About ten years ago, in DownEast Magazine, I read about a place called Swan Island that sits in the middle of the Kennebec river. I learned that for centuries the Abenaki people had used it as a summer hunting camp. They called it “Swango,” which is Abenaki for “Island of Eagles.”
Then the English arrived and took possession of the land. Over 100 white people settled on Swan and stayed through the 1800’s: farming, fishing, ship building, and harvesting ice. But times changed and the settlement ended.
The island was deeded to the state of Maine and eventually became a nature preserve. There are still 5 houses standing there, a graveyard, abundant wildlife, and miles and miles of trails. DownEast declared it worth a visit, so I made a plan. We put the kids in the car and took a day trip to Richmond, Maine.
When we arrived, a ranger met us at the tiny ferry landing and took us over. She then invited us to climb up into the back of a flat bed pickup truck with benches built into the sides. She drove us to the far end of the island from whence we would hike back to the ferry landing. So far, so good.
However, we were not even off the truck when I spotted a tick crawling up George’s leg. I brushed it off, and told everyone to stay vigilant. We hopped down, waved good bye to the ranger, and started our walk, but within a minute, we all found ourselves brushing ticks off our legs.
So many ticks that we picked up the kids and carried them for awhile. But the walk back was over three miles long and we simply couldn’t carry them the whole way. Plus, we had to keep putting them down to brush ticks off ourselves, but every time we put the kids down they also picked up ticks.
We tried walking fast, then jogging. We put the kids down and we all tried running. But the ticks were relentless. There came a point where we couldn’t brush them off our legs fast enough because they were already getting attached. We’re talking like 6 crawling up your leg at a time. I am not exaggerating and I’ve never experienced anything like it since.
The kids were crying - for good reason - and, as you can well imagine, no one was having a good time. So we called the ranger and asked for help. She arrived with a nifty little device called a tick scoop that helps you pop those little suckers right off. She got us all cleaned up and drove us back to the ferry. We thanked her for the rescue, hopped back on the boat, and took the kids straight to a bakery in an attempt to try and salvage the day.
We were all a little traumatized, to be honest, but as we sat outside by the river and I looked down at their little tear streaked faces, I said… “Hey, remember that time we went to Swan Island? Wasn’t that amazing!” My kids looked at me like I was losing it, but I pressed on.
“Remember how we made it all the way back in spite of the ticks and how brave you were and how the ranger came to help us? Now we know about tick scoops. We’re never going to forget that place. We’re going to laugh about that trip for years.” And the truth is, we have.
The kids were skeptical at first, but then they kind of got in on the joke. They renamed the island right then and there, and to this day someone will occasionally say, “Remember Tick Island? Great trip mom!”
I wasn’t gaslighting them or bright-siding. We all know that we never want to go back there. But we also look back on it now as a core memory for our family. Our disastrous trip to Swan Island is a part of our story. It taught us that we can get through hard things together. We can endure. We are resilient. And we all have our limits.
We learned that some times the best laid plans go awry, and you need to adapt. I thought I’d planned a lovely outing for my young family and I was wrong. So. Very. Wrong.
But I learned that I can mess up and they will still love me. We learned there is no shame in calling for help and that sometimes it is ok to quit right in the middle of something that you thought would be great but is in fact just miserable. And we learned that what doesn’t kill you gives you a good story to tell if you’re willing to remember it with a little grace, humor, and humility.
Well something about today’s story reminded me of our experience on “Tick Island.” The Israelites have just escaped from slavery in Egypt. God has enabled Moses to part the Red Sea, lead them out of captivity, and conveniently drown the army that might have pursued them. But it is not long before things get hard. The people are hungry, they are thirsty, and they are scared. They may have escaped slavery in Egypt but they have no idea how to survive in freedom out in this wilderness, and it shows.
Two and a half months out, they’re sick of not knowing where their next meal is coming from and they begin to turn on Moses. They cry out, “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,” (Exodus 16:3).
It’s such a terrible, ungrateful thing to say after Moses and God have gone to such trouble to save them, but God is gracious and merciful and above all, fully aware of what they need. In response to their hunger, God provides manna in the morning that they can make into bread. God provides quail in the evening that they can roast over their fires.
And obviously God knows that this is not enough. Obviously the people will also need water. But rather than trust that the God who has freed them and fed them will come through, they complain again: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
It’s interesting to me that they are not out of Egypt but a few weeks and they are already looking back on it as a better place then the one they find themselves in right now.
There is much they could remember about their time as slaves - the abuse, the punishing workload, the way Pharaoh put their babies to death - but all that comes to mind as they stand out under an open sky holding their water skins upside down and shaking them with frustration is the fact that at least in Egypt they knew where to find a fountain.
At least in Egypt they knew where to find food. It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but at least they knew what to expect, how things worked, and where things were. But now? Now they don’t know anything at all and it’s terrifying.
God is providing for them right along, providing exactly what they need as they need it, but the fact that they had just enough yesterday doesn’t fill them with a whole lot of confidence for today. So people try gathering extra manna just in case and it rots. They turn on Moses and God, biting the very hands that are trying to feed them. They give into their worst fear even though it makes no sense that the God who brought them this far would abandon them now.
And yet, in all fairness to the Israelites, I admit it’s hard to think straight when you’re scared. It’s hard to stay calm when you have no control and no idea what is coming next. I understand why even Moses is starting to waver by the time we catch up with them in today’s reading. He’s as frustrated and scared as everyone else.
