Let Go: Leaving Behind What We Do Not Need
Two hundred nineteen years and one week ago today, the crew known as the Corp of Discovery set out from St. Louis, MO to discover what exactly had been purchased in the Louisiana Purchase. They were off, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, in the hope of finding a passable water route to the Pacific Ocean. The 41-person crew, which included volunteers, soldiers, and Patrick Gass, an enslaved man, left on one 55-foot keel boat. Along the way, they encountered many Native American tribes, most of whom proved very helpful. Of course, among them was the 17-year-old pregnant Sacajawea, the wife of a French-Canadian trader, who would prove extremely knowledgeable and useful as an interpreter and guide. Somewhere along the way they built a fleet of canoes, needing more than their initial boat.
The growing crew continued journeying west along the Missouri River in what we now know of as Montana, until the moment they came to a fork in the road. Only one fork was the true river, and previous reports from the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe told them they would know they were on the right fork when they got to the waterfalls. Lewis and Clark took a vote- left, or right? Among those who voted, 31 chose the right fork and two, Lewis and Clark, voted for the left. They sent scouting parties up both sides to learn more about what they would face on either fork, and when they returned and debriefed the rest of the crew, they voted again. 31-2. But, apparently, the crew trusted Lewis and Clark enough to take the left fork, and off they went in their canoes.
Lewis was initially overjoyed to see the Great Falls, which he called “truly magnificent and sublimely grand.” That is, he was glad until it was obvious that it would be impossible to stay on the river and that carrying their canoes and gear would be a very difficult task. Navigating the difficult, cactus-filled terrain was harder than anyone could have expected, and it took over a month to go 18 miles. Other legs of the trip allowed them to travel up to 20 miles in one day. Of this time, Lewis wrote in his journal, “. . . They are obliged to halt and rest frequently for a few minute. At every halt these poor fellow tumble down and are so much fortiegued that many of them are asleep in an instant. In short their fatiegues are incredible; some are limping from the soreness of their feet, others faint and unable to stand for a few minutes, with heat and fatiegue. . .”Out of the water, the explores also had to deal with animals- grizzly bears, bugs, snakes. Apparently in one afternoon, Lewis encountered “a bear, a mountain cat or wolverine, and three bison,” prompting him to write, “all the beasts of the neighbourhood had made a league to distroy me, or that some fortune was disposed to amuse herself at my expence.”
You can’t canoe from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. It just isn’t possible. At some point, you run out of river- it runs underground, or the rapids are too intense, the waterfalls too high. Sometimes you can’t even walk alongside the river- you must scale the cliffs that contain the river and walk in a completely new terrain. And life is like that too, right? Sometimes the road ahead of us is completely different than the road behind us. Things happen, your job changes, you get divorced, you move, someone dies, you get sick. And in those moments, you can see that there is how things were and how they will be. The plan you had is no longer a possibility; perhaps it is as irrelevant as a canoe on a mountainside. Everything has changed, and it’s time to leave some things behind.
Our scripture this morning places the Hebrew people in a not dissimilar situation. With God’s guidance and direction, Moses has led his people out of Egypt. You’ll remember that the Hebrew people were enslaved there, treated terribly, and working under cruel and unjust circumstances. So initially, when they saw their freedom, they rejoiced. But their rejoicing quickly turned into what the text calls “murmuring.” Very quickly, their dancing and singing turns into complaints when they realize their water is bitter and their food has all run out. They begin to say to one another that it would have been better if they had died back in Egypt or if they were still enslaved- at least there they had meat and bread.
We, who typically have never faced the terrifying possibility of watching our loved ones starve to death before us are quick to judge their complaining. However, I imagine that were we in the same situation, we would respond in the same way. Freedom had come, but at a tremendous cost. In response to their complaints, the Lord does not judge them or hold it against them (although Moses is salty about the whole situation)- instead, God promises that bread will rain from the heavens and that quail meat will fill their empty bellies. Their fullness will be to them a sign that indeed, this God, is the Lord their God.
And with this promise comes another change from their lives in Egypt. They are to take as much food as they need, and no more. On the sixth day, they are to collect twice as much of the bread, because on the seventh day, they are to rest. In this way, the Sabbath is created. There is a day to cease all work, to rest, to simply be in the presence of God and of one another.
God provides for the way forward, inch by inch, God provides what the people need. But for now, I want us to think about the moment of complaint, the moment in which these people who have been set free insist instead that their life was better back in Egypt. It’s much like wishing to float in your canoe on dry land, right? You may wish you were paddling the river, it may have seemed better, but it just ain’t where you are anymore. And worse yet, going back won’t get you where you want to go. The problem here, of course, is that the known danger, the known horror of their lives in Egypt seemed safer than the unknown of the path before them. As the theologian James G. Williams says it, “Egypt still dominate[d] the Israelite’s hearts and minds.” Often our pasts, our past thoughts, past ways of doing things, past events dominate our hearts and minds too.
