Monday, September 29, 2008
Is God in This Place or Not? A Sermon on Exodus 17:1-7
Yesterday I preached this with the help of a fabulous liturgist, who not only preached the "Moses" monologue... he ad-libbed great portions of it, making it so. much. better. than what you see here.
God is good.
“Is God In This Place or Not?”
September 28, 2008
Have you ever noticed how different people’s memories can be of the same exact event? I first realized this when I was in my 20’s. I was talking to my mother about my childhood… maybe it was after my son was born, and we were sharing our experiences as mothers of small children. My mom mentioned to me her warm memories of those times when I became frightened in the middle of the night, and crawled into bed with her and my dad. She remembered how she would sing me to sleep.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you!
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
As she told me the story I could see that, for my mom, this was a memory as sweet as any she could conjure about my childhood. Well, I remembered what she was talking about, but I remembered it very differently. I remembered the second verse of the song.
The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken.
So I hung my head and cried.
When my mom sang that to me, I had visions of a faceless man in a trench coat carrying me down the back stairs in a brown paper bag, and stealing me. That song terrified me. Two different people. One incident. Two very different memories.
I thought of that when I read this week’s passage from the book of Exodus. We are in those days, weeks and months after the people of Israel have been led out of slavery, and they are wandering in the wilderness. And things happen there that are interpreted very differently, I believe, by the different people experiencing them.
So I am going to try something a little different today. We are going to offer you two brief monologues. One will be from the perspective of Moses, who is, of course, a major character in the story—he’s the one whom God commissioned to lead the people to freedom. The other monologue will be from the perspective of Adah… a completely fictional character, a creation of my own mind, a young woman who is one of the Israelites. I want us to think together about this incident, as related from these two different points of view.
Sometimes I think I’m too susceptible to flattery. I try to remember that day in the wilderness at Midian, the day when I looked and saw the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. I try to remember what it was that the Lord said to me that was so compelling, so enticing, that I agreed to do this crazy job. I cannot for the life of me remember. I was happy in Midian with my wife and children, tending the sheep of my father-in-law. Now I am miserable in the wilderness tending the Israelites. All I can think is that I was so flattered that the Lord would even speak to me, I must have agreed out of sheer conceit.
So here I am. Following what amounts to weather patterns through the wilderness… clouds in the day time, and fire at night, if you can imagine such a thing … I suppose that’s impressive, the fire. Following these… natural phenomena… and being followed by countless tired, hungry, thirsty, and angry former slaves who expected that freedom would mean that things got better for them, not worse.
What, in heaven or on earth, was I thinking?
I’ll tell you what I was thinking: I was thinking that the Lord would be with me, would be with us. And… I suppose he is, in his own way. But it is not what I expected. Can you understand me? This is not what I expected, this journey from slavery to a better land.
Today they blame me because there is no water. In the desert there is no water! Imagine that! One does not have to be a sage, or an astronomer, to know this… there is no water in the desert! And somehow, today, it is the fault of Moses, the Israelite foolish enough to take on this absurd task of being shepherd and nursemaid to a million souls.
Well. If the Lord is with me, I say, they blame the Lord when they blame me. Today they blamed me because there was no water. They said, “Where is your God?” (Suddenly, it is “my” God). They demanded, “Is God in this place? Or has God abandoned us?” I told them they should tell God their problems directly. And then… their anger grew, and suddenly I was afraid. I looked into the eyes of the people nearest me, and then at the faces of the crowd, as far back as I could see. Their hostility and distress were terrible to see.
Thirst does terrible things to a man. It places visions in his head, and he believes the visions and not the reality around him. It makes him angry enough to kill the one he believes to be responsible for his thirst. It makes his tongue swell up and his body ache with a pain no one should ever know. And this kind of thirst … it kills children, kills them even before we know they are ailing. I looked into the eyes of the Israelites, and I saw all this. And I threw myself on the mercy of the Lord. I feared for my life. I cried out to God for help.
And then, as he so often does… as he does each and every time… the Lord spoke to me. He told me something it’s easy for me to forget… he reminded me to take the elders with me, so that the people would see not just one leader, but many leaders. I needed to be reminded of that. Then, he told me what to do: Strike the rock, he said. And water will flow. And the people will drink and be satisfied. I did, and it did, and they did. It was as the Lord said it would be. Blessed be the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who told me to strike the rock to make water flow, and it was done.
Now it is quiet in the camp. I sit alone, and I can see the pillar of flame settled before us for the night. And I look around at this place… this place of testing and quarreling. That’s what they should call this place… Testing Town, Quarrel City. I am tired. But I have to believe… I have to believe… that the Lord is with me.
It is terrible to hold a baby who is crying for milk… and there is no milk to give. I did not worry when there was no bread, for I thought… the little one can live on milk, bread will come soon enough. But without water… I was not able to feed my baby, for more than a day. She struggled, she screamed terrible, high-pitched screams. That was horrible enough. But what was worse was when she became too weak to scream. That was when I became frightened. That was when my husband, Yakov, stormed out of the tent to take our complaint to the leader, Moses.
All the people know that Moses talks to the Lord, and the Lord talks to Moses… so, we reasoned, why shouldn’t Moses tell the Lord our problem? Why shouldn’t God hear our complaints? I held the little one in my arms, and followed my husband out of the tent. I could see that all the tents were emptying out… we were not the only ones in distress. We could feel the fiery anger that was racing through the crowd… men surged forward, and as they did, many of them stooped to gather rocks from the ground. Some carried their walking staffs as weapons. We women gathered together with the children, murmuring, wondering what would happen. Would there be violence? Would there be bloodshed? Would someone else take over as leader?
Even as we wondered all these things, I think we all knew the futility of such actions. How would another leader find us water, if Moses couldn’t? Moses, who had the very ear of God? Then some of the men began to shout, and their voices were terrible and fierce. I could see Moses at the front, standing on an outcropping of rock in front of the mountain, just slightly elevated so that he could be seen. The mountain itself was shrouded in the familiar covering of cloud that had accompanied us the entire length of our journey. The people said, God was in that cloud.
Moses said nothing… he was like stone, like the mountain, still, listening to the shouting, which was now incoherent. I could see Yakov at the crowd’s edge, turning uncertainly to look at me. Finally the angry voices subsided and there was a sound of sheer silence. Moses surveyed the crowd, still carrying that look of stone on his face. After a long moment he turned his back to us, and lifted his head as if to gaze into the cloud, towards the mountain’s summit. He lifted his arms and cried out in a loud, anguished voice: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
What a shock to us. What an awful moment, to hear the despair of the man who had led us out of slavery. I looked down into the face of my daughter, who was awake but too weak to cry. If I hadn’t been so thirsty myself, I would have wept. The same shudder of sorrow rippled through the people. The men dropped their rocks and lowered their staffs.
Then something happened that sent a chill through me. Moses cocked his head, as if to listen. And quickly, a dozen or so men hurried forward to crowd around him. It was clear they were standing with him… that anyone who wished to stone him would have to get through them first. And then, his shoulders raised in a shrug, and he pulled back his arm, and brought his staff down, with a crack, against the rock of the mountain.
A moment later, there was a great shudder, and bits of stone and debris began to break free. Then we could see it and hear it… a great spring of water, gushing forth… it was life. Life. God truly had brought us to the wilderness for life and not death, for hope and not despair, for joy and not sorrow. All around me people were falling to their knees, and prayers of joy and thanksgiving were issuing from their mouths:
The Lord split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
~Psalm 78: 15-16
We have seen, and we can testify. We have seen the goodness of the Lord; the desert is the land ef the living.
Now my baby sleeps the deep, contented sleep of a baby whose tummy is full. The camp is peaceful. The Lord is with us. God is in this place. We should have known all along.
Thanks be to God. Amen.