Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13
First Congregational Church of ******, CT
September 28, 2008
A couple had two little boys who were always getting into trouble. Their parents knew that if any mischief occurred in their village, their sons were probably involved. The boys' mother heard that an elder in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her sons. The elder agreed, but asked to see them separately.
So, in the morning, the mother sent her youngest son first. The elder, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response.
So the elder repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?!!” Again the wide-eyed boy made no attempt to answer. The elder raised his voice and bellowed, “WHERE IS GOD?!” The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into a closet, slamming the door behind him.
When his older brother found him hiding, he asked, “What happened?” Gasping for breath, the younger brother replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think WE did it!”
I had posted this story on my weblog a couple of years ago. When I went looking for it on my blog, I typed in the words ‘where is God’ and saw entry after entry that contained that haunting phrase; mostly sermons I’ve written and preached but also some reflections on faith. It is a very human question, one that we often ask in unsure and difficult times, both personal and communal.
It seems we are always on the lookout for God to show up, wondering when and in what way. And like Moses, we do not get to see God coming but only recognize the Holy One after the fact. We see the wake in the water, the clouds moving off in the distance, the sun coming out after rain, and like a point on the map of our lives, we say, “There! God was there!” Anne Lamott in her book Grace (Eventually) quoted one of her friends as saying that believing in God isn’t the hard part, waiting on God is.
It is in this waiting that we meet the Israelites in this morning’s lectionary reading from the book of Exodus. They are waiting for God to show up in answer to their thirst. But they are not only very thirsty; they want to know if God is still there for them and does God still care. In this passage physical thirst and spiritual thirst are one and the same. The Israelites have been journeying in the wilderness, the desert, for forty years, which means enough years for children to be born and for those children to have families of their own. In the plea for water in the desert we can hear the echo of the psalmist’s cry, “My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”(1) The whole congregation of Israelites contends against God and against Moses: God who liberated the people from slavery in Egypt, Moses who led them to freedom. Yet when anxious and scared for their lives they have only a very human Moses at whom to hurl their anger and despair.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When congregations are anxious and scared, it can feel as though we only have each other and our leaders at whom to hurl our anger and despair. Yet what we all thirst for, what we long for is the closeness of God, the reassurance that we will come through the wilderness of the unknown and still recognize one another as brother and sister.
Simply put, we all long for love: the acceptance of who we are with all our imperfections; comfort and strength in the midst of struggle; the peace that comes with belonging and being known. Psychologist Gerald May wrote that “[there] is a desire within each of us, in the deep center of ourselves that we call our heart. We were born with it, it is never completely satisfied, and it never dies. We are often unaware of it but it is always awake. It is the human desire for love. Every person on this earth yearns to love, to be loved, to know love. Our true identity, our reason for being, is to be found in this desire.”
But like the Israelites at Massah, meaning ‘test’ or ‘proof’, and at Meribah, meaning ‘contention’ or ‘argument’, we often want proof of this love and we try to prove it by testing God’s love; we argue about who God loves and whom we should love. We contend with one another and with God as to how this love is to be revealed to us and among us. In a way, we can sound like children squabbling over which child Mom and Dad love more, when, in fact, all of the children are loved very much, just in different ways.
In a scene from the movie Contact two of the main characters are discussing the fact that 90-95% of the world’s population believes in some kind of higher power or supreme being. Ellie Arroway, a scientist, does not believe in God because she needs some proof of God’s existence. Her friend, Palmer Joss, a theologian, asks her, “Did you love your father?” Ellie, whose father died when she was a young girl, replies, “Of course, very much.” Palmer jars her certainty with the reply, “Prove it.”
We cannot prove the existence of God, nor should we. Looking for proof is like chasing after wind, as foolhardy as science looking for a unifying equation that will explain everything. Author Joseph Campbell wrote, "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." To me it seems that we yearn for God in the meaning of two questions, two mysteries, which as of now have no discernable answer.
The big picture questions are: How did this whole existence begin? How is it all going to end?
In the mystery of who we are, we ask: How did we as individuals come into existence? What happens to us when we die?
And a third that encompasses it all: How are we to live?
When I was in seminary I took a class in object psychology, the premise of which, as I recall, was this: when we are children, we treat everything around us, including people, as objects, as things we can manipulate to get what we want and need. Our development into mature people depends on how we are able to internalize those objects; that is, we learn to mother ourselves, father ourselves, befriend ourselves. We become able to take care of ourselves and help others, no longer needing to manipulate the world around us because we have become a part of it.
I have come to see our development, our evolution as human beings in a similar way. We objectify God because we are still learning how to live in the world. As I see it, we as a human species are somewhere in our adolescence. We still need our Parent to tell and show us how to live, how to be moral, ethical, loving, compassionate people, because in our development, we can be very much self-centered and self-absorbed; I know I was when I was a teenager. We try to break away from our Parent, but yet we don't know it all. As a species we're still very scared and anxious that one day we'll have to be grown-ups, be responsible and give up the unhealthy, often hurtful ways we try to fill our longing.
But one great day we will fully know what it means to be filled by God; we will have God's law of love written upon our hearts, we will have that same mind as Christ, we will be Spirit-led, having the same love for all people as we would want for ourselves. That is the day that the kingdom comes on earth. And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, we don't need to believe in God in order to be compassionate and loving. We need simply to do these things every day.
But for most of us it's not that simple. We need reminders to practice our compassion and our loving. And that is why we need church, why everyone needs a community of some sort to be accountable to for their actions. We do not work out our salvation in a vacuum nor solely on our own. We’re always bumping up against someone and their notion of what constitutes not only a human experience, but also an experience of God. If anything, we need at least to be forgiving. And I don't know how anyone comes by that naturally.
The church in Philippi received such a reminder from Paul while he was in prison, for they were contending against one another, as ones in the desert straying from the source, the well of compassion and love. Hear this paraphrase of the Philippians passage from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
Our desire, our yearning for God is God willing and working within us, at what will give God the most pleasure, which is all creatures of this earth living as close to God as can be. As it is printed on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, all our love, our stretching out, our hope, our thirst, God is creating in us so that God may fill us. . . .God is on the inside of the longing.(3)
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.
“Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
“What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.”(2)
In all our yearning for God, do we as congregations, as the Body of Christ, have the desire, the longing to be in the same mind as Christ? What is the motivation for our life together? Is it that our own needs will be met or is it the needs of all? We all yearn for God’s gifts of healing, wholeness, forgiveness, purpose and meaning in our lives; we all yearn for love. Is there a way that we can be those things for each other and for any, thus allowing that Christ-mind to inhabit us and work through us? Are we ready to be filled with God and all that goes with that?
Even though we contend with one another and with God, even though we may frustrate that mind of Christ, even though God may not show up on our timetable, still God does come to us. God’s mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. God comes to us in the life-giving grace of everyday living, sustaining us in the wilderness of the unknown. This grace, this mercy draws us together into community that we might be revelations of the very real love of God for the whole world. Amen.
1. Psalm 63: 1b, NRSV.
2. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), Philippians 2: 1-13.
3. Maria Boulding.