Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

"Wandering and Wondering"

Rev. Dr. Scott Landis

Exodus 17:1-7

If you listened closely to the passage Ellen just read of the continuing saga of the Israelites, you may be thinking to yourself – “didn’t she just read that last week?” Well, you wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Last week, you may remember, the Israelites complained they didn’t have enough food to eat and accused Moses of leading them into the wilderness and starving them to death. This week the issue is water, and they accuse Moses once again, “So, you didn’t starve us to death. Did you think we could survive without water?”

At this point Moses has had just about enough. Frustrated and scared and wondering to himself whether he did the right thing, he gets real with God. All piety is gone. He expresses his fear in anger and complete honesty. “What shall I do with this people. There’re going to drive me crazy or they may even stone me to death. I need help!”

God hears Moses’ plea. God directs him to go to Horeb. “Take your staff and I will meet you there on the rock. Strike the rock. Water will flow.” God provided once again – exactly what they needed. And just enough for each day. [Pause]

The story really isn’t all that much different from last week, but the stakes ARE a little higher. We can survive for quite a long time without adequate food. Some of us even have more reserves than others, but we can’t last very long without water. A day, maybe two – and at the most three. Even though it has absolutely no nutritional value, without water we will very quickly die.

And so, they quarreled, and they tested God. Moses even named that place after those two aspects: Massa meaning to test, and Meribah meaning to quarrel. And they asked a hard question of Moses: “Is God among us or not?”

It’s a rather profound question and one we should never be afraid to ask God – AND one our faith communities ought to become increasingly comfortable with, giving space for those hard questions to be voiced and explored. [Pause]

Faith is easy when everything seems to be going our way. But it is much more difficult when we are confronted with those moments in our lives that elicit doubts and grave uncertainty. Those moments can leave us feeling very lonely and our faith may seem as dry as a desert. It is then that we have to trust in a God who is not concerned with the solidity of our faith, but rather is much more interested in our sincerity, our honesty, our integrity.

Sometimes, we mistakenly assume, in the church, that everyone is basically on the same page – our beliefs, our understandings, our attitudes – are all pretty similar. And, we get nervous when someone raises an idea that goes against that which is commonly accepted as normative. For example, someone may express a nagging doubt about the existence of God or of God’s faithfulness in life.

Let me speak for myself. When that happens, that is, when a doubt is expressed, I find myself rushing to defend God – to point out proof of God and how God has helped me in ways that may have bolstered my faith. Such talk may be helpful TO ME – but will likely not help the one quarreling and testing and doubting. AND, That’s really God’s work – not mine.

That doesn’t mean that I should not testify to my faith and speak candidly about how I have experienced God in my most challenging moments. To use the metaphor from today’s passage, I can share how I found water in my desert moments – and share my “oasis story.” But that is MY story, MY experience.

Ultimately, I need not be in the business of defending God. I, instead, must be willing to listen to the story of another – whose experience may be very different from my own. What is most helpful is to offer my acceptance of the other’s experience and not expect them to adopt mine. [Pause]

This way of “being church” is much harder and messier than churches that tend to be much more proscriptive in beliefs and expectations. We don’t do that here. We think it is much more important for each one to wrestle with their own questions rather than to offer pat answers. The timing of all that will be different for each one depending on what life throws at you.

We have an important saying that undergirds this way of building a community in United Church of Christ – it expresses our theology and complements our mission statement at Keawala`i. It’s simply this, and churches I have previously served already know what am about to say because I have said these words so many times. It’s a simple saying – yet profound,

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.”

Do you hear what we are saying when we proclaim that? No matter who you are – no matter where you are in your life’s journey – you are welcome here. We covenant to provide a safe space for all to work out their life experience – and that includes their questions – in the grace and love of God. No judgement. We covenant to accept you and love you – no matter who you are or where you are at this point in your life. Whether that is a place of deep and solid faith. Or, whether you are hanging on by a thread. We promise to hold you, and to support you while you work out your relationship with God. [Pause]

And, while you are doing your work, maybe we can be helpful in sharing OUR answer to the question, “Is God among us or not?”

As my daddy would always say, “The proof is in the pudding.” Take a look around. The people you see may be battle-scared, weary, probably not dressed in the latest styles, and maybe harboring a few questions and doubts of their own – but there is a noticeable glow – a clarity in their eyes – a sincerity in their heart – a sense of peace emanating from their soul – all which proclaim “surely God is here.” (point – outwardly) AND God is here (point – to heart) [Pause]

I titled my meditation today “Wandering and Wondering.” I don’t always like the sermon titles I affix to my messages, but I really like this one. It speaks to us on this journey of faith and life.

Like the Israelites, we spend a lot of our time in life wandering from place to place. Sometimes those wanderings seem rather aimless – perhaps even desert-like. Other times they feel well-focused and purposeful. In any event, our wanderings ought to be infused with a spirt of wonder. Wonder involves asking questions, entertaining doubts, being open to new discoveries, observing from a different perspective. Real wondering requires a deep sense of honesty as we give ourselves permission to ask hard questions, even hard questions of God – presence, existence, and care for our lives.

If we try to shut those questions down from anyone – we will, in effect, shut them out. If we allow and encourage them, we are promoting the wondering in the wandering as we live out that critical motto, “No matter who you are or where you on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” [Pause]

When we approach God with that level of honesty, God will hear us, and will go on ahead of us, and stand before us, and provide for our needs. But that will only be the beginning.

Notice the place where water is provided in this story. God meets Moses at the base of Horeb – which is another name for Sinai. In short order, God will invite Moses to ascend the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments – the covenant – that will guide the community for many years to come. In other words, the provision of God at the base of Horeb is only a foretaste of that which is yet to be given – inviting the Israelites to a whole new way of being faithful. [Pause]

No matter where your wandering takes you today – and in the coming days – may your heart be filled with wonder as your relationship with God deepens and changes – no matter where you are on life’s journey. And know that if that journey brings you to the `ohana at Keawala`i, you will always be welcomed here.


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