Sunday, September 25, 2011

Water When You Need It

Exodus 17: 1-7
Moses Stikes Rock by Marc Chagall
“Strike the rock, and water will come out if it, so that the people may drink.”

We are sojourning in the Book of Exodus from the Hebrew Bible for a few weeks.  Exodus is about two very formative stories of the people of Israel.  In the first story in Exodus we hear about Moses parting the Red Sea and bringing the people of Israel out of the slavery and oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh.  The second story in the Book of Exodus is about their desert wanderings and the happenings on and around Mount Sinai where God gives to them the means for becoming a monotheistic, ethical society through the Ten Commandments. 

But we are not there yet.  We followed them out of Egypt into the blistering sun of the Sinai hungry for food.  We heard their bitter complaints to Moses about being hungry and God gave them manna in spite of their complaining.  It is no wonder now, that, after all that manna they are thirsty.  Hear now our scripture from the 17th chapter of Exodus. 

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’

So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘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. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Perhaps that’s a question we all have uttered at least once in our lifetime.  “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Or it might sound like, ‘where are you God when I need you the most?’, or ‘God has abandoned me, left me here to fend for myself’, maybe it might even sound like, ‘God are you listening?...are you with me?’  We always want to know that God is among us guiding us and leading us but, you know, there are times when it feels as if God is silent and the more words that we manage to hurl at God the louder the silence becomes.  We too wonder, ‘is the Lord among us or not’.  It’s an age old question that especially lurks in the arid moments of our lives.

Wandering in the wilderness of Sin now made the people of Israel thirsty especially after all of that manna.  They’re not long on memory here; they have already forgotten that God provided food for their hunger.  Now the thirst.  Makes sense.  Roving in the desert would make anyone thirsty especially if you have no bottled water, no canteens, no convenient open all night, 7/11 oasis on the horizon.  So the kevetching begins again.  They complain bitterly to Moses; they thought it better to have stayed in Egypt as slaves although really, they didn’t like that either.

Moses was clearly exasperated.  I’m sure God was too at this point.  The people sound like broken records.  Moses gets a little testy, ‘why do you quarrel with me and why do you test the Lord?’  He entreats the Lord for help, ‘what shall I do with these complainers, they are ready to stone me?’  His complaining, of course is just as loud as the people.  He struggles too with the lack of sustenance and God’s silence and perhaps even his trust that God knows what the plan is.

But the Lord had compassion, or pity or both and tells Moses to pick up his staff, the same staff that parted the waters, Moses was not too long on memory either. Pick up your staff and take a few of the elders and go over to this rock of Horeb.  I’ll be in front of you. I think we forget that amid the all of the complaining God is reassuring and says that the divine presence is right before them. 

And God delivers through a rock of all things, water to quench their thirst and to soothe their weary souls.  This has got to be the most unlikely place where you think they would find drink. 

A rock!  God delivers, God is to be trusted in the most difficult of circumstances.  And, to top it off, God delivers through a very unlikely source.  This is the miracle of God’s love that help and healing will come, that God has not abandoned us and that God has a playful and creative nature and will use the materials and peole at hand to provide for us. We see a lot of important things happened to the people of Israel in the desert and there are many good lessons for us.

When we utter the question, ‘where are you God’ we probably shouldn’t throw our hands up and walk away in disbelief.  Because God always does deliver.  It just may not be in a way that we recognize so quickly so be ready!  A parched life, void of sustinance, has a way that can narrow our vision towards blindness.  It just does.  You begin to see the glass as half empty rather that half full. 

When parched, creative possibility takes a nose dive far away from the quotidian patterns of life which renders us thirsting for answer, thirsting to be quenched, thirsting for God’s fulfillment, thirsting for water even if it comes from a rock.  But we can’t let that happen!

Water from a rock!  Imagine all of the possibilities that could exist for healing in your life if you could envision or accept the possibility that God could provide for you in the least likely places just like God did for the Israelites.  All you have to do is to be open, live with your arms outstretched rather than crossed in front of you.  Live with a colorful palette before you rather than solely a charcoal pencil.

