This Sunday as I preached, I stayed close to the text of Exodus 24-- the story of Moses' sitting with God and being surrounded by God's glory so that he could receive the law. Though there were many ways I could go with the text, verse 16 is what I couldn't get off my mind.
"The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days.”
Can you imagine it? Moses sitting for 6 days before the Lord with nothing else going on but just waiting on something to happen! Six whole night and days. If you count it up that would be 144 hours. 8,640 minutes. 518,400 seconds. What a long time!
I have not.
However, when I try to take intentional Sabbaths, turning off my phone (gasp, I know!), not making plans with friends it's ALWAYS harder to disconnect than I think. On these days, I often start making lists in my head of what I will do when it over! And if it gets really bad, I trade in mediation for counting the minutes until I can get up. When can I talk again is what I want to know . . .
Anybody with me on this?
Henri Nouwen, Catholic priest and spirituality teacher, in the book Inner Voice of Love writes this about this tendency: “We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, but what if ....”
I loved what Nowuen offers because he goes on to remind us that: “God wants to dwell in our emptiness.” We don’t have to bring a thing to be with God. We just have to show up for it and allow the Spirit to help us be still.
And as we are still:
It’s about letting go of fear—the fear of all of the what ifs?
It’s about letting go of shame—oh what will so and so think of they saw how I was spending my time!
It’s about letting go of what we’ve constructed around us: comfort foods, normal routines and making plans for next summer and beyond . . .
Want to give it a try?
It might be as simple as turning off the radio on the car and not making phone calls while you're driving. Just being still.
It might be as simple as telling your kids or grandkids that you've put yourself into "adult time out" for a while and you'll check in with them later. Just being still.
It might be as simple as going to your garden alone to plant, weed and water. Just being still.
For me, it's as simple as going to a particular place. It's my place to be still.
I love our oversized green chair in a my room surrounded by my favorite books with a great view of the trees in the yard from the second floor. As I sit and gaze at the trees out the windows I feel like I’m in a little treehouse made just for me. I love going to this chair as many mornings as I can (though not too early). If I'm alone in the house, I often bring my breakfast to this chair. I sometimes read, sometimes write but often am just still with no agenda. I especially love how the brightness of the morning light finds me in the winter time.
It’s often a battle to get myself there (for as much as I love it) because my spirit fights the urge to think it’s not important.
But, in my heart, I know it’s the only way for my communion with God. And I know finding a quiet place is only way for you too.
Can we live with out it? Sure we can. Will God still love us if we're busy all the time? Of course. But without finding quiet, we won’t know God the way God wants to really know us!
And I couldn't have said it any better myself. May God teach us to be still.
Gandhi once said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world!"
And, truly, God bless the fixers in this world because there are so many big problems out there that need solving.
There are children who need to be feed-- if only someone will figure out the resources of how to get them food.
There are elderly who are literally dying to know that somebody cares about them-- if only someone could motivate those of us with extra time to be moved in their direction.
There are diseases in certain parts of the world that could be prevented-- if only someone could move better medical care in their direction.
What about those problems that though we put all our might, all our effort, all our prayers toward, nothing seems to change?
What do we do then?
Such is a terrible plight for the best fixers among us.
I write this because I often try to be a fixer. And I know the pain of delayed expectations. The pain of knowing that as much as I want to fix something for myself or for someone I care about-- I can't.
We all hate this hard truth of life: we're not in control.
As much as I want to, I can't make a job to come out of thin air for my unemployed friend.
I can't take way the cancer diagnoses for that 12-year-old girl who I adore!
I can't re-write laws in countries which are unjust, keeping essential resources away from the most vulnerable who need them the most.
I can't spark joy into the lives of my friends who are weighed down in a season of life of funeral after funeral.
I can't. And it's so frustrating!
But what I can do is be is right where I am. I can be right where my loved ones are. I can stand with them in the midst of our unknowing. I can sit with my grief and theirs too, if I'm invited.
And I can live with the discomfort-- not run from it.
Yet, it's so easy for a "fix it" mentality to set in, though. Before we know it, we're saying:
"Oh, let's find a 3rd opinion and a 4th for that timeline of death"
"Oh, let's send out twenty more resumes and re-write 20 more versions of your cover letter."
"Oh, let's fill up the days with appointments and evenings with parties-- all of my time should be filled!"
For I believe that God calls us to live with our discomfort.
Not as punishment. Not as a fear producing exercise. But as an expression of our faith.
Because sometimes, the BEST things happen when we have no idea where we are or where we're going next. And as we give our pain time to move through us.
