Exodus 16:2-15

Philippians 1:20-30

For the record, I take my showers in the morning. I feel scuzzy if I don’t. But I didn’t take a shower this morning, because I slept in a box last night, along with many others from Hope. Now I’m feeling one of the many issues involved in getting out of homelessness. We often like to says that getting a job is the way to get out of homelessness: you just need to get a good job, and then you won’t be stuck without a home. Well, maybe you’d hire me today, after one night in a box. After a week? Probably not. The hiring manager would ask me why I didn’t clean up before the interview, and I sure wouldn’t want to say, “I couldn’t.” When I was writing this sermon, I also didn’t know whether I’d sleep at all well with that chilly east wind on my head all night, but I know I’m not as able and alert as I might have been. I still don’t know anything about real homelessness, but today I feel at least a little solidarity with those who didn’t have the choice of where to sleep last night.

The Night Without a Home project is unique. It started as a fundraiser for Project Homeless Connect in Duluth, which is an annual service fair. It’s a one-stop place to meet people’s needs as they experience homelessness. Now, Project Homeless Connect is moving away from giving out blankets and hats, to focus more on services: treatment for chemical dependency or mental illness, work and job training, or transitional housing. As the event expands onto the Range, it’s dealing with a different scale and kind of homeless population than exists in Duluth. The funds raised this first year go more toward emergency assistance, but eventually they’ll support more transitional services as well. The goal is on the back of my fancy new t-shirt: “Ending, not enduring homelessness.”

That goal resonates with us. Blankets and handouts just make homelessness okay, but we really want people to be able to support themselves in their own homes. We want our help to be permanent. Our vision of support is systemic, about empowering others to care for themselves, not to encourage dependency. That’s a good big-picture approach. We want to get at the root of the problem, or we’re in danger of enabling the problem. We could just keep homelessness from being a real “crisis” because churches and government handouts keep the situation just below crisis level.

There’s a story to help think about getting at this “big picture” that’s especially popular among those of us who call ourselves “progressives.” One version goes like this:

One summer in the village, the people in the town gathered for a picnic. As they leisurely shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

It goes without saying that babies just don’t go in the river in the first place. People don’t go in boxes. They don’t belong in migration from couch to couch night after night. It’s one thing to help people who are dealing with homelessness right now. It’s another to keep people out of homelessness in the first place, and that of course has to be our preference.

But tell that to the person who needs off the streets with their family today. Sure, there’s some fundamental work that has to be done, but people need to be fed and housed at the same time. Our preference about what to do is usually skewed by whatever our viewpoint happens to be: liberals tend to emphasize systemic change, and conservatives are more likely to prefer individual giving to solve the problem. Each of them is being true to their own worldview. Obviously, we can do both. The balance is complicated, but it’s not impossible to find. We can especially find a balance within the church, or in the world as a whole, if we recognize that God is at work in both approaches.

It’s easy to see God at work in systemic change. God created the world, and of course God can change it. We look for God to recreate a just world, to rebuild it as if from scratch. So, God must be with those who are working to change the world and rebuild just structures. After all, God was with Israel in the desert, leading the people to that Promised Land.

But God was also in the desert when the people were hungry and complaining about their lack of food. They said they would prefer to be slaves with enough food rather than being free people in the desert and starving to death. Moses and Aaron seem irked about this, but really, can you blame the people? This home in the Promised Land will be useless if they don’t survive to see it.

God was in the desert hearing that, and God propped the people up along the way. Of course, God led the people into the Promised Land in due time, but he did more than that. God’s presence was with the people. God’s presence restored the people every day with meat and bread. Just as much as in the pillar of fire, God’s presence was in the manna, feeding the people every day. Sure, this just enabled the problem – the people became dependent on the manna – but it was all to bring about a day when the manna could stop and the people’s own crops could start feeding them.

In the same way, Paul, writing to the Philippians, feels torn between perfection and the reality he faces today. He would love to escape the world, to be with Christ in heaven, but he can’t let himself go yet. We might not see death as closely as Paul does, but we know his dilemma. We could have simple joy in Christ, with our loved ones, in a sanctuary (either here or elsewhere), but most of us are somehow called back to the world, back to all of the messes we find here.

Paul stays “in the flesh” in order to bring others out of the flesh to Christ. And that’s just what Christ did too. Christ had perfect joy in heaven, but in Christ God joined us in the flesh, in our brokenness. Christ came to make all of life immeasurably better, but he also came to improve each life he met. He didn’t just empower people, he also fed them. He didn’t just heal people’s illnesses, he made them whole in profound ways.

Jesus always did both of these things. God is always doing both things. She’s feeding us in this wilderness, all the while leading us into the Promised Land. This is the way of God, to be with us and with all people, and beyond all our ability, God makes new life from our problems. Thanks be to God.