Monday, October 03, 2011

Encouragement

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
September 25, 2011 - Ordinary (26A)
Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The story of the people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness of sin is one that more people in our culture can relate to these days than perhaps any other time in our past - excepting the days of the frontiersmen and women. More people transfer from town to town than ever before. More people switch careers than ever before. More people travel and find themselves physically and metaphorically in the wilderness than ever before.

My own family has had its share of moves, averaging one a year over the last five years. We’ve moved for jobs. We’ve moved for cheaper rent. We’ve moved so that we can be in a preferred school district. I complained about it on Facebook during our last move and was counseled by one of our wise and faithful elders who simply said, “Quit moving!”

Someone must have said that to Moses during this part of the story because the text says that they were traveling in stages. They had all the Mana and quail they needed, and the pit stops were becoming more frequent. As anyone who has ever been on a road trip (with all that you think you could ever need for the duration of the trip) knows, the added stops created space for arguments.

Perhaps it was God’s way of moving them forward. Perhaps it was simply a function of stopping and starting and stopping and starting. Perhaps they simply forgot to place their drink order when they asked for food. Regardless of the reason why, the Israelites were arguing with Moses. They weren’t simply complaining. They were at odds with him and ready to revolt.

So Moses tells the people, “Hey, I’m just doing my job here. You know, following directions?” And he pleads with God, “Um, God? Sorry to bother you, but ah...THEY’RE GOING TO KILL ME!”

So God has Moses use the very instrument that polluted the waters of the nile to strike the most “not water like” thing he could find - knowing God’s very essence would be right there to transform loss into providence! And they called that place “argument” because they tested God.

Last week we read about God testing the Israelites - looking to see what they contained - through an offering of providence. Here they test God, and God again reveals God’s self through providence. How much more encouraging could God be than to provide for their deepest need? How much more of God’s character could be revealed than to have the Creator lovingly embrace the creature through providing for the most obvious need? God cracks open the rock like a parent offering a glass of water for a child in the middle of the night. God recklessly cracks open the rock like a fire hydrant in July and watches the children of God dance and sing for delight.

Wouldn’t that be great! Wouldn’t that be incredible? Don’t you wish sometimes that God would step in and take over for us sometimes? Perhaps it would be nice. Perhaps God already has. Perhaps - God does it all the time, and we just don’t notice it. Of course I am not talking about the metaphysical level of turning a rock into a fountain. That is, unless we are talking about the rock of the human heart.

The reality is that we, as a people, do not need God to turn rocks into water. There are enough resources on this planet for everyone - even though there are droughts and famines in the world today. It’s hard to say that, much less hear it, without the attachment of generations of guilt trips about starving children in a variety of countries. It’s hard to hear or say that there is enough to go around without the knowledge that we have used this information for years as a guilt trip to get kids to eat their veggies and nothing more!

But the issue is so much bigger than a particular physical need. The issue is about courage. The issue is about motivation. The issue is about the ability to be consoled during our experience of need by the ability to care about someone else - especially when you do not want to!

That’s hard. That’s why Paul says, “If.” That’s why Paul says, “IF there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, THEN make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Oh. Is that all? Paul obviously wasn’t a Presbyterian!

But he was Christ’s faithful evangelist. He was aware that all believers everywhere will not agree on all things, all the time. And he was aware of the fact that God is pushing us - through the example of Jesus Christ - to become more and more concerned about the needs of others and less and less concerned about getting our own way. And I believe that Paul wanted us to hear these words as an encouragement, because I believe that Paul knew very well that the grace of God is not a thing to have.

The grace of God, the forgiveness of God, the invitation of God is certainly given to us, but it is not a thing to have. The grace of God, the mercy of God, the ever lasting love of God is something that once received it can only be responded to. God’s love is an if/then proposition. And so whether we act physically or through benevolent gifts, we do so because we are compelled spiritually - working out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

That may not sound very encouraging - unless you consider someone swinging a stick at your head encouraging - but I believe it is. I once knew a man with the most well behaved teenage children you can imagine. This was before having my own, so I asked him about discipline. He said, “I would never strike my children. They are much more concerned with disappointing me than they ever would be if I beat them.” And it was true. As I got to know their family I learned that the Father instilled such love in his children that they had become motivated by their love for him. I took this for a model for my relationship with God, and Treva and I have taken it as a model for our own style of parenting. On a good day it works well for us. On a good day I act as though I am concerned with pleasing God.

On a good day I am like the son who tells his father, “No, I’m too busy doing all this other stuff that I think is important.” But then I become compelled by my love for God to do the work. Most days I am a bit like the son who said, “Yes!” and then got distracted by personal pursuits. The trick is to realize that we are each a bit of both. The trick is to realize that there is nothing about me that is any better than anyone - and I mean anyone - else. For me, that is actually more encouraging than expecting God’s love to make me better, more important, or somehow more needed by others.

You see - tax collectors, prostitutes, and all those others that the church wishes to reject or deny will surely enter the kingdom of heaven before I will, and I find that encouraging. I find it encouraging because it means that God’s grace is not dependent on me, but that I am dependent on it! I find it encouraging because it means that when I am focused on my thirst there is yet another voice that reminds me that God is busy. God is busy providing for my deepest need.

My deepest need is not to fill my own belly or satisfy my own thirst. My deepest need is to be filled by concern for the needs of others. My deepest need is to experience the love and presence of God through demonstrating the humility of Christ in my conversations, in my actions, and my invitation to others to join in mutual love and service.

I think that is your need, too. At least, it sure seems that way. Last Sunday Myrna made a plea for more peanut butter for the U.C.O., and it rained down like Mana! Sue Turner and the C.U.P.S. Elves have set a goal for 1,000 baskets this year, and they are well on their way. Yesterday there were members young and old doing everything from shredding old documents to cleaning out kitchen cabinets and even cleaning the old storage shed! While we were working a young man who was hungry came by. The one thing we know we can do is give someone something to eat - and that’s just what we did. Come to think of it, we were all fed yesterday - not just those that were present, but the whole of our community was strengthened by the actions of a few like minded folks.

Seeing their passion for moving Christ’s church along made me think that it is possible that we have been journeying in stages. It is possible that we have gotten stuck along the way and some of us have become overly concerned with our need for water. I know I have, and I’ll tell you why. Our cash flow is such that we are paying the bills. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that we do not have the cash flow to meet our budget for outreach.

Some of that is because we had a little bit of a slump in giving over the summer. Some of that is because giving normally takes a dip before the last quarter of the year and gets caught up by the end of the year. All of it will be taken care of in due time, if we attend to the One who is standing before us - waiting for us to strike the rock. All of it will be taken care of in due time, as we attend to the needs of the community God has called us to become, as we reach out to others in love and service, and as we allow the love of God to compel us to do the work we have been called to do.

Beloved of God, you will have to work out your own salvation in response to the grace you have received, but you are not alone - for surely the Lord is with us. Now to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
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