It was Walter Brueggeman, theologian and scholar who said in his book “Finally Comes the Poet”, “Live always at the edge of creative possibility even in the face of serious prose”.  Life  always has enough serious prose, there is plenty of that to go around.  Our challenge here, that we learn from this passage, is that life can also be lived envisioning an alternative way, a creative way, a water from a rock when you need it, sort of way.  This, is of course, who Christ is too.  In the face of our personal oppression living water springs out of a manger to save and to heal and to soothe our souls.   

Moses Striking the Rock by He Qi
Life in the Spirit is to be open to the myriad of ways in which God can satisfy our hunger and satiate our thirst.  If God can bring water from a rock, then surely God can do anything. 

Rev. Suzanne Wagner

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Raining Bread

Exodus 16:2-15

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”  v. 4

I did not spend much time in last week’s sermon with the story of Moses leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt because I knew that this week it would serve as the context for our scripture.  We are spending just a couple of Sunday’s in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the book of Exodus which is rich with images of people and the patriarchs and how the Israelites struggled to become a cohesive tribal nation after the ravages of slavery and bondage under the rule of Pharaoh.  The scripture today shows us the ‘inbetween’ time of the Israelites from slavery to freedom.  The interim time was not easy as we will see, but they made it through with God’s help.

Finally, ‘let my people go’ becomes a reality.  Moses high tales it out of Egypt with the people of Israel but not without drama and hot pursuit.  Pharaoh, once realizing that he let all of his slaves go, reneges on his promise, he changes his mind.  This means only bad things for the Israelites.  Pharaoh mounts his chariot and all of the other army officers mount their chariots and take off after the Israelites. 

God protected them though.  God was with them in a pillar of cloud by day and by night.  But they still doubted, they still were afraid and they yelled at Moses while Pharaoh and his warriors were rapidly approaching.  “Moses, have you taken us out of Egypt to die?  What are you thinking?  Let us alone, we want the good old days back to serve the Egyptians, we were so much better off then than now”. 
Moses by Marc Chagall
Moses was firm though and he stretched out his hand above the Red Sea and the water parted and dry land appeared.  No more time to complain.  Across they went still followed by the Egyptians. But the wheels of the chariots got stuck and they sank in the mud.  You might say this was a divine plot for their salvation.  And when the Israelites were on safe land Moses stretched out his hand again and the waters returned gushing over the trapped Egyptians.  Not one remained alive.

God the merciful heard the Israelites cries of injustice and liberated them for a new life.  And yes, God dealt with evil, oppressive powers, as scholar Miroslav Volf says, ‘not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves’[i], that is saving grace.  Perhaps we do not want to hear about our God in that way but something needed to be done to liberate the Israelites from their suffering and injustice.  God delivers them for a particular purpose, just what that purpose was though they didn’t know.       

For 430 years they had been enslaved by Pharaoh.  That’s one heck of a long time, approximately 14 or 15 generations worth of slaves.  They probably had gotten used to Egyptian ways, Egyptian food, Egyptian fashion, Egyptian idol worship to life as slaves. It is no wonder that once liberated, and in the wilderness left to their own devices, that they panic. 

It reminds me of the movie Shawshank Redemption, in my opinion one of the better movies ever filmed.  The character Brooks.  He’s finally released after a lifetime in Shawshank Prison.  You think it would have been a joyous time for him but he was old and had gotten so used to life behind bars that he could not function in the outside world.  He had changed, life and times had changed.  It was a major disorientation in his life and sadly, he did not make it in the outside world.  People get used to their surroundings and situations. 
Brooks - Shawshank Redemption
But the Israelites had a real chance here.  Even though they didn’t go from slavery and oppression to the land of milk and honey they had someone who would lead them during the in between time.  Wouldn’t that have been just grand to go from slavery to freedom?  No they spent a fare amount of time in the wilderness – 40 years or so in reality.  Tensions mount as they look back longingly and toward the future anxiously.  But they just weren’t there yet.

They were stuck in the wilderness of Sin, the hot, desolate, sandy, and repressively sunny Sinai.  It’s a place where ‘not a cloud in the sky’ does not mean some idyllic day but means the rays of heat from the sun pelt down upon you like razor blades slicing your already crusted skin. To this day it’s relentless.  Everywhere you turn the horizon looks the same.   
 Mt Sinai
They begin to kevetch.  Kevetch, kevetch, kevetch.  Complain, complain, complain, in Yiddish.  Moses, we are hungry.  Moses, we are thirsty.  Moses, we are hot and our skin is burning.  Moses, where are you taking us?  They were in a ‘zone of bereftness’ as Walter Bruggeman puts it.  They were in between knowing and unknowing, between one certainty and the next certainty. 

