Sermon for Sunday September 28th, 2014 || Proper 21, Year A || Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
It’s been another one of those weeks. Just when you think the news can’t get any worse it does. ISIS, Khorasan, Ebola, beheadings, climate change, the heroin epidemic … a missing teenage girl…heck, even a robbery at knife point in North Scituate!
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
It’s not an unreasonable question to ask. It’s a perfectly normal question for people of faith to ask in frightening and uncertain times. In fact, maybe you caught the news last week that the Archbishop of Canterbury caused quite a stir by admitting that even he sometimes wonders where—or if—God is. The spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is part, said this:
“The other day I was praying over something as I was running and I ended up saying to God: ‘Look, this is all very well but isn’t it about time you did something – if you’re there’ …”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Now, maybe you were taught that people of faith shouldn’t question or doubt God. Maybe you’re as shocked by the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion’s admission as many in the press were. But I’m with the op-ed writer in the new York Times who wrote of Welby’s admission, “Doubt is a sign of faith. Certainty is often overrated.”
To doubt God’s presence you’ve got to have a powerful faith in God’s existence. You’ve got to care. You’ve got to expect God to do something to be dismayed when He doesn’t. People who don’t believe in God don’t bother themselves asking questions like, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
But it, after all, such a fundamentally human question. It’s the same question our religious forbears ask in this morning’s scripture as they wander in the wilderness. The same question Jesus asks from the cross when he cries out in anguish with feelings of abandonment. The same question we all ask from time to time when it’s so much easier to notice God’s absence from our life than His presence in it.
So I imagine it’s a question any number of faithful Christians are asking today, just as faithful Christians have done for centuries, and faithful Jews for centuries before them. No one people, place, or time holds a monopoly on the spiritual landscape of wilderness or on the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
To answer this question, the forebears who gave us the Exodus story from which we read this morning, did exactly what we need to do– and what the doubters inside this story failed to do as they followed Moses in the wilderness—and that is to remember. We need to remember: to intentionally call to mind again.
The whole book of Exodus is a collection of ancient traditions that were first told and retold–then written and re-written over the ages– by a people intent on remembering God’s saving presence in their lives. A people intent on calling to mind their stories of God’s faithfulness, over and over again, precisely so that in times of fear and uncertainty they wouldn’t despair, and instead could pass it on. Pass on the story of salvation history. Pass on the faith that God does and will restore this world to wholeness. Pass on the hope that we have the strength and the courage to participate in that restoration. Pass on the conviction of God’s grace and mercy and steadfast love.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “keeping it green.” It comes from 12-step recovery programs, where members share their stories of life in the wilderness and of how–by God’s amazing grace—they were led to the Promised Land of freedom called recovery. When they share those stories of being led into new life some remarkable things happen. They remember God’s saving action in their lives. Their gratitude for God’s grace is refreshed and renewed, and most important of all, they offer hope and assurance to everyone else who hears it. They pass it on to those still stumbling in the wilderness.
Our forebears in the wilderness of the desert forgot about God’s steadfast presence in their lives. Even after he rescued them from slavery in Egypt, they forgot. Even after he opened up the waters at the Red Sea, they forgot. Even after he provided them with more quail and more manna than they could possibly consume, they forgot. In fact, God even made the Israelites keep some manna in a jar, specifically so they wouldn’t forget, and they forgot anyway!
Those Israelites knew all about forgetting. But of course, we do too. They “kept it green” by telling their stories—stories of their persistent forgetting, and stories of God’s enduring faithfulness anyway. Stories like this morning’s reading from Exodus.
We tell our story, the Christian story, every time we share in the Eucharist. That’s what we do at the altar week after week: We remember Christ’s saving action in the sweep of history that is our lives, we retell the story and keep it green, and we give thanks.
In the uncertain times in which we live, I’ve been wondering how else we might help each other remember God’s steadfast faithfulness. On the face of it, the geography of the South Shore looks like anything but a wilderness. But beyond the closed doors of historic homes and the quiet reserve of Yankee temperaments, there’s a gnawing hunger for hope out there and a deep thirst for the assurance of God’s presence.
How might we companion others through the wilderness? How might we allow space for doubt while remembering God’s faithfulness? How might our gratitude for God’s extravagant generosity refresh and renew others? How might we pass on to others the assurance of God’s grace and God’s mercy in their lives?
You know, St. Augustine famously said to those to whom he offered the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, “Behold what you are, become what you receive.” And I wonder if that might not be exactly what we need to remember today.
So I invite all of us to listen especially carefully to the words of the Eucharistic prayer this morning as we remember Christ’s saving action in our lives. Listen carefully and remember. Listen to our story, yours and mine, and remember who we are and how we got here. Listen and see if you don’t feel the wilderness fading behind you. Listen and see if you don’t find yourself assured that yes, of course, the Lord is among us indeed!
And then take.
Behold what you are.
Become what you receive.
And pass it on. Amen.