Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

Click here for directions

A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Are We There Yet?

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Exodus 16:2-21


Murmur, murmur, murmur.  Say that out loud three times.  Now say it a little louder.  Murmur, murmur, murmur. 


Complaining is not always a bad thing.  Sometimes it is a form of bonding.  Summer campers complain about the food.  Students complain about homework.  Everyone complains about the weather.  Complaining can be a reasonably healthy way of coping with life’s unpleasantness.  But complaining also has a way of feeding on itself. One complaint can lead to another until there is no longer any helpful or hopeful conversation, just murmur, murmur, murmuring.


It seems to have reached that point for the Israelites.  The word murmur occurs 8 times in the 20 verses we heard.  They murmur about the good old days in Egypt.  Before this, they murmured about water that was too bitter to drink.  After this, they will murmur that they are thirsty.  Here, they murmur, murmur, murmur that they are hungry, that they are going to die of starvation.  God saved them in the crossing of the sea.  They saw it happen.  They were there.  But now, their endless  complaining leads them into negativity, into unbelief and mistrust of God.


When complaining becomes this toxic, something serious is happening.  What is happening is that the people are anxious and afraid.  They are out of their element.   They have lived their lives within the abundance of the Nile River.  Now they are in the rocky, deserted wilderness. 


The landscape has changed beyond their ability to cope.   Life in Egypt was hard, but they knew where to find straw and how to make bricks.  In the wilderness, they have no tools, no knowledge, no technology to solve their problems, and so they murmur.


God responds. God responds to their most urgent concern, which is food to survive.  But God’s response comes about in such a way that it encourages solidarity and wonder.


Solidarity means unity or agreement of feeling or action.  God promises to rain bread from heaven for each day.  And God gives instructions so that everyone is doing the same thing together at the same time.  They go out to hunt quail in the evening.    They go out to gather the manna in the morning.   And if some gather more manna and some gather less, somehow that doesn’t matter, because everyone ends up with the same amount.  Manna becomes their staple food for the next 40 years.  Gathering manna every day with a double portion before the Sabbath rest is a practice that shapes them as a community.


God’s response satisfies their need for food, but it also helps them learn new skills for surviving in the wilderness.  It brings them together for what we might call adaptive learning.  It will likely lead to more cohesive bonding than complaining ever could.  Way to go, God! 


Solidarity means unity of action or feeling.  An 8-year-old girl named Molly who plays several sports was asked recently what it means to take a knee  Her answer, "It's what you do when someone is hurt. It shows that you care, and that they want them to get better, or be okay."


Then she was asked what she thought it meant that some professional football players knelt during the National Anthem. She said, " I guess they think that our country is hurt, and they are hoping that it will get better."  In this sense, both prayer and protest can be acts of solidarity. 


The raised fist has been used at various times in protest.  Two weeks ago, it became one of the more compelling images of solidarity I have ever seen.  As rescuers searched for survivors in the aftermath of the earthquake in Mexico, the closed fist was a silent signal to “close your mouth”.  Fists were raised high to ask for silence so that the searchers might hear any signs of life under the rubble.   It was a tangible effective way to communicate an urgent need in that moment. 


But I hope the symbol will live on, as a gift from Mexico to the rest of us, a reminder to be silent together so that we can hear the other, the missing, the ones who suffer, the ones whose lives are hanging in the balance.[1]


God’s response in the wilderness provokes solidarity, acting and feeling together. It also provokes wonder.  That first morning, as the dew lifted, a flaky white substance covered the ground and the people said, “Manna.” 


Instead of “murmur, murmur, murmur” all around the camp, “manna, manna, manna” was heard.  Let’s try it.  Out loud, together, say “manna” three times.


In Hebrew, manna means, “What is it?”  When the dew lifted and the people saw the bread from heaven for the first time, they said, “What is it?”


And from that point on, the murmuring drops out of the story.  Complaint gives way to curiosity, grumbling is replaced with wonder.


“What is it?” is a question that modern people still ask about manna. There are many ideas --  including a substance secreted by insects that is high in carbohydrates and a kind of mushrooms that come and go quickly and look like frost on the ground in the morning.  It is entirely possible, even probable, that whatever manna was, it was not magical, but something that naturally occurred in its home environment of the Sinai Wilderness.  The wonder of this story is not that manna happened, but that it happened when the people desperately needed it.


Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “What makes something bread from heaven? Is it the thing itself or the one who sends it? How you answer those questions has a lot to do with how you sense God’s presence in your life. . . . If you are willing to look at everything that comes to you as coming to you from God, then there will be no end to the manna in your life. Nothing will be too ordinary or too transitory to remind you of God. The miracle is that God is always sending us something to eat. . . . God gives the true bread from heaven, the bread that gives life to the world.”[2]


Complaining is not always bad.  Sometimes it might even be the first step towards actions of solidarity.  But I wonder how often I allow curiosity to overcome complaint, how often I choose wonder instead of grumbling.  In the grand scheme of things, my legitimate complaints are few, and I am often inspired by people who have a lot more reason to grumble than I do, but who choose gratitude instead. 


Like a man named Dyan.  Dyan and his wife Alik, fled war in their home country of Sudan with their children and ended up in a refugee camp in Egypt.  All written evidence of their marriage had been destroyed in the chaos of the conflict.  Dyan was separated from his family and processed as a single man, from a predominantly Muslim country.  That does not describe a person who is usually chosen for resettlement in the United States, which is where Alik and their children were.  But American friends joined in solidarity and pleaded for him and advocated with government officials, and four years later, this happened: [3]




The movement from complaint to solidarity to wonder to gratitude is a journey of faith. “Gratitude enables us to acknowledge the goodness and love of God, even in difficult circumstances.  Gratitude remembers that a loving God is compassionately reaching towards us in love, to call us out of bondage into freedom. Gratitude remembers rightly, without romanticizing the past.  It remembers rightly the mighty acts of God working in salvation through Jesus Christ to bring us into the fullness of life, forgiveness of sins, and life of encouragement and hope and joy.”[4] 


Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels  (Boston:  Cowley Publications, 1997), p. 10.

[3] http://www.thenorthhill.org/dyan-comes-home

[4] These beautiful words are from a sermon by Dr. Roberta Hestenes http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/667-roberta-hestenes-program-3629