25 September 2011
The 15th Sunday After Pentecost
The descendents of Avraham were working in the Egyptians fields in the Nile delta, or making bricks, or quarrying stone, or dragging huge stones up a ziggurat to form a pyramid or carving a monument into rock. It was hard work and many of them injured or accidentally killed or beaten by cruel taskmasters until they died. Then one day a stranger appeared and began a series of confrontations with the Pharaoh, claiming that they did not belong to Pharaoh and demanding that the Pharaoh release the children of Yisrael from their slavery. The Pharaoh was incredulous at Moshe’s gall: he thought the Israelites belonged to him and so he refused to release them.
Over the next few months the stranger Moshe brought forth a series of ever stranger tests to show the Pharaoh that they were not his people but belonged to the god that Moshe followed, the God of their forefathers, Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov, renamed Yisrael. The first test involved water – the Nile, the source of all life in Egypt. Moshe touched it with his staff and the river was changed to blood, undrinkable. When the Pharaoh refused to free the people there were more tests of his stubbornness, but each time he refused to let “his” people go. And then one night this stranger Moshe came to their hovels and smeared lambs’ blood on their door posts and lintels. This time it was the firstborn sons of Pharaoh’s people, truly his people, who died, and the very next day the Israelites were ordered – ordered! – by the Egyptians to leave, taking everything they can carry with them. When the Pharaoh reconsidered and sent his army to re-enslave them, they had escaped because of another miracle involving water, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.
Now they were alternating between elation at leaving the oppression of Egypt behind, depression at the barrenness of the desert and their condition, and fear of the unknown or that they would die here in the desert. They wondered, now what? What did this God of Moshe have in store for them?
I know something about alternating between moods, especially recently. Two months ago I was eagerly planning my retirement from government, enjoying increased distances on my bike in preparation for the Seagull Century in October, awaiting our older daughter Meredith’s return from three years in England, but also sad about my aged mother’s decline. Then Kate had her accident, and this little part of the Body of Christ was thrown into shock by our sudden loss and the unanswered question of who will come forth to pick up all the many tasks Kate performed so admirably, many with little visibility. Then my mother’s decline accelerated and she entered hospice care at the nursing home. Various storms came so that riding on the weekends hasn’t been feasible and I don’t think I’m ready to ride 65 miles, let alone 100. A falling limb from one storm put holes in my shed roof that is still awaiting repair. Three weeks ago at my retirement ceremony I was honored with a high departmental award and numerous other kind words and best wishes.
Two weeks ago I spoke at the closing session of a national conference and the next day at an Army conference and the attendees responded with standing ovations. Then my cell phone rang. It was my sister, telling me that our mother was at death’s door and it would be a good idea to talk to her and give her my love, even if she wasn’t conscious. Tuesday we celebrated the repeal of the law prohibiting homosexuals from serving in the military, knowing Kate would be so pleased that those who believe God is calling them to defend their country may live out that call.
Friday was her memorial service, a celebration of her life. Yesterday was Kate’s memorial service, a celebration of her life. At each service my eyes filled, at each I smiled and at each I even laughed. But now what? What does the God of Moshe, the God of Matthew, the God of Paul, have in store for me, for us?
For Seekers Church, this is the season of recommitment and for those who have joined us just this year, it is a season of commitment. It is a time when we re-examine our individual spiritual journeys, God’s call to each of us, God’s call to Seekers Church, how Seekers Church supports our responses to those calls, and what we need from and through Seekers Church to deepen our commitments to Christ. It is a time when we decide to commit or recommit to our mission groups or ministries, when Stewards recommit to sharing responsibility for the spiritual growth of everyone, children and adults, in the church and for the organizational health of the church. Or not. Everyone has the freedom in his or her conscience, after prayer consideration and discussion in his or her mission group or ministry, to decide not to commit or recommit. It is not a sign of moral failure, but of integrity. This principle is one of the traditions we inherited from the Church of the Saviour, and it is one of the things that keeps us from being a church with deadwood on the church membership rolls.
