Proper 21A: Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery
Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 17: 1-7

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=278312320

Israel’s life in the wilderness, even after liberation, is precarious at best. They proceed as the Lord commanded, but there is no water. They are missing the most elemental resources for life. So they begin to complain against Moses, questioning his leadership and his effectiveness. Moses, of course, is blameless. And he reprimands Israel for not only blaming him, but also for testing God. God’s answer does not address whether or not Moses is a good leader, but addresses the problem of the people’s thirst.

Now this is not the first time that the Israelites have been thirsty. In Chapter 15, we are told that they had been in the wilderness for three days and found only water that was undrinkable. Upon complaining, they were provided with a piece of wood that, when placed in the water, made the water sweet and palatable. Then in Chapter 16, we are told the story of God providing the manna, bread from heaven, in response to the people’s fears that they would starve to death. Here, they complain again. They are once again ridden with doubts—doubts about Moses as a leader, doubts about God, and even, it seems, doubts about themselves.

The point is clear—only God can give the resources for life, but God will do so through the work of Moses. The story is told as a witness of faith in order to place God’s fidelity and attentiveness right in the middle of the human drama as it moves from hunger to fullness and thirst to water. Walter Brueggemann points out that in most advertising that we know, the “commodity” (i.e., here, the water) becomes the substitute for God and the answer to life’s problems. But is this really meant to be that way? Or is it once again a calling to open our eyes and see the things that God has already provided in our lives? Truth be told, it is easy for us to sort of dismiss these complaining Israelites. (Good grief, we think, shut up already and look around you. Don’t you see what God has done?) And yet, lest we think we are immune to such thoughts, how many times do we “doubt” God when life does not go as planned? How many times do we fail to see what God has provided simply because we’re looking for something else?

It is interesting to note that we are never actually told whether or not water came out of the rock. We are told that Moses hit the rock, but what happened? We sort of read into it that water came gushing out, alleviating all fear of thirsting to death and all questions regarding the presence of God. But, really, is that the point? After all, Moses didn’t name the place “God Provides”; he called it Massah and Meribah, derived from the words for “test” and “quarrel”. By naming the place in this way, Moses reminds all future generations of the shortcomings of the people’s faith—and of our own. In essence, the narrator turns the problem back toward the people. It becomes a story of “unfaith”. What gets in the way was not God’s response or lack thereof but, rather, the Israelites lack of trust of God. This story of “unfaith” sort of critiques that view of religion that judges God by whatever outcome the asking community received. God does not reward and punish people based on whether or not they deserve it.

Now, in Israel’s defense, this was true thirst. In this passage, I don’t think “thirst” implies a metaphorical spiritual thirst. They needed water. This story is set in the wilderness. It’s hard for us to imagine true wilderness—no resources, no direction. And the desert must be the wilderness of all wildernesses. Without trees, there is no way to gauge where you are or how far you’ve come. Any shadow or dark spot is worthy of suspicion as something of which you must be aware. And rather than the path being hard to see or hard to tread, it is continually changed by the winds and sands. And yet, wilderness is over and over again the setting through which people find their faith.

Implicit in this story is an account of egos being tripped up—both for Moses and his followers. The Israelites thought they deserved something better. They thought that if they followed God and did what they were called to do, God would reward them. They didn’t have the faith to know that God was with them. They wanted it NOW. And for Moses, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was doing everything right, that the people should just shut up and listen to him. He forgot that he was instrument of God.

The image of thirsting is profoundly human. It is a deep human need. But when our needs become more important than the source from which we came, then fears and panic set in. Alexander Baillie says that “one needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful…One cannot be satisfied until one…ever thirsts for God.”

