Sermon at minute 21:20 on this YouTube recording Or read it below.
Sermon Proper 21 Year A Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Sept. 27th 2020
So Moses struck the rock, and water came out of it, that the people could drink.” And he called the place Massah and Meribah, which means “Strife,” because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
We cannot fault the Hebrew people for grumbling, again. Yes, last week I pointed out this tendency of God’s people to complain, but the truth is, it’s not fair to criticize their grumbling.
These former slaves escaped from a part of Egypt that never wanted for water. I’m sure they had to draw the water themselves, it didn’t come from a tap; yet, fed by the Nile River, in the land they knew, water was aplenty. Now, they find themselves walking through a desert, parched, beaten by the sun, and tired beyond words. Their throats are dry.
We must realize the dramatic change in these people’s circumstances. They left homes and now have no bearings; they know not who will die next or where they’ll find shelter from the sun. They are free, but their first taste of freedom is bitter.
I had a lightbulb moment in seminary—you know, one of those times when you see something clearly for the first time and you say to yourself—duh! Why didn’t I know this before now? Part of this is enlightenment is due to my good friend Elmore Torbert, who sat beside me in class my junior year. Elmore and I were two of the older members of the class. With 26 students in our class, 13 under the age of 30, it didn’t take much to be older.
Still, Elmore and I were much closer to the age of our classmates’ parents, and while he and I shared similar experiences because of the decades in which we lived, our lives, Elmore’s and my lives, are very different. He is black and I am white.
He is male and I am female. He was widowed and I am married. He is Baptist and I am Episcopalian.
I could go on—but you get the picture.
I am dearly grateful to know my friend, Pastor Torbert.
He’s wise in ways I’ll never be and funny in ways I don’t dare to be. We shared three years of study with a wonderful group of people and together we all grew up.
Even the names of Elmore’s and my birthplaces bespeak the different aspects of our lives.
I was born in Silver Spring MD, a town named after its sparkling source of water, a spring flowing through mica just up from the nation’s capital. Elmore was born in Flint MI, a town named after a nearby river’s rocky bed and now forever remembered for its horrific water crisis.
Elmore and I are both washed in the waters of Christ’s baptism and ordained to serve God’s people, and yet the way the world looks at each of us and the way we experience the world is distinctively different.
This difference was not my lightbulb moment.
I was not surprised he’d experienced hatefulness in a way I never have.
I was not surprised that he and I had diverging understandings of theology.
What caught me unaware was how much our experience of the world shaped the way we read and understand the bible. I realized how authentic each of our readings are, not in spite of our differences but because of them, if we’ll hear one another’s perspective. The story of the Exodus is number one case in point.
When I was a child my parents loved to play the music of the Exodus; it was a record of ours; yes, a record, an LP; my dad would turn on the record player, ours looked like an old gramophone with the big black bell for a speaker but it was electric. The crank handle on the side actually tuned the radio.
My dad’s favorite record was the theme to Exodus. The music is instrumental, waning eerie at times and booming loudly dramatic at others. As a child, the music was not to my taste, but we had to listen to it, often.
So the Exodus story for me took on those characteristics: strange and dangerous and climactic—a far-away story from a scary time.
As I grew up and learned the significance of this story to the Hebrew people, I came to understand that the Exodus is THE defining story of the Jewish people. The book of Exodus tells of the spiritual birth of Israel as a nation— in the story God’s people move from enslavement to liberation, from band of wandering newly freed people to a covenant community of God, bound together by law.
I’ve read Exodus historically, you might say, as a continuation of the story of Genesis. Exodus is part of the framework of the Jewish faith out of which Christianity came; Thus, it informs us as to who we are. The way I understood Exodus was good and right. Yet, there is much more to this story, and this I saw for the first time in meeting my friend Elmore.
Like watching my own father tear up in listening to the music of the Exodus, my lightbulb moment was realizing how intimately Elmore and the descendants of those who suffered under slavery in America identify with the Exodus story.
