Sermon for July 29, 2018
Texts: Exodus 16:2-15/Matthew 20:1-16
Title: “Boot Camp”
It wasn’t until I raised my right hand that I appreciated the significance of what I was doing, but there I was surrounded my fellow inductees ready to take an oath to serve my country. It was April 1968 in Minneapolis, MN.
The induction ceremony completed, we were treated to a catered lunch in a nearby hotel. No longer civilians, yet not really military either, we ate the lunch and passed the afternoon occupying ourselves with conversation back and forth, a book, or a nap, awaiting the trip to the airport and the flight to our training station, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. My only memory of the flight was flying over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. What came later, in the next twenty-four hours of military life, is not easily forgotten.
The plane was coasting to a stop when a sign, “Welcome to the U.S. Army” came into view. Until that point I don’t really think I realized the magnitude of the step I had made. The six foot four drill instructor, starched and, pressed, who met us on the tarmac helped get me up to speed.
His welcome to the U.S. Army little resembled the welcome we received when we were sworn in, what now seemed months ago. After fifteen minutes of his “greeting” now of us who stood before him maintained any fantasies about what we might expect during the next ten weeks of our lives.
That first taste of Army life resembled in many ways the military movies I had seen growing up, only this time it was real life. Let’s just say, I much preferred the movie version.
Boot camp is what they call it. Going in I didn’t understand the significance of the boot part. The boot, I came to understand, referred to the boot that hit the trainee’s backside any time he offended Army protocol by moving too slowly, marching out of step, or allowing a crease to break the contours of his bunk covering.
Life in boot camp was life turned upside down, and given a good shake. Of course, what we experienced was little difference what our fathers and grandfathers before had experienced when it was their turn to serve.
Times have changed, but the single objective of the boot camp experience really hasn’t changed. Boot camp is a crash course whose objective is to turn boys into men capable of meeting the demands of battlefield. That objective is not always met, but I can tell you the training staff in boot camp give it their best effort.
Boot camp is meant to be tough. The recruit is deconstructed through physical and mental challenges so that he, or she, might be reconstructed into a person capable of withstanding the stress and strains of unexpected situations. Discipline is the watchword.
Boot camp is the extreme example, but generally speaking discipline is something most of us endure rather than embrace. We would like to build muscle, play a musical instrument, play a round of golf in the seventies, yet we seldom make the sacrifices necessary to achieve those aims. A cello sits gathering dust in the corner of my study a reminder of an ambition that miscarried for lack of discipline.
We’re all human, we’ve all surrendered before some challenge that loomed too large for us to handle. The popularity of personal trainers, self-help books, and other prods bear witness to the fact that personal discipline is difficult to maintain.
Though the boot camp experience is demanding, there is definitely and upside to enduring one. Those of us who submitted to ten weeks of boot camp in Kentucky in the spring of 1968 emerged from that experience different people than those who entered the experience. We were not merely more physically fit, we were more personally aware of our strengths and weaknesses, more confident in our overall approach to life.
I have used military boot camp as my point of reference, but boot camp presents itself in many forms. I can think of members of congregations I have served who endured the book camp experience of a cancer diagnosis. Chemotherapy, radiation, and the interminable waiting that are involved in the cancer treatment regime, make for a physically and emotionally draining boot camp. A rebellious child who persists in self-destructive behaviors can produce the same effect in parents and other loved ones who watch the scenario unfold. For still others boot camp is the daily struggle to overcome depression. While important life lessons are learned during the rigors of boot camp, the price paid for such experience is extreme.
Israel had many lessons to learn as she made her way out of Egypt, only the nation failed to appreciate how costly the learning would prove to be. Forced to endure the worst that Egypt’s pharaoh could dish out, the door to freedom at last swung open. Yet no sooner had it opened than Israel faced her first test. Pharaoh, you see, reversed himself over night. He dispatched his army and chariots to intercept Israel soon after she hit the road. His plan, of course, came to nothing after God’s intervention in that well-known episode at the Red Sea.
What an overwhelming experience it most of been to watch her captors struggle and perish as the sea engulfed them. Yet Israel’s trials were far from over. She would soon find herself up against it again. There was no water. An angry delegation was sent to Moses demanding that he intervene. Me must be made to understand that the people were perishing, that they couldn’t subsist without water? Through Moses’ miraculous intervention the water problem was solved. But, Moses, what about the food? The people were hungry, man, were they hungry. The people were desperate, so desperate that a grave in Egypt seemed a better option than what Moses offered. “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.”
Boot camp. The people were up against it, and they complained. It is a harsh discipline, a life and death discipline, to live without the basic necessities of life. Pray God that none of us will ever be challenged with such a discipline.
What an extraordinary discipline it would have taken to endure without complaint what Israel was forced to endure. What an extraordinary act of faith to see some purpose hidden in those trials. Yet you and I know that the life lessons we most remember came by the trials we experienced, the boot camp experiences. It has been in the valleys not the peaks where we have been most receptive and ready to listen. In such times we have recognized the poverty of our own resources, and turned for help beyond ourselves.
