Sermon Seeds: God’s Sustaining Presence
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 21)
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9
God’s Sustaining Presence
Bread and water: the basics of life…and in the wilderness, it’s hard to find either one. In last week’s reading from Exodus, when the people of Israel were suffering from hunger and perhaps a touch of sunstroke, they complained to Moses for bringing them out to the wilderness just to die there. If you’re hungry and hot enough, even slavery in Egypt starts to look not so bad, if only for the security – however terrible – it provided. And God responded to the cry of the people, just as God had heard their groaning in Egypt, which, of course, is why they found themselves out there in the desert, hungry and unhappy – very unhappy. In this response, God, faithful and compassionate, gave them bread from heaven, manna, to feed them throughout their time of wandering.
The hunger story is followed immediately by this one about thirst, in the same wilderness, during the same wandering, and it goes very much the same way. When the people complain about having no water, they again question Moses’ leadership for bringing them out to die in the wilderness. And once again, Moses goes to God and asks for help, but this time there’s a touch of fear as well as a note of frustration in his conversation with God. The great leader senses that he has more than a cranky, thirsty congregation on his hands. It’s potentially an angry, dangerous mob that could rise up and stone him to death. In providing water, God is saving Moses’ life as much as meeting the needs of the people.
We notice that God doesn’t seem to get angry or impatient with this thirsty people, perhaps because water is a reasonable request from people in the middle of a hot desert. But the Israelites are also in another kind of wilderness, finding their way not just to a Promised Land of milk and honey, but to a new way of living once they receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. “God,” Gary Anderson writes, “is naturally more willing to be lenient toward Israel prior to her moral education in the ways of the Lord” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). This wilderness experience, then, is a time of learning, of seasoning, a time of preparation for what’s ahead, up on that mountain and long afterward. Could it be that God is testing the people, teaching them to live their lives in trust?
Much commentary on this text focuses on the complaint of the people: What was really going on when they grumbled and questioned Moses’ leadership? What does it say about them, about their faith, and even about God? In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to “mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self. These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.” In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God.
That’s one way to read it. But it’s also possible that the Israelites were doing the testing: “If you really are God, you would….” Or, “If you really loved us, you would….” Gerald Janzen draws our attention to a simple phrase in the first verse, about the people journeying “by stages” through the wilderness, questioning and grumbling about God (and their leader, Moses). Delivering one kind of “ultimatum” after another, they set themselves up as the ones who could judge whether or not God was with them, and whether God was doing what God was supposed to do. Janzen wonders, “[I]f we are the ones to decide what shall count as evidence of God’s good presence and activity among us, does this not make us like God in respect to ‘knowing good and evil’?” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). We already know how well that worked out the first time humans tried for such knowledge.
However, a second problem arises for Janzen, for the people seem to focus on God’s need to act when there’s no water, but seemed to take the water for granted when it was plentiful in the past. “Which experiences,” Janzen asks, “the negative or the positive, shall we take as the most reliable evidence concerning God in the world and in our lives?” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). In fact, in Exodus 15:27, just before the manna story, the Israelites spent time in “Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water.” The spare narrative about that comfortable part of the journey doesn’t mention any conversation about God’s care or Moses’ leadership when things were going well.
Janzen then draws a parallel between the doubts of the people at Rephidim, and our own doubts at different points in our lives, when things get tough. In response, he draws on both “the memory of oasis points in our past, where provision of our needs has carried with it a strong sense of God’s presence,” but also on the future hope that draws us forward, “something that reaches back to us from the future, to give us a foretaste of what lies ahead.” It’s hard to imagine that the people had any idea of what lay just ahead, up on that mountain, and how it would shape their lives, but Janzen says that when water gushes from that rock at the base of Horeb (another name for Sinai, where they would receive the Torah), “sustaining water comes not from where they are but from where they are headed for” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). (I am reminded of the sermon recently preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, new senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, “Forward”.) What would it look like to be sustained by the future more than by what is right before us in the present, or by what we’ve received from our ancestors before us?
As in the manna story, God acts here through God’s special agent (as God acts through us, today) to meet human need. A curious note is “struck” by Moses’ staff, the one, scholars remind us, that he used to turn the Nile to blood (the filmmakers had so much to work with when they made “The Ten Commandments” – how much more vivid could a scene have been?). Remember back in Chapter 4, verse 2, when God asked Moses what he had in his hand, and Moses responded, “A staff”? We might wonder if God used the staff, changing it into a snake and back again, to bolster Moses’ confidence in himself as well as his faith in God. That staff would help to convince the people of both Israel and Egypt that this Moses was to be taken seriously.
