Everyone’s a Critic
Hard questions and life lessons in the wilderness
Sunday, September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 21)
Everyone’s a Critic
Welcoming God, you receive and bless all who come to you in humility. Show us our false pride, that we may repent of all conceit and arrogance and, caring for one another, may honor Jesus to the glory of your name. Amen.
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?”
1. Is it unfaithful to question God? Why or why not?
2. What should Israel have done in its thirst?
3. Does God feel more present in good times or in bad?
4. Has “wilderness” been a positive or negative faith experience in your life?
5. What are the mirages that we have wandered toward as a culture?
by Kate Matthews
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 response, God, faithful and compassionate, gave them bread from heaven, manna to feed them throughout their time of wandering.
Help for Moses and the people
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.
A time of learning and seasoning
However, 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.”
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?
What does complaining say about one’s faith?
Many scholars writing on this text focus 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?
Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to “mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self,” because they have a “deep confidence that the God of the core testimony…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, even if one feels a need to remind God about it.
Who’s doing the testing here?
That’s one way to read it. But it’s also possible that the Israelites were the ones 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, as well as 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’?”
We already know how well that worked out the first time humans tried for such knowledge (see Genesis 3).
When do we notice God at work?
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 when it was plentiful in the past, they took it for granted. “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?”
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.
Do we focus on the hard times only?
We also note that the lectionary and most of our Bible study time don’t focus on the nice, comfortable time, either. Perhaps the lessons are in the difficult time, or have we not exercised our gratitude and humility enough?
I’m reminded of the conversation I watched last night, between two well-known “women in comedy,” who were reminding each other–and us– of “parties, visiting, movies, hugging”: the many things we are missing because of the pandemic, the good times we took for granted.
Sustained by the future
Janzen 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 calls us to remember “oasis points in our past,” when we had everything we needed and it was easy to say that God is good, but also to count on a future that draws us forward, and “give[s] 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.”
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?
Signs of God’s authority
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 those “special effects” 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.
Bringing death as well as life
Beautiful. But we still remember that this staff can bring death as well as life: the Nile River turned into blood, and 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.”
We might reflect more deeply on several themes in this reading: 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), the “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.
Times of desolate reflection
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 the presence of those who had been there for a very long time) 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.”
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.”
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.
Grumbling and want
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, those situations that prompt what Brueggemann calls “the God Question concerning the one who ‘leads us beside still waters.'”
In his beautiful sermon on this text, “The Big Yes,” Brueggemann 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 the wonderful collection, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann; I recommend it for spiritual reading and study.)
What person crushed by depression or deep mourning or pressing need hasn’t asked, “Where is God now?” Such a person doesn’t want to hear church talk or complex theology. While Brueggemann calls the Israelites “exceedingly practical” in their expectations (“Don’t talk of water, show me”), a person in such great need today would undoubtedly say the same thing.
The answer is “yes”
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.”
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 (and I believe he is) that this story is about “being dazzled beyond every expectation,” we too should expect to be dazzled.
Long living in fear
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the anniversary of which we recently marked by solemn ceremonies, 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 (curtaining our personal freedoms, spending money on armaments while cutting veterans benefits, health care programs or support to foodbanks).
While human needs are devalued (with talk of cuts to, or even eliminating, Social Security and aid to the poor), the powers that be continue to support massive increases in military spending that already far exceeds that of other nations, or to propose even more dramatic tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich.
Relentless bad news
Now we are jarred, or perhaps we are numb, by the deluge of bad news each day. While our troubles did not start in 2020 (far from it), it has “become a meme,” if not a joke, about 2020 being relentlessly full of terrible news.
The Covid-19 pandemic rages (far worse in the United States than in the rest of the world), the economy is gutted for many if not all, a long-overdue racial reckoning has emerged as cellphone videos finally awaken the conscience of a critical mass of Americans, and the costs of climate change fall most dramatically on western states engulfed by raging wildfires and southern states facing one powerful hurricane after another.
Doomsday predictors are busy, and we do not know what to do with our fear. Many of us wish that God would deliver us from the consequences of our own actions and neglect and willfulness, or at least from the terrors we cannot blame on anyone, including ourselves.
Fear and violence all around
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.” The thought strikes me that this phrase seems to work every time this text comes along in the lectionary cycle, alas: we seem mired in one “long season of fear, anxiety, and violence,” all around the world, but close to home as well.
Just yesterday, a few blocks from my neighborhood, an elderly man shot and killed his neighbor’s friend over an argument about his dogs. The women were walking up the driveway, returning from grocery shopping, and he shot one of them four times. The police had been called the day before over his threats, but nothing happened.
The proliferation of guns in our society (for which we also stand out, in lamentable distinction among nations) is yielding a poisoned political season as well, with multiple news stories of advisors and functionaries calling for armed rebellion if they don’t like the results of the election. A long season of fear, anxiety and violence, indeed.
Dealing with God questions
In our fear of elusive terrorists hiding in vast mountain wildernesses, comfortable villas next to military camps, or right next door, and in our anxiety about scarcity and our inevitable confrontation with our limitations, Brueggemann describes us vividly as right back out there in the wilderness, dealing with those “God Questions”–about whether we can “trust God in the thin places where there are no other resources for life.”
(This is a different way of seeing “thin places” than the Celtic spirituality approach, where God seems especially near. Or perhaps not; perhaps when supplies and hope seem thin, God is even nearer.)
Water as metaphor for need
Water is quite literally a challenge in the world today, but it’s also a metaphor for all of our needs–and, we must admit, our wants as well. While we’re being forced to come to grips with “a new awareness” of our limited resources (limited perhaps because of our wasteful and destructive ways), we have turned to the wrong things to meet our reasonable needs as well as the unreasonable ones.
Walter Brueggemann describes these things as “mirages that look like remembered water, but are not really water that can quench.”
What satisfies our needs?
In his commentary on the Book of Exodus, 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.
However, in the world of television (the world we live in way too much), the solution comes not from God but from “the product” they want us to buy: “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.” Indeed.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflection) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments son our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.”
About Weekly Seeds
Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.
Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.