For those Israelites in the desert, this was not recommitment, but the original season of commitment. They had to decide whether they would be faithful to this God of Moshe, this god who would not name himself/herself/itself, but whose name was “I will be who I will be” or “I will be what I will be” or “You will know me by my mighty acts.” And this God of Moshe had a propensity for testing whether they would be faithful. They’d been in the desert for months, hungry at times in spite of the manna, thirsty until they come to another oasis. At Mara, the water had been undrinkable, like the Nile turned to blood. They grumbled against Moshe, “What are we to drink?” Through Moshe God made the water drinkable. Then God said, “If you be my people and follow my commandments, I won’t visit the other tests upon you that I did in Egypt.” Then he led them to Elim, where there was an abundance of good water. In the Wilderness of Syn there was no food. They grumbled against Moshe and Aaron, complaining that at least in Egypt, they’d had food to eat. God provided food in the form of manna. Then God gave specific instructions through Moshe on how to collect the manna, with the implicit understanding that if the people followed God’s commandments, they would have food. At both locations, God tested them.
In this week’s scripture the people lack water again, but more ominously; this time the people tested God. They not only complained to Moshe about the lack of water, they quarreled among themselves and with him, asking “Is this God of yours with us or not? If not, we won’t follow your God’s commandments.” Moshe feared for his life and lost his patience with the people, but the Talmud says that God replied, “Try to act like me. As I return good for evil, so should you. Go before them and we’ll see who dares to stone you.” When Moshe showed himself, the people stood reverently and God said, “How often have I told you not to be angry with them, but to lead them as a shepherd leads his flock. It’s for their sake I have elevated you up to be their leader and only for their sake will you find grace, goodwill, and mercy in my eyes.” The Bible says God had Moshe strike a rock with the same staff with which he had struck the Nile, the one he had used to destroy the pursuing Egyptian army, but this time it brought forth life-giving water. Moshe named the place, “Massa,” which means testing, and also “Merivah,” which means quarreling.
Is recommitment a time when we are tempted test God in our meditations? Are we tempted to ask explicitly or implicitly, “God, if you bring forth blessings in my life I will follow your teachings? God, if you bring forth blessings in Seekers, if you find a way to replace all that Kate has done for us I will be an active member in Seekers?”
Matthew takes the theme of testing God and applies it to the testing of Jesus. The setting is the Temple grounds in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week before his death. He has driven out the money changers and those who sold lambs and doves for sacrifice and he has healed the blind and those with crippling diseases, upsetting the chief priests and elders of the temple. This is understandable – it’s their place, the management of the Temple grounds is their responsibility. They dare not do anything to upset the Romans — they might lose what freedom of action they had. Who is this person, and who does he think he is? I suspect they recognize Jesus’ authority, but are afraid of its implications. Matthew is holding out the possibility of another way of living, another way to be faithful to God.
Before we get too hard on the temple authorities, let’s ask ourselves, how would we react if an outsider came into this building and began making changes in its operation and inviting all kinds of undesirable people into it? Wouldn’t we be indignant? Confrontive? Accusing? And how would we like to be told that we’ve screwed it up – that we’re like the first son who agreed to carry out his father’s directions but didn’t, rather than the second son who wouldn’t agree but then changed his mind and did? As we prepare for recommitment do we reflect on the times when we have been too complacent, too willing to follow the imperatives of our culture and nation, to afraid to follow Jesus? Do we ask ourselves which son we are?
Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi hearkens back to the Exodus story, specifically the themes of quarreling and of being lifted up. If the Israelites quarreled at Merivah, Christians are to avoid quarreling, to find our common life in Christ, to love each other, to value unity, to replace rivalry and vanity with valuing others more highly than ourselves, to think of others’ interests and needs. Moshe had been raised up to be the shepherd of his people, and because Jesus had lowered himself to be a slave even to the point where obedience brought a shameful death, God had raised him up to be the path for people to glorify God. And so Paul urges obedience upon us. We have to work out our spiritual journeys in awe of God, knowing that God works in us and through us for God’s purposes, not ours.