One of my favorite scriptures comes from Exodus 14. Moses and the Israelites found themselves at a pretty desperate place too.
They'd only just left Egypt after 400 years of slavery and Pharoah was on their tail. Moses felt beside himself in worry with so much responsiblity on his shoulders. He could not see a way forward! And, he cries out to God for help.
Or in other words, "Live with the discomfort, Moses! And let Me be in charge."
So wherever you find yourself today, hear me preaching to me and preaching to you: help is always on the way! This trust is what faith is all about.
Choose Life: Deuteronomy 30:15-31:6
A sermon preached to staff and children at Feed the Children Kenya, May 6, 2015
When we wake up in the morning, no matter who we are or where we come from, we all have choices. For example: we can choose to eat the breakfast put before us or not eat anything at all.
Or, we can choose to put on long trousers if it is cold or a jacket if it is raining.
Or, we can choose say, “Thank you God for this day” with a smile on our face or we can say with a growl, “I want to go back to bed!”
Though every day life gives us a different set of experiences to deal with (that often times we can’t control)—we always have a choice in HOW we deal with them.
In our reading from the book of Deuteronomy, we hear this word about choices. Moses, the great leader of the children of Israel as they are making their great journey out of Egypt into freedom in the Promise Land, says to them this:
See, I have put in front of you today life and what is good, and death and what is bad.
Which is another way of saying, listen up everyone—in this life God has given you, you have choices.
You can choose what is good and enjoy all that life has to give you.
Or you can choose what is bad and not enjoy all life has to give you.
But the interesting part of this story is the context. There was a reason that Moses was giving this speech. And the reason was that Moses knows that his time as leader of the nation of Israel is coming to a close.
The problem was Moses didn't want to leave! He did not intend to step aside as their leader at this point. He believed he would make the entire journey with them into the new land. For many years, this was the goal that Moses and the people were working toward together. Moses had invested so much of his life and his family’s life in the work of helping the people follow after God’s best plans for them.
BUT then a day came when God told Moses that he wouldn't be the leader who saw the journey through. There would be another leader and his name would be Joshua.
If you could put yourself in Moses’ shoes for a moment, think about how you might feel if you got this news. What would you say to God in response?
If I were Moses, I think I might be angry. I might even say to God, “This is so unfair! After all that I have done for this group of people and ALL the dreams we dreamed up together, how come I have to step aside now?”
And all of these thoughts would be valid feelings.
Very few of us set out to commit our whole heart to a task and stop in the middle of it.
But Moses had to learn another way.
He had to be reminded who was in charge most of all.
It was not him. It was God.
And God asked Moses to lay aside his own desires, his own wishes and to choose the plans the he wanted to offer to the nation of Israel.
And in his parting words to them before Joshua takes over, he says just this.
Choose life! Choose God! Know that God is never going to leave you, though my time, as your leader will soon come to a close.
I want to tell you a story to maybe help you understand a bit more what I mean here. It’s a story that comes from one of the other countries where Feed the Children has programs and serves children every day, El Salvador.
Many years ago, in the 1970s a revolution began in this country. An oppressive group of military leaders took over the government, turning this once peaceful land into a state of confusion.
The poor people of El Salvador were afraid the little that they had would be taken away. Church leaders feared the government. And they did nothing to help those in need.
Yet there were some pastors and priests who stuck close to the message God’s love for all people and refused to stop speaking. They chose kindness. They chose compassion. They chose one another. The priest Oscar Romero was one of them.
All his life he had been just a normal priest—going about the daily work of caring for his church. Though he was later being promoted to the position of Archbishop, Oscar continued to preach the gospel each week and serve people communion.
Yet, there came a day when he could be silent. He knew that God had called him to speak out and protect the rights of the needy. He stood up for the poor in his community, even when he was advised not to!
And, Oscar Romero would eventually die for the choices he made. But, even in his death, pointed people to God.
Because Oscar learned, like Moses that the choosing God’s way means that ultimately our lives are not about us.
For no matter what we do and the positions we hold, even the certificates we might receive for the good we do, our lives ARE ALL about GOD.
Hear the words of this prayer inspired by Oscar’s life. I think it sums up well what Moses and Oscar’s life can teach us all:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts;
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. . . .
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.. . .
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
I have to tell you that this is one of my favorite prayers. And it’s one that Kevin and I have thought a lot about over the past several months as we knew our official time at Feed the Children was coming to an end.
