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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blinded by Our Own Grumbling (Exodus 17:1-7)


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The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

One of the paradoxes of living on this planet is that water is both abundant in supply and a precious, limited resource.  Our planet’s surface is 80% water, yet 97% of that is found in the oceans.  Only 3% of the world’s water supply is suitable for drinking and irrigating the crops that serve as the foundation of our food supply.

Water tells us where to live.  In the last century, we figured out ways to get water to remote places, creating gleaming mega-cities like Las Vegas in the middle of the desert!  Lest we congratulate ourselves too quickly, however, we’ve realized that we’ve overtapped the water supply in many of those places, and no amount of engineering can replenish the sources that are drying up.  We built cities in the desert because we could; we’ll spend the next century wondering if we should have.

The reality is that the desert is inhospitable to human civilization, including parts of the Sinai peninsula, the setting for today’s Scripture from Exodus 17.  Though the text gives us some place names, we don’t have a clue where exactly the story takes place.  It is “the middle of nowhere.”

Maybe you’ve been there!  Maybe you still are.  Maybe you find yourself in that no-man’s land, an emotional or spiritual wilderness between “where you’ve been,” and “where you’re going.”  May we pray.

I think we’re lost
One of the formative, cultural experiences of my childhood was the semi-annual viewing of the film classic, National Lampoon’s Family Vacation.  The family, except for Clark Griswold, the father, have some initial reservation about making the cross-country trip, they slowly warm up to the idea, but then quickly turn on Clark as one thing after another goes wrong on their journey.

Perhaps you remember the scene in which Clark and his wife Ellen are arguing in the car, messing with the map, and Clark misses a detour sign in the middle of the desert, and drives off the end of the road, launching the family station wagon 50 feet through the air in the middle of nowhere.

That happens sometimes on our spiritual journey, as well.  In fact, keep the Griswold family’s frustration in mind for today’s Scripture reading; you can substitute “Moses” for “Clark,” and “The Hebrew people” for “The Griswold family,” and you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the Exodus story.

The book of Exodus, the Bible’s second book, shapes Israel’s identity as a people, recounting the holy history of God’s dramatic act of delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  At the end of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, the people had migrated to Egypt where they had been saved from famine through Joseph. But as time passed their circumstances changed and, as foreigners in Egypt, they fell into a position of providing slave labor for the building projects of the Egyptian kings.

Through divine intervention and the leadership of Moses, the people are eventually freed from slavery, and begin their journey toward the promised land.  This journey of a few hundred miles will end up taking 40 years to complete – 40 years of meandering and wandering in the wilderness, a time of testing and drawing close as a community of faith.

Grateful? Try Grumbling
One would think that the people would be grateful – centuries of slavery turned into freedom – but it isn’t long before their gratitude gives way to grumbling.  More than once, they accuse Moses of bringing them out into the desert to die.

Fuzzy slipper alert - I may end up rolling on some toes here, so if you're worried about that go ahead and put on your fuzzy slippers now.

I’m not sure why, but in every religious community, there seem to be at least a small handful of people with the spiritual gift of complaining.  It is their self-appointed mission in life, not God-appointed, mind you, to find fault with every decision made by every person who is not them.  It is as if the only way they know how to participate in the life of the community is by complaining. Moses had his – “Have you brought us out in the desert to die?  We should have stayed in Egypt.”

Part of the problem for the ancient Hebrew people in this text is that they suffered from acute spiritual amnesia.  Part of the reason they were so fearful about the future is because they had forgotten what God had done in their past.  Just a chapter earlier, they are complaining about their hunger, and God provides bread in the form of manna on the ground – daily bread, enough for today, and requiring that they trust God again tomorrow to provide.

God has demonstrated God’s faithfulness already, yet when a new challenge arose, how quickly the people forget.  By forgetting God’s faithfulness in the past, they are unable to trust God now and into the future.  They whine, and they complain, and all of their self-centered and petty grumbling blinds them to moving forward into God’s preferred future.

We call this group the “Back to Egypt” committee, and every religious community has one of these, too!  “We don’t want to try something new, certainly not something that would require us to stretch or grow or change or be challenged, certainly nothing so big as to require us to have more faith in God than we do in ourselves – why would we do that?”

Incidentally, my observation of most churches is that the “Back to Egypt” committee has more influence than we’d like to think.  The reality is that churches are dreaming, planning, and setting goals that are just too small.  Their goals are things they can actually accomplish on their own, without requiring much help, if any, from God.  Friends, if our plans are reasonable and manageable enough that we can accomplish them without having to place significant faith and trust in God, then we’re not dreaming big enough!  We worship a big God, and when we make big, God-sized goals and then lean fully on God, God accomplishes far more than we could ever dream or imagine.

That requires faith.  Trust.  Discomfort, sometimes.  Stretching.  Growing.  Ambiguity.  Moses knows that both he and the people need to grow more fully into total reliance on God, but it turns out not everyone desires what is best for them!  If you are a parent and have ever tried to get your child to eat their vegetables, you know this feeling.  Moses knew it, too.  At every turn, the very community he is trying to help snarls and grumbles and complains against him.

It’s like the church in financial trouble whose members resent being asked to tithe; the church who is concerned with their dwindling congregation, but grumbles about making any hospitable overtures to guests; the church who says they want to grow but complains about every little change.  We don’t want to move forward, we’d rather go back to Egypt!