Several scholars see in the staff a sign of God’s own authority and power; Brueggemann says its purpose this time is “a life-giving wonder for Israel,” but the main point here, as always, is really about God’s own presence and power to deliver the people: “The staff, the rock, the courage of Moses, the witness of the elders, and the guarantee of Yahweh all converge,” he observes (Exodus, New Interpreter’s Bible).
Beautiful. But we still remember that this staff can bring death as well as life: the Nile River turned into blood, the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians, while the Israelites crossed the Red Sea safely under Moses’ staff. James Newsome says that God’s life-or-death power is symbolized in that simple walking stick: “The same Yahweh who can banish water from the Nile can produce water from a barren rock” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
We might reflect more deeply on several themes in this reading (including noting that today, in the series of Earth themes, is “River Sunday”). First, there’s the wilderness, a powerful symbol, like Moses’ staff, capable of being experienced in more than one way. Throughout the story of the people of faith (right down to today), “wilderness” can be a lovely (in a rugged and stark way), pristine, holy place where you can draw closer to God, or it can be a lonely, threatening place, symbolizing despair and abandonment. Think of the desert fathers or monks in monasteries away from “the world,” think of Jesus preparing for ministry and being tempted by the devil, think of the early settlers in the United States who saw the land not only as theirs (despite its occupants) but as a place to build an entirely new and holy civilization. Perhaps as an illustration of the hope and desolation of the wilderness, Gary Anderson reminds us that Israel later would send the scapegoat bearing its sins off into the desert where it would die. As “a spot of uncleanness and death…the wilderness was a natural location for Israel to rise up in rebellion against her Creator” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).
If the wilderness itself embodies two very different meanings, the memory of Israel is also starkly divided about its time there. On the one hand, there’s the memory of grumbling, complaining, and unfaithfulness, but it’s also true, Gene Tucker writes, that the people looked back on their time there under “God’s gracious and miraculous care” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). While manna is remembered to this day as God’s gracious response to human need, the water incident is recalled in terms of the grumbling rather than the gift, verse 7 tells us, in the names Moses gives the place, Massah and Meribah.
In that wilderness and that want, and in that grumbling, Walter Brueggemann finds a compelling illustration of the way humans and God relate, not in high theological claims but in deep human need, the reality of basic physical human needs, where we are all most vulnerable. “What happens in this transaction,” Brueggemann writes, “is that the water question (material, concrete, support for life) is turned into the God Question concerning the one who ‘leads us beside still waters.'” In his beautiful sermon on this text, “The Big Yes,” he observes that the Bible understands God as sometimes present, and sometimes absent. That’s what the Israelites were experiencing out there in the desert: the part of the story when it feels like God is absent. (This sermon is found in Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann). What person crushed by depression or deep mourning or pressing need hasn’t asked, “Where is God?” Such a person doesn’t want to hear church talk or complex theology. Brueggemann calls the Israelites “exceedingly practical” in their expectations: “Don’t talk of water, show me.” A person in such great need today would say the same thing.
Most importantly, and perhaps most astonishingly, the answer to “Israel’s deep question” (that God Question) comes back as “Yes,” Brueggemann says, and just as important as the “what” is the “how” of God’s care: “Like blood from a turnip, like a purse from the ear of a sow, water from rock, food from hunger, life from death, joy from sorrow, Yes from No, well-being from anxiety” (Inscribing the Text). The story, then, about “God’s Big Yes” is not only about something that happened long ago and far away: it is about us, too, our own wilderness, our own needs, our own questions, and our own prayers. If Brueggemann is right that this story is about “being dazzled beyond every expectation,” we too should expect to be dazzled.
September 11, 2001 heightened the anxiety we all had become accustomed to, living through a Cold War but also subjected to the fear-mongering of all the powers seeking to profit from our anxiety or to extract our agreement to decisions we might never otherwise support (spending money on armaments while cutting veterans benefits or support to foodbanks). And that’s where Brueggemann takes his sermon and writings on this text: to us, today, and our own “long season of fear, anxiety, and violence.” In our fear of elusive terrorists hiding in vast mountain wildernesses (or even in comfortable villas next to military camps), in our anxiety about scarcity and our inevitable confrontation with our limitations, Brueggemann describes us vividly as “driven back to wilderness questions about the reality of God, the reliability of God, and our capacity to trust God in the thin places where there are no other resources for life.” Water is quite literally a challenge in the world today, but it’s also a metaphor for all of our needs (and our wants, we must admit). With “a new awareness that we live in a world of resources that are thinner than we had imagined,” we have turned to the wrong things to meet our reasonable needs as well as the unreasonable ones. Brueggemann describes these things as “mirages that look like remembered water, but are not really water that can quench” (Inscribing the Text).
