A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania
September 27, 2020
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 824)
“He’s in The Midst” by The Bishops
As you travel down life’s road, He is with you every day.
With every step you take, He’s walked ahead of you.
And every night as you lay down, angels are camping all around.
I’ll never be alone, for He is in the midst.
He’s in the midst of our storm
He’s in the valley we walk through
Where two or three are gathered in his name, He’ll be there too
When you feel so all alone
He is standing next to you.
He’s with us now, our Lord, He’s in the midst.
Several days ago, I saw a rather surprising meme on Facebook, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.”
It feels to me as if we are in the middle of a storm. This feels like one of those once in a thousand-year storms. The winds are blowing at hurricane force. The rains are torrential, the waters are rising. Will any building survive the gale force winds? Will the waters rise above our roofs? Will we be swept away? If the raging waters overwhelm us, will we find a plank onto which we can cling with all our might? Or, will the waters rise over our heads and bear us down to our doom?
We are on an ark. We are crowded onto a small boat in the midst of a huge ocean. We can no longer see the shore. The waves crash all around us, the winds threaten to overturn our vessel. In our fear, we are tempted to cry out to God, “Do you not even care that we are about to drown?” In our fear, we are tempted to wrestle with the Captain for control of the ship. We think that only we may know how to safely guide the ship to shore, and so we fight among ourselves. We give into panic as the ship seemingly veers out of control.
It is easy for us to criticize the People of Israel in the wilderness. And we often do. More often than not, they are depicted as complainers, as whiners, as people who are impossible to please. And poor Moses, he has our sympathy! He has the seemingly impossible task to trying to guide them through the desert. Talk about herding cats!
There are some things which we might want to keep in mind as we read the amazing story of the Exodus.
It is easy for us say that “they” should have trusted in God! After all, we know the rest of the story. We know about Joshua, Judges, Chronicles, and Kings. We also know about Saul, David, and Solomon. We know about Antiochus Epiphanes and Judah Maccabee. So, for us, it is easy to think of 40 years as “an instant” in a history which literally lasts for thousands of years.
We were not slaves in Egypt! We have no idea what it meant to reduced to chattel slavery. We can not imagine what it would be like to lose freedom, independence, and dignity. We can not imagine what it would be like to forced to labor for cruel and sadistic masters who hated us so much that they literally attempted to eradicate our race from the face of the earth! Not only chattel slavery, but genocide!
We can not imagine what it would have been like to have been so controlled and so deprived that we were never allowed to make even the simplest of decisions for ourselves—and then to be on our own in a unknown and frightening place. We can not imagine an existence so precarious that we were afraid to trust that we would make it through “today,” let alone worrying about the problems which “tomorrow” might bring.
Too often, we confuse Moses’ voice with God’s voice. Notice that in the passage which we heard today, it was NOT God who was complaining about the people of Israel, it was Moses! Poor God–talk about having to listen to everyone complain! The Israelites complained about God, and about Moses. And Moses did the same! And yet, God did not seem to be especially troubled by any complaints! When Israel or Moses called out for help, God heard and answered the plea. God provided for the essential needs in unimagined and delightful ways: Manna, quails, and water.
It is interesting that later generations looked back on the time of wandering in the desert as the “good old days.” They came to view that experience as the fire which refined and molded a weary and bruised group of emancipated slaves and transformed them into a community in a covenanted relationship with God.
For just a moment, we are challenged to remember the etymology of Israel. Jacob wrestled with an angel for an entire night—and almost won the fight! To commemorate that epic battle, his name was changed! Jacob became “Israel. His new name could mean, “He contended with God,” or “he struggled with God.” Israel, then as a people, as a nation, as an extended family, then, found a true calling, a vocation—to wrestle with God.
The amazing thing, is that like Abraham, like Jacob, like the later prophets, the people of Israel were in such a secure relationship with God that they were never afraid to tell God what they thought, what they wanted, what they needed, what they desired. When things do not go the way that they wanted, they never hesitated or were reluctant to make their opinions known. They had every expectation that God would listen to them, would hear them, and would seriously consider their opinion. There was no fawning, no obsequious self-effacement. They spoke to God as adults, and expected God to return the favor. They knew that, in return, God would tell them the truth—whether they wanted to hear it or not!
This was a relationship of oftentimes brutal honesty. And this kind of relationship required trust and commitment—required love! For it work, both parties must be yoked together, and unable to walk away! Problems had to be solved, solutions had to be found. Misunderstandings had to be cleared up. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing had to be often used—or it would be unendurable misery for everyone!
What does it mean to thirst? What does it mean to hunger? What does it mean to have no security net? What does it mean to be totally and completely dependent on others? Can we imagine the heat and frustration of the desert? Can we imagine the endless walking—not even knowing where we are going, or if we will ever get there? Can we imagine feeling so hopeless that we are tempted to just lie down to die? Can we imagine looking back and thinking that even the brutality of slavery might have been better? At least that was something which was known. There were strategies for coping with that. There were even a few consolations—the onions were tasty, after all! But to trust in the unknown, the unproven, the new. Now that takes courage! That takes faith! That takes trust!
Our Christian faith is centered on the reality that “God is with us” in the saving and healing mystery of Jesus. Son of Israel, son of God, our Lord knew what it was to hunger. On the cross, he too struggled to breathe! He too cried out that he thirsted! Even in the midst of that passion, of that suffering, of that pain, of that hurt and misery—he persevered in trusting God. He did not hesitate to question or to wrestle. Despite the lack of answers that he found, he chose to continue to trust!
What was it that gave him hope? What was it which allowed him to believe, and to trust in the face of despair and defeat? It was ultimately the unshakable conviction that he was not alone. Just as God had traveled through the desert with the People of Israel, Jesus continued to trust that God was with him. Even his honestly announced fear that God might have abandoned him did not cause him to lose hope. And that trust was vindicated in the Resurrection. He recognized that God was in the midst of the storm that he was passing through
In the midst of the storms which we face personally, in the midst of the storm which we face as a nation, what can we do? What can offer us hope? Like the People of Israel, we can trust that God is with us in the midst of our storm. Like Jesus, we can trust that God knows the confusion, the fear, the debilitating helplessness which we experience.
As the beautiful hymn from the letter to the Church at Philippi reminds us, humility is a virtue which can serve us well. We do not know everything. We do not have all the answers. We are often wrong. We often fail to even ask the right questions. We need to learn how to listen We need to learn how to be present to others, to unite with them in solidarity, to show them love. We need to learn that the most important thing we can do is to just “be there.” We need to learn how to forgive, to reconcile, and to work together. We need to learn how to overcome differences of opinions and to find common ground. We need to learn how to wrestle—not just to win, but to become and to build relationships!
God is with us,
“He’s in the midst of our storm
He’s in the valley—or the desert–we walk through
When we feel so all alone
He is standing with us!
He’s with us now, our Lord, He’s in the midst.”