For like Moses at first, we were unhappy, maybe even a little angry, that our time as your leaders would end. For as much as we loved you and felt a part of your family and were so thankful for our shared work—we wanted it to go on and on for several more years.
It’s like that with the good things in life, isn’t it? We want them to go on and on forever!
But last February the pathways of God became very clear to Kevin and me—that the choice God was asking us to make was to step aside. Feed the Children needed a new leader.
And we only had one choice—even as much as we complained and bargained with God and cried a little too— and that choice was to say yes to God’s wishes, not our own.
And like the prayer I just shared with you, this is what Kevin and I most know.
Feed the Children never belonged to us.
It always belonged to God.
For, Kevin and I were just co-workers with you, not your messiahs.
Jesus, my friends, has always been our leader!
And though the work of ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry is incomplete, the mission lives on.
And it lives on in you, until it lives on in somebody else.
For all of us accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the glory that is God’s work.
All our efforts in this life simply are foretelling a future that is not our own—but God’s!
So, when I think of all that is to come in the days for Feed the Children as you continue to do God’s work in this place, I only have two words for you.
Choose the work that God has entrusted you to do in this place.
Choose to listen to promptings of the Holy Spirit. Do not get beaten down into pettiness or selfishness in this place.
Choose to put the children first in all you do—isn’t that what this beautiful new brand has taught us all?
And choose God, knowing that as you do our Lord will be faithful to lead you all the way.
Know that this is exactly what Kevin and I want most for our lives as we plant them back in our home in Washington DC. We want to choose life too! And like Moses once proclaimed, we declare it to you today as well:
Be strong and bold; have no fear because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
So, this is not a goodbye, but until we see you again. May God continue to bless us all.
A Side of God We Really Don’t Want to See: Exodus 33:12-23
a sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
In all human relationships-- with our spouses, our children, our friends—there are ebbs and flows, aren’t there?
There are days when we wonder why in the world we ever got married, had kids or keep in touch with so and so from high school . . .
But, there are days when we love beyond any words we can articulate for love.
Maybe it was your wedding day. . . .
Maybe it was the morning your child was born . . .
Maybe it was that girl’s weekend when you laughed and laughed till the sun came up. . . .
If you’ve ever been there . . . if you’ve ever experienced such bliss in your life where you feel safe enough to ask your loved one for anything—then you’ll understand what is come in our Old Testament reading for this morning.
For Moses and God have quite a good thing going on too. And Moses thought he reached such a level of devotion and trust in God that he feels he could ask for the ultimate expression of intimacy with the Divine: show me all of you!
And it was true: Moses and God were pretty close. But how did this happen?
Emotional bonds to dear ones, in my experience, often grow out of conflict.
Times when either you’ve made it through what feels like the unforgivable sin, only to realize the other person is a saint enough to forgive you. Or times when everything is swirling around you and it becomes a case of you and your partner against the world.
And for Moses and God, they’d experienced both!
If we go back one chapter earlier than we read in our text for this morning, what we’ll find is the great calf incident when the conflict came.This was the scene: for many months, Moses is up on Mount Sinai having holy time with the Lord—receiving the words of the law on the tablets, written by God very own hand. Can you imagine what an amazing experience that was?
But, in Moses’ absence the people gathered at the bottom of the mountain. They talk about how lost and left out they feel. They collect all the gold they can find in the camp and create an object to worship, in the shape of a calf, creating their own object to worship like the other religious traditions of the time. They ignore the 10 commandments (which they already had), and each man and woman does what is best in their own sight.
You can imagine how well this went over when God saw what was going on and Moses came down the mountain. . . .
The divide between Moses and the people was thick in the air.
In verse 9 of chapter 32, the Lord speaks of it saying, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”
Since there is a chapter 33, we know that the Lord’s anger does not get the final word. The people are allowed to live. But like misbehaving teenagers, God grounded them (or in Biblical terms: God sent them a plague).
You can imagine how this changed the dynamic of the relationship between God and Moses—both in God’s disappointment with the people who Moses was seeking to lead and in “you and me” against the world sort of way. Moses was truly the one human being that God could trust.
In fact, earlier than we just heard read a few moments ago, we learn that God and Moses had taken their relationship a notch or two closer together.
Moses traveled a good distance outside the camp and pitches a tent where he could be with God alone. It was the ultimate man-cave if you will. A place where Moses could revel in his beautiful relationship with the Divine without the pesky less mature human-lings able to bother them . . .
In fact, verse 9 says of the splendor of this tent: “ As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.”
Moses and God were BFFs and everybody knew it.