In his commentary on Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Brueggemann constructs a powerful analogy between these stories in the Bible and the way our television commercials typically work. In the biblical narrative of faith, there’s a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution. “The derivative TV use of this structure falsely substitutes for God ‘the product.’ The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor. When the ‘product’ is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being.” The trouble is that it just isn’t true, Brueggemann says. Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides, our lives “moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life.” We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says: “There are no other miracle workers.”
This passage can also be seen as a study on the authority question but from a very different perspective. The Hebrews have been enslaved since “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) came to power. Disconnected from Joseph’s relationship to Egypt, the new pharaoh and those who followed him enslaved the Hebrews, pressing them into hard service in the building of the city. Life became hard and these formerly free people relied on the benevolence of a capricious god-emperor for their lives and their livelihood.
In short, the exercise of the authority of Pharaoh shaped how the Hebrews understood themselves. They began to see themselves as slaves even as they groaned under the weight of their oppression. In modern times we would recognize this as a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” where the oppressed begin to identify with the oppressors, relying on them for everything. No longer are they called slaves by another, they have become slaves in their minds and hearts.
In several places in the Book of Exodus, these Hebrews — no longer called slaves — are still acting as slaves longing “for the fleshpots of Egypt” (Ex. 16:3) and complaining against Moses and Yahweh. The circumstances of their liberation were a comfort as long as it was obvious that Yahweh had their backs — literally — as they crossed the Red Sea, but now, in the waste places, they are pining for the security they had under Pharaoh in Egypt!
In our passage we hear an earlier grumbling about the need for water. Unable to completely trust either Yahweh or Moses, the people complain about the lack of water and are frightful of dying in the desert. A weary Moses, in fear of being stoned to death, complains to Yahweh who responds by instructing him to strike a rock so that water would come forth. We have read this passage so many times that it is easy to forget that both Moses and the Hebrews are still figuring out this Yahweh character. When I read this passage I want to stop here and imagine Moses cocking his head, forming a silent thought along the lines of “Really? A rock? That’s all you’ve got?”
But this is a passage about the ability of Moses, who was in fear of being stoned to death by rocks, and the Hebrews who have undoubtedly spent nights with rocks as pillows and stubbed their toes on them during the days, to trust their new god Yahweh. What better way to encourage trust than to transform the very rock into springs of water? What better reassurance than to know that Yahweh would not only lead them but also provide for them, hear them in their need right where they are, and use the very stuff of the desert to do so?
It will take the Hebrews and Moses several generations to unlearn the lessons of slavery and to see themselves no longer as slaves but as Yahweh’s chosen people. It takes them that long to transfer authority from a Pharaoh who treated them harshly and made a desert for them out of abundance (remember the story of Joseph?) to Yahweh who would lead them through a desert so that they can live in a land flowing with milk and honey.
One of the arcs in the biblical story is that of slavery to freedom. It shapes a large part of the Old Testament narrative and is picked up by Jesus in miraculous ways as he liberates people from various self-defining enslavements. It is also a constant rhythm underneath the confrontations with power — Roman and religious — that occur throughout the Gospels. What authority holds sway over our lives? Better yet, what authority do we give our lives over to? Have we become so comfortable by our fleshpots that we cannot see liberation when it comes for us as much as for others? If the journey of the Hebrews was as much an internal one as an external one, is there ever a need for us to engage in the fearful act of self-reflection leading to our own liberation as well as promoting the liberation of others?
The word metanoia carries the connotation of change of heart and “doing a 180,” what kind of desert journey are we on wherein Yahweh will bring forth water from the very stones of our wandering teaching us that we are still being led to a land of milk and honey?
In her book, The Great Emergence, historical theologian Phyllis Tickle studies the shifts in westernized Christianity that have taken place every five hundred years or so – each of these shifts leading to the reexamining of the core question, “Wherein now lies our authority?” She and others consider our current age to be one of these times where the shifts in Christianity are being reshaped through engagement with that core question.
