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Lent 3 Common Lectionary Year A

Exodus 17:1-7

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Sharing the Scripture.
The lectionary takes us into the Wilderness again this week, this time to what we know as the Sinai desert. We are there with the generation of Israelites who have just escaped from slavery in Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. You may recall their miraculous “exodus”, with Moses parting the sea by striking the water with his shepherd’s rod. After their miraculous rescue, they now face a long, wandering migration from slavery to freedom, from bondage to responsibility. And it’s not going so well.
In the chapters immediately preceding this one, the people have complained about the lack of food in the wilderness, and God has provided a deluge of “manna” raining down daily from the sky, and when they grumbled about this strange food (the word manna is roughly translated “eww, what’s that?” spoken like a suspicious seven year old), God provides flocks of quail to satisfy their hunger. This is what happens next.

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the wilderness of Sin to continue their journey, as the HOLY ONE commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water there for the people to drink. 2 The people complained (again) to Moses and said, “Give us water to drink!”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing and complaining with me? Why are you testing the LORD, again?”
3 But the people were very thirsty for water, and they complained ever louder, to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock, with thirst?”
4 So Moses cried out to the HOLY ONE, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. 6 I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb(Sinai). Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched.
7 He called the place Massah (Testing) and Meribah(Contention), because the Israelites argued with and tested the HOLY ONE, asking, “Is God really with us or not?”

Sermon

Is God with us, or not? (And how will we know?)

Sermon audio

When I was about eight, my family went on holiday to the English Lake District. It’s a mountainous region in northwestern England formed by glacial activity that has left steeply carved, lake filled valleys, and cloud-scraping peaks. In the sunshine it’s beautiful, but it’s England(!), so rare is the day without rain or cloud. The day we went hiking up one of the smaller peaks, the clouds built up, and started to roll down towards us. Apparently, I stopped asking my usual hiking questions,
“Are we there yet?” and, “Is it time for lunch?”
and had become uncharacteristically quiet, and had started to lag behind.
When asked what was the matter, I eventually blurted out what was bothering me.

(Now, I knew the stories of Exodus, of God being present in pillars of cloud, and of Moses’ encounter with the awesome, frankly frightening power of the Divine Mystery, on Mount Sinai.)
There, ahead of me was this rolling “cloud of presence.” So I asked, with more dread than excitement, pointing to the cloud,
“Will we see God?”
(Is God here, with us?)

I don’t remember my parents’ answer. I do remember that life-defining moment when
I truly believed I could FEEL the divine presence. It was as real to me as the cold touch of damp cloud on my cheek, as tangibly mysterious as the whitening mist that reached down from the heavens to envelop us.

There’ve been plenty of times since when I’ve longed to have that eight-year old’s,
awe-struck conviction that I am in the presence of a mighty, earth-transforming God.
This week is one such time. I want to know it for myself, and for my family, my loved ones, and I want to be able declare that we are not alone to face this global health crisis. I want to be able to answer the Israelites’ question,… our question, “Is God with us?” with a resounding, calming, encouraging, “Yes!”

Enter this ancient tale, which could have been ripped from this week’s headlines.
A community suddenly feeling adrift in a vast wilderness of an intimidating unknown.
No wonder they asked the question out loud that some of us daren’t,
“Is God with us, or not?”

At first, their question catches me off guard.
After, all they’d SEEN God’s providence and rescue;
They’d SEEN Moses strike the Red Sea with his shepherd’s rod.
They’d SEEN the sea part to let them through.

My patience with them is diminished when at this early stage in their wilderness wandering they have already complained to God, sounding like a car-load of kids wildly over-dramatizing their whining “hanger.”
When God fed them with a morning downpour of “manna” from heaven,
(a word that is roughly translated as “Ewww! What’s that?”) their griping quickly turned to hoarding, (I kid you not, it’s in Exodus 15)!, all the while, asking,
“Is God with us, or not?”

