Gardening in the Wilderness #3
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Lent/A March 15, 2020
Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. [Rime of the Ancient Mariner, lines 120-21,
Water is so fundamental we often forget its importance. Creation begins with water in Genesis and later the signature of salvation of God’s people is the parting of the waters that lets them escape slavery and the violence of Pharaoh’s armies. Still later, they cross into the promised land through the parted waters of the Jordan River, the same water that will later close over Jesus when he is baptized. We turn on the faucet and have water without thinking but for most of human history and still in many places today, water had to be fetched from a central source. In many places even today it is not only fetched, it must be purchased. So as we come to these readings today, both of which center on water, we cannot imagine, we cannot think of the water in our tap but of the water that is purchased by labor and whose absence means the desperate thirst of the perishing. Desperate thirst is exactly the situation of God’s people in the story we read from the book of Exodus. Some time before, they gathered in fearful anticipation of a mass escape from slavery. In the escape, they come to the hard place of no where to run, no where to hide when Pharaoh’s army chases them to the great Reed Sea. Then, they saw God’s power saving them, a way was made and they escaped. Again, journeying through the wilderness, they come to a hard place where they’re hungry and thirsty. God sends manna as bread and provides quail for meat and water to drink. Once again they go on, this time into the wilderness around Mt. Sinai. They camp but there’s no water; they’re thirsty and angry and they ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
So once again Moses goes to the Lord; he tells the Lord that the people are ready to stone him in their anger. Can you imagine this conversation? I think all leaders come to this moment at times. Years ago, I was the pastor of a congregation that had grown rapidly. Many think it would be wonderful to have the pews full every Sunday, to set up chairs each week, but it isn’t wonderful. It makes welcome meaningless when you can’t let people in. And congregations that cannot welcome new people begin to decline. So our congregation began to think about this problem, talk about it, discuss it. Some wanted to sell the building and build a bigger one; some wanted to solve the problem in other ways. Many were scared about the money involved. So we did what Congregationalists do: we created a committee to study the problem and report back. But the committee process was badly handled and the conclusion was muddled so we didn’t get a result. I was so disappointed, so frustrated and I remember going into the sanctuary of that church the next day, sitting down on a pew and saying, praying, out loud: â€œOk God, I’m done, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t push on anymore, I’m done.â€ It was a hard place. Moses has come to a hard place and he fears the anger of the thirsty people, he fears the stones that lie around on the ground, easy to pick up, simple to throw. It’s what he fears and perhaps in his fear and angerâ€”he never wanted to lead this people, after all, it wasn’t his idea, he was happy herding goats, married to Zipporah perhaps in that moment, he took his staff and hit a big rock there. Perhaps he heard God in his heart telling him what to do. The story says that he’s told to speak to a rock and he does and nothing happens and then he strikes it and water flows. The people drink. The very thing that Moses feared, the rocks, the stones, the anger, has become the opportunity for a blessing that lets the next part of the exodus go on. The thing he fears becomes the window through which grace streams in.
We see this in the history of many people. Nelson Mandela was a young lawyer in South Africa committed to justice. His faith and commitment led him to help organize against the racist white nationalist government of that nation. Arrested and jailed several times, he was ultimately imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island prison in 1962. For the next 27 years, he was held by the brutal regime. Somewhere in that time, somehow in that place, he sustained his own original vision of equality. Imprisonment became a wilderness from which he emerged committed not only to human rights for his supporters but for all. As South Africa’s apartheid regime dissolved, it was Mandela who prevented a racial civil war and who invented the Truth and Reconciliation commissions that found a way between revenge and ignoring guilt.
Now, I want to be clear, I want to be careful. I’m not saying that God brings such terrible events on people to test them or intends harm to any person. Yet we know that every life has moments that challenge and I want to say that in that moment of challenge, we have an opportunity in our reaction, in what we choose. We’re all facing a terrible moment right now. I don’t need to recite the facts or statistics of the covid-19 pandemic to illustrate this; you know what I mean, you’re living this moment with me. So we have a choice today, we have a choice in days to come. Our lives are all going to be disrupted. There’s a good chance we will not be able to meet here in this wonderful meeting house regularly. The moment asks our response.
I’ve been thinking about this all week, listening to the dreadful news, and last night I saw something that inspired me. It was a bit of film on CBS from Italy, where they are in the grip of the hight tide of the illness. Now Italians live outside together, they endlessly gather. People are often surprised by how little Italian hotel rooms are; the reason is that they expect people will be out early and not return until late. People don’t sit in their own homes, their own living rooms, they gather in cafe’s and taverns. Now Italians have been told they can’t gather: no church worship services, no cafes, no taverns, no sitting together in a plaza, no gathering of any kind. They’re are being asked to completely change their lives. So the film was showing empty streets in Italy, empty cafes in Italy, empty plazas and then something else. People were staying home in their apartments but they had come out on balconiesâ€”still separatedâ€”until they began to sing, an entire complex of high rise apartment buildings, every balcony occupied, every voice joined together. I thought: this is it, this is what we must do, sing the song of the Lord together, sing it out, sing it loud and clear. In the days to come, we have a chance to demonstrate how seriously we take Jesus’ command to love your neighbor; we have a chance to sing the song of salvation. We do it when we call a friend to make sure they are ok, to give them a bit of contact; we do it when we resist the impulse to let our desperate overcome our kindness. We do it when we pray for each other, help each other, care for each other.
Our psalm today said,
O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
Let us then indeed sing to the Lord, not only with our hymns but with our lives; let us sing the song of God’s love by living his love in this time, in this day.