Out of Egypt

October 1, 2017           Proper 26   Creation Season

Exodus 17:1-7

Once more we find the people of Israel travelling through the wilderness.  Once more we find them complaining, grumbling and blaming Moses for leading them out of Egypt to die in this strange and frightening land.Once more we find the people of Israel travelling through the wilderness.  Once more we find them complaining, grumbling and blaming Moses for leading them out of Egypt to die in this strange and frightening land.

Now, really, we can’t really blame them.  The wilderness in this case was the scorching Sinai desert, and they have run short of water. We can go without food for several days, if we have to – but without water we will not last long, particularly in the heat. Our dependence on water is so much more immediate.  That is why the Bible, written in a dry land never far from the desert, speaks of water so often as the very essence of life. So no wonder they are getting desperate, as they grow thirsty and there is no water in sight.  The Biblical writer seems willing enough to blame them for not having enough faith; and sure enough, God does take care of them by sending water from the rock.  But really, it is only human to begin to panic under those circumstances.

The consistent theme of these desert stories is that they wish themselves back in Egypt.  Egypt may have been bad, but it was better to live a slave there than perish a free person in the desert.  In fact, in some passages Egypt  starts to look good.  Last week we heard them reminiscing about the fleshpots – apparently there was always meat to eat.  And a little later, after weeks of nothing but manna, there’s a wonderful passage where they dream of all the good things in Egypt:

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

You can just hear the saliva running! Now it would seem that they were romanticizing Egypt in their memory, and no doubt that is a big part of it.  But let’s not forget that they weren’t all slaves in Egypt.  Moses, at least, was raised in Pharaoh’s household, so we can be sure that he had a pretty good life there. Perhaps there were others, too, people who had managed to lead a comfortable life there, for whom Egypt was not a land of abject slavery, but a land of luxury and opportunity.  They especially must be struggling bitterly with what they got themselves into, having followed Moses into the wilderness.

For the past couple of weeks, we have been reflecting on the grim prospects of climate change, as our theme for creation season.  It is not really a theme we chose, but one that has been thrust upon us by the extreme weather of the past month. We are beginning to have to ask ourselves how life may have to change, as the climate continues to change.  We are – so far! – fortunate in Nova Scotia that we haven’t seen significant changes here yet. But I would think that the residents of some Caribbean islands must be starting to ask themselves anxious questions about the future.  If these storms are going to be coming regularly now, every year or so, what kind of a future will be there for their children and grandchildren. How can you live if your town is going to be destroyed every few years? Is there a long-term future on those islands? Is it time to start thinking about moving away?

Even if our situation is not so dire, we will have questions of our own, if we are paying attention. What effect will rising sea levels have on our coastal towns and cities?  Will our forests be safe from massive fires? We were spared this year in Nova Scotia, but last year we got a taste.  What will happen to our public finances, as more and more money will need to be diverted to disaster relief and rebuilding?  How will the resulting economic pressures affect our social fabric: will the rich continue to get richer, while more and more people sink into poverty?  How will we respond to the growing numbers of climate refugees, people from other parts of the world rendered unlivable, desperately looking for a future for their children?

We don’t know what kind of Canada we will be passing on to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  But we have to entertain the possibility that is appearing more likely: that they will have a less wealthy, less comfortable, less secure future than we have had. That is hard to hear, as for several generations we have gotten used to the idea that life will just keep getting better. What if life is getting worse? We just don’t know what the future will look like; increasingly, it looks like we are setting out to journey into a bleak and inhospitable wilderness.

For the people of Israel, as they journeyed into the unknown, into their bleak and inhospitable wilderness, there was fear, and nostalgia for the comfort of Egypt, and bitterness for what they had lost.  But there was also – at least when their immediate hunger and thirst had been met – a sense of purpose and promise.  There was a sense that, for all they had lost, they were right to have left Egypt behind them.  They were free people now, with a dignity and a sense of self-worth, and a call to build a new and sustainable nation, tending the promised land.  Let’s not forget how powerful that feeling must have been.  It has kept the Jewish nation alive over more than three and a half thousand years, when all the nations around them have crumbled and been forgotten.  What about us? Can we find that same sense of promise and resilience? 

Perhaps this story can help us to recognize more clearly what we may have to be leaving behind.  The lifestyle we may be starting to lose, the whole enterprise of Western capitalism over the past couple of hundred years – what does it sound like to call that Egypt.  It has brought glorious accomplishments: we have raised cities and monuments that dwarf the great pyramids themselves. We have created untold wealth for many.  For many, many more, like ourselves perhaps, it has brought a good life – a life we had to work hard for, perhaps, but still so much more comfortable than our grandparents. And for many others, mostly in far-off lands, this same enterprise has brought grinding poverty, and a life little different than slaves.

Now it’s beginning to feel as though this may be taken away from us, that things may be beginning to break down. That thought makes us frightened, and defensive, and bitter. But what if it is not so much about holding onto it until it is taken away from us – what if we are being called to leave it behind, to set out intentionally and willingly into an unknown future – knowing it will bring hardships and worries and loss, but also trusting that we may be led to a promised land of a simpler and more sustainable way of living.

I believe it was the elder George Bush who showed up at one of the early climate conferences and brought discussion to an end with the phrase: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”  Well, 25 years later, the phrase rings more hollow than ever.  Tell that to the people of Houston or Puerto Rico. The question is not whether we change our way of living, but how: kicking and screaming and holding onto each privilege as it slips through our fingers, or actively engaged in looking for a new future.

There is a wonderful verse in the book of Hebrews about Moses.  It is part of a long list of the heroes of Israel, and what faith meant in each of their lives.  Of Moses it says:  “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward.” Perhaps that is a faith for our times, a faith that willingly strives to learn to break with our unsustainable lifestyle, and seek a new future in a simpler, more rooted life.

I do not think that this will be easy.  It do not think that our generation, or even our children’s generation, will see the promised land of a new, relatively stable way of life.  I am sure that our time in the wilderness will be long, and it will be difficult.  But I am convinced that we can only survive it if we learn to stop looking back, and trying to cling to the luxury of Egypt, and learn to embrace this journey as a call into freedom and a more true human life.  That conviction, that faith, is something our grandchildren will need.  At least we can try to leave them that much.