Remember the good old days, back in Egypt?  Back in Egypt, we had water, Moses, but out here, we are so thirsty!  Back in Egypt, we had food, Moses, but out here, we are so hungry!  Nevermind that back in Egypt we were slaves, and out here we are free, that’s beside the point!

Forward or backward?
Part of being in the wilderness was the recognition that they were no longer where they had been, yet not quite where they were going.  In that place, they asked whether God was even with them out there or not.  If we’re honest with ourselves, that questioning and sometimes honest doubt is part of the journey of faith.  We all have highs and lows, places we feel that God is as close as our next breath, and places where we feel distant from God.  There are places in our journey where we, too, ask, “Is God among us or not?”

The questioning and honest wrestling is nothing to feel guilty about.  I believe that those places deepen our faith.  But how we respond is critical.  Faith grows when we trust, when we lean forward, when we take the next step.  Faith shrivels up and dies when we grumble, complain, and find fault.  One response takes us one step closer to the promised land; the other takes us back to Egypt.

You see, when you’re in the wilderness, you have one of two choices – you can turn around and go back to what you know, or you can press ahead toward what is unknown.  For some, the relative predictability of a step backward, of knowing what’s there even if it isn’t all that pleasant, is preferable to a step forward into unknown territory.  Some would simply rather go back to Egypt, because though it is less than what God desires, it is familiar.

Grumbling and complaining are a deadly cocktail for any community of faith, because they shrink faith rather than growing it.  Stepping out into the unknown, even with the promise of something better on the other side, requires faith and trust in God.  And so, as we step out in faith, not knowing exactly where our steps will take us, but trusting God to guide our steps.  We may not know what the future holds, but we know that God holds the future.

We can trust God into an unknown future because of the ways God demonstrated faithfulness in the past.  In “Amazing Grace” we sing, “’Twas grace hath brought me safe thus far / and grace will lead me home.”  We are able to lean into the God’s preferred future precisely because we remember our past.  God hasn’t left us yet, and God isn’t about to leave us now.

Further, think about how grumbling, complaining, and nay-saying affects both you and your brothers and sisters in the community.  Tell me, please, how finding fault with others is an effective way of building each other up, or of getting us closer to who God desires for us to be?  James Howell says, Faultfinding is no big achievement. I know people who seem quite proud of their ability to detect flaws in the other person – although it occurs to me, as I say this, that I'm one who finds fault with . . . faultfinders.”

I find myself with James on this one, because I’ve seen how destructive chronic negativity is to the faith community.  I’ll be the first one to say, “Would you like some cheese to go with that whine?” as I play my little violin of mock pity.  I know that sounds a bit insensitive, but negativity and pettiness are corrosive toxins that eat away at the bonds that draw us close to each other and close to God.  They place “me” ahead of “us,” – in particular, what God desires to do in and through us.  When we fixate on every potential problem we see around us, we never see the promise and possibility of what God has for us on the other side of this particular challenge.

In the life of faith, it is often a matter of perspective, and so what are you looking at?  The problems?  Or the possibilities?  One leads back to Egypt.  The other leads to the promised land.

Get rid of it
Just as there are certain things you have to get rid of before you get on a flight, negativity is something to get rid of in the journey of faith.  As long as you’re carrying around all that negativity, your life can never be transformed into the fullness God desires for you, and you can never be the blessing to others that God desires you to be.  Friends, if you’ve been carrying around negativity, it’s time to throw that away.  If pettiness or pessimism are living in your head rent-free, it’s time to evict them.  If grumbling and words of complaint are the only ones you know, it’s time to learn a new vocabulary. 

All the complaining, the grumbling, the fault-finding – blinds us to the remarkable work of God’s grace springing up all around us and even within us. 

And yet, even though the people complained, even though they quarreled, even though they grumbled and whined, even though they had short memories and lacked faith and were fixated on problems rather than possibilities, God still provided for their needs, as water gushed from a rock to satisfy their thirst.  That’s who God is!  That’s the remarkable thing about this story to me – that God’s care continued even while the people were grumbling against God.

Just as Clark Griswold was determined that his family would reach their destination, so, too, is God determined that we will reach ours.  Our heavenly father wants us to have every good gift, and lavishes grace upon us even when we are ungrateful.

The spigot of God’s grace is open wide – we, too, are invited to the life-giving, life-changing stream of God’s grace.

We all need God’s grace, and we all receive God’s grace.  The question is what we’re going to do with it.  Are we going to allow that grace to change our perspective, to help us look at life’s possibilities rather than its problems, to transform our grumbling into gratitude, and our complaints into cooperation?  That will be the test of our faith.

This year, my friend, Sherry, gave up worrying for Lent.  She said, “I was not prepared for the blessings this choice would bring to me. I did not realize how many times a day I was saying, "I am worried about..." I read somewhere that when we worry, we aren't accessing our faith. Every time I catch myself using that worry phrase or feeling worried, I am reminded of my choice. I remind myself that God is in control, I am in the palm of his hand and I need not worry.  This does not mean I am not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention.  But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don’t have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude.  I do believe this will be a life-changing Easter for me.  How cool is that?  Thanks for having my back, God.”

Friends, there’s no need to fixate on problems.  Which was are you looking – back toward Egypt, or forward toward the promised land?  Let’s remember how far God has already brought us.  Let’s trust God as we step into what’s next. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God.orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God.

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