A talk on the experience of migration, or Exodus, preached on Sunday 2nd August.
Exodus 16.2–4,9–15The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’ In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
I’m going away next week and my daughter is staying with friends, so there isn’t much food in my house, other than leftovers from when we had guests last week. In the interests of research for this sermon, I had a look in my fridge last night. It contained some harissa mayonnaise, some pesto, some cold meat, a diet milkshake, some vegetables and a piece of cheesecake. The cheesecake looked a bit untidy, so I tidied it away. I hid the diet milkshake behind the orange juice.
I was doing this research because I was looking at our Old Testament reading, which is about the people of Israel getting hungry in the wilderness – the desert – on their way from Egypt to the Promised land. I was thinking how hard it is for us to relate to their pain – the pain of real hunger – if you are living on even a moderate income here in the West. That’s not to say that people don’t go hungry in this country, but it is hard for us to relate to the fear and desperation of the Israelites, stuck in the desert between Egypt and Israel, not knowing when – or if – their next meal will be found.
And so I think we need to work at this reading. We need to understand the fear and despair of the people of Israel as they look back to Egypt, where they were at least fed, though they lived in slavery and oppression. We need to remember that this kind of hunger is not just a matter of missing a meal, but of missing all your meals. It’s a matter of long term deprivation of protein until your body literally starts to eat itself. It can be a bit of a joke when we read the bible – the people of Israel are whingeing again – but the reality is that being hungry and thirsty in the desert is one of the worst experiences of a human life. The people of Israel were getting desperate.
We need to work at this reading, to understand the people of Israel, because their situation is not just a bible story from the olden days. There are people in that situation right now as I speak. Refugees and migrants cross the Sahara desert regularly in a desperate attempt to find safety and security. Many die on the way. This has been going on for years, it’s just that they used to stop in Libya. Now things are so bad in Libya they try to keep going and to reach Europe.
I wonder if we would classify the people of Israel as refugees or economic migrants? They were escaping slavery, they were looking for freedom and security.
The people of Eritrea are escaping one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the world, a regime where you can be called up to join the army on minimal wages - £20 a month - from the age of fourteen and – here’s the catch – you are conscripted indefinitely. It’s a regime with some of the worst human rights abuses in the whole of Africa. That’s why 3% of the population is leaving.
Syrian refugees are leaving a country torn apart by war – many cannot go home because home no longer exists. Other refugees have been terrorised by Islamic state and lived in utter fear.
Sudanese people leave behind war, desperate poverty and starvation.
Most refugees are children and young people – worldwide, half of them are under eighteen. Many are alone. Most are sheltered in camps in countries near their point of origin. 86% of refugees are still in the developing world. We only see a fraction here.
The world is full of travelling people, hungry and thirsty in one desert or another. We are frightened that they will take more than we have to give, and certainly we can’t take all the world’s refugees here in the UK – though in point of fact, nobody is asking us to. A humane and decent response to this problem will be very hard to find. What we must remember though, and what some of the scaremongering and frightening rhetoric of recent weeks forgets, is that these are real people, just like us. They are all children of God, and we need to search our consciences and inform our minds before we respond. I’ve heard some really stupid things said this week – “Put them on the next plane home”. There are no flights to Libya or Syria, because they are in deadly chaos. God’s children deserve a more thought-out response than that.
When we read about the children of Israel starving in the desert, we are not just reading about something that happened three thousand years ago, we are reading about God’s children today. The difference is that there is no promised land for these people. Somehow we have to make the world a better place, somewhere people don’t live in fear for their lives. Poverty should be history, but it isn’t.
I think we are frightened to think about this. I don’t think we like to look at the world’s great problems, because we don’t have any easy solutions. We don’t like to think about all those suffering men and women, or those terrified children. We don’t like to believe the stories people tell of rape and torture and summary execution, because it shows us just how awful the world can be. The documented evidence is there in the news, but it’s hidden away under World – that tab we don’t click too often.
But part of being a Christian is being prepared to care, being prepared to listen, being prepared to understand. We can only find the strength to do this if we, too, understand that we need the grace of God to survive. The people of Israel received bread from heaven to meet their bodily needs. In our gospel reading, Jesus also offers us bread – Jesus met people’s bodily needs too – but Jesus also offers us the bread of life. Jesus offers us the love and the strength to keep on going, to keep on caring, even when the problems of the world seem overwhelming and we feel that we can’t do anything.
Because there is no manna going to fall in the desert today. There are no quails for the hungry to have for dinner tonight. It’s up to us. We are lucky – our needs are met and we have somewhere to sleep tonight. We have been given bread and it’s our job to make sure that the rest of the world has bread too, both the bread that feeds our bodies and the bread that feeds our souls. Last time I spoke I talked about how Jesus responded to human need both on an earthly level and a spiritual level. It’s left to us now to carry on that work, in this village, in this country and in this world.
So where do we start? We start, as always, with an open heart. We start by listening. We seek to understand before we open our own mouths. [If only I practiced what I preach, I hear you say]. We come in humility, not pretending we have easy answers, but we listen to the pain of the world and then we do what we can.
And if you feel helpless in the face of the world’s pain, if you are frightened that maybe some of that pain will come to you, then take heart from our second reading. Jesus said,
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
There are no limits to God’s love. We do not need to fear. There is hope for this world, broken and suffering though it is. We meet together to share in the bread of life, trusting that there is enough to go around. When we sing ‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ we mean it. When we take holy communion, we take it alongside the poor of the world. God’s blessings are not finite. Love is not a limited resource. Have faith, and be willing to share your bread with strangers.