Right on the heels of the natural disasters that have been pounding the gulf coast and all the islands to the south and east of us, we are faced with news of another disaster—this one man-made. We cry for those lost in Las Vegas on October 1st, and we pour our love into the many recovering from the injuries they suffered during one of the worst mass-shootings in our country’s recent memory. We pray for those grieving the ones they lost, and… we try to follow the way of Jesus and pray for the one who took those lives, and for those he left behind as well.

The loss of innocent life that took place, the terror, the trauma, the survivors who will never be the same… we cry out against this brutality. When we have energy we rail at the storm, we scream at the injustice of it all.

And we lament. We mourn, we ache, and we cry out over the pain, desperate that it would just stop. That we wouldn’t hear about the next one a month, or even a week from now. And the next one. And the one after that.

When we aren’t numbed by it, or… desensitized by it, we are desperate for a home—for a country, for a world—where this kind of suffering just doesn’t happen. We pray for things to get better.

A few thousand years ago, as the Israelites followed Moses on their trek through the wilderness, they were praying for the same thing.

The last couple of weeks we have been following the story of the ancient Jewish people, from Abraham and Isaac through Jacob and Esau and onward. By this point, the Israelites have escaped from Pharaoh’s Egypt, and are wandering in the wilderness seeking the Promised Land. They were only able to bring enough food for a month or so, and their whole nation was beginning to starve, with no end in sight. They cried out to their leaders, Moses and Aaron, railing against the hunger and uncertainty. They were desperate for something better, and everything they were facing had left them hopeless.

And so, God sought out a way to answer their cries. God ensured that even out in the lifeless wilderness there would be food for them to gather—quails in the evening for meat, and manna from heaven in the morning.

Now every once in a while you’ll hear somebody use the phrase “manna from heaven” to mean something great that just dropped into your lap. A coincidence or a miracle where just what you needed shows up, right in your hand. You find twenty bucks on the sidewalk… “manna from heaven!”

The thing about the manna that God provided for the Israelites was that it didn’t just drop into their laps. It was a little more complicated than that. It’s hard to tell from the descriptions in the Bible just what manna was—in Aramaic the word manna means “what is it?” It’s described as small like seeds but flaky like bread, but whatever it was it was very nourishing, and filled the body’s needs. God caused it to appear as the sun rose and burned off the dew… but it had to be collected every morning. You couldn’t stock up on it and store it, because it would go rotten and wormy surprisingly quickly. You had to collect exactly what you needed for the day, and you had a limited time to do it each morning before anything still on the ground melted away. You couldn’t hire or enslave anyone to collect large amounts of it for storehouses or supermarkets… you had to work for it. God set the table, but you had to get your butt to the feast.

And they did. There was a little bit of a learning curve, but eventually the Israelites got the hang of the way that God was answering their cries, and did their best to do their part.

Every time I walk past the pumpkins we have for sale out front of the church offices, I flash back to last Saturday when they were delivered. An eighteen-wheeler had driven up full of pumpkins. Thousands of them. But pumpkins aren’t the kind of thing you can just pour out onto the lawn. We had a great number of volunteers gathered from all over the place—church members, Boy Scouts, members of the community, even a group of frat boys—and we climbed into the truck and started an assembly line to heft those heaviest of vegetables out of the vehicle to be artfully displayed (under Rich’s expert guidance, of course). One of the things that stuck out to me from that day—aside from how much my back hurt after—was that when I first climbed into the back of the truck and started hauling pumpkins, I found myself working side-by-side with the truck driver. The guy who had driven all those pumpkins out to us was in the thick of it, bending over, lifting out the heaviest ones and passing them along. He actually almost lost a knee when a bunch of them started rolling off the pile.

There’s an old phrase that sounds like it’s from the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s an idea that goes back to ancient Greece, but the phrase as we know it comes from England, and it’s actually only about as old as First Parish Church. Eventually Ben Franklin put it in “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” and ever since people have been quoting it as part of the Bible—which it’s not. It also doesn’t leave a lot of room for grace, or mercy. What about people who can’t help themselves? Jesus himself exemplified God reaching out to help the helpless and the hopeless.

But while “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t entirely true, neither is its opposite. “The Lord will provide” is a Biblical phrase, but we know from experience that God’s help isn’t usually “magic.” There is room for miracles in this world, but more often than not God answers our prayers in ways we wouldn’t expect, right?

A lot of times when a prayer is answered, it’s not us doing it, but it’s not just God either. There’s… cooperation to it. We see a perfect example here with the Israelites.

They lament to God, laying out their burdens and their desires and their desperate need for things to get better, and God hears their cries. God provides the opportunity for their prayers to be answered—in this case in the form of manna from heaven—and the Israelites work with God in cooperation to make it happen. To feed their needs, and ensure that things get better for their people.

To put it another way, God drove a truck full of pumpkins to the Israelites, and the Israelites climbed up into the truck alongside God and worked to get those pumpkins out and onto the lawn. I guess in this metaphor that would make Rich Moses, but that’s neither here nor there.

I believe that this example we have from the Israelites can translate to the problems we face today. We face tragedy after tragedy, and our hearts go out. We cry for the victims, and we cry for the world we live in and what it means that things like the shooting in Las Vegas keep happening.

And so we remember the example of the Israelites: we lament to God, God answers with opportunities, and we work in cooperation with God to make it happen.

When we cry out to God in the face of these shootings—and we all do, no matter our political affiliation—God answers. God provides us with opportunities to work with God to make things better.

When tragedies like this take place (and they take place far too often), we hear a lot in the news and in our social circles about proposals for regulations and background checks and yes those two controversial words “gun control.” Maybe the opportunity God is putting in front of us today is to strive for new and different firearm legislation; but maybe it's not, I don't know, I don't know guns and I'm not an expert on violent crime. I have my beliefs, but you didn't come here to listen to my opinions as a private citizen.

What I will say instead, is this. I believe that God feels the pain and fear of those who suffer in a tragedy like the Las Vegas shooting. I believe that God feels the grief of those who lost loved ones no less vividly than they do. I believe that God cries out when we do, and that God yearns for a better world and better lives for all of us. And so when I see the Israelites crying out in the wilderness, desperate and starving, and when I see God reaching out to work with them to make their lot better… I believe that God reaches out to us too, today, as we cry out in our own desperation… when our children and our fellow sisters and brothers and siblings of humanity suffer like they did last week… and just as God worked with Israel to ensure they would be fed, I believe that God seeks to work with us now to find a way to ensure that no more of our people will fall victim to this kind of senseless violence.

I don't know the answer to that prayer. I don't know exactly what it is that will stop these massacres. Whether it’s fewer guns or more guns, whether it’s government or it’s people… I can’t give you the answer to that prayer. As a student I grew up in a Columbine world… and I remember Fort Hood, and Tucson… I knew people in Sandy Hook… and I don't know how to fix this world alone.

But that's why we pray. We pray not to a God that lives far far away and glances at our little blue speck through a telescope every few hundred years… but to a God who yearns to walk with us, who seeks to put shoulders to the plow right alongside us.

The Israelites learned it: you cry out to God, and God provides you with a way to help God make the answer a reality.

So when we pray to God this day and in the face of all the tragedies to come, let us not ask for a magical Band-Aid to erase all hurt from the world in a twinkling of an eye. Let us pray for the means to help our God make heaven a reality in our lives, and let us look for God's answer! Whatever it may be! And when God pulls up, let us get in there right alongside and start passing God pumpkins.

Because we've got a lot of work to do. Amen.