So, in recommitment season we should reflect on whether there are times when we have grumbled about God, about this church, about our spiritual leaders. We should reflect on whether we have tested God. We should reflect on whether we build up the body of Christ through unity and humility.
I was tested on unity and humility yesterday. One of the strengths of this church is that although Glen has responsibility for the music, the person preaching is offered the authority to tell Glen and Liz what music he or she wants for the prelude, hymns, and offertory. I take that grant of authority seriously. Before Glen and Deborah were part of us, Nancy Marchal and I used to select all the music. We used that opportunity to reflect on the theme for the season, on the lectionaries, on the preacher’s theme, and we researched possible music and reflected on their lyrics and mood. It was a rich time for me and I am pleased that Glen also takes his authority seriously and joyously. So after writing this sermon I planned today’s music and sent it to Glen on Wednesday.
Yesterday, 10 minutes before Kate’s service, Glen informed me that Jesse had written a song in Kate’s honor and would like to do it as the first hymn. I could feel a mixture of emotions arising, some of them clearly inappropriate for the setting and the time, and so I said I couldn’t give an answer right then, and we would have to discuss it after the service, and walked away. As the service began I had a jumble of thoughts, and they progressed towards quarrelsomeness and pride and selfishness. How could these guys tell me this just before my second funeral in two days? Don’t they know I put some thought into the music? Don’t they know what I’ve been through this month? Kate’s service is today, not tomorrow. My inner 5-year old was alive and well. I was so upset I had to leave and walk out into the parking lot.
And then I began to realize that Jesse might have worked on this song ever since Kate’s accident or since her death, and it hadn’t been ready before now. And I began to feel bad for Glen with the static interrupting the audio feed and the loss of video signal. So I got hold of myself, walked back in, and I began listening to the tributes to Kate. It came to me that while my mother’s memorial service had celebrated a life lived fully but so long that she was ready to die and we were ready for her to die, Kate’s service had celebrated a life lived fully but cut short. Even if she came to terms with her condition and was ready to die, we had not been ready and were still not ready to let her die even a month after her death. So we would continue grieving off and on over the weeks and months. I came to see that I was being tested whether I could replace my vanity with humility, with not claiming authority for myself but instead thinking of other Seekers’ interests and needs, all for the good of the Body of Christ. So I told Glen and Jesse, yes, he could sing in lieu of the first hymn I’d selected. Thank you, Jesse.
Reflections during recommitment season can seem daunting, even depressing but we are sustained by living water as we work on our decisions about commitment and recommitment. The book of Numbers repeats the story of the people testing God over the lack of water, but sets the story in Kadesh, a different location far to the east of the Wilderness of Syn, and at a time much later in the Israelites journey to the Promised Land. Talmudic scholars noted that from the time of the first story in Exodus in the Wilderness of Syn to the time of the second story in Numbers at Kadesh, the scriptures make no more mention of the Israelites lacking water. And there’s no mention of digging wells or arriving at oases, either. Therefore, the rock that Moshe struck must have followed them to provide water throughout their journey. Living water. Some of the interpreters noted that the rock seemed to run dry soon after Moshe’s sister Miriam died. She had been virtuous, and it was her virtue that moved God to provide water to keep the people alive. The rock became known in the Talmud as Miriam’s well.
As Christians we find the source of life in Christ. As Paul noted in his letter to the church in Corinth, the Rock that followed the Israelites was Christ, living water. But as we follow Christ and become part of his Body, our lives become trickles, streams, subterranean pools that sustain us and others. We can certainly see this with Kate’s life. I see it in my mother’s also.
God tests us, but sustains us with living water. We test God, and God responds with grace. Making a commitment, making a recommitment, is our grateful “Yes” to having received that grace. And the grace. And the living water flows in our hearts.