Some names have been changed . . .
We have spent the last couple weeks looking at the nature of mercy and the nature of grace and their relationship in God’s economy. To remind those of you who have been here and to catch those of you absent up, mercy is the withholding of punishment deserved and grace is the giving of something unearned. The two often are spoken of as if they are synonyms. In reality, though, they are significantly different. The parable of mercy in Matthew this month was the king’s willingness to forgive the 10,000 talent debt of the one slave, and the parable of grace this month was the vineyard owner’s willingness to pay all who worked in his field a full day’s labor, even though some worked only an hour. I suppose that it is good that we have looked at mercy and grace as we arrived to this week. Our common life together, and our reading from Exodus this week, certainly remind us of both.
The story today is well-known. After whining about bread and meat and Egyptian armies and seas and a hot sun and dark nights, the people of Israel decide to complain about the apparent lack of water. Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? Is there a whinier group of people who have ever walked the earth? They have witnessed all these miracles after the ten plagues have been visited on Egypt and still they do not trust God. Moses, of course, takes the 21 century approach to leadership. Why are you all mad at me? It’s not my fault! All kidding aside, Moses does remind the people that he is simply following God’s instruction. Eventually, their frustration rises to the point that he fears he will be stoned. So he prays to the Lord.
God tells Moses to take some elders with him and go to the rock at Horeb. There, God will be standing in front of him as he strikes the rock. Water will come out of the rock, so that the people may drink. Not unsurprisingly at this point in the Exodus story, Moses obeys and God acts, although the tradition in the Church will say that Moses struck the rock twice and thus earned exclusion from the Promised Land. Perhaps more surprisingly to us is the name that Moses and the people give to the location. You and I would likely call it “the rock from which the cool waters flowed” or something along those lines. Moses calls the place Massah and Meribah because Israel quarreled and tested the Lord. Think of that, the site of this miracle was named Quarreling and Testing. Those are not particularly good names. Neither was Israel’s behavior appropriate, particularly given what it had seen.
If you were God, how would you have responded to this whining and complaining? I’m telling you, God is way more patient than I. I think, had I His job, they would have gotten the lightning bolt instead of the thirst-quencher. They had their freedom, they had mana, they had quail, they had a defeated super-power, what more did they need? Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize we are no different. In fact, we are worse. We have the Resurrection upon which to draw hope, yet how often do we whine and complain about our circumstances? We know that God has raised Christ as the first-fruits of His promise; far too often, though, we act as if Jesus might still be in that tomb outside Jerusalem. Recognizing that trait in ourselves, we begin to get a glimpse as to what we are really seeking when we whine and the true nature of God’s mercy and grace in our lives.
Israel simply wanted to know that God was still with them. Their fear is certainly understandable. If God were really God, why would He ever let His people become the slaves of others? In many ways, their behavior is not unlike that of a toddler who ventures out but returns to the warm embrace of mom before venturing further afield before returning . . . you get the idea. Many of you are parents and have witnessed that process of exploration. We are not so different. Each of us tries to find God when beset upon by the vicissitudes of the world. How many of us have wondered where God was as we battled cancer or heart disease or some other significant illness? How many of us have wondered whether we have been cut off from God’s blessings when we faced unemployment or some other privation? How many of us have wondered if He still loves us when the rest of the world seems to be hell-bent upon using us rather than loving us for who we are? How many times have we railed against God for untimely deaths or sufferings? How many of us have tried to barter with God so that we might make it through another bare or thorny patch? Each of us, in our own ways, have experienced a wilderness or three in our own journeys. How have we responded in those wildernesses? Chances are we have whined, we have tested, we have quarreled, we have grumbled. We have faced the desert patches of our lives focused not on the promises and glory of God but on our perceived needs and desires. We forget that we are being led by our Father who will not fail to get us to the Promised Land of His eternal kingdom, no matter the thorns and deserts of our lives, if we will simply follow where He leads.
I stand as the chief quarreler and tester among you. Those of you who have served on the Vestry these last eight years can testify to the fact that I am loudest when it comes to wondering why God won’t add a couple more pledging units. You are chuckling, but you know it is true. How many times have we grumbled about our work and been caught up in the notion that it was in any dependent upon us? How many times have we said “If we only had (fill in the blank), then we could really do some good things for God,” as if He needed anything from us but a faithful response. Yes, Jacob is my personal saint, as he is for a number of you. Yes, we are no different than our spiritual ancestors depicted in this story. We have inherited their quarreling and their testing. Thankfully and mercifully, He responds as is His nature rather than we deserve or we would respond to ourselves. In fact, He responds abundantly, just as He did with fresh water at the rock at Horeb.
I was reminded of that truth yet again this week. I received an e-mail from one of the clergy that works for the Archbishop of Canterbury asking me if I could, on short notice, find my way to the Vatican share some of our stories and to help begin crafting the Church’s response to the evil of human trafficking. I can see not everyone has heard the news yet. Believe me, I felt the exact same way as you do now. I can remember some seven years ago telling the Vestry that I wanted to continue in this ministry. We talked about the audacity of the endeavor. Little old St. Alban’s, chock full of a $100k budget, was going to begin fighting a $33 Billion industry run by organized crime. Those of you on that Vestry probably remember me saying that if we made a difference in this fight, the world would know it was God. This was like David and Goliath but on HgH or some other performance enhancing drug. Yet, look what happened.