So God tells Moses to take up his staff - the very staff with which he struck the Nile - because God wants to remind Moses of what God can do. If that staff helped Moses preform a miracle once, chances are it will help him again. If God provided a way where there seemed to be no way once, chances are God will provide a way again. God wants Moses to remember that God is with him and I think the staff is meant to provoke his memory.
Well, Moses takes the staff, along with 12 elders, strikes the rock at Horeb and lo and behold, God comes through… again. The water flows, the people are saved, and yet even Moses is struggling to see where God is in the midst of it all.
He names the place for posterity, but rather than call it something like “God Provides,” or “Fountain of Life,” “(Moses) calls the place Massah (literally, quarrel) and Meribah (literally test), because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Moses chooses to remember the complaining even more than the miracle, which is not a good sign.
The Israelites are more focused on remembering what was good about Egypt than seeing what is good in the here and now, which isn’t helping anybody.
I may be projecting a wee bit here, but I think maybe Moses is starting to experience a little burn out in large part because the Israelites are suffering from a bad case of nostalgia. Rather than deal with the unpredictability of the present, they just want to go back to the stability of way things were in Egypt, even if the way things were was bad. Moses may have parted the Red Sea, but he is completely flooded by their negativity. And because of this, they are all missing the wonder of God in their midst.
It may be why they ended up staying out in the wilderness for so long. Someone much wiser than me, probably Walter Bruggeman, once said something like: “It took one day to get the Hebrews out of Egypt; it took forty years to get Egypt out of the Hebrews.”
And I think that is true. After the trauma of Egypt, they needed time to heal and learn to depend on God and God alone. They needed time to develop faith and trust in God and God alone. And I don’t mean to sound trite here, but they I think they needed time to learn that life really is so much more about the journey than the destination.
Because, you see, I think they were all hoping for a happy ending; a good long trek straight across the desert to the promised land where they could drop their bags and all live happily ever after. But life isn’t neat and tidy like that.
I have the sense that the Israelites thought their liberation was a one time deal and they were ready to accept their freedom from God and then get one with their lives. Having been saved from Pharaoh they were ready to move on to a place where there would be no more challenges or problems.
What they got instead was the freedom to go on with their lives and - newsflash - turns out that all of life has its challenges and problems. What God wanted them to understand is that God would be with them from now until the end in the midst of all of their challenges and problems.
And I think God knew that the wilderness was the best place for them to learn this, because it is in the wilderness where our best attempts at meeting challenges and solving problems falls short and we realize just how much we need God and each other. It is in the wilderness that we learn the difference between what we want and what we need, and find that God is there in that space, willing and ready to provide.
I know I’m running low on time, so let me cut to the chase. Having come through the pandemic, we are no strangers to this whole idea of wilderness. We know how scary it is when you don’t know what to expect, how long things will take, where things are, or how things will work.
Like the Israelites, we too know the deep existential dread of not knowing how or even if we will make it through at all… and it was terrifying. During that time a lot of us just wanted things to go back to normal.
But as our time in that wilderness stretched out many of us came to realize, thanks be to God, that what was normal about the before times wasn’t good at all for a whole lot of people.
As hard as it was, we learned a lot about ourselves during that time. We learned how much we need God and each other. We learned the difference between what we wanted and what we needed and we saw over and over again how God provided, that God was with us, that even in the midst of our isolation, we were not alone.
Well my friends, we have a choice when it comes to how we remember that time and what we do with it. There are days when I, as much as anyone, really just want to put those years behind me….but I don’t think our journey is over. I think we learned a lot that still needs to be integrated into us or we’ll miss the lessons that time held for us all.
It would be easy right now to succumb to negativity or nostalgia or lose ourselves right now in behaviors that numb us, because we’re all still tired and we’re all still in pain. Just as it’s easy to stay home right now, because home is where you know what to expect, how things work, where things are. We’re all too familiar with what it feels like to be alone. We got good at it.
Taking a chance, showing up, putting yourself out there, that’s what’s hard right now. It’s hard because guess what? People are still hard. We can be challenging and problematic, We require patience and grace. We’re all traumatized and anxious.
It’s hard to come out and be together because we’re out of practice, we might get rejected, we might not find what we want. And, to top it all off, covid isn’t exactly over! No, covid is just one more problem we need to learn to with.
But, bit by bit, I do believe that if we keep showing up for each other as best we can, God will show up for us all and we’ll find what we need.
Friends, remembering can be hard, but remembering well is necessary lest we forget the hard won lessons of that time.
Remembering well is necessary lest we forget that the world as it was before was harming people we love and we have a responsibility to work on building something better.
Remembering well is necessary lest we forget just how precious it is to be in community with one another, how precious we truly are to one another, how much richer life is when we can be in person working, worshipping, and breaking bread side by side.
I don’t want to burn out and deep down I think we all know that we don’t want to go back. But I do hope that we can keep looking back on our wilderness experience with grace, humor, and humility, until we can tell it as a story about how, with the help of God and each other, we learned, we grew, and we endured.
Because you, my friends, are the people I want with me on this journey, our eyes wide open to all the places where God is breaking through. And if you look behind me you’ll see that God has provided exactly what we need once again. May the gift of this meal we are about to share together give us the strength to meet all that lies ahead. Amen