The Past Is Not What it Used to Be

O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your praise. Amen.


The people of Israel have a poor memory. In today’s first reading, they complain to Moses and Aaron:
“If only we had died in Egypt… you have brought us into this wilderness to kill us!”
Really? Were they really better off as slaves in a foreign country? Life was pretty rotten for them in Egypt. Chapter one of Exodus tells us that the ruling class oppressed the Israelites with forced labor. Eventually the Egyptians got scared because their population was growing, so they required the Israelites to kill all baby boys upon birth.

Was slavery in Egypt really any better than wandering in the wilderness?
No. Of course it was not. But the Israelites were doing what all of us have a tendency to do sometimes – they were looking at the past through rosy-colored glasses.
You know? Things were so much better at our last workplace or in our last home or when we were X number of years younger.
We remember the good things from the past.
We tend to forget the bad things.


We forget that in the good old days when school districts honored a “church night” so the whole family could participate in choir or confirmation – in those days, most churches did not ordain women. Most buildings were not handicap-accessible.
We forget that in the good old days when kids stayed close to their parents when they grew up so that extended families could see each other all the time – in those days, the average life expectancy was much lower than it is now. In many places, women were not allowed to own property without the consent of a husband or father.
We remember those things that made the past wonderful, and we forget the things that made it unbearable.
The Israelites remembered the good food of Egypt, but forgot what it felt to sacrifice their freedom for that food.

Now, usually, I think this is a good thing. It’s OK for us to put the bad memories behind us and move on with our lives.
None of us wants to remember the argument that caused a rift in a friendship… we just want to get on with moving ahead in our relationship once the rift is healed.
Sometimes it’s OK to forgive and forget. It’s good for us to leave behind those things that hold us back, and focus on those things that move us forward in life.


Let me share a story with you.

I have a friend who had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up. Nick took a few college classes here and there, changed his major a bunch of times, and never actually graduated. He worked various jobs into his 30s, most of them starting at minimum wage, and none of which helped him develop any long-term professional skills or experience.

But then Nick read a book that sparked his interest in academia, and he jumped back into his studies with a passion! Nick declared a major and graduated with an associates’ degree last May. This summer he is starting online classes for his bachelor’s degree, and this fall he will attend classes on campus.

When Nick talks about going back to school, he basically says, “it’s worth taking that step out of your comfort zone. Sure, there are things that will always look better or simpler or easier when you look back on them. But the rewards of stepping forward are worth it.”


It was tough for Nick to start a new journey into the unknown. He had become comfortable with his life working low-paying low-skill jobs. He didn’t feel passionate about anything he was doing, but at least he knew his way around the world he had built for himself.
That’s the situation that the Israelites find themselves in today.
They’re tired, they’re hungry, and they’re lost. They don’t want to go any further into the unknown. They’re second-guessing their decision to follow Moses in the first place. Sure, Egypt wasn’t perfect – but at least they knew what to expect.


I’ve heard the explanation that we romanticize the past because we know we can get through it – whereas the present and the future are still undecided.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Sometimes our lives get so intense, we’re not sure how we could possibly survive to live another day. So we look back at the past and wish that we had to deal with those problems again. We know how to get over those hurdles.
The only problem is that our God is not a God of the past. Our God exists in the present and the future, and calls us forward into relationship with God and neighbor.


We may not always like what’s familiar, but sometimes we prefer to stay there than to move on to new things. But when we do chose to move on to new things, God will come with us.
In fact, God was with us in the past and will be with us in the future, and God leads us into the unknown, with as much grace as we ask for.


That’s what the Israelites learn today.
Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt. Even though our reading today has the Israelites idealizing Egypt and wanting to go back, we know that their life there was miserable. God sent them a deliverer, someone to lead them into a land where they would be free, and where they would be able to serve God with their whole lives.
Along the way to the promised land, the Israelites start to look back. They get nostalgic, or maybe just whiny – call it what you will. But whatever you think of their complaints against Moses and Aaron, the result is pretty amazing.

God responds.
God provides for their needs.
God sends them birds for meat and rains down manna from heaven for them to eat each day.
The people complain and God responds with a miracle.
God provides for the peoples’ most important needs.


God responds to the people now – not to the past reality, but to the present need.
God is with us where we are, and God is with us where we are going.
God is not in the past.


Now, of course, God was in the past when that was our current reality. But God’s name is “I Am,” not “I Was.” God is with us now.
We’re not going to grow closer to God by living in the past.
We’re not going to learn more about God’s action in our lives by focusing on where God has shown up before.


This story reminds me of a prayer that can help us remember that God is with us when we step out into the unknown. Even if it seems scary at first, God is with us in the present and God will be with us in the future. We don’t need to live in the past – we can follow God’s call to live our lives to the full now, in this moment.


Let us pray.
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we
cannot see the ending, 
by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. 
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,
 but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us;
 through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


This sermon was first preached on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 2012

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