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3rd Sunday in Lent – 2023a

Old Testament – Exodus 17:1-7

New Testament – Romans 5:1-11


“Left-Handed Power”


INTRODUCTION: There’s a story about a young priest who decided to join a monastery. 


Choosing one that was especially austere, the young monk was told by the headmaster during his initial interview that the group lived in total silence. There was, however, one caveat - every ten years the monks were allowed to speak just two words. 


Well, the young priest entered the monastery despite the strict requirements. And after his first ten years passed, the headmaster indicated it was time for the monk to speak his two words. Said the monk: “Bed hard!”


After another ten years had passed, twenty in all at that point, the monk was allowed to once again speak two words. Said the monk: “Food bad!” and then he promptly returned to his studies and silence.


Another ten years rolled by, thirty in all, and the monk once more got to say his two words. Said the monk: “I quit!” Knowingly shaking his head, the master of the monastery replied, “Figures. All you’ve done for the last thirty years is complain.”   


ONE: Well, poor old Moses also knew about complaints, right? Except in his case, he didn’t get a ten year hiatus between them like the headmaster at the monastery. Nope. The complaining for Moses was incessant and frequent.    


Fresh on the heels of just being liberated from their chains of bondage in Egypt, the whole congregation of the Israelites find themselves wandering in the desert. Commanded to set up camp at Rephidim, the people begin to have second thoughts about the entire venture after looking around and realizing all they can see for miles and miles is open desert. And even worse, there’s not a convenient store in sight either, so a nicely chilled, big gulp from the fountain machine is also out of the question.     


“Hey, Moses,” begins the people’s murmuring, “where’s the water? We’ve been walking for days without a drop of it and now you’ve got us setting up camp in the middle of the Sahara without a river, spring, or well in sight! If we had known this was going to be part of our supposed liberation as slaves, we would have just stayed in Egypt.”


Displeased with Moses, the people’s grumbling is in full swing. They’ve had it with Moses and they’re ready to throw the bum out on the street. Despite all Moses has done for them, the people are only interested in what he can do for them right then and right there.  


When William Bligh’s crew on the HMS Bounty famously munitied in 1789, they dropped Bligh and numerous loyal crewmen into a 23 foot skiff, which Bligh amazingly sailed 3,600 miles back across the Atlantic to England and safety. Well, Moses is lucky he wasn’t lashed to the top of some camel and then driven off into the arid desert. Because the Israelites were over it. 


“We’re thirsty!” “We’re hungry!” “We need to go to the bathroom.” “Are we there yet?” “They got my order at the McDonald’s drive through-window wrong. They put onions on my burger, I hate onions!”    


TWO: And so Moses, understandably, is a tad exasperated. After all, as far as Moses can tell, nothing is going to keep the people happy. Why, Jesus Christ could be leading them, and they’d still probably be griping, right?      


After all, the people are constantly complaining despite the fact that God has continually moved to meet their needs. When they groaned in Egypt as slaves, God heard their cries and led them out of bondage - even defeating mighty Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea. And then when the people got to complaining about not having any food, God sent them quails in the evening and manna in the morning to satisfy their hunger. 


And yet, they still complained. Even though God had provided for their needs on two different occasions before, as soon as the people started getting itchy throats, they were at it again with their murmuring. No wonder Moses accuses the people of putting God to the test with their complaining. Their grouchiness, after all, reveals a shockingly poor degree of faith. Even after all that God has done for them, nothing is ever quite good enough. 


Erma Bombeck, the American humorist and columnist, loved to tell about a visit her grandmother made to the beach one day with her grandson. While the little boy played in the waves, Erma’s grandmother slowly nodded off to sleep. 


Without warning, a large wave came in sweeping the grandson out to sea. Upon waking from her sleep, the grandmother immediately fell to her knees in prayer saying, “God, if you save my grandchild, I promise I’ll make it up to you. I’ll join whatever club you want me to. I’ll volunteer at the hospital, give to the poor, and do anything that makes you happy.” 