All was be swell, right? But let’s recap. These were not two schoolboys. It was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth!
But, in this cloud of closeness, Moses wants even more.
“We’re so close, God” Moses says. “And I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me.”
“Very true.” God replies.
“So, can you promise me a thing or two?”
“What do you want Moses?”
“I want you to go with me. You—just like we are in this tent.”
And as the conversation continues, God says no. You can’t have out there what we have in this special place of meeting. But you can have my presence and peace wherever you go.
(Isn’t that something that we ought to go back to more often? God says we are never alone and can always have the Lord’s presence and peace wherever we go).
But it wasn’t enough for Moses. He asks the Lord to “Show me your glory, I pray.”
But the Lord says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And instead, the Lord offers up his backside. It’s not what Moses wants to see. It’s not what Moses asks for. And it is a reminder of the fact that God was not just another pal.
But, wow, as many commentators of this passage relate, what God offers is more than what most have seen of God throughout the scriptures: a visual encounter. And, Moses already had a visual encounter with the Holy at the burning bush a few years back!
Humorously, Professor John Holbert of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas asks this question about the passage: “Is it possible that God is mooning Moses?”
I don’t know about you, but it’s not the sight of God I’m dreaming about seeing one day—a mooning.
And we get no indication as the story continues that Moses was thrilled about it either.
I think this is the case because we are a people who like certainty. We say to our co-workers and children, “Look me in the eyes when I am talking to you.” We say to a friend telling us a story, “Are you sure those facts are true?” We say to our partners: “Are you sure that you love me the most?”
In our closest relationships, we want to know that we know that we know!
And the same is true, I think in our relationship with the Divine. We want to know that we know that we are on good terms. We want to know that we are loved and cherished. The side of God we most want to see is what is found in the light of day where all is very CLEAR!
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark about our fascination in modern Christianity with certainty and what can be known in the light. In fact she gives it a label saying what you find in most churches in America is “full solar spirituality.”
She says you’ll know a full solar church when you find because: “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”
And while it works well for awhile—I mean who doesn’t like to go to one of the Disneyland of churches everyone is so happy and helpful? It can’t be sustained and remain authentic.
Things happen like: “you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.”
And in cases like this, solar spirituality churches say just pray harder, just have more faith, or trust that everything happens for a reason!
Have you been told things like this from a church you attended? I know I have.
Taylor—most helpfully though, gives us another vocabulary for what our life in communion with God can be, though it is a side of God that we don’t often want to see.
She calls it “lunar spirituality”—or learning to walk with God in the dark.
And though most of us hear the word “dark” and think, oh, that must be bad. It’s not. Darkness can be a gift of clarity. Because if we think about it—even in the darkest night there’s always some light!
When is the last time you took a walk outside of the city limits at night? Do you remember what you saw?
I’m a city girl and don’t get out much into the country in the evenings. But the last time I visited my in-law at their farm in Georgia, I can remember being overcome with the light of the stars I had not seen in a very long time. It took my breath away in fact to stop and behold the glory of the night sky, of God’s creation—that I’m usually so in a hurry to get inside for that I miss.
Taylor affirms this when says, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be a human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, failing down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
It’s as if our vocabulary of God has got to change if we really want to know the Lord! For the God of the dark nights, the God of the backside view, the God of the mysterious, who can feel so close to us in one moment and distant in the next: is who God is.
And though it might not be the God want to see—as Moses experienced it, if we follow the path of God’s kingdom, it is what it is going to be.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Those of us who wish to draw near God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”
And while the theology of “solar spirituality” or “God is the light” are part of our journey—it’s just NOT what we’ll experience all the time.
Like in our relationships with our spouses, our children, and friends, we aren’t going to be in total harmony 100% of our journeys together, even more so with our relationship with God. There are going to be times when we are in the dark. There will be nothing we can do about it, except to sit, to walk and to learn from God there.
We learn that God is altogether not like us.
We take comfort in the fact that God is not like us—and we can’t see all of God’s glory—because the problems of our lives, of our world need a much bigger solution than any human can even wrap their brains around!
And most of all, we are transformed by a side of God that is not like us.
As we wait in the dark we are transformed by God’s grace.
We are transformed by God’s compassion.
We are transformed by God’s sovereignty.
So that as we go through the days of our lives, we aren’t so surprised when the worse possible things happen to us and when the dark nights of the soul come.
We have the capacity to believe when God says; I will send you forth with my presence and my peace. And so we go forth into the world differently, even when the darkest nights surround us.
Though this may not sound like good news to you today, church, I am going to boldly tell you that it is.