When you are in that zone of bereftness or the wilderness you feel anxious, deprived, with a sense of scarcity rather than abundance.  They were feeling a real sense of loss and familiarity.  For them while the old way was pretty bad, but at least they knew what to expect.  These times test your faith in God’s benevolence and omniscience.  It can rock your understanding of normality. 

Wouldn’t it have been nice if they had gone from generations of slavery, oppression and refugee status to the land of milk and honey across the Jordan?  That they didn’t have to take a very long detour around in the Sinai for 40 years.  We often want to skip right over the unpleasant nights of uncertainty or those parts of the terrain that are not flat and smooth. But where would there be an opportunity for learning?  For introspection?  For reevaluating, for getting in touch with their own customs and values again or for figuring out who they were and who their God was that they could trust?

I bet that some of you have had those wilderness experiences where you wonder what in the world the purpose is for your wandering.  Maybe you are just waiting for your next direction to appear and although you would not call it the wilderness it is a place of ambiguity and questioning. 

I too, had been there wrestling with God about why and why not, about when or how long.  I ended my last interim position in February.  February to August is a very long time without direction as to what’s exactly next.  Opportunities came but not all opportunities are the right opportunities.  While this time did not corrode my faith it did take it to a different level.  I had to go to a deeper level in my trust of God that things will work out, that there will be a place for me in ministry, that this time was an occasion for me to connect again with friends and the things I like to do.  It was a time to come to God on my knees, stop complaining and accept the manna that God rained down and the way in which it was provided to me.  And it sustained me.

There was a purpose for the Israelites wilderness experience that only God could see and envision.  Whatever the reason was, their exodus was not complete until all things were made ready for them.  And during that time God rained down life sustaining manna.  Perhaps Jesus had this story of the exodus of his people in mind from his Jewish tradition when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes for the hungry people that day on the side of the mountain, or when he taught his disciples to pray, ‘give us this day our daily bread’.  Daily manna is all you need and it will be deliciously abundant and grace filled.

You are a people of God and you too will be given manna during this interim time, it will rain bread until it fills your quest for the love of Christ and for the next chapter in your story.  It will be the manna of hope, of life, the manna of discernment, of living that will sustain you.  It will be the manna of ministry and love.  And one day you will not question this interim time.  You will not ask how will God provide for us you, will be able to say with absolute resolve, ‘we can witness how God provided for us and God can do it for you too’.  This is what faith and witness and our lives together  is all about.


[i] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 297-98.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Of Remembering

Exodus 14: 19-31
9/11 Memorial
Within days, maybe even within hours of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, makeshift memorials began to appear.  A flag here, a bouquet there, a roadside box sheltering a candle, a flag tacked on a board with the words, “We Remember” boldly painted on it.  Even at Ground Zero a massive, charred fire engine became a memorial with flowers and flags adorning the once clear and shiny windshield.  Words of remembrance and the names of fallen firefighters were written in the pulverized concrete and ashes that covered the vehicle. 

And at Bellevue Hospital, the Wall of Hope spontaneously grew with name after name and photo after photo of missing loved ones; how reminiscent this makeshift memorial was of the Viet Nam Veterans War Memorial.  Like “The Wall”, people came to see and honor those who were missing and eventually were pronounced dead.  And while the rubble still smoldered it became a place where people came and wept and prayed.  It became a sanctuary of comfort and peace for some, a place to be near their loved one.  And to grieve the unthinkable.

Today at Ground Zero the 9/11 Memorial is being dedicated with families in attendance of the men and women who died at the World Trade Center, Shanksville, PA or the Pentagon.  Tomorrow, 9/12 it will be open to the public.  This approximately 8 acres, is hallowed ground because Ground Zero is a place where blood was shed, dreams vanquished, and families severed at the hands of a few.    

Memorials are a story of a people.  In the US they tell stories of perseverance, triumph and renewal of the tenets of democracy, and they are places of reconciliation. They are also a place of rebuilding and hope because we are the sole witnesses to tell the story of life and death, of surprise and horror, of the worst of humanity and the best of humanity and memorials are our books.

