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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


Is the Lord Among Us Or Not?

Exodus 17:1-7

15th Sunday after Pentecost - Year A

September 25, 2011

The Bible provides us with an extraordinary collection of psychological case studies--just in Exodus 17! The Lord delivers, then leads the people through a parched, perilous zone. So what does verse 2 tell us? "Therefore--therefore!--the people found fault with--not God, but Moses!" What's the term for that? Transfer? Scapegoating? That awful habit of pointing our blame at the wrong person that plagues relationships and sours religious life--although often we do the Israelite blame game in reverse: some minister misbehaves, abuses trust, or some church member acts atrociously, and people find fault with God and choose to disbelieve.

Let this be said: faultfinding is no big achievement. I know people who seem quite proud of their ability to detect flaws in the other person--although it occurs to me, as I say this, that I'm one who finds fault with...faultfinders. Obviously, we are terribly flawed, broken people. Rather famously in 1908 when a newspaper posed the question What's wrong with the world? the shortest, and wisest response was this: Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton. Christianity actually encourages faultfinding; we provide weekly and even daily training in faultfinding--we call it confession. Oh Lord, from whom no fault is hidden... Search me, see if there be any wicked way in me. Isn't that kind of the point of Christianity and perhaps all religions worth bothering about? Forgiveness, some measure of healing, even humility?

Moses hears their murmuring, then turns to God in frustration: What shall I do with this people? Notice he disowns them. Instead of what shall I do with my people, he says this people. Notice the little two-letter word in this frustrated question: What shall I do with this people? Surely, we can do something. I can fix the other guy, I can manage things. That's so cocky. So American. Love isn't doing with people. Love accepts the otherness of the other. We don't aim to fix, we don't rush in to do for the other person. We love, we find the way to see light shining in the other person. Instead of pleading Lord have mercy on me, it's Lord have mercy on him, on us.

There is so much doubt. They ask, Is the Lord among us or not? Some people see doubters and wish to fix them. But Is the Lord among us or not? is a good question. I'm not sure how it felt to ask it in the Bronze Age; but in 2011, there is no presumed truth--all the fab, hip books question God and the Bible, brilliant scientists peer through the Hubble telescope and see nothing, the world's in such a mess... Nietzsche, Darwin, Einstein, Dan Brown and their large, loud company are not the best friends of faith. We know from experience that belief is hard, that God often seems to have walked off the stage. What better question could there be? Is the Lord among us or not?

Exodus 17 says, They put the Lord to the proof...and what's astonishing is that God doesn't seem to mind in the least. God seems to welcome the challenge. Thomas doubts that Jesus is risen, and Jesus doesn't say 40 Lashes for the Doubter!  He says, Look, touch, see for yourself, test it out. We get this idea that matters of faith can't be proven, that the brain and faith are distinct realms. No wonder our spirituality is irrelevant to the real world! God welcomes a sifting of the evidence; God loves hard questions. God revealed God's self to Israel and in the person of Jesus in history, and history is on our side. This stuff in the Bible really happened, although skeptics will find it hard to accept anything beyond human control, outside cause and effect, what we can do--which is precisely why skeptics miss out on what they want the most, as we will see in a moment.

Now here's the wrinkle in this story and in our lives that really matters. The Israelites are simply trying to survive. Survival is no small thing; and, in fact, we find ourselves far more intrigued by survival than we care to admit. The film 127 Hours shows us the story of Aron Ralston, who winds up severing his own arm in order to escape a canyon in Utah where he is hopelessly trapped. The bestselling book Unbroken tells the incredible saga of Louis Zamperini, who survived a crash in the Pacific, weeks on a raft battling sharks and Japanese planes, and then months of torture in a prison camp. I have met Holocaust survivors, including a woman whose parents, in desperation, hid her in a potato sack when she was three years old, tossed it onto the back of a truck. She's a neighbor of mine now in Charlotte.

I recall when I was younger, and more foolish, preaching a sermon that poked fun at mere survival. I said if all you are doing is surviving, that's pretty lame; or if a church is merely surviving, that's a waste. But survival is underrated--until you think you might not survive.  The doctor says, "It's malignant; there's a 30% chance of survival" or "We predict you have six months to three years to live." Now when that happens, your full time business is survival, and you want nothing more than one more time to stick your feet in the ocean or tuck your son into bed.

I once pastored a church with rapidly shrinking membership, in a dangerous neighborhood, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy--and I had to sit through demoralizing pep talks for the clergy fussing at any churches in so-called "maintenance mode," for we were supposed to grow! That church survived, barely, by the skin of its teeth, and I think God was glorified, for in that place that might have shut down, at least some people kept showing up, kept the lights on and perhaps--perhaps--answered, in that cynical neighborhood, the question, Is the Lord among us or not? 

But we are wired to want more than mere survival. Not many people want to survive, if they are immobile or can't converse or laugh. We are the peculiar, tortured, wonderful creatures who always itch for more, more love, more meaning. There's some dissatisfaction that gnaws at us, and I believe this craving of transcendence, this reaching beyond survival, is God calling us home; and it may be our best answer to the question Is the Lord among us or not? It may be the ultimate proof--if there is such a thing within our own souls--of the reality of God.