It’s good news for all of us who have found ourselves in seasons of life that we really didn’t want and bouts of sadness that just won’t go away.
It’s good news for all of us who have ever doubted our faith or wondered if we were really a Christian.
It’s good news for all of us who like to sit out at night and gaze at the night sky feeling overwhelmed by how vast this universe really is!
Sure, there’s a side of God that none of us might ever want to see, just as Moses experienced long ago, but there’s a lovingly mystery waiting to meet us in those moments when we feel farthest away!
Thanks be to God.
[P.S. If you'd like to read the introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor's book, check it out here. Great stuff!)
A Sermon about Exodus 17:1-7 preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
Do you remember the last time you were really thirsty? Parched mouth? Dry tongue? Dreaming of water flowing from a faucet?
In our water bottle, water fountain and Sonic on every corner culture, it’s unheard of that any of us would ever "die of thirst” as we are all known to dramatically say from time to time.
Water is something we have enough of, almost always in this part of the world. Unless, of course, a tornado threatens to come through or an ice storm hits and our neighbors hoard the bottles of water off the shelves at Wal-Mart leaving nothing for the rest of us . . .
In Old Testament reading for this morning, Israelites found themselves with one very big problem and it had everything to do with water.
Two weeks ago, we left the Israelites on the their journey out of Egypt as the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea just happened. With joyous celebration they exclaimed the amazing provisions of their LORD leading them on their way into the Promise Land!
Just three days after crossing the Red Sea-- the big and dramatic-- experience of faith, the group was short on water. Scripture tells us that God led them to a spring where their thirst could be quenched. All was well. God was mightily at work among them, providing for their every need.
But, of course we know that their water jugs did not stay filled for long.
In chapter 17 verse 2 they said to Moses again: "Give us water to drink."
And, such was a good, normal, everyday, essential need, right? Of course they had a right to ask this request of God.
H2O, we know, is critical to our very existence: the definition of a need. Most medical professionals will say that a human being, in reasonable to good health can only live between 3-5 days without water before suffering from extreme dehydration and shock leading to death.
So, while, we might read Exodus 17 with thoughts in our head like "here they go again complaining,” simply the Israelites sought to express a deep need. They needed to say to Moses, their spiritual and administrative leader, "We must have water now!"
In the meantime, however, what were they to do? How were they to wait?
How were they to respond to an unmet need that they were powerless to fix?
Did it mean that their need was not really a need?
Did it mean that God had abandoned them and truly wanted them to die, as they feared? It sure felt that way . . .
It's easy to kick the dog when you are down right? And, so, went the days of the lives of the Israelites and their relationship to Moses.
As they perceived God not giving them the life they wanted, they took out their pain on the easiest next best thing: Moses.
Voicing their frustration to the point that we hear Moses fearing for his life in verse 4-- believing that in their extreme thirst the crowd might stone him if they didn't get a drink and fast.
Moses' natural response to the crisis as a leader was fearful of the crowd's response, but tempered. We hear in the words of this text, Moses saying to the crowds: simmer down stop bothering me and simply trust in God’s provisions-- as this was God's job to meet their needs.
I can imagine, if I were a member of the crowd, I would have found Moses' calm as a cucumber leadership style really annoying. Wouldn’t you?
Trust that God would provide?
"Oh, Moses," I would have said. "It's so much harder than that. When, tell me, when God is going to get God's act together and find us some water!”
For, secretly they hoped that in Moses' bag of superpower, bring on the 10 plagues kind of tricks, he could lead them by another spring and they'd worry about water no more. But, such was just not going to happen.
They needed to wait. They needed to wait to see what could become.
A friend of mine shared with me this week a similar frustration with the world and with God.
After being out of work for the past nine months due to a company downsizing in these difficult economic times, she is currently at the end of her rope.
After sending out over 500 resumes, doing everything she can to do what experts say to do when you are looking for work: networking, staying on a schedule everyday and trying not to get down on herself even as the funds in the bank account slowly begin to run down, she says the best parts of her life are dying more every day.
After interview after interview, rejection letter after rejection letter, and sleepless nights and pleas for prayer to any religiously minded person she knows, my friend shared she was beginning to think that God had forgotten her.
No one in her life seemed to care that she was out of work and without a job coming her way soon; she might lose everything she's worked so hard for including her modest home. She hears her pastor say often at church that “God is going to work things out” but to her God is a distant figure that doesn’t seem to care about her pain.
But in the spirit of these same frustrations, the Israelites were asked to have ACTIVE faith in their waiting.