A person stands on a sacred threshold at a memorial, it is the convergence of remembering the past, engaging the present and then re-membering or re-configuring the future.

At the threshold people work through feelings of fear, shock, horror, anger, grief and loss, pride, reconciliation, and national identity.  Today particularly we remember that our lives had been dismantled; our ethics, and theological understanding had been tested and stretched.

We are a people built upon remembering
As Christians our present is built upon the past, of remembering promises made to Abraham and Sarah, of remembering how God brought the people of Israel out of bondage.  Our scripture today reminds us that God protected the Israelites with a pillar of cloud in front of them and behind them.  It reminds us that God provided a leader who was up to the task of stretching out his hand to part the waters for them and it reminds us that God gave them dry land to walk toward their future when they were in hot pursuit by their enemies.    

We also remember the night in which Jesus was betrayed, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the saving grace of God because it is here that we can rebuild our lives and find comfort and salvation in the words, “We Remember.”  In remembering how God saved others before us we are saved from destruction and are given the light by which to see the future.  Our Christian heritage is rich with sacred symbols that we can draw on and interpret the suffering and hope of our common humanity; of which we can interpret the loss of life on 9/11.

Memory is import
Memory is important.  It grounds us in the reality of our living that each day is built upon the former day, both the mistakes we have made and the good things that we have done.  Memory helps us to know where we have come from and where we have been so that we, with the totality of our experiences, can step into the future.  9/11 is important to lift up because through it we see and experience the loving grace of God and the way in which God had a hand in the salvation of humanity at that given time and place.  God was with us and helped up sort through the rubble of our lives.

Today, both collectively and individually we know the significance of the attacks and the impact that it has made upon us.  Some of us know more than others if we lost someone we loved when the towers crumbled.  We know that war followed and many more lives were sacrificed.  We know that there are people who still hurt because they re-live the tragedy and the post stress of the trauma each day of their lives.  We know that many more young people need education about 9/11 because for them it wasn’t a part of their lives but is a legacy in their lives.  We know that God was with us then and God is certainly with us now. 

Beyond Memory
On September 11 we saw the worst that humanity can produce and the best of what humanity can offer.  Hatred, prejudice, alienation, contempt, revenge were all present on 9/11.  But also, there was bravery, courage, love, moral character and a willingness to help and save were present too.  Not only were they present, they had the final say over this evil atrocity.  Each and every action we take has a consequence, our choices can destroy or lift up and we know that the goodness of people is much greater than the evil that exists.  God enabled people to see good then and will help us vision a world of goodness and peace.  We are a people of hope. 

So what is our work today, 10 years later?

Our job today
Our work today is to remember.  We remember the people whose deaths came prematurely and tragically and we remember their families who mourn their passing.  We remember also that there were people who acted quickly, boldly, bravely and decently, who reached out to their fellow human being in love. 

Our work today is to know and believe that God was with us on September 11, 2001.  God has never forgotten us or ignored us but was there in the planes, in the towers and pentagon, in the rubble, in the lives that were thrown into despair and hopelessness.  God was there receiving these lives into peace. 

Our work today is to witness.  It is to tell their stories and our collective story of tragedy and deliverance by a God who loves us.  It is to witness the love of God because the events of 9/11, ten years later has become part of our salvation story.

Our work today is to affirm the precious life and relationships we have and to love, to foregive, to accept that we are God’s beleoved.
Written into the mission statement of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero is a benediction that I’ll share with you. 

“May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance.”[i]

Our work is to step into the future with God in our hearts, hope in our very being, justice on our lips, and the knowledge that their lives will be remembered and inform ours for many years to come.

[i] 9/11 Memorial Website,

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Morning People

Romans 13: 8-14

Sunrise over Darajat, a Bedouin village in the Negev, Israel

The Apostle Paul is one of the more outspoken people in the New Testament.  I love his verbosity, his hyperbole and most of all I love his deep passion for Jesus.  I don’t always like what he has to say but I do believe that if each one of us possessed a fraction of his love and tenacity for the Gospel Christianity might look a whole lot different than it does now.  Perhaps even our living might appear differently.