This is considered one of those “murmuring” stories of the Old Testament. We do the same thing. We let our fears and our images of what “should” be get in the way. We look for someone to blame—there, our leader, the one who brought us out into this god-forsaken place or this economic downturn or this global recession. It is easier to blame someone else. And the murmuring begins, getting louder and louder as more and more of us join in, as more and more networks join in the quintessential blame game, demanding answers, demanding action. It, in fact, becomes so loud and so obnoxious that we lose all awareness that the answer is right there in front of us. Maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally encounter God. And maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally see ourselves, to finally realize what this life of faith is all about. It’s not about whether or not God answers us; it’s not about whether or not we get what want or what we think we deserve; and it’s definitely not about who’s right or who’s wrong or who’s in charge. It’s about letting the question hang on our lips long enough for us to realize that the answer was there all along—that the God who brought us here, the God who liberated us and leads us through the wilderness, is not “out there” or “up there” or in a place to which we are going. We are not trying to “get” to God. God is here. We just have to open our eyes and our minds to what that means. “Is the Lord among us or not?” And God patiently waits for the answer.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think this tells us about God in our own lives?
  3. What do you think Moses learned from this?
  4. Are there ways that we may fall into “testing” God?
  5. How often do we substitute commodities for God’s sustenance?
  6. How, then, do you answer the question, “Is God among us or not?”
  7. For what do you thirst? 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 2: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage contains one of the most well-known texts of the New Testament. Beginning with verse 5, the Christological Hymn, the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word ekenosen, meaning “to empty” begins. At its most basic, it is telling the reader to “be like Jesus”. But, more than that, it is saying “let the very mindset of Christ be yours.” It presents this mindset as a way of emptying oneself in order to be filled with God, to be the image of God.

Paul is not dismissing this as a call to not worry about one’s salvation, but, rather, to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in you. Kristin Swanson makes the claim that many of us look upon God as a giant ATM machine, dispensing what we need when we need it. But this passage is presenting not a static, dispensing God, but a God who is at work within you. This attitude, this mind of Christ means that one has knowledge of the good and understands that good as a gift of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving…It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.” The hymn that we read in Philippians speaks of “the God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” To put it into more modern language, God is in our will, our desires, our fears, our thoughts, our needs, and our work. Again, God is not “out there” but is present and part of each and every aspect of our lives. No longer can we be spectators. We are part of God.

And because we are part of God, the answer to suffering in this life cannot be limited to some future glorification or “evening out” of all the horrors and abuses of this life. Rather, because God is in us, because we are part of God, because God is always at work in us, we are called to confront injustices, to bring peace, and to bring that freedom of Christ to all. This hymn is not merely about knowing Christ; it is about becoming Christ in this life. Christ came as a human to show us how to do that. Christ came as a human to show us the God who is part of us all.

In the 1950-s, Sao Kya Seng, the prince of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma, also known as Hsipaw, came to Denver, Colorado, to study agriculture. Since he wanted to experience what it was like to be a student in the US, he kept his identity secret. Not even his professors knew who he really was. One of his fellow students was Inge Sargent from Austria. Both of them being exchange students, Inge and the Burmese prince quickly found that they had a lot in common and started to spend more and more time together. Their friendship grew into love but the Burmese prince decided that he would not let on his true identity even though they were seriously dating. He did not want Inge’s decision to date him to be colored by the fact that she could marry into royalty. So when he finally proposed, with an engagement ring of ruby and diamond, Inge still did not know who he really was. Inge said yes and they got married, as any other couple, in the US. For their honeymoon, Sao Kya Seng was taking Inge to his home country, so that she could meet his family and see where he was from. When their ship reached the shores of Burma, hundreds of people were waiting at the harbor. Many of them had gone out in small boat, holding up welcoming signs. A band was playing and some people were tossing flowers at the ship. Surprised at all this excitement Inge turns to her husband, and asks whose arrival they are celebrating. “Inge,” he says, I am the prince of Hsipaw. These people are celebrating our arrival. You are now the princess.” (From Twilight over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent., in “God Incognito”, a sermon by Sigurd Grindheim, available at http://www.sigurdgrindheim.com/sermons/incognito.html, accessed 20 September, 2011)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to you to “empty” yourself?
  3. What does it mean to become Christ in this life?
  4. What does this hymn say to us in our time today? 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 23-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=278312586

This passage begins a section when Jesus enters the Temple. The first part deals with the challenge of Jesus’ authority and then continues with a parable of the two sons. This is the last time that Jesus enters the Temple. After this, the high priests and elders begin to plot his death. This text puts John and Jesus in the same category—those who reject John also reject Jesus. Both are from God, yet are very different. Their differences include religious styles as well as the fact that John wavered and wondered, while Jesus spoke with unrelenting authority. When Jesus asks “What do you think?” as he begins the parable, he does not allow the silence to stand. Those who had tried to trap Jesus end up being condemned. They were the ones that were not willing to allow change into their existence. They were the ones that were not willing to be changed by God. They were so focused on protecting God that they missed hearing God. It is a matter of words and actions, profession and practice.