They were asked to believe that God was still at work, even if they couldn’t recognize it in the moment.
And so, these were Moses' instructions from God: "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. . . . Strike the rock,” God said, "and water will come out of it."
It was a simple as that. Strike the rock with your staff.
I can imagine that laughter erupted from the crowd AND anxiety of what might be next (if this didn't work) from Moses. This God they were serving was just getting crazier and crazier all the time . . .
But, Moses did as instructed by the LORD. And to the amazement of all, it worked. Sweet God Almighty brought them water from a big ole rock!
Let’s stop here and note that this provision was nothing like they expected. NOTHING. But yet it was water nonetheless and EXACTLY what they needed.
The water came not from a spring (as it did before) nor from going back to Egypt (as they had suggested), rather, it came from something that was dead.
Though it would have not been a word they used at the time, the best way I know how to describe the scene is by calling it resurrection! That out of something that seemed life-less and certainly not life-giving, out flowed streaming of living water.
Professor Amy Erickson sums up what happens in this way: "It strikes me (pun intended!) that God choose to bring water-- and the life it symbolizes and will impart-- out of something that appears to be lifeless . . ."
But, this my friends is exactly how God works.
Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God.
Lost causes are never really lost.
And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
When I was serving as an associate pastor at Untied Methodist congregation while in seminary at Duke Divinity in North Carolina, I told it was my job to make most of the pastoral visits.
On a Monday afternoon only a couple of months into my second year at the church, I found myself sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch of Mrs. Melba’s house. She offered me some iced tea—as good southern women do. We began chatting about life. She wanted to know how my classes were going.
Mrs. Melba, a spunky woman in her early 70s, tried to keep a brave face for this young pastor student. But soon she was fighting back tears as she began to recount to me details about her husband’s recent death. He’d died of cancer recently.
She misses him more than she could even say.
She had trouble, she said, finding the energy to get out of bed in the mornings, many days still.
She couldn’t seem to find her purpose for living life anymore, she told me.
I remember this afternoon so well because in the moments that followed, I broke what I had learned only a few days earlier in class, some of the “rules” of pastoral care. My classmates and I were told to not show too much of our own emotions when we made visits. But, I cried too. Melba and I sat and rocked on that porch and cried. Her feelings of this great “dead end” sign life had handed her felt just as overwhelming to me. Sadness felt thick in the air.
Because most of all Melba felt like God had forgotten her. Everything around her felt dead. She felt dead without her beloved, even though her pulse told her she was still living.
A few years later, a man in mid 30s sat in my office. We were chatting about life. How crazy the amount of snow that winter had been.
But soon, Tom began telling me about how he felt his life had hit a dead-end too.
Tom was the father of three kids, but none of them were living with him at the time. His ex-wife had sued him for full custody of the kids, and had won because of the hot-shot lawyer she’d hired.
Lies had been told about him court.
Though Tom had made some mistakes in life—been a big fan of drinking too much in his younger years—he’d cleaned up his act and there was no good reason why he couldn’t even see his kids on the weekends.
To make matters worse, at a church Tom had previously attended, he was told by an associate pastor that he was no longer welcome to worship at the Sunday services. The pastor, it seemed was the reason his marriage broke up in the first place. His wife and the pastor had a long-term relationship on the side that he was just now finding out about.
Tom felt let God was as far away as possible. Everything around him felt dead too. No wife, no kids, and no church family to help him through this hard time in life.
But—and there is always a BUT in the kingdom of GOD—these feelings of deep despair was not the end for Melba and Tom.
Though in these moments they faced some of their darkest hours, God was still at work.
New water was about to come out of rocks in their lives.
As Melba continued to put one foot in front of the other, getting out of bed every morning, slowly she began to see that life wasn’t finished with her.
Through the loving embrace and watchful care of her church family, she started moving toward service of others once again. Melba started singing in the choir. She involved herself in the mission projects of United Methodist Women and she took her turn leading the lessons in her Sunday School class—using the lessons she learned about finding God in this hard place with other widows like herself.
And Tom, as he took the risk of being a part of a new church community, putting aside the hurt of his previous church in the past, began to see new life spring up around him too.
Tom’s secret passion for writing became a real gift to the church’s communication ministry.
And with encouragement from some new friends and the recommendation of a new lawyer, he was able after 5 long years of separation to spend weekends with his kids again.
Both Melba and Tom learned through their pain that this exactly how God works. Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God. Lost causes are never really lost. And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
So, my friends, I tell you today, the God of Israel, the God of Moses who struck that rock that day to watch water flow from such a dead place is alive and wanting to be at work in your life too.