Paul talks of love, let love be your only debt.  This love that he talks about though is a response to the earlier verses where he tells the Christian community, both Jewish and Gentile Christians to obey the rules of civil society.  Which I’m sure was no easy task considering it was the Roman Empire whose rulers they were to obey along with their taxation system and edicts. 

With rulers such as Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and particularly Nero, the one ‘in charge’ when Paul lived, the commoner didn’t have much of a chance for self-determination.  His social class dictated the level of squalor that he lived in.    

Yet Paul still says to them, you must pay your taxes.  You know like Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is due Caesar.” (Mark 12:17)  Some things never change do they?  No matter how ‘good’ we are, no matter what higher ethical choices we make, no matter how many times we go to church or pray to God in the end, come April 15th,  we still have taxes that we owe.  Like it or not that’s part of the deal for being a citizen, both in the Roman Empire and now to good old Uncle Sam.

Although Paul urged them to show respect to civil authority they needn’t be passive and here is where the love comes in.  He jumps from talking about tax returns to love. They are to love others as much as they love themselves.  Translated that means to do no harm to another person in fact help that person, to be faithful in your marriage in all ways, to be honest and truthful with yourself, with God and with others, it means to be the compassionate face of Christ, and to be happy with what you have. 

Paul’s love is not syrupy, romantic or passive.  You won’t find Paul’s love being painted across a Hallmark card.  You’re more likely to find it on the face of a stranger who knocks at your door, or at your workplace when your colleague receives her pink slip, or on the soccer field when your child is tripped by another less than fair player.  Because when we are least likely to want to love is when we are called upon to love the most.  It is hard work to love as Paul tells them to love. 

Paul talks of love within constraints of the Roman Empire.  We too must think of love within the constraints of the ‘Roman Empires’ in our time, our living because there are plenty of limitations lashed upon us.  There are so many ways in which our lives are clearly not our own and the circumstances that we find ourselves in are nothing of our doing.

I am glad that August is over.  How about you?  I mean it is sort of a mixed bag because usually the end of summer brings melancholy and a sort of ‘hunkerin’ down feeling because we know that all to well the winter months will drag on and on.  This year though, August has brought us concerns of other proportions which is why I’m glad it’s over.

There are concerns of financial security when the stock market took a serious dive bringing anxiety and fear to those who are invested and those people who live on a fixed income.  And the job report that was just announced on Friday casts a pall to the tune of 9.1% unemployment with no new jobs created.    

August brought us physical concerns.  Concerns for our safety.  The earthquake sounded a newfound alarm in something that really, we had not given too much thought to in the past.  That unusual rocking and rattling reminds us of the impermanence of our reality, that at any time, our world can be shaken and our possessions broken to smithereens.

And just seven days ago hurricane Irene unlashed her furry on our communities.  Some of us may still be without power.  It’s been one troublesome event after another this August.  We might feel like we have thrown into the arena to fight the gladiators of Rome. 

How do we live within the empire of our day?  How do we contend with those overriding factors that are out of our control and that impact us in ways that we don’t want or never could have dreamed of?  How do we love as Christ loved when we are in need of loving ourselves?

If Paul were here now he would say to us the same thing as he said to the first century Christians.  “Wake up, get dressed. There’s a whole lot of lovin’ to do.  The night is over get yourself out of your bed of self-pity!

Being morning people means that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to see by the new light of day.  ‘Morning is broken, like the first morning’ of creation that we world ever saw.  Unblemished.  Perfect.  Beautiful.  Before anyone else we can see a way out, or a way through distressing times because that is what living in the care and concern and love of Christ means.  We know that resurrection can happen and it does with each new day we are resurrected to love and be loved.  We are morning people.
Easter Sunrise over the Jordan River Valley and the Jordanian Mountains taken from on top of the Mount of Olives.

We have been chosen to live a different way of seeing and enacting the law of love and compassion especially when the hounds of the empires begin to howl.

God is for us, not against us.  God will show us how to actively engage in loving and rebuilding.  God will love us just because.  It was the Apostle Paul who said, ‘all you need is love’, not the Beatles.

And yes, we will still have to pay our taxes. 

Amen and Amen!
Sunrise over the mountains of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aqaba, taken from the Sinai, Egypt.