You’d think, after the manna, supplemented nightly by quail roasts,
that the people are getting attuned to God’s providential care for them, but, apparently not!
For a third time, with biblical understatement, we are told they “complain” to God via Moses, this time about water.
To be fair, water – or the lack thereof- is serious.
You can live without chicken, but you can’t survive without water.
The situation is dire, urgent, frightening.
And when one is in the grip of fear, it’s amazing how spiritually blind
one can become.

The Jewish Rabbis (who compiled midrash on this story)
compare the Israelites to a child riding on its parent’s shoulders.
When they meet a neighbour in the street,
the child asks the neighbour, plaintively,
“Have you seen my parent?!”
The parent responds, “I’m right here, carrying you.
Didn’t you know it was I who carried you all this time?”
Just so, the Holy One carries, leads and cares for the Israelites
throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. (Exodus Rabbah 26.2)

Isn’t that the truth?
We who must now sit out a quarantine,
starved for occupation, company…
thirsty for what? security, immunity?
Even though we have food in our pantries,
enough toilet paper to last the year,
and clean water from a tap,
…and even online worship!…
we know that in situations
when fear of the unknown,or of a life-threatening known, takes a hold,
that our sense of safety, our sense of community,
our sense of hope, and our ability to trust that God is indeed with us,
can evaporate faster than dew in July.
We are they, they are us….asking,
“God, are you with us, or not?”

I love what the storyteller does with this next!
The focus turns from the melée to a quieted conversation.
Patient as a grandmother,
God listens to the plea and plight, watches the cart-wars at Costco,
hears out the sense of dread, the fear of death, that has gripped us all,
and says to Moses,

“Get your Shepherd’s rod….”
the one he had when he was a refugee in Midian, minding someone else’s flock;
the one he held through every plague in Egypt;
the one he stretched out over the marshes, reeds and waves that barred
the way to safety for the people entrusted by God to his care;
that rod.
The one steeped in memory of God’s past providence.

“Take your rod, take the elders with you…”
Witnesses who can spread the news,
the wise ones, the multipliers, the influencers,
the ones who will be believed.

“With that rod, in their presence, strike the rock I will show you,
and there will be water
water enough for life to be preserved,
for community to be restored,
for hope to be rekindled,
for futures to be imagined.”

I find it odd that Moses didn’t call this place
“The Fount of Blessing, Where God Provides.”
He chose instead to call it “ Massah, Meribah”
The place where God’s people tested and quarrelled,
and dared to ask “Is God with us or not?”

But then, isn’t it a bit like us, choosing to remember November as the month of the church flood, or 1998 as the year of the Ice Storm, or Sandy Hook as the name for the day we lost our naïvete as innocent children lost their lives?

There’s faithful power in naming times and places not for our moments of glory,
but as reminders of the time or place where our faith has been put to its utmost limit,
where we’ve cried as loud as the Israelites did,
“God, are you with us, or not?”

Because these are the moments when we get to choose.
We can choose to be fearfully blind,
misrecognizing God’s providence and care as all our work,
and what is our due.
Or we can choose to become aware, attuned, alert for
all the quotidian ways in which God is with us.
We can choose to believe that we live in a world
filled with atomic, cellular, particular, evidence
that we are not alone, but alive in God’s world.

And, most importantly, we can choose to shape our lives
around our trust that God is at loving work
around us and through us,
in every choice we make for
love, for hope, for beauty,
for gratitude,
for generosity, for justice,
for compassion,
for kindness.

This feels like one of those times.
Do we cease being the people of God because we can’t gather in worship
or our weekday activities for a time? No!
Every single Lenten Act of Compassion and Kindness
is the evidence, for ourselves,
but more importantly for others,
that God is with us.

Do we phone another person on the church mailing list, just to check in?
Do we bake and freeze for the comfort food freezer, for Calling All Angels?
Do we offer meditation online, do we offer long-distance healing prayer?
Do we make online donations to homeless shelters, health providers, CPU?
Do we… no… you tell me… tell each other…!
How many ways can we be the evidence for others that God is with us
in this Massah/Meribah moment?!

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