Let us be active in our waiting.
Let us not grow weary in doing good.
And let us surround ourselves with loving community to remind us of the Lord’s goodness if we forget.
And in fact, this is what we are about to celebrate in a few minutes as we come to the table of God—we’ll taste and see that what was once dead has come to new life. We’ll taste and see the sweetness of resurrection called the body and blood of our Lord. And we’ll celebrate together that anything, yes, anything is possible in the kingdom of God. God is always at work!
When You Want to Quit: Sermon Preached at Federated Church
Do you remember the last time you quit something? We’ve all been there . . . if not some time this week!
We might want to quit our jobs (no me! I just started). We might want to quit going to the gym. Or, we might want our kids or grandkids to quit the soccer team because we are tired of taking them to practice.
Though you might perceive me to be a well-traveled person who’s lived in a lot of places in the US and visited many countries around the world, this has not always been the case. Wanting to quit on trips was an emotion I often expressed as a child.
I would weep when my mom put me on the bus for an overnight field trip. I would call home crying when I went to summer camp. And I would count the days till I got to sleep in my own bed at night when I went to visit my grandparents.
But, even with all of this true, I always wanted to TRY to be like my braver friends.
When I was a junior in high school, living in Chattanooga, TN, I heard about an opportunity to be a summer missionary in Charleston, SC through my local church association. I signed up right away. I was so excited that I started organizing what I was going to pack as soon I got word of my acceptance into the program. I couldn’t wait to teach Vacation Bible School all summer long.
It was a big moment of spiritual crossroads for me. Though I’d grown up in youth group and called myself a Christian, going somewhere for 6 whole weeks, 7 hours from home felt like a leap beyond a leap of faith at the time. Yet, even still, I felt at peace and assured that this is what God wanted me to do. So I left home with joy in my steps and all was going great . . .
Until I arrived in the actual apartment complex in Charleston where I was to live for the summer . . .
And it all got real. I found myself with a bunk bed in a room with three other girls when I’d never shared a room with anyone before. I’d be asked to stay up for late nights meetings and rise early for worship. I was served food for lunch that I didn’t particularly care for. It was nothing like home.
My homesickness got worse and worse. I called not only my mom but BOTH of my grandmothers collect every day from the closet crying.
All of the confidence I’d come to Charleston with and all the prayers my home church prayed over me when I left seemed like nothing worth fighting for anymore. I just wanted to go home. Who cared about all of that spiritual calling stuff anyway?
Maybe God didn’t want me in Charleston for the summer after all?
And the same was true of the Israelites in our Old Testament reading for this morning. We meet them at a point of spiritual discernment where they were thinking about quitting as well.
But this is the background that we need to know first: for over 400 years, the Israelites lived as slaves in Egypt. But there came a point when God heard their cries for deliverance from their lot. God called Moses to lead them out. But Pharaoh said no. And no again.
So, in response to Pharaoh’s stubbornness came the 10 plagues: the blood, the darkness, the frogs, and so on. Finally came the death of all of the first-born sons without the blood of a spotless lamb on their door. Pharaoh’s beloved son died too. He was so heartbroken that finally he said the Israelites could leave Egypt. Moses, aided by his brother Aaron gathered the people up and sets out for the Promise Land, a place where they could worship their God freely.
It was an exciting time in the life of this beloved nation of people. The signs of God’s presence were clear. It was obvious that the LORD was with them. Even more so, Moses proved himself to be a leader in tune with God’s plans. They were on the edge of complete freedom! Nobody was going to work for anybody other than himself or herself ever again. Everything was going so well as they left Egypt toward greener pastures.
BUT, this was until, as verse 10 of our text for this morning says, “Pharaoh drew near.”
Pharaoh, you see, had quickly changed his mind about letting his best and most prized labor force go so quickly. He gathered up his officers and their chariots and rushed into the wilderness toward his former subjects. (It’s a good point to stop and let visions of Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments fill our heads).
Can you see it? As the Israelites stood around their tents and their camels and their goats, they heard the sound in the distance of what felt like failure on their heels.
And though they’d come so far in this journey with God. And though God had been so present to them only hours before, in this moment all seemed lost.
I can imagine the Israelites wanted to run for the closets and call their friends back in Egypt, telling them how scary it was out in the wilderness and that they wanted to come home soon.
They too believed they’d heard God wrong—about all of this deliverance from slavery stuff—and really, really wanted to stop all this nonsense ASAP.