The people of Israel found fault with Moses, with God, and probably, somewhere deep inside, with themselves. God's response? It's all grace, it's all mercy. They survive to live another day to try to grasp the unfathomable, the presence of God that isn't a flashing light or a winning lottery ticket, but the mysterious presence of God noticed in the silence, perhaps even in the eyes of one another.
I wonder if the reason we look for proof, the reason we find fault with others, with God, with ourselves, and the reason we want to survive, and yet virtually demand more than mere survival, is that the universe is about nothing more and nothing less than grace, and grace is in the heart of God, not in our hands. When Dante thought about creation, he spoke of "the Love that moves the stars." When the Beatles thought about Vietnam, the other troubles of the world, they sang, "All you need is love." Beth Nielsen Chapman sang, "All that matters in the end is how we love," and the Bible's most famous verse is "For God so loved the world." I know this kind of talk is risky; we get sentimental and sappy and absurdly confused about love. But the love that is the grace of God is hard for us to grasp, because we are graspers, we want to do something with this people, we want to find fault with what can't really be the unconditional regard in God's heart for me, for that guy over there. We think we might cause God to love us, but the cause of grace is found only in God.
 
God doesn't mind being put to the proof. Here's what happened around the year 30 A.D.  Jesus found himself in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews remembered and celebrated the gift of water in the wilderness. We can envision the scene:  all the pilgrim throng, the poor peasants who had journeyed there from all over the place, gathered at the foot of Mt. Zion, where the spring Gihon spouts water that becomes the pool of Siloam. The priest would dip a golden pitcher into the water, and they would process up the hill toward the temple, singing Psalms, waving branches cut from the trees, and when the priest would get to the summit, he would pause for silence, then pour the water out on the ground. This year, Jesus was in that crowd, and from the sidelines, he spoke up, and said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink." And then John chapter 7 adds some mystifying words about "Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water."  I think John was anticipating what was to come, when Jesus had just breathed his last, and the soldier pierced his side with a spear, and not just blood but also water, living water, baptismal water, poured out. For God so loved the world...If anyone is thirsty, let him come.
 
Louis Zamperini knew thirst out in the Pacific, but then after the war he came forward during Billy Graham's first big revival in Los Angeles and accepted Christ--and was immediately cured of his nightmares and alcoholism. Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand. Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow.
 
Those words are from a hymn, and what is a bit surprising, at least to me, is that way back in Old Testament times, we know the people sang about this moment in the wilderness, when the people murmured and found fault and put the Lord to the test. We have not one but five Psalms that put the drama of this crazy encounter in the desert to music, Psalms 78, 81, 95, 105, and 106! You'd think you'd sweep such embarrassing moments under the carpet, but Israel sang of their failure and of the grace and healing waters. Maybe the proof is in the singing. Steve Martin once realized that the religious people have so much good music, so he wrote the first ever atheist hymn--the entire atheist hymnal on a single page.  "Atheists don't have no songs! Christians have their hymns and pages," he sang. "Baptists have their rock of ages, no one ever wrote a tune for godless existentialism, atheist songs add up to nada, but they do have Sundays free." It's hilarious, but let's face it: atheists don't have no songs. But we sing; and it is the music, raising voices together that moves us, that defines our innermost being. Slaves survived--but they did more than survive--by singing Soon ah will be done a-wid de troubles ob de worl--goin' home to live wid God! One of my favorite hymns is all about grace, the cure of all fault, thirst quenched, survival and much more: Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in me; let the water and the blood from thy wounded side which flowed be of sin the double cure. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. When my eyes are closed in death, Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.
 
About 45 minutes from my house, there is an old Catholic abbey. In the sanctuary is an extraordinary baptismal font. Its large, rough stone, as it turns out, once was a trading block upon which slaves were sold at auction. The inscription says, "Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, men become free children of God." Free children. We love our children. We give them water to drink; and when they cry, or behave in unruly ways, we scoop them up in our arms and cradle them until they feel safe again.
 
Is the Lord among us or not? If we are made in the image of God, and if Jesus is the perfect image of God, and if we are now the Body of Christ, the answer rests with the people of God, being the free children of God. To say God is known in the community of faith feels a little bit hokey to me, but God did make us social animals. Jesus did compare the kingdom to parents and children, coworkers and friends. When we love, when we are the recipients and also the vehicles of grace, when we touch anyone who is in need, Christ becomes palpably present. Christ "happens."  The healing waters flow.

My wife's grandfather, Dr. Charles Stevens, was a Baptist preacher who wrote a book about the Israelites in the wilderness. I love her personal copy; on the cover page is this inscription from the author: "To our dear granddaughter, precious and promising." This is what I've started calling her around the house: "Precious!?! Promising!?!" How lovely: that somebody looks at you and declares that you are precious and promising, which I suspect is an echo of what God would inscribe on our souls. Dr. Stevens exegeted Exodus 17 and rightly criticized Israel's carnality, ingratitude and insensibility to the Lord's goodness. But then he added this wise observation: "Man's extremity became God's opportunity. Grace operates where nothing else can serve. The cause of grace is found only in God himself."

And what must have made the Israelites say, "Oh, my goodness," was the fact that the water they were thirsty for was right there, just under the surface, all along. God's grace, the love, is there. We don't have to create it, we couldn't create it, it's just there, set loose only when there is a fracture, a break in the surface, a fissure in the hard rock of our controlled reality. Rock of Ages, cleft for me, cleft for us, let the healing waters flow, the double cure; nothing in my hand I bring, only to thy cross I cling. Atheists don't have no songs; but we sing, the last best proof that the Lord is indeed among us.

Let us pray. Almighty and gracious God, unbelievably you look at us as precious and promising. We want to survive, but we want to do more than just survive. We want to know your love, your grace, to be your body, to receive the healing water. This is our blessing. In Jesus' name. Amen.

 


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