Sunday March 15, 2020

3rd Sunday in Lent – 2020a

Old Testament – Exodus 17:1-7

New Testament – Romans 5:1-11

Just Keep Going

INTRODUCTION: And so I began with a story about my ordination service over 20 years ago now. It is a story about being in ministry in general and one, I want to assure you, that is not about you all!


You see, after my ordination service at the First Presbyterian Church in Rockwood, TN - the location of my first call - a retired minister that I had gotten to know well approached me after the service. In the midst of the warm handshakes and hugs from well-wishers, he came to me with a scowl on his face.


“Yates,” he declared, “you are about to find out what being in ministry is really like.” “Okay,” I said jovially, “what’s that?” To which he replied grimly, “It’s like being pecked to death by a gaggle of ducks.” And with that, he walked away.


And while that has hardly been the norm for me while in ministry, I will confess there are days I think about that fellow minister’s comment. For while the good days vastly outnumber the bad ones, there have been days over the last two decades when it’s been hard to feel as if I weren’t, indeed, being pecked to death by a gaggle of ducks!       


Well, old Moses, of course, also knew what it was like to be pecked to death by a gaggle of ducks, right? For if there’s one thing the Isrealites liked to do, it was complain to Moses.


They get started, you might recall, just hours into their escape from Egypt. With the Red Sea in front of them and Pharoah behind them in hot pursuit, the people of Israel are anything but happy. “Moses,” they gripe, “have you brought us out of Egypt only to lead us into graves in the wilderness? Well, thanks a ton, buddy. Thanks a ton.”


And still just a bit later, the people are once again pecking away at Moses. After escaping through the Red Sea, and after going three days without water, the people are none too pleased to learn the water at a place called Marah is undrinkable. “O great, Moses! Hope you’re happy. You’ve finally found us some water. Too bad it’s so fowl we can’t drink any of it.”


And then let’s not forget about the complaints of the people from lack of food. Pushing further into the wilderness, they’re soon wishing they were back in Egypt. For at least there they got three square meals a day. “Hey, Moses, we might have been slaves in Egypt, but at least there we had pots full of meat and bread to boot. This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”


And last, but certainly not least, there is our reading from Exodus for this morning. Commanded to set up camp at Rephidim, the Israelites quickly realize all around them for miles and miles is nothing but dry, dusty, and open desert.     


“Hey, Moses,” begin the people with their 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, we would have just stayed in Egypt.”


So Moses knew about pecking ducks. For from the moment he led the people out of Egypt, it was one constant complaint after another. “I am hungry.” “I have to got to the bathroom.” “Are we there yet?” “Moses, my brother won’t stop touching me.”      


Of course, part of the problem is that the Israelites, like many of us even today, seem to have a major problem with short-term memory loss. After all, the people are prone to complaining despite the fact that God has repeatedly moved to meet their needs.


When they groaned in Egypt as slaves, God heard them and led them out of bondage defeating mighty Pharaoh and his army by parting the Red Sea.


But God’s liberating provision is soon forgotten, and so not long after they are complaining yet again. This time over not having clean water to drink. And so God responds by turning it all into a sweet and dry-throat-quenching beverage.


But within short order God’s gracious provision of clean water is forgotten as well. And so the grumbling soon starts about not having any food, which God soon answers by sending quails in the evening and manna in the morning.


And yet, the people’s collective memory falters still one more time, and the complaining starts all over again about lacking water. Even though God had provided for their needs on three 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, shows a complete lack of faith. Oh, they believe God is faithful. That is, just as long as God is answering their every beckoning call. So nothing is ever good enough, and even when their needs are being met, they still want more.


There’s an old story about a farmer who was an incurable grouch. One fall his apple trees had produced one of the best batches of apples for miles around. A neighbor stopped by to congratulate him saying to the farmer: “Well, Hiram, you sure ought to be happy now. This is the finest crop of apples ever grown in this county.” But the grouchy old farmer wouldn’t even smile. He simply growled back, “Well, I s’pose they’ll do – but where’s the rotten ones for the hogs?”    


And so it went with Moses and the people. While most folks might typically wonder “what have you done for me lately?” Those under Moses’ care were much more interested in knowing “what have you done for me in the last thirty seconds?”            


And look, I get it. While such remarks might sound like chiding, I understand why we can be quick to complain and fuss at God.


For surely one of hardest parts about faith is learning to accept that God’s time table is often not the same as our time table. While we often expect and long for things to be done quickly - especially when it comes to the ailments, wrongs, and injustices of this life - God, for whatever reason, seems to have a much slower way of going about addressing such matters.


No wonder so many psalms are ones of lament. Sure, there are plenty of psalms expressing praise and thanksgiving to God, but there are also a good number full of sorrow: “How long, O Lord?” wonders the psalmist in number 13. “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”     


And yet, the promise is always the same even amidst times of sorrow, loss, and struggle. God, we are assured again and again, will provide. It might not be at the speed or pace we would like, but God will provide.


All the way back in 1905 a book of poetry by an Austrian named Rainer Rilke was published called The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. After visiting a monastery in Russia where set prayers occurred several times daily, Rilke was moved to write his own book of prayers.


In one of his poems, Rilke depicts God actually whispering to each of us as we are being created:


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.


These are the words we dimly hear:


You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.


And then a few lines later, God whispers these words:


Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.


It’s Rilke’s way, I think, of encouraging us to keep the faith, so to speak. While acknowledging that life is hardly easy at times, Rilke urges us to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to “just keep going.” For God is alway faithful and God can be trusted to see us through.


Or as God whispers at the end of the poem:


Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.


Give me your hand.   


CONCLUSION: Well, life is hardly an easy affair sometimes, right?


But as people of faith we live with a promise. It’s a promise that one day, some day, by God’s providence and redeeming work, all hardships will be done and over.


Does that mean God will resolve them at a speed and a pace that we would like? Well, no, as disquieting and even frustrating as that might be at times. But God? Well, God eventually does provide.


So just keep going. For no feeling is final. And if you find you simply don’t have anything left, that you can’t go another step, well, just look for that hand and grab ahold.      


And now to the God of all grace, who calls us all to share in God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever and ever! Amen.