It seems we are in good company with Jesus in today’s gospel. The story takes place just after the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree, both challenging the current religious authority and opening the door to the dialogue we find in verses 23-32. The authorities here react in a way any religious authority — including us — would react given the circumstances, by challenging the question, and the questioner.
It is important to note that both Jesus and his challengers understand God as the ultimate authority; the question posed has to do with the legitimacy of the earthly means of interpreting that authority and ultimately what the effect of all that is on the people whom God has created. As Kathryn D. Blanchard notes, “The chief priests’ first question, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ (v. 23), is reasonable enough. Their own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down through generations” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4). Jesus’ questioning of them, shaped by the actions that precede this section and the parable that forms its conclusion, come as a challenge to that traditionally held authority.
The dialogue between Jesus and the chief priests and elders follows a typical rabbinic style, questions met with questions, that is intended to invite the readers, or initially the hearers, into their own consideration of an answer. It presents a conundrum for the chief priests and elders who did not recognize John the Baptist and for whom a “yes” or “no” answer each have serious consequences. They are being challenged by an unanswerable question to confront the fact that they have “refused to recognize messages and people sent by God.” (For more, read Lewis R. Donelson’s exegesis in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).
The final part of the reading, the parable of the Two Sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. Those same leaders are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. The two groups are not so much representative of the “haves” and “have nots” as they are of the fact that the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth.
What has this to do with us? As noted above according to Tickle we are living in the same dialogue; we are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority. This is not a question of denominational structures, or local church structures for that matter, but a question of where we can best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us. We may miss the challenge of this passage if we simply interpret it as a call to go out to the highways and byways to find the “outsiders” of our day (as right as that is to do!) and fail to see its challenge to us as individuals and communities of faith.
Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in this passage: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They have mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This kingdom is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity” (Selling Water by the River).
Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son. After all these years we may be the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us. All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causing us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.
But there is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.
Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new birth? Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows?
For further reflection:
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 20th century
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
William Langewiesche, 20th century
“So much of who we are is where we have been.”
“You should not see the desert simply as some faraway place of little rain. There are many forms of thirst.”
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, 21st century
“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love [God].”
Francis of Assisi, 12th century mystic
“Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.”
Catherine of Siena, 14th century
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”
Annie Dillard, 21st century
“I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”
“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home – dear and familiar stone hearth and garden – and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”
“That they may all be one”: the United Church of Christ holds before us the words, the prayer, of Jesus who longed for the unity of those who were his followers, and Paul, long ago, shared this same vision. In his letter from prison to the church at Philippi, he preaches a beautiful sermon on how they should live out their unity in Christ and with Christ, who emptied himself rather than elevating and promoting himself above others.
Such a model of humility may seem counter to our culture, and we might experience a kind of theological whiplash when we go from our everyday pursuits and immersion in this culture to hearing the words of Paul and contemplating the example of Jesus. Paul’s words are indeed a kind of contemplation on Jesus, who embodied the paradox of surrender that leads not only to resurrection but exaltation. And yet, much of modern Christian faith life seems to strive toward skipping the surrender and keeping the exaltation.
As you look around your church and your community, who are the quiet ones who “empty” themselves rather than grasping at high places or recognition for what they are doing? Where, in the life of your congregation, are the places of “consolation from love,” of “compassion and sympathy”? When are the moments and times of “sharing the Spirit” and “encouragement in Christ”? What does it look like in your congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”?
If God is the one who saves us and we cannot earn that salvation, it’s no wonder that “fear and trembling” are part of our life of faith. What are the ways that we deny or suppress this “fear and trembling”? What do those words mean to you? In our culture, our work is supposed to lead to success and rewards. If we read the right do-it-yourself and self-help books and practice the right number of “habits” (however many they are), we’re supposed to be able to get things right and achieve what we want to achieve, even our peace of mind and, it would seem, the salvation of our souls. That’s not the message of this passage or the model of Jesus, for “it is God who is at work in you.” It is God who works on us and in us and through us, and in doing so, effects the salvation of the world. We play a role, but it is God who is at work. What is the Stillspeaking God doing in the life of your church, and in what ways are you all working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, together?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Rev. Mark J. Suriano serves as Associate Pastor of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Give ear, O my people,
to my teaching;
incline your ears
to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth
in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings
from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them
from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation