Is the Lord Among Us Or Not? ~ Exodus 17:1-17
Listen to the entire worship service online. The sermon by Rev. Dr. John C. Lentz Is the Lord Among Us Or Not? begins around 20 minutes in.
This morning, we are continuing the story of the Exodus. If you are 11 years old or younger I have a question for you – what is the Exodus? Yes, liberated from slavery in Egypt, the children of Israel are in the desert heading towards Mount Sinai. What happened on Mount Sinai? Yes, they received the Ten Commandments! But in between liberation and formation…
What hit me this week as I was studying the text was the very real problem facing the people: they had no water. And you and I know that a human can live without food for a while but without water you can die in three days or less. The fast food store Rally reminds us “You Gotta Eat!” but even more important is you “Gotta Drink!” – and I don’t mean sugary sodas, juices or alcohol – I mean water.
Remember the children of Israel are in the Negev desert, one of the most inhospitable places in the entire world.
It is true, the narrative we have been reading is critical of the people’s complaining and their lack of trust in God who always seems to deliver and provide: God got them through the Red Sea. God provided quail and manna.
Today though, I am going to be on the people’s side in this. Because they are facing life and death – there is no water in a wilderness of danger.
Sometimes the complaint of the people play into a stereotype of Jewish hard-heartedness that Christians have lifted up for centuries and it is something that we have to be very careful of.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” That is the theological question that the Jews raise to Moses. It is the theological question that lingers across the ages.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” It was the theological question raised in the Nazi concentration camps.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” I dare say it is the theological question that is foremost on my mind when I consider the Rohinga refugees being forced out of Myanmar – some have called it genocide.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” It is the theological question that stirs the stagnant waters in Puerto Rico where people are facing months of hardship.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” In Haiti where there is very little clean water available, and in many African countries suffering drought.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” It is the question of those who can’t find a job and live in poverty and violence.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?| Frankly it is the theological question that hovers over our divided nation today, as we watch wedge issues being driven between races and cultures and regions and we have lost all civility and the very nature of our democracy is being driven on the rocks of ideological nastiness.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” That is the question that maybe some of you are asking as you wander in the wilderness of suffering and sickness, facing death, making choices, losing jobs – just feeling overwhelmed.
And let’s be honest – it has never really helped to hear the words “Well, God will provide, or God has provided” when you have no food or the diagnoses is bad.
It really doesn’t help to say, “Remember two years ago when you got out of the jam,” when you are in the midst of another one.
It doesn’t really help even to say, “Well, just last week, God sent manna and quail,” when you don’t have rent money or you live paycheck to paycheck.
And it really doesn’t help to hear, “Well, you must be doing something wrong, or God is punishing you, or God pushed the hurricane towards Puerto Rico and away from Cuba.”
Words become empty and do more damage to faith than stunned silence in the face of suffering. Sometimes a complaint is more faithful than platitudes.
We read that the place where the water finally did appear was named Massah and Meribah because “the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord.”
I feel like I am living in Massah and Meribah right now.
But here is at least one potential answer to the theological question “Is the Lord present among us or not?”
The Lord will be present among us when we, the people who call upon God’s name, do something.
Have you noticed the verbs (the action words) that keep popping up in the stories we have read?
Back at the Red Sea with the Egyptians closing in, in chapter 14, Moses goes to God and says “What now?” And God says something very important. “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!”
In Chapter 16 when the Israelites have no food, God says, “Go collect the quail and manna.”
And today we read: “Take leaders and go strike the rock!” There is no water unless you make it happen or at least participate in some action.
It reminds me of the person who prayed to God “Just let me win the lottery!” And God said: “Well, go buy a ticket!”
Go, Move, Strike, Collect, Cry Out, Speak, Rise up, Give, Live, Share. This is the vocabulary of faith.
Now this is important – the gift of God’s presence is always revealed in human participation. God’s power will be revealed as we move toward our highest aspirations.
There is no Jesus without Mary giving birth. There is no salvation without Jesus sacrificing his life for love.
God doesn’t act unless we become the body of Christ; we become the hands and feet of God. We become the agents of God’s presence, and power, and mercy.
If we don’t do it, it may not get done!
If we don’t welcome Leonor, how is God going to help her?
If we don’t risk moving into the difficult discussion about race, how are we supposed to get over the troubled waters?
If we don’t join together with other churches in GCC, who is going to hold public officials accountable to equity for all citizens?
If we don’t do something about climate change, how will God save the earth?
We have the power. We have the science. We simply choose the false gods of ignorance and false priorities.
We have the power to bring health care to all citizens, but we run around in the wilderness of foolishness.
How is someone who is bed ridden to know of the love and presence of God if you and I don’t visit, or write a card, or make a phone call, or make a meal?
God in God’s infinite wisdom (which I cannot fathom) has entered into a covenant with you and with me – a covenant, a relational deal of mutual trust – and the deal is this, we will discover as much of God as we are willing to put ourselves out there for God.
I remember my mother, who was a philosophy Phi Beta Kappa, sharing with us kids about the dilemma that was raised in one of her classes: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?”
There is something you can talk about over lunch!!
But my theological point is this: how will people know that there is water in the rock, if we don’t strike it? How will people know that God is love, that God is alive, that God is on the side of the oppressed or gives a darn, that God provides – unless you and I, in community, love, and are lively, and stand with the weak, and provide and sacrifice and witness.
We are called to be witnesses, not lawyers or judges (in all respect to lawyers and judges!) Our witness in action is what makes God alive to this world.
“Is the Lord present among us or not?” Only if you and I witness to the Lord’s presence and take risks and strike rocks and shake things up and move in the direction of grace to the table to partake of Christ’s body and blood.
The tasks ahead of us are never as great as the power behind us if we open ourselves to the power of the Almighty in community and move and do, and be and show this world that there is water in a rock, and manna to be collected, and a sea to be parted and a nation to be healed.
God is waiting. And once we move, the great momentum of God moves with us – for God has given us direction, and made promises known, and shown the breadth and depth of the divine love in Jesus Christ.
So be it! Do it! Live it!