Proper 20: September 20, 2020



One of the small (very small) silver linings of the past few months is that, due to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, UVA gets another year as the reigning national champion.

I said it was a small thing.

I grew up hearing stories about the Ralph Sampson years, an era that reached its apex with Virginia winning the last-ever NCAA tournament third-place game, in 1981. It is also the team that, while ranked number 1 nationally, in December 1982, lost a game that was widely considered the biggest upset in college basketball history, to Chaminade, a school with fewer than 800 students. A school smaller than Hampshire High School.

I grew up hearing these stories, but the Virginia teams I saw had much more in common with the loss to Chaminade than the Final Four runs. I had already graduated and moved away by the time Tony Bennet came on as coach and started a long, slow build.

Over a few years, Bennet’s teams came to be known as regular season powerhouses. He developed defensive players and focused on controlling the game’s tempo, limiting opponents’ chances to score. Sports commentators hated Virginia and hated Virginia fans. Most teams’ fans celebrate fast-breaks and dunks, all things that fit well in highlight reels. Virginia fans came to celebrate defensive stops, missed shots, interceptions, and forced turnovers. Most of all, Virginia fans celebrated shot-clock violations. Local businesses would make donations to charity based on the number of games Virginia held an opponent to fewer than 50 points, and, I think one season, that happened too often, so they lowered the threshold to 45. Their seasons do not overlap much, but at least one weekend when both teams played, the Virginia Football team gave up more points than Virginia basketball.

This system showed a lot of promise and led to a string of regular season conference championships, conference tournament wins, and high-seed entries into the national tournament.

But then it fell apart. Dependence on a rigid defensive system meant that, by March, opposing teams were starting to figure out how to beat that system. Limiting the other team’s possessions and opportunities to score also limits Virginia’s possessions and scoring opportunities.

This meant that when a team did break down the Virginia defense, even briefly, they could build up a lead that Virginia would struggle to come back against.

And so, for several years, Virginia would enter the tournament with a 1 or a 2 seed, and usually go home early. A pattern that peaked in 2018, when Virginia finally eclipsed that 1982 loss to Chaminade by becoming the first, and, as of now, still the only, number 1 seed to lose in the tournament’s first round, this time to UMBC, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Afterwards, in the flood of sports commentators writing about the game, the new “greatest upset of college basketball history,” one headline stuck out. That headline was “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

It is a powerful, and usually tough, message to hear.

What got you here will not get you there.

Whatever it was you were doing, have been doing, very probably are still doing, that is what got you where you are now. If you do not like where you are, if you do not like what is happening around you, if you want something to be better, you must do something different. You must change.

This is a message the Israelites needed to hear. They said to Moses and Aaron: “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.”

The Israelites are asking to go back into slavery. Their efforts to climb Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are faltering and they are instead falling. When our text today picks up, they have now been in the Sinai for around two months. They had run out of water, until God, through Moses, purified a dirty spring. Now, they are out of food.

And so, they ask to go back. They forget that they are in their current predicament because of what they faced under the Egyptians. They do not think about how, if they go back, the same pattern will repeat itself. They do not, in this moment, care that the conditions that pushed them to set out in the first place will not have improved. If anything, they will be worse.

It has been two months since God parted the sea and they crossed, two months since the storm I mentioned last week kept the Egyptians at bay while opening that path through the waters, and yes, they are starving. Something needs to change. So, they ask to go back, back to something that was, at least, familiar, and included food. Probably not enough food, likely not good food, but some food.

I know a lot of us want to go back to normal, to revert to December 2019, when we could sing our hearts out while worshipping inside, greet one another with a hug or a firm handshake without worrying about hand sanitizer, when we did not have to deal with these uncomfortable and awkward masks, when we could go to school freely, pack into sports stadia and arenas. We want to go back to a time when we had not heard of Covid-19, when California was not on fire, when protests were not sweeping the nation, when George Floyd and yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg were still alive.

I know we all know that we cannot do that, that we do not really want to actually travel back in time, and that we know we can’t put everything back in precisely the same place.

I do not think we should even try.

Everything we are facing now: Covid, the fires, the protests, the deaths of far, far too many is, at least in part, because of what we were doing in December 2019. The pieces were all in place. The things we, collectively, as a culture, a nation, and a species were doing then led to us being here.

This is not to say do not complain, do not mourn, do not lament.

We need to do all those things too. Complain to God. Cry out to God. God knows I do.

A lot of us do not like to complain. We might worry that complaining will make us sound selfish when others have it worse. We might worry that complaining means we do not really trust in our neighbor, our friends, our family, our nation, or our God. We might worry that complaining makes us look weak.

But remember this: God heard the Israelites’ cries. God heard the Israelites’ cries about the Egyptians and God sent and equipped Moses to lead them out. God heard their cries when they had run out of water and the well was bad and God cleaned the well. God heard their cry when they complained about the lack of food, and God send them quail and manna.

God did not give them what they asked for—God did not have them overthrow Egypt, God did not transport them back to Egypt, neither did God let them skip ahead to Canaan. God gave them what they needed so they could continue doing the work. They have been in the desert now for two months. They have 39 years and 10 months left to go before they get to the promised land. They have 39 years and 10 months left to do the work to prepare themselves to receive the promise, to learn a new model of being in community with each other. They are God’s chosen people, but they will need another 39 years and 10 months to become God’s community. But God continues to make sure they have what they need, sending the manna in the morning and quail in the evening six out of every seven days.

Virginia went to work during the off-season following the loss to UMBC. They worked on developing their offense, on learning how to play faster when that was needed, improving their in-game adjustments so that, one year later, in March 2019, even going in as a lower seed than prior years, they won the tournament.

Israel wandered the desert, receiving the Law and commandments, learning what God expected of them in exchange for the promised land.

We have choices to make now: not just the election, not just big moments, but in our small decisions every day: do we try to recapture December 2019, or do we try to find something better. Do we wait and hope for someone else to fix everything, or do we work to recognize the problems and fix them ourselves?

Do we only complain, or do we complain and then look to see where is the manna around us, to see where God is already providing us the things we need to not just get through troubles, but to help us fix the problems that caused them in the first place? These things may be different for each of us. The word “manna” itself comes from the Hebrew question “mann hu:” which means “what is this?” Moses answers bread from heaven, because when the people are starving, that is what they need. I do not know what each of you need, just that, somewhere in your lives, God is already providing your manna, the “what is this” that you need. Go find it.

Post a comment