In this Judeo-Christian story, we hear how God spoke out clearly against slavery, and led his people out of bondage and into the promised land, giving them land on which to live. A Land flowing with milk and honey—a land with water. When you’ve heard the stories of your own great-grandfather being ripped away from his mother as a young boy, and whipped and chained, and when you’ve learned how your great-grandmother was taken as a child from her own mother’s arms to be sold, and when later she fled to the north she was still treated as second class, but at least she was free, you hear the story of the people wandering in the wilderness differently. Their first taste of freedom was bitter.
The faithful songs of these people’s experience bring tears to my eyes.
“Wade in the water”
Wade in the Water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
Who are those children all dressed in Red?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Look over yonder, what do you see?
God’s going to trouble the water
The Holy Ghost a-coming on me
God’s going to trouble the water
In my life, I’ve learned more from people who differ from me than those with whom I find myself in common. The trouble is, how often do I give myself this chance?
Do I give myself the opportunity to listen to folks whose lives are so very different from my own? Or do I selfishly, unconsciously, or just busily attend to my own life, justifying that God asks only that we responsibly make our way in this world ? What is our responsibility as the people of God—as followers of the Way?
The Hebrew people cried out. Water, they cried, just about out of hope. Is the Lord with us or not? Moses struck the rock, as God commanded, and water came forth so the people could drink. They still had years to go in the wilderness. Yet, God heard them. God was with them, even in the wilderness.
That time of “Strife,” Meribah, is what defined the Hebrew people; experiencing that liminal time in the wilderness, the Hebrews were formed into a faithful people. They didn’t lose all hope, they didn’t lay down and say what’s the difference anyway, “we’re doomed.” They looked to God and cried out, willing to be pushed to their limits, and they persevered.
My friend Elmore taught me, deliverance comes, yes, but not in being removed from the wilderness. Water comes forth from the rock, as manna and quail did in the middle of the desert; true and Godly sustenance comes from where only sand and rocks are seen. The lesson here is not “just trust in God and God will provide.” The lesson is that we have to drink from the rock, ready to push on through this precarious existence, and be willing to be molded as the people of God, in the most difficult of times.
God provides a sanctuary there in the wilderness.
It is not easy for us to see it because our lives are not just busy, but relatively easy; we live in the lush green hills of Alabama and hardly experience strife in this way— we live by our own Nile, the TN river, watering our lawns, and we are never really thirsty. We drink from plastic bottled water, for heaven’s sake. Yet now perhaps, now in experiencing all the consequences of this viral health crisis, in feeling the country’s division and unrest unsettle us, in seeing around us drug use escalate and fires consume the land, while it is in no way comparable the long trials and desert experience of the Hebrews, perhaps what we’re experiencing, will shift us to feel some unease, and we too will know what it means to drink from the rock.
The great OT theologian Walter Bruggemann says, the time we are going through is a summons to faith. Bruggemann is 87 years old, still working furiously. Thanks be to God! He’s just written another book this year!
His lifetime of work has helped Christians like me find relevance in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, in stories like this one from Exodus. Brueggemann teaches how abundant wealth and security, that which we experience, naturally leads to fear rather than to faith. With abundance, we fear the possibility of scarcity and, therefore, we invest our energy in serving our private interests; we forget that we are called by God to work towards the common good.
This time of wilderness is not without benefits. The people of God had to learn to be God’s people and so do we. They failed numerous times and so do we, but our God will not quit. God calls to us time and again.
Our job is not to forsake our lives but to hold fast to our faith, to hear the stories of God’s people—all of God’s people. The memory of thirst in the desert is important because it opens our eyes. In our willingness to see life through the experience of others, we can stand in solidarity with people who thirst—literally and figuratively, thirst. We can learn to be God’s beloved, not fearful, but generous, faithful people.
Thanks be to God.