We were named a Jubilee site, in part, because of our willingness to engage in this battle and to teach others about its existence. Your priest was named a Church Fellow because, as Donald once put it too me, it was either the greatest scam or the single greatest evil facing our society today. And I am very conscious that it is the efforts of you that led to that point. I did little more than help encourage some of you and cheer you on as you took your station in this battle. We baptized Connie’s CDO (her OCD is alphabetized) and are using it to collect certain information and, better still, cross-reference the heck out of it. We took Sue and Robin’s gift of gab, and turned them loose in locations to speak with any who would talk to them. Jane, Vern, and Charlie, in particular, stood watch and prayed over those who slogged in this ministry. Intercessors covered all of them in prayers. Cathy determined to teach her colleagues in the ER and Critical Care setting about the signs. We have helped push through a new law for the state of Iowa. We continue to work with members of our legislature to improve the current law. We have called to task those politicians that served their own interests rather than those of the common good. We have attracted members of other denominations to our efforts. We have hosted a large conference and a more focused conference at St. Ambrose and Genesis Health Systems. And everyone who has prayed or has given of their treasures has had a hand in this ministry. Everyone who has bought or sold a shirt has had a hand in this ministry. Everyone who has passed out a card has had a hand in this ministry.
Now, I get to go and share with the wider Church what you are doing in this fight! I can’t speak to the minds of the Vestry seven years ago, but I am willing to bet a ton of money that none of them were expecting anything like this to happen. I know I wasn’t. Yet, it mirrors the story from Exodus today. Like them, we are concerned about paying our bills, about maintaining our buildings, about wearing out our volunteers. And God has gone before us and glorified Himself in us and in our efforts to serve Him in the lives of others! As a group, we have witnessed something as miraculous in our eyes as the water from the rock was to the eyes of Israel. My guess is, in the days and weeks to come, we will still find ways to grumble and to test Him, myself included. Thankfully, the Lord is gracious and shows extreme patience with His toddlers.
I say that having already witnessed the lesson for myself. It would be easy for me as a priest to pat myself on the back and think my job is over. I mean, how many clergy get invited to do what I have been asked to do? Yet God is so faithful that He gave me the spiritual wedgie I needed before I ever got too full of pride. I stopped by Thistle Farms to share with Becca and the girls the news. Becca was back on the road, so I talked with Jordan and a couple of other ladies. Jordan, as you might imagine, thought my news for Shawna was just too cool. For those of you who do not remember Shawna from our January conference, Shawna was the lady who had been convicted 162 times before a judge asked her if she had chosen her life. Shawna shared how judge 1 had really crushed her spirit with his pontification from the bench. She learned from him that judges “don’t give a crap” about the people in front of them, just like her pimp had said. Maybe Robin or Connie or Cathy remembers the exact number, but Shawna faced male and female judges in more than thirty states. Anyway, a judge had heard her story here in Iowa and wanted to take steps to see it never repeated in our state. My guess is that she might even consider this her personal pool at Horeb from which she can draw water. Given his influence and eyes, and his wife, I have no doubt that God is already beginning to redeem that cross in her life! Nor do any of those who heard the story.
As we were laughing about the greatness of God and His attention to the details of all our lives, another lady had walked by and stopped to listen to us. As you might imagine, we were laughing and rejoicing and praising God. “Mary” interrupted and asked if this happens all the time? “Do people come in off the street and share stories like this all the time?” Jordan answered her that it did not happen all the time, but enough to help keep them focused on the task at hand. Jordan chatted a few more minutes and headed off to eat. Mary hung around and asked me if I was sure God redeemed everything. I told her I was. She asked if I had any advice. I asked her if she was new to the program. She nodded. I told her my advice was like my advice to parishioners and others who drift into my office—stick to Him. I told her that I had no idea about her past, but I was sure there were going to be some shadows and wildernesses and deserts and temptations ahead. We talked about a few specific ones. I told her that it was worth sticking to the program because God was faithful far beyond our expectations! My stories were certainly proof of that, and I had zero doubt that our Lord wished to write her and her wilderness experiences into His redemptive story. She asked me how I could be so sure, and I reminded her that the Cross was proof of His love for her, for me, and for all whom we encounter in life, even the people who rejected Him and enslaved her or used her. Tears flowed for a bit. She thanked me and headed off, and one of the other leaders there remarked that if she could have chosen one person to hear the stories and the voice of the outsider that day, it would have been “Mary.” As I so often have to tell people she told told me, “you have no idea how much she needed to hear that now, Father.” So did I. God reminded me that it was our faithful, persevering service in His name to those forgotten and neglected by the world that had earned that first blessing of the day.
Did Israel really believe that God was leading them into the desert to die? Some would answer that the question is rhetorical or hyperbole, but I wonder. How many times have I complained about the wildernesses through which He has led me? How many times have I griped about the deserts through which He guided me? How many times have you complained about yours as well? How often have we complained together about our shared experiences? Maybe we are far more like the people of Israel during the Exodus than we would like to think? Maybe that superiority we feel is a construct of our own minds rather than a reflection of reality and what He sees? The great news, the Gospel news, is that He paid the ultimate price for each of us knowing just how quarrelsome we would be, how many times we would be tempted to test Him! Better still, He knows what we need to serve Him and to glorify Him.
Brothers and sisters, it is important to remember that our Father in heaven sees the path we must take. He knows the destination and He knows the obstacles. When we find ourselves in those places of testing, in those places of desert dryness, in those canyons of wilderness, we need to remember that He sees even when we do not. He has staked His life and His reputation on His ability to get us to that Holy City where wildernesses and deserts cannot be found. Perhaps, rather than whining about the next circumstance that suggests He has gotten us lost, we should look a little closer and listen a little more intently. He is already standing there ahead of us, ready to remind us yet again of His unfailing love for each one of us and of His incredible power to redeem all the circumstances in our lives to His glory!