So, they say to Moses in verse 11, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bring us out of Egypt?”
The Israelites weren’t a little afraid but shaking in their boots afraid! And they chose a path beginning to name the worst-case scenario and telling Moses in this moment of crisis that it was all his fault!
When you and I find ourselves in frightening situations like this what do we do?
Some of us choose to run back toward what is familiar, make the conscious choice to stay in the abuse of what is to come—because we don’t think there is anything better for us.
Some of us choose to ignore the situation, letting our minds find comfort in some fantasy world.
Or some of us follow in the example of the Israelites and make a list in our heads of all of the worst what ifs and of course blaming someone else!
But, I wonder what God has to say about this?
Scripture tells us that as the Israelites shared with Moses their concerns, he has a word of encouragement for them from God: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today . . . The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
And here in this declaration of hope we get to the heart of what faith is all about: believing in what is unseen.
Though the Israelites wanted to quit, God says to them, “Well, hold up just a minute. Have some faith in Me! I’ve got this.”
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners tells the story about a trip he took to South Africa in 1987. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Apartied was alive and well.
During his trip, he said, "I met a 14-year-old boy who was, like many, organizing in elementary and high schools [toward social change]. I asked him if he was optimistic for the future and he said, 'Yes.' [Then] I asked him if he thought there would be a new, free South Africa someday, and he stated to me matter-of-factly, 'I shall see to it personally.' ...There is simply no other alternative than for each person to see to it personally."[1
Though we all know in 1994 this boy’s vision became a reality, you can imagine how crazy he sounded in 1987? Reconciliation in South Africa in his lifetime? Release of Nelson Mandela? He had to be kidding, right?
And in the same way, Moses’ words to the Israelites must have sounded similar when he gave them this word of the LORD: “I will fight for you. You only need to stand still.”
For fear would not get the last word. God would. The Israelites just needed to have faith to see this movement of God through.
It’s a very preacherly thing to say, isn’t it? “Have faith.” And you’ll learn to know about me that I really don’t like saying things that most preachers say.
Let me explain. Having faith, I believe is not a snap your fingers and will yourself into having sort of feeling but it is a process.
Faith begins with understanding God rightly. God is not us. God is mystery. God’s ways are never like our own. What we see before our eyes is not all there is in this world—the kingdom of God is bigger we can imagine.
And, the story of God’s work in this world is not about you and me, really. It’s a spiritual story that none of us could attempt to write, even if we wanted to. And it is fueled by power that is altogether not of this world.
And second, faith is not about the absence of fear but not letting fear get the best of us.
Author Madeleine L'Engle was asked, "Do you believe in God without any doubts?" she replied, 'I believe in God with all my doubts.
And we too might always have doubts.
In the case of Israel, Biblical commentator, Gerald Janzen writes beautifully about this kind of faith, which is "the willingness to pick up and carry one's fear in one's bosom like a weaned child and go forward in the direction that trust calls for."
In modern times, it’s like standing on the edge of the high dive board and being scared out of your mind, but still jumping off.
It’s like being asked to sing a solo in church and having sweaty palms and shaky knees, but still getting out the first note.
It’s like being a student missionary, a day’s car ride away from home at age 17 and not quitting the summer internship over love of your mom’s cooking and the security of your own room.
At that moment that day by the Red Sea when Israel was ready to quit, God gave them an invitation to a faith journey.
They weren’t always going to know what was next.
They weren’t always going to be perfectly calm.
They weren’t always going to have “that peace that passes understanding.”
But they could stand there and endure the fear.
They could wait and allow God to do what God could only do.
What follows in the rest of Exodus 14 is one of the most powerful stories of deliverance in all of scripture. The Red Sea opens and the Israelites walk straight through to safety on the other side. The Egyptians chasing them get swallowed up in the waves of the sea, never to hurt them again.
And the same is true for us on a similar faith journey hundreds of years later. We are ALL going to have times in our lives when we want to quit, throw in the
towel on relationships and walk out of meetings because we are so frustrated. Being a so-called “mature” Christian is never going to change this. To be a human being is to know fear—to taste it, to smell it and to know it inside your soul.
But in our walk with the Lord, we don’t have to be bound by our “what if” fears. We can trust in the great power of our God and take comfort in the fact that we don’t understand.
As we stand still, our help is on its way. What my help and your help might be in the situations in our lives that produce the most fear for us, I don’t know.
But this morning I claim to the promise of the old spiritual, which says, “He never failed me. He never failed me yet!”
Thanks be to God.