What a week! We survived VBS and our first (hopefully annual?) Clam Boil!
With everything that went on this week, I was expecting it to be a light Sunday – but it was the complete opposite! Worship this morning gave me an incredible energy. Here’s the sermon!
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
When Answered Prayers Don’t Fall From The Sky
This scripture always makes me laugh. During my first semester in seminary, I – along with the rest of my matriculating class – took Old Testament. The class was fairly linear; we started with Genesis and worked our way through the Hebrew Bible. A few weeks into the semester I was home cleaning my apartment when I heard something from the TV in another room that caused me to stop what I was doing. “Let my people go!” I heard a man with a deep voice shout loudly. I ran into the living room just in time to see the movie title, “The Ten Commandments,” flash on the screen, advertising the newly animated movie directed by Bill Boyce and John Stronach.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I was positively giddy when I did some internet investigation and confirmed that there was, in fact, a freshly released movie chronicling the plight of the Israelites and their journey with Moses to the Promised Land. We were, at the time, studying Exodus in Old Testament. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to get a group of my new seminary friends together to go out, see the movie and compare it to what we were learning?
(This is the point of the story where Bruce always interjects by saying, “You are such a dork.”)
So I grabbed my phone and my computer and started sending text and Facebook messages. A good group of us got together and that Friday night we all piled into a few cars and drove north to Marietta, Georgia to catch a late showing of the movie.
(The fact that we could only find one movie theater within a 25 mile radius of the city of Atlanta that was actually showing the movie should have been our first clue that we were not in for an Oscar-worthy performance.)
Okay, so the movie was pretty awful. Biblical inaccuracies aside, the animation was terrible, the complaining Israelites sounded more like Italian mobsters than fleeing slaves, Moses kind of reminded me of Santa Claus and the parting of the Red Sea bared a similar resemblance to the shark exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium. But the actual experience was so much fun. How often do you get to go see a movie about the book of Exodus with a group of seminary students who were currently studying the book of Exodus? It was awesome to sit and analyze the movie, point out the inconsistencies, shout out the Hebrew and fill in some of the gaps.
Bruce may disagree.
(I feel the need to point out the fact that the commentary that my friends and I were giving was not disrupting anyone else’s movie viewing experience. Apparently not a lot of people were interested in seeing Christian Slater narrate Moses, because we were the only ones in the movie theater that night.)
The passage that came up in this morning’s lectionary was one of my favorite parts in the entire movie. The animation was particularly terrible here; an answered prayer that was described beautifully in the New Revised Standard Version as “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” that appeared overnight looked more like pancakes dropping from the sky than a mystical expression of God’s love and devotion.
My own amusement with the passage aside, this is not an easy text to preach on. The problem – both with the movie’s representation of the text and the text itself – is that more often than not our prayers are not answered in such literal and precise ways. Week after week, we pray for peace and yet often wars prevail. We pray for medical cures and healing and yet we still grieve losses of friends and loved ones. We pray for financial stability and yet there are people in our community and all around the world who do not have a roof to sleep under, food to eat, water to drink and access to basic medical care. We pray for jobs and yet many remain unemployed. Single men and women prayer for a partner, yet still live alone; women struggling with infertility pray for a baby, yet still remain childless. When my grandfather faced open heart surgery at the age of 60, the congregation he was serving at the time held a round-the-clock prayer vigil for him both the day of the surgery and the day following the surgery, yet he still died from complications a day later. I knew I would likely go into sermon writing mode with many unanswered questions, so when it came time to put the bulletin together, I posed a question to myself in the form of this sermon title, “When Answered Prayers Don’t Fall From The Sky.”
I sent an email to a church member this week, someone who I like to talk church and theology with. I said:
I am thinking about Sunday’s sermon – the passage in Exodus where God answers the prayer for food and drops manna from the sky. Kind of a tough passage to preach on; the fact is, sometimes our prayers aren’t answered in such obvious ways. So way, then, is prayer? Tougher question – what is an answered prayer?”
I hit send on the email and got up from my desk to file some papers. As I was standing at my filing cabinet the song, “Anyway,” by Martina McBride, began to play on my iPad. I froze as I listened to the chorus:
God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good.
When I pray, it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should.
But I do it anyway.
I do it anyway.
I think I could preach a long sermon analyzing a naturalistic explanation for how, exactly, the manna appeared in the wilderness; I could talk more about the Israelites plight into the wilderness; I could examine what it means to wait for God to answer our prayers and assure you again and again of God’s love and grace. Those would all be great sermons – but I do not think that they would move us anywhere. I think we are in a place in our community and in the world right now where we need to think about what it really means to pray, especially when the obvious answers aren’t dropping out of the sky like manna.
That evening I received a response to my email.
I like that the NRSV uses the word “complaining.” The Jews were complaining. And so they ate the manna. They ate it for forty years as the story goes. And they complained, just like we all complain. We’re always complaining about something; we’re never happy.
Even when we pray we’re complaining. Let’s get off our duffs and make things happen, like Jesus did, instead of hanging around in the desert waiting for God to answer our prayers.
Let’s make things happen. Let’s create answered prayer.
Regardless of what the outcome may be, it is so important to drop on our knees and pray to God every single day. Because I think that praying is more than just a conversation with God. I think part of the praying process is actively engaging in taking the journey towards an answered prayer. Week after week we pray in our churches and in our homes and I think we often forget that communication in prayer is not a one-way street; God speaks back to us in many ways, shapes and forms. And God gives us the strength to answer prayers as well as speak them from our mouths. We are the Body of Christ; together we can answer the prayers of those who cry out around us.
So what do we do? We wake up every day and vow to put one foot in front of the other. We define our own happiness; we try to make good choices and learn from the bad ones. We reach out to people when we see they are in need. We give of our time, our talents and our resources. We love the people around us even when we do not necessarily like them. We allow ourselves to experiences feelings of grief, anger, sadness and frustration, but also push ourselves to move ahead and create change in our lives and in the world.
What do we do when answered prayers don’t fall from the sky? We do it anyway.
Thanks be to God!