Suddenly, another large wave comes ashore depositing the grandson right at the grandmother’s feet. Checking him over quickly, the grandmother realizes that the little boy is alive and well. But as she begins to pick him up, she seems a bit put out. The grandmother eventually looks skyward and says sharply while pointing with her finger, “He had a hat, you know.” 


And so it went with Moses and the people. “Hey, God, being slaves in Egypt wasn’t great, but at least there we got three square meals a day, you know.”         


THREE: Of course, from a pastoral perspective, we don’t want to pile on complainers too much, right? 


For truth be told, it’s pretty easy, I think, to see why any of us can get to complaining. Life, after all, can be a mess sometimes and God’s preferred method for solving the world’s problems is decidedly more subtle, unconventional, and, frankly, slower than we, understandably so, prefer. 


Yep, we get to gazing at the world with all its hurts and trials and sorrows and needs, and it’s easy to start wondering if maybe God hasn’t just fallen asleep at the wheel. But for better or worse, ill or good, God’s chosen way of addressing the pains and wants of the world is through what Robert Farrer Capon liked to call “left-handed power.”


God makes the world right, in other words, not through power and force, but through weakness and fragility. God makes the world right, not through revenge and retribution, but through forgiveness and grace. And God makes the world right, not through seeking his own safety and security, but through dying on a cross in love. 


Or as Capon has put it: “The final act by which God reconciles the world to himself consists of his simply dropping dead on the cross and shutting up on the [whole] subject of sin. He declares the whole power game won by losing, and he invites the world just to believe that absurd proposition.”


So it’s easy to see why anyone can fall into grumbling and complaining, I think. Because God’s way of fixing the world is so counter intuitive and, yes, absurd. “It’s better to give, than to receive,” we’re told. “It’s better to be last, than first.” “It’s better to serve, than be served.” “To save your life, you actually have to give it away.” “To be exalted, you have to be humble.”  And last but not least, “To follow me, you have to be willing to take up a cross.” 


Well, I don’t know about you all, but all that sounds like an odd way to try and solve the world’s problems. I’d prefer God just snap his fingers and be done with it. And yet…and yet that’s how the world is finally saved, says God. Great is the mystery of faith, to be sure. Great is the mystery of faith.        


FOUR: And so surely that helps explain why we Presbyterians think the words faith and trust are essentially synonymous. Because to have faith, in the end, is to trust that the crazy and odd ways God has of being in the world, really is the way the world is saved in the end.


The late Frederick Buechner once told of just sitting on the side of the road in his car in a moment of all-consuming depression. Worried about his daughter, who was struggling with anorexia nervosa, Buechner was despondent. Unsure of how to be of aid to his ailing daughter, or what might happen next, Buechner was, understandably so, afraid.   


But then out of the blue, a car came along the highway with a license plate on it containing a single word: TRUST, said the license plate in big bold letters . For  Buechner, the moment, as you might imagine, was a kind of epiphany. And so that’s what he set out to do. He set out to trust - even though he knew the days ahead weren’t going to be easy and he had no idea what the actual outcome might be as his daughter battled with anorexia, he decided to trust.  


But here’s where things get really interesting, I think. The driver of the car, it turns out, was actually a trust officer at a bank - hence the license plate. And after stumbling across Buechner's account of the incident in print somewhere, the trust officer actually tracked Buechner down at his home one day just so he could give him the license plate.


And so Buechner put the license plate on a bookshelf so he could see it and be reminded whenever he saw it - reminded to trust in God. “It is rusty around the edges and a little battered,” Buechner wrote years ago of the license plate, “and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.”  


The daughter, by the way and thankfully, did eventually get better.            


CONCLUSION: And so it goes, I think. Sometimes all we can do is trust that God’s strange, counter intuitive, and left-handed ways of being in the world are, in the end, the way the world is finally saved. 


All we can do is trust in the absurd proposition that giving is better than getting. That humility actually leads to exaltation. That weakness is actually more powerful than, well, power. That love is stronger than hate. And that giving ourselves away, is actually how we truly find ourselves.    


O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways! For from God, and through God, and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

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