enslaved in Egypt. By the end, the people are on the verge of entering the land once again. Through mighty signs and wonders, God frees the people from slavery in Egypt. Along the way, God hands down the law at Mount Sinai. The law may not sound all that exciting to our ears. Law sounds like restrictions that we’d rather avoid at all cost. For God’s people, the law was what gave shape and meaning to their lives. It was the reminder that God would never leave them. It was one of the single most important ways for God’s people to feel close to God.

We catch up with this story halfway between that moment of freedom from Egypt and the law being handed down at Sinai. God’s people are complaining in the desert, as they have done multiple times on the trip already. Halfway on the journey, as far from Egypt as they are from Sinai, this is where the people are confronted by the fact that freedom isn’t living up to their expectations. What to do? Keep moving toward the fulfillment of all that God has promised? Or go back to be slaves again in Egypt? The choice should seem obvious. Go forward! Seek the promise!

And yet, for the umpteenth time, we find God’s people complaining instead. Through signs and wonders they’d been brought out of Egypt and through the desert. They’d already been given water from a rock and sustained for weeks. But again they complain. “At least in Egypt we had food to eat. Why did you bring us out to die in the desert?” God’s response is both more beautiful … and more disappointing than you could possibly expect. God says I will rain down manna from heaven each and every day. I will give you precisely what you need to sustain you for the journey until my promise is fulfilled.

This is such a beautiful and intimate moment. God will daily supply the people’s need, like a parent feeding an infant who could not survive otherwise. God gives this free gift of sustenance for the journey and will ensure that nothing can stop his people from arriving at their destination. This is an amazing and beautiful moment!

But I have to say this is not exactly the ideal response I would have hoped for if I’d been on the trip. Ideally, a bus with air conditioning would have pulled up and finished the journey by nightfall. Instead, for the next 40 years, every… single …day… their food for every…single… meal would be mostly tasteless flaky bread-like stuff called manna. It filled their stomach, but had to get old quick. And they walked through the desert over the course of an entire generation, 40 years just to arrive at the doorstep of the promise.

Their journey through the desert was BOTH a great reminder of God’s faithfulness and power, AND a harsh reminder that the journey from here to the promised land is neither easy nor instant. It was a great blessing to be free! But surely nothing like what they expected when they were praying for freedom in Egypt. When their expectations weren’t met, they complained against Moses and against God time and time again.

So we come back to that question – what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Small change, big change, for better or for worse, it doesn’t really matter. Every change in life, no matter how good and beautiful, comes with the loss of what we previously expected to be the case. When our expectations about tomorrow are not met, there’s always at least some small part of us that has to grieve the loss of those expectations. To live well is to embrace the art of grieving.

I recognize that’s probably a strange thing for a pastor to say. We’re often trained in church to keep the focus on the glory of heaven; to recognize that we are made new in Christ and all is set right; to praise and give thanks for the assurance of salvation because the battle is already won. On some level, that future focused hope and joy is absolutely at the heart of our faith. But life is actually lived in the tension between our expectations for the future and the reality of our present. No matter how joyful and hopeful and positive life is, we can be weighed down by disappointment when what we get is not what we expected. A life of faith requires us to lean into that tension, both maintaining hope in what God has promised to do AND finding joy in the daily bread that we are given.

For us, adopting Hutch has been the clearest experience of this dynamic I can imagine. We brought Hutch home almost three months ago. He is the perfect child and we both love him more than life itself. But 5 years ago when we started trying to get pregnant, we never could have imagined, much less expected that adoption would be how a child would come into our lives. If we didn’t learn how to grieve the loss of what we expected, then we would have never been able to appreciate the incredible blessings of the gifts we actually received.

I suspect that there is no more important lesson for us today as a church and denomination than this. Today begins a called General Conference at which delegates from around the world will try to make decisions that affect the future of our denomination. One of the central divisions facing the church, is that the church and world do not look like the church or the world of our childhoods; and we don’t know what to do with that change. As a 34 year old I can point out a hundred things that are fundamentally different than they were when I grew up. Some big, some small. Some for the better, others for the worse. I can only imagine how much different things are from 30 or even 60 years before that.

As children in the faith, whether we’re 9 months or 90 years old at the time; as children of the faith at some point we each take our first step on the journey to the promised land before us. And I’m willing to bet that for just about all of us the journey winds up feeling much more like wandering in the desert than arriving in the promised land. Change will happen and life won’t be what we expected.

If you find life in the church to be a pristine and perfect embodiment of the love of God, I guarantee you’ve never served on the interior design committee for a new sanctuary. I have. It’s not pretty. It’s just one small reminder that life in the church is not as pretty or perfect as we might have expected. If we don’t learn how to grieve change and imperfection, if we don’t learn the lesson from God’s people on the journey; then we might just wind up doing more harm than good to the church we love. We might do what the helicopter parent does to mold their child’s life into the life they wish they had, no matter what is best for the life of the child.

We are assured that the victory is won in Christ. The joy and hope of salvation are crucial promises that give life to our broken bodies. But change happens. People fall short. If we don’t learn to grieve the reality of unmet expectations, we’ll be miserable along the journey; we’ll be blind to the daily gifts that God rains down. As someone once said, church is often focused on what happens after we die. But at its core, Christianity is about what happens when we learn to truly live. In other words, where we’re going matters, but our entire life is lived on the journey from here to there.

I don’t have any idea what decisions will be made this week if any, but I’d offer one bit of biblical wisdom for the journey ahead. You might expect this will be the moment our denomination finally gets free from the cultural wind and doubles down on our foundation. On the other side, you might expect this will be the moment we break free from ancient rules that should no longer apply. You might expect anything in between or nothing at all to change. But whatever happens, God will still be faithful to His promise, AND our future will not look exactly like you expect. If we don’t learn to grieve the loss of expectations, we’ll never be able to experience the beauty of the daily gifts God will continue to rain down in our life together.

So what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? We have to put in the work to grieve the loss of our expectations. And then learn how to receive the immense blessings of all that God will continue to do. There are signs and foretastes all around of the amazing work God has promised to fulfill. There are a thousand moments a day through which we can be reminded of God’s continued faithfulness – even when all the world seems blind to the good work of God.

In our own lives as well as in the life of the church, our challenge is to trust in the faithfulness of God; to embrace the reality of daily bread; and to remember that there is nothing we can do that would separate us from the love of God. Take joy in the manna along the journey; take joy in the daily blessings that God is offering; and know that the promise of God is assured no matter how far we fall short along the way. Remember that God is with us, we are never alone. And God will be faithful to the very end.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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