On Friday night around our dinner table, we had a conversation about how often people stay in bad relationships, bad jobs, bad cycles and systems simply because it is what feels known and safe. Many of us have carried hope for a different possibility but been too overwhelmed by the fear of leaving what we know and understand. That’s where the Israelites were- of course Egypt was terrible, but it was a terrible that they had learned to survive.
Nostalgia is deceptive. It traps us in faulty memories of “good old days” that are not rooted in reality. When I hear people wishing for those “good old days” I often think “good for whom?” Wishing for the past is wishing for Egypt. But the impulse is deeply human. The known experience feels safer than the unknown. We don’t what we’ll need for the unknown, we don’t know if we’re equipped, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us. And it’s hard to trust that what lies ahead of us could hold healing, rest, provision.
But we have to let go of Egypt if we are going to move into our future, into the promises that are waiting there. Longing for Egypt will drain us of hopefulness for the future. And without hope, there is not the energy to move forward. Friends, both in our personal lives, and in our life as a community, we must let go of Egypt, of the way things used to be, in order to create the future we long to see, in order to move on into the future God has for us.
The Hebrew people had to let go of Egypt, but they also had to let go of something else that may have been equally hard- the extra manna. Now, I don’t know about you all, but I grew up in a leftover home and I’m running a leftover home. So, if there’s food left after a meal in my house, it’s going in the refrigerator and we’re eating it until it’s gone. And to be honest, I don’t really care if anyone’s sick of eating it, we’re eating it! So I can understand why the Hebrew people, people who very recently were experiencing want and hunger, feel the need to collect the extra manna and save it for the next day. But there is also a very real lesson in learning to take only what you need. If they were going to learn to trust God, this was one way of accomplishing it.
You may remember the song in which Bruce Springsteen sings, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” I think he’s right. We all long for more- more love, affection, time, care. All things that we cannot hoard, things we can’t save up for a rainy day. Our hungry hearts lead us back into community, back to one another so we can get those needs met. Gathering the manna and quail was a community effort. We read in Exodus 16:16-18 that everyone worked to gather food and that they portioned it out to ensure that everyone got the right amount. Not being able to take more than they needed was a way of learning to trust God, but it was also a way of bringing the people back to one another again and again, ensuring that everyone had what they needed. And in the same way, our hungry hearts bring us back together time after time to encourage and care, to share our burdens and our plenty. We take what we need and give what we have and this is what it means to be a community.
There’s a third thing the Hebrew people had to leave behind in order to move forward, this one a little less tangible, but no less relevant for us. In adopting the Sabbath, in following this rule God gifted to them, they also relinquished control. It’s a hard lesson, letting go of control. Most of us would choose to work through the Sabbath, to continue our journey onward to God’s promised land. You’re on a path with slavery behind you and a promised land before you, and God tells you to wait. Rest. Listen and just be. Infuriating, if you ask me!
But it’s a gift, the sabbath. It’s the gift of time and connection. It’s a gift to be reminded that you are loved and worthy, not because of what you can produce or what you get done, but because of who you are- a beloved child of God. So even in the crisis, along a journey that feels like death, God’s people rest. We rest not because it gives us energy to work more later on, we rest because we are accepting God gift to us.
Meriwether Lewis had actually been working on an experimental boat during this time. He designed a collapsible iron frame that could be assembled and disassembled as needed. The pieces were fitted together with wood, wrapped in animal hide, and then were intended to be covered in pitch. The Corps of Discovery had been carrying the 176-pound frame and the 690 pound braces and hides with them through the cactus-covered terrain. After dragging it those 18 miles, Lewis finally decided that since the area had no pine trees, and thus no pitch to seal the boat, his experiment was over. It had failed. They carried an extra 1000 pounds for 18 miles, over the course of a month, for it to finally be abandoned. He finally let go of what he no longer needed, what was no longer serving him.
There are times when we must do the same. When we’ve been carrying burdens that cannot free or heal us, we must let them go. When we’ve been longing for a past that no longer exists and will not bring about a better future, we must let it go. When we’ve been striving and collecting to gather more than we need, we must give it away. When we’re seeking control and accomplishment, we must instead rest. The butterfly leaves the cocoon without nostalgia or sentimentality. The butterfly leaves that which can only hold it back, restrain it, constrict it. It leaves behind the husk of its old life, knowing that the new life holds hope, possibility, and God’s promise. We too let go of what no longer serves us, flying free and whole into the unknown future, trusting in God’s promise and provision, trusting in the gift of community, carried on the winds of hope and joy. We let go. Amen.
 Pretty much all of this narrative about the Corp of Discovery comes from Lewis and Clark: A Timeline of the Extraordinary Expedition (history.com) Great Falls Portage - Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Experience  Ibid.  This analogy is used in Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger, specifically to talk about the future of the Christian church. I have not read the book, but I did get the idea of this illustration from it, so it merits crediting. Williams on Sacrificial Crisis in the Wilderness (girardianlectionary.net)