Surge Capacity

Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2020 || Proper 20A || Exodus 16:2-15

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the prophetic voice of the movie Frozen II, but first let me talk about the church hymn board affixed to the wall to my left. This is the attractive wooden rack into which our altar guild slides in the numbers that correspond to particular songs in our hymnal. At the top of the rack, we display the particular Sunday of the church year. I haven’t touched the hymn board since the last time we used it. I’ve left it alone as a memento from our last in-person gathering. Right now the hymn board reads the “3rd Sunday in Lent.” Half a year ago. 

I remember the anguished discussion the vestry had about closing the church building back in March. We had no idea how bad the pandemic would get, but the writing was on the wall. Thankfully, the vestry made the hard choice in that moment of uncertainty. Now, six months later, we are faced with the opposite hard choice: how and when to invite people back to in-person services as we balance our need for physical proximity with our collective goal of deterring the spread of the virus.

After working through the initial shock of closing the church, my creativity went into overdrive. All my hobbies came into play as I worked on our online gatherings: podcasting, video game streaming, guitar playing, graphic design. The pandemic was raging through New York and Connecticut, and at the same time, I was in my creative element. I was going to design easy to access, beautiful-looking online worship! I was going to lead Zoom meetings galore! I was going to livestream five times a week! 

Well, five livestreams a week quickly became three. After a month, three became two. And when I returned from vacation, two became one – this Sunday service you’re participating in right now. 

What happened?

My “surge capacity” ran out. 

But I didn’t have the language to understand what was happening until I read an article on the website Medium in mid-August. Science writer Tara Haelle spoke to University of Minnesota psychologist Ann Masten about this concept and writes, “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.”

That was it! At the beginning of the crisis, my surge capacity kicked in, resulting in a burst of adaptive creativity. I’d bet your surge capacity turned on too. You began sewing masks. You reached out to neighbors everyday to see how you could help. You organized your den into a classroom for distance learning. You downloaded a bunch of do-it-yourself activities and adopted a pair of very cute guinea pigs and bought a bread-baking cookbook and organized all your loose photographs for placement in albums and vowed to fix the faucet that drips every once in a while but never when the plumber is there.

At the outset of the pandemic, our surge capacities were switched on and humming at full power. And then the crisis dragged on and was compounded by further crises – long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, economic downturn, massive unemployment, climate change-fueled wildfires. After a month or two or three our surge capacities were depleted. The survival instinct that generates the surge was never meant for long term use.

We see the same thing in today’s reading from the book of Exodus. Moses and the Israelites have escaped from Egypt following a series of plagues. They have crossed the Red Sea in miraculous fashion while the army of Egypt was swept away by the water. They have journeyed into the wilderness. The immediate, pulse-pounding danger of the Egyptian army is gone. The long, trackless miles of desert stretch before them.  And as they look out at the vast nothingness of Sinai in the distance, their surge capacity dries up.

The book of Exodus narrates the moment their surge capacity is gone like this: “The 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.’”

In just a short time since escaping Egypt, the Israelites sure have developed a rose-tinted view of their immediate past. They might have eaten their fill of bread, but that was because the Egyptians needed them to work all day making bricks. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. When Moses met God at the burning bush, God said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them” (Exodus 3:7, 9). And now those same Israelites long for the fleshpots of Egypt. And it’s easy to see why. Their surge capacity is gone.

While I don’t think we’ll be in this pandemic as long as the Israelites wandered the desert – that is, forty years – I am persuaded that we are now living in the age of pandemics. The trends over the last fifty years bear this out. Because of this new reality, we can’t rely on surge capacity like we do with natural disasters. The psychologist quoted in the Medium article says, “The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity.” The article’s author goes on to ask an important question: “When [surge capacity is] depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

I have no perfect answer for this question, but I do have the experience of the Israelites to share with you. God hears the complaints of the hungry people in the wilderness. And God promises them food: quail in the evening and manna in the morning. God says, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”

Those last five words are key. Gather enough for that day. The dew evaporates, leaving the precious manna, a “fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” If someone hoarded the manna, gathering more than they could use, the excess went bad. The manna was the very definition of “daily bread”: gathered, baked, and eaten all in the same day.

At the outset of a crisis like the pandemic, our surge capacity gets us through each day like adrenaline at the beginning of a soccer game. But as the game wears on, the players’ fitness is tested. Ninety minutes of continuous running will tire out even the fittest of athletes, and the adrenaline push won’t get you even to halftime. Once the adrenaline is depleted, the rest of the game is all about putting one foot in front of the other. This step. This pass. This run. And let the referee worry about keeping the game clock.

When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we recognize that our surge capacity is helpful but ultimately unlikely to see us through the desert. And so we gather enough manna for today. Just for today. We run our fingers over the ground and find the simplest blessing from God, which is enough to sustain us until we run our fingers over the ground again tomorrow. But, as Jesus said, we will let tomorrow’s worries be for tomorrow because today has enough worries of its own.

So we mindfully gather today’s manna, which is in itself an exercise in trusting the promises of God – the promise that the manna will be there again the next day. And in this act of trust, we find the God-given gift of resilience, which takes over when surge capacity runs out. But resilience doesn’t mean doing everything right or feeling okay all the time. Resilience simply means taking the next step and knowing it is enough.

Who knew that the movie Frozen II, which came out last fall would be so prophetic for our interminable set of crises? Near the end of the film, Princess Anna finds herself alone in a dark cave. She has seemingly lost everyone she loves. And in the darkness she sings:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
And, with it done, what comes then?
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing.

The Podcast for Nerdy Christians is back with Season 3! This season we are looking at facets of identity, and we’re starting off with a mashup of Captain Marvel and Jesus’ question of his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. Plus, the book club is back with the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Also, we have a new Tolkien-inspired logo! Click the logo above to listen to our first episode.

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