The story of Exodus is the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. While they were slaves, God heard the Israelite’s cries and brought them out of that land and set them on a journey to a new land which was flowing with milk and honey. And yet, despite all that God did for the people, we hear today that the people are not satisfied.
In this morning’s passage from Exodus, we hear that as they are wandering through the desert, the whole congregation of Israelites traveling with Moses and Aaron are upset and complaining. The whole congregation – hundreds of thousands of people. I’ve had some in the congregation be upset with me, but never the whole congregation. It sounds pretty bleak. And they even go so far as to wish that they were back in Egypt living as slaves, and lamenting the fact that they not been killed but were forced to wander in the wilderness looking for food. They are not satisfied.
In my life, have spent exactly zero days wandering around looking for food, unsure of where I would find my next meal. Every single day of my life, God has blessed me with food, a roof over my head and people who love me. God has given me clothes. God has provided for me. And yet I marvel at the fact that I too, like the Israelites, am often unsatisfied with what I have.
It seems like there’s always the need for something more, something new, and something better. We want to have more on the shelf, more in the bank, and more security that we will never lack anything again. And yet even when we have these things, we can be unsatisfied. The workers we hear about in the Gospel today have agreed to work for a day’s wages, which they are getting. And yet they are unsatisfied. So perhaps the message we get from these passages today is that God wants us to be satisfied with what we have.
You know to satisfy something means that you meet its needs. You need a particular tool because you are working on your car and without this one tool you can’t get into the engine, so that tool satisfies your need and you’re ready to work. You pay off your debt and you have satisfied the debt. You’re all done.
And sometimes in life we have these moments where we look at our lives and think that things are going just about as well as they can go, and this great sense of satisfaction comes upon us, and these are truly special moments. But they can be few and far between it is easy to spend our lives like the Israelites today, not recognizing or appreciating how blessed we are.
So the question is, what makes satisfaction possible? Can we ever truly be satisfied with our lives?, is that possible, especially given that there is always something we can complain about?
These last few weeks, as I have been going through this bittersweet process of saying goodbye to all of you, I have been reflecting on me experience 23 years ago saying goodbye to the people at the first church where I served. This was a little mission called San Pedro Cerca del Rio, St. Peter’s by the River, which is just outside of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where I served as a missionary.
On my last Sunday at the church, people came from all over to the final service. And it was a day that was both happy and sad, as these things are. There were children everywhere, which happens wherever you go in Honduras. People were milling around. And I remember looking at everything and being caught up in these feelings. And I remember something else, the smell of smoke and trash, which was always in the air.
The burning trash smell was part of the life of that community because just down the road, about a half a mile away, was the town’s largest trash dump which they called El Crematorio. This is where people from Tegucigalpa sent their trash, day after day, and it was added to an ever growing mountain of rubbish. There were fires that burned day and night in the dump and the smoke wafted over their homes and over the church, and their water was always yellow because it was so polluted.
Among the members of our church, there were several families who made their money scavenging from the dump. Not everyone, but a handful of families gathered what they could find, including plastic, wood and metal, to sell as scrap. They collected items that had been thrown out and cleaned them and sold them on the side of the road.
Those who lived through the proceeds of the dump lacked what most of us would consider basic necessities. And their lives were chaotic. They were never entirely sure if they would have food from one day to the next because all they had depended on what they could find in the dump that day. Each day, they literally lived based on the mercy of what God provided.
And yet it is not an exaggeration to say that the people who lived on proceeds of the dump were generally satisfied with their lives. They weren’t satisfied with everything, of course. They knew where they lived was unhealthy, but it was where their family had lived for possibly thousands of years, countless generations, and so they weren’t going to move. They knew the future their children faced would be challenging and that their prospects for advancement in a country like Honduras were few.
But again and again I was amazed to find that these people from our Church, Episcopalians just like us, the poorest people you could meet in the poorest country in this part of the world, were perhaps as satisfied with their lives as we are with ours, and maybe even more so.
At first, when I went to visit them, I could not believe it when they told me that they were happy and their lives were good. We are blessed, they would say again and again. And I would think to myself – well, how do you define blessed? But over time, as I started to get to know the parishioners, and visit those who lived off the proceeds of dump, and it became clear that they really were satisfied. Their lives were filled with joy and happiness that revolved around the pleasures of family and faith. And their connection with God was unlike anything I have ever seen.
What happens when you live dependent upon God every day is that you develop a deeper sense of God’s role in your life. You learn that God is the one who feeds you and cares for you. You learn that your efforts, as much as you do in any given day, are really only successful if it is God’s will to put something in your path, to put something in the dump that you can turn around and sell. And so you tend to think a little less of yourself and how much you can do, and you tend to think a lot more about God.
Here in the United States, at least among most of our community, we live with amazing privilege. And we tend to forget that this is not normal for much of the world where people literally have nothing. Because of our privilege, we have a different sense of our material things from those who live without all this. We think these things are necessary. This house, this phone, these clothes, what we possess. We don’t think of our possessions as gifts from God but we imagine they are our right. They are what we deserve for all our hard work. And when we lack just one comfort we are dissatisfied with our lives.
I can’t tell you how many times I have stood at the open door of my refrigerator which is stocked with food, and thinking to myself – well there’s nothing here to eat.
The truth is that we have more than we could possibly need or use, we just don’t appreciate it. When you thank God for a piece of plastic that came from the dump because it’s something you can turn around and sell, you are like the Israelites thanking God for mana from heaven. You appreciate it so much. When your tiny, cardboard house is filled with things you have collected and cleaned from the dump, everything there is a gift and a treasure for you, and you appreciate those things.
After spending time in that community I began to understand that I had perpetually overlooked the many ways that God had blessed me, and I began to realize that I was the poor one, not in the material sense, but in the spiritual sense. I did not thank God for my last paycheck or the fact that I had eaten this day or the fact that I was healthy. I was not particularly grateful or really satisfied with my life until I went to Honduras, and since then my life has never been the same.
Satisfaction comes when we are able to be grateful to God for everything we have. I have never been grateful for a piece of plastic I have found in the dump, but I have tried to be grateful for the many things and people that have come into my life. And I am grateful for all of you.
I think we can learn to be satisfied. We can learn to give thanks for the gifts we have and to give thanks for the one who gave them to us. We can learn to recognize that even though things may not be to our liking, that God has a plan for the things and people in our lives we may not understand or comprehend. And we have faith in God.
Our collect, from the beginning of the service today, prays for God to grant us not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, it says, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure. This is a lovely prayer, and a reminder that the more we live just according to the earthly things in our life the more anxious and despondent we become. But if we hold fast to God and the promise of God’s faithful love, we will have peace.
We live our lives here in the material world and get so used to having these things and people in our lives that sometimes we cannot imagine life without them. But people and things are not eternal. Each thing we have and each person we meet is a passing gift from God to be shared as we make our journey through the wilderness with God. So we love each other and we love our things, but mainly our peace and satisfaction comes from learning to love God even more and knowing that God will provide us with what we really need always.