The parable that Jesus tells sets up a comparison between two sons–one who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison compels them to ask the question, Which am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while running around raising havoc, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is the “black sheep” but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you? There is an accusation in the parable — some who claim to obey God and observe the requirements of the Law fail, in actuality, to do so. There is also (again) a reversal of expectations in the parable — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” believer, some who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first.

After telling the parable, Jesus returns to John. You know, John was sent to you, you leaders, you knowledgeable ones, you believers. But, interestingly enough, it was not you who accepted him. It was the tax collectors and the prostitutes and those in the bowels of your great society, those to whom you would never even pay attention that heard John’s message. What is that about? Why is that? Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you had the answer that you quit searching for it. Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you were right that you quit asking the questions. Is that really where you want to be?

If we take this passage as merely an indictment against the Pharisees, the chief priests and elders, if you will, I think we have probably missed the point. The same danger is there for us. We believers, we learned Bible-followers (even those of us who sometimes may dare to push orthodoxy to the edge!) always and forever run the risk of assuming that we have it figured out, that we know the right way, that we know what God wants (or who God wants!). And the fact that each of us is reading this passage and asking, “Which am I”, probably does not bode well for our understanding of it. Are we the faithful one or the unfaithful one? Does it really matter? They both lied. The only difference is that one of them came around. We know that’s the hero. But lest we get too comfortable with this scenario, faith and commitment are not just a one-time thing. As Elisabeth Elliot says, “the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.”

I think God wants us to ask questions. I think God wants us to keep searching. Most of all, I think God wants us to be open to the notion that the Truth of God is not limited to the pulpit or the teacher. It is not gleaned only from the Bible scholar or the righteous one. It is not fully represented by the one who sits in their assigned pew every Sunday morning and places the appropriate amount of offering in the collection plate. Sometimes the Truth that is God is found in the dusty nooks and crannies of the world, in those places that are not acceptable or desirable or sanitized. Sometimes God shows up in the most God-forsaken places imaginable like dirty gutters and dusty roads, like battlefields and pastures of starving children in the Horn of Africa, and, oh yeah, like a dirty trough in a grotto filled with animal waste or a place of execution on a hillside outside of Jerusalem. (You know, God shows up in the most bizarre places!) So, for those of us who think we know where and how to look for God, perhaps this is our calling to be open to the possibility that God is simply waiting for us to open our eyes and believe in what we see. The vineyard is waiting for us to get to work. Any more questions?

We would rather direct this parable to others. Lord knows we can point fingers. There are the right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with the success gospels, the megachurches with their thousands. But this parable is addressed to us.

The world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us all over again what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Niger. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, that they will soon die from malnutrition. This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

In every church I have served I still remember a few particular names and faces. Sometimes these are people who could not pray in public and were not comfortable teaching Sunday school. Some would not even serve on committees. Some had little formal education. But they were the ones with a casserole, the ones writing me a note when I needed it the most, the ones taking folks who didn’t own cars to the grocery store, and the ones whispering as they took my hand at the back door, “I pray for you every day.” Some living sacrifices do not slip off the altar.

My son sent me a bulletin from the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. One Sunday he stood in a long line of visitors to listen to Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. He stayed for the worship service and sent me the program for the day. My eye stopped at this notice in the bulletin: Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.

It’s not always the one who talks or preaches or teaches who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a hot Saturday afternoon to dust the pews, take out the trash, cut the grass — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake. (Excerpt from “Showing Up”, a sermon by Roger Lovette, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3253, accessed 20 September, 2011.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Do you see any part of your own life in this parable?
  3. Where do you find yourself?
  4. How does this fit in with our time today?
  5. What is most bothersome about this passage for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

You and I are incomplete. I’m unfinished. I’m unfixed. And the reality is that’s where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life. (Mike Yaconelli)

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems)

 

Judge a [person] by his questions rather than by his answers. (Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet), 18th century)

 

 

Closing

 

Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you.

I’m chewing on the morsel of a proverb; I’ll let you in on the sweet old truths,

Stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee.

We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation—

God’s fame and fortune, the marvelous things he has done.

 

He performed miracles in plain sight of their parents in Egypt, out on the fields of Zion.

He split the Sea and they walked right through it;

He piled the waters to the right and the left.

He led them by day with a cloud, led them all the night long with a fiery torch.

He split rocks in the wilderness, gave them all they could drink from underground springs; He made creeks flow out from sheer rock and water pour out like a river.

 

Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you…the marvelous things he has done. Amen.

 

(Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16 (and then 1,4b repeated) in The Message / Remix, by Eugene Peterson, p. 998-999.)

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