The trials of Israel may certainly be an extreme example, but in the experience of many of us there has been an event whose impact was so profound that we looked to any source we knew of help and consolation. Israel’s trials came by way of dire emotional and physical stress that is by no means foreign to many of us.
A wiser people might have emerged from their trials in Sinai a stronger, more faithful, nation. Israel failed, however, to learn the lessons her trials might have taught. Yet despite that, however, God so loved his wayward people that his compassion overruled his justified wrath. He gave food to the people, not to reward their steadfast faith, but to demonstrate his abounding mercy.
It was boot camp and the complaints of the people rose to the ear of the Lord. What lessons, would Israel take from this experience? Was their faith in God strengthened? No, it was not the faith of Israel, but the mercy of God that is most observable in our lesson, the mercy of God providing a foundation upon which faith could be built. God stood with Israel through all her trails.
Boot camp experiences, though demanding, also reward us. While I, and the other recruits, left boot camp a much stronger, more mature and resourceful group than the one that entered, we did not make those strides on our own.
First sergeant Jones, newly arrived at Fort Campbell from Viet Nam, was to my mind a poster-worthy model soldier. Dedicated to making us “all that we could be,” the sergeant was strict, often, at least to our minds, unreasonable, and unforgiving. He was a taskmaster, but under his stern eye our company set records as the best training company in the battalion. Sgt. Jones led by example. You might say he was our Moses.
Moses was the commanding figure in Israel’s boot camp. He was the person to whom that whole company of Israelites looked for direction and support. A strict and imposing figure, Moses was the messenger upon whom God called when anything important needed to be done. Moses was God’s right hand. He stood tall. He was dependable. He wouldn’t let you down. When you are up against it in life you want to have a Moses, a sergeant Jones, on your side.
“Moses, we’re dying of hunger out here. Do something.” What a burden to find food for thousands. Moses, with a big boost from God, came through. The quails were the first course. The second course? The ground was covered with a blanket of white stuff. “What is it?” they cried. “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” Moses responded.
The Sinai boot camp would be an experience spanning forty years. But in that time God never failed to make provision for his people. “What is this?” the people exclaimed. The people were clueless. They turned to Moses for the answer. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you.”
“What is it?” “How will I endure this?” “Where will I turn?” Life doesn’t yield ready answers to those questions. There are even times in life when we may feel that the answers to those questions have been deliberately withheld. Then the truth of a saying one of my seminary professors shared with us is demonstrated, “Life under God is strenuous, yes, but life under God is not grim.”
Boot camp and boot camp discipline. We know the boot camp experience. Some of us have faced greater challenges than others. Oh yes, life is strenuous. We know strenuous, don’t we? We have experienced the grief of loss, illness, and the uncertainty spawned by the storm. But life is not grim. We have each other. We have mentors and guides like Moses. We have a resurrected Savior to walk with us, and to pray with us. We ARE in good hands.
As they looked out at the blanket of white the people wanted to know, “what is this?” “It is the bread that the Lord has given you,” Moses declared. This would not be the last time that the people struggled under God’s discipline, but through it all, God was near. Yes, life is strenuous. But remember this, the God we worship is strenuous too. His hand is capable of reaching into any extremity we shall face in living. This current setback we have experienced will pass. God will open new doors. He will send light to pierce our darkness.
In the extremities of life faith faces its greatest test. Yet it is in those very same extremities that faith makes its greatest strides. It is in those circumstances that our faith goes searching for provision. And what does it discover, water to quench our thirst, manna to satisfy our hunger all provided by a God who wants nothing more than to be for us what he in fact is, the source and sustainer of everything, and everyone.
Source of all goodness and light, God of gods, you were Israel’s God in the wilderness, and you are our God today. Through good times and bad you are for us what you were for them, our loving and compassionate father. Open eyes preoccupied by the affairs of daily life that we might see you as you wish to be seen.
O God, we see so little of what there is to see. Events occur that shake us, discourage and dismay us. We are captive to fears and hasty to conclude that we have been forgotten, abandoned. It is called the human condition, and our humanity is often exposed. There are times when we feel stymied, empty, at a loss for direction. There are times when our field of vision is so narrow that we see only obstacles rather than opportunity.
O God, adversity is a cruel opponent. Even as you counsel us to trust you, the fragility of our faith is exposed time and time again. You gave our forbears manna in the wilderness to fortify them, as so you fortify us with the manna of your word, and the fellowship we enjoy as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
Holy Spirit, ever seeking access to the human heart, we would be accessible, we would be open to your intercessions and guidance. Mold us into vessels of your delight, people through whom your light may brilliantly shine.
In thanksgiving we call to mind the faith that nurtures the life of this worshiping community. We thank you for the friends with whom we worship and serve praying that the bonds we have forged and are forging will grow even stronger in your service.
O God, giver of every good gift, may your blessings strengthen and sustain all who have come here today. Grant your favor on us for the week ahead, even as we pray for friends and loved ones from whom we are separated. Remind us daily that each twenty-four is a gift worthy to be treated as the pearl of great price. In the powerful name of Jesus we pray…