Exodus 17
September 25, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

Many of you present have been through the experience of living with an adolescent child or children. Those of you who have not been in the role of parent, may perhaps still be in the role of adolescent. There is frustration and impatience on both sides of that relationship. We can all remember incidents of disobedience, discipline, forgiveness, and contrition. But it never stops with one incident. It continues. We are creatures that do not learn our lessons easily. Some of us need more repetition of those lessons than others. Some, special cases, may learn very quickly. Some may simply be more compliant, while others are more rebellious. Most of us, and them, are filled with contradictions.

Years ago, after being sequestered in his room to work on math homework, one of my sons appeared after fifteen minutes to join me in the den. I said, “Taking a break?” He said, “No.” “Are you already finished?” “No, but I’ve done enough.” As soon as I heard that, I knew that this one was different. The concept of doing “enough” homework had never entered my mind. The truth is, he did grasp the math concept after solving very few problems. But is his case, the quick learning in math did not carry over into all aspects of his life. In fact, I was concerned that in some cases, he might not ever “get it.” But, I was wrong about that also. It has just taken longer than I wanted it to take.

The parallels between God as parent and we, and Israel, as the adolescent children are astounding. In this story from Exodus, sometimes Moses is the frustrated parent who tends to fly into a rage at his unruly, rebellious, and testy children. For the most part, God is the patient, gracious parent. I wonder if they are the models for “good cop, bad cop?”

In our story, the people are on the way. They are moving from a past act of redemption toward the promised goal. But a promise is still a promise and not fulfillment. Just like it is with a maturing child, Israel’s goal is not just a few days or weeks away, but rather months and years into the future. It is difficult to remain focused on the goal when it seems so far ahead. Israel’s testing of God is somewhat akin to the impatient child who keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”

The wilderness journey for Israel is the story of being stuck between promise and fulfillment. Wilderness is no longer just a place but a state of mind. Horeb and Mt. Sinai are in the middle of the journey; the middle of the wilderness. Sinai is the place of life giving water and the source of chaos taming Torah. They come from the same source.

The wilderness, our wilderness, is any place where we find it difficult to separate perception from reality. Our wilderness seems like a God-forsaken place. But it is not. The people may complain, but they are following. This story recognizes that disobedience is always possible. God is leading, but the people may not follow. That is also possible. One instance of obedience does not bring Israel to some magical plateau of obedience where there is never again disobedience.  As long as we are on our journey through the wilderness, we move from one occasion for obedience to another. That is always the way we are in all of our relationships. And the more we live faithfully, the more natural the response of faithfulness becomes, until we reach the place in our relationship where we pass the test of temptation.

I believe what I just said and I believe that what I just said grows out of this story from Exodus. But do you know what I cannot stop thinking about? I cannot stop thinking about how much Moses is like a parish pastor. And I am not so much referring to the part about the congregation “murmuring.” I am thinking about how defensive Moses gets when the people complain and murmur and accuse. God does not get defensive.  When the congregation complains that Moses plans to starve the people in the wilderness. God rains bread on them. When the people complain that Moses intends to kill them, and their children and livestock, by allowing them to die of thirst, God provides a river of living water all the way from Mt. Sinai through the wilderness back to Raphidim.

The congregation of Israel is just like us. The congregation naturally asks, “Is God among us? Is God present?” But the congregation crosses the line when we put God to the test. Testing God, in the Biblical sense, is our attempt to coerce God into visibility on our terms. We want to force God’s hand into being present concretely by making water materialize in the wilderness.  This makes our faith contingent on God’s demonstration. It is our attempt to transform faith into sight. We trade our faith for the old saw, “Seeing is believing.” That one applies to homework, but not to our faith in God.

Growing up in the Presbyterian church, I was given the answers to my childhood questions of faith. But the church also gave me more questions. The faith of the church is big enough to include my doubts and questions. It is the inclusive faith of the church that drives out fear. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is the opposite of faith. That is why over and over again in the Bible we hear these familiar words, “Fear not.” “Fear not, for lo, I am with you always.”

Living faithfully has much more to do with trust than certainty. I trust God to be God even when I am not sure who God is and where God is. I trust God to sustain me and this church even when I do not know for sure how that will happen. I trust God to hold me and this church without one shred of evidence that it will be so.

When we gather in this place on Sundays, we can feel the presence of God within us and among us. Frankly, I think it is easy to be faithful in here. I am surrounded by all of you faithful people and it feels like the thing to be. I hope and pray that it feels that way to you, because it is when we step out of the light of this place into the darkness of the wilderness that living faithfully becomes a challenge. And do not be fooled. Do not be naive. It is a wilderness out there. There are dragons and monster out there that can eat you or tear you apart. The world is a frightening place. That is one reason we call this place sanctuary, because we are safe in here. The world is a frightening place but there is also a great deal of goodness out there.  There are other people out there who “do justice and love kindness.” There are also people outside the church who have been treated badly by the church.

But we cannot stay in here. We cannot stay in the womb of mother church forever. If we are to live our faith, it must be outside of these walls, because the world is dying for the experience of God’ love that we have. If our faith means anything, it means the most outside of these walls.

When I talk about this church growing, it is not because I want our budget to be bigger in order to give more money away through our missions or to pay the staff more. My vision for the growth of this church is through our efforts to share the love of Christ with others. So, perhaps I owe you an apology. I think that my talk about growth and change may be frightening for you. Or, perhaps, you hear it as criticism of what has happened before me. Let me make this as clear as I can: I am not interested in First Presbyterian Church being a bigger church simply for the sake of bigger numbers. I believe that God is calling us to reach out to this community. We are surrounded by a wilderness. There are individuals and families in this wilderness that need us. It is not about being bigger. It is about being a better church.

I truly believe that God wants to use us just like God used Joshua and Moses. When the congregation complains, God shows them that the very things they claim to be dying for, are those very things that are already available. The water is already in the mountain. The manna is there on the ground. The strength of Joshua as the next leader of the congregation is already there. God’s gifts of food and water in the wilderness are providential acts that sustain the congregation through hardship. But they are more than that, they are acts of creation and re-creation. They are acts that lead to the transformation of these people into a worshiping congregation. The hidden water and prior-to-invisible-manna rise to the awareness of the congregation through God’s gracious action.

Just as in the Genesis story of creation, God does not create out of nothing. Rather God creates by bringing order to the chaos. Living faithfully in the wilderness brings order to our chaotic lives.

God could have directly intervened with the Amalekites, but chose a more patient path. The defeat of the Amalekites could have been accomplished with a divine snap of the fingers, but it was not. It will take God generations to accomplish the goal of a faithful congregation. God chooses to work through not always dependable people.    

This is not my church. This is God’s church. Our purpose and our goal is to discover what God wants for us. Maybe it is not what I think. I covenant with you to keep praying about the future of this church. I covenant with you to pray for a vision of shared ministry in this community.

I believe that you are a short step away from greatness as a congregation. I trust this congregation to figure out what that step is and to faithfully take it. I have never been more humbled than by the fact that you invite me to be a part of this ministry.

My prayer is for God to continue to bless you with the presence of the Holy Spirit as together you discern your future.   

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