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Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
October 1, 2017 — 17th Sunday after Pentecost
There are some times when we don’t think we have a choice…or any choices. Our good intentions have brought us to the end of the road.
Moses didn’t want this ministry. He was not strong enough for it, good enough for it, worthy of it. And he stuttered. Now it had come to this.
There they were, away from the army of Pharaoh, in the middle of the desert into which they had fled.
They had left a lifetime of oppression. They had run from the cruelty of a master who thought he owned them. They were now free …but free for what?
You still have to eat. You still have to hydrate yourself…even in a desert…especially in a desert. Had they allowed their idealism to lead them into a trap of existential proportions?
Moses had asked them, “What is life without freedom?” But now they asked him: “What is freedom without life?”
Leadership is about vision, but it is also about how to arrive at that vision. Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die? What have you gotten us into?
I have been watching the Vietnam War series on PBS. It is amazing how Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon all agreed on one thing: there was no way to win it…and they all got us in deeper and deeper.
Franklin Roosevelt didn’t get us into it, but he rebuffed the overtures of a leader of Vietnam who greatly admired him and had a vision of turning the country into a democracy like the United States had. The leader’s name was Ho Chi Minh.
By the end of the war we didn’t know what we were doing there… but we were pretty sure it wasn’t a good enough reason. All the Presidents had other agendas, and they all had to delay or abandon their hopes. The war they always thought was a side issue kept coming front and center.
But Moses had a good enough reason to lead the nation of Israel out into the wilderness. Human freedom was at stake…the ability to have dreams and act on them was forbidden to them. Were they merely so many heads of cattle or were they human beings?
Moses doesn’t know what to do… so he models for us what we should do when we are perplexed by a problem. We are to go to a private place, out of the reach of friends or enemies who would distract us, and ask for help from God.
I got to spend this week at the Flathead Camp with 20 other people who attended the Academy for Spiritual Formation there. There were people from Tennessee and Washington, Georgia and California, and they were all kind enough to praise the beauty of the place I call home.
We were all stepping away from our daily routine to listen to talks, take walks along the lake shore, visit among ourselves about the ideas… the visions…we were seeing anew or for the first time.
We sang together and prayed together. Shared our new understandings and our stories.
We shared the common meal of communion with each other every day.
And we were all feeling stronger for having done it. We were ready to look at our lives anew…through the lens of new ideas…with the help of new friends. Every day the insights were deeper, the air was fresher and there was more laughter. One of the shyest people I have ever known was sharing comfortably by the time we were done.
We were refreshed…renewed …rebooted. Coming together as one in Jesus’ name multiplied each person’s energy. We were there for a good cause, and we were with good people.
Our purpose was an energizing one, our Savior was a life-giving friend, and out of many places and many understandings we found a common ground of hope and reason.
In World War II, there was a sense of common purpose that is impossible for us to understand today. The reason was clear and everyone was willing to sacrifice to achieve the result they wanted: Freedom.
The end we were seeking did not justify the means. The ends were worthy in their own right…and when the ends are worthy, the Lord provides the means.
Maybe Moses knew this, too. Maybe that is the reason he went to the quiet place to talk to God and to listen to God.
They are about to stone me for doing what you have called me to do. What do I do now?
We practiced contemplative prayer at the Camp this week. We sat in comfortable chairs with our feet flat on the ground, we assumed a good posture, and we relaxed all the places of tension in our bodies as we encountered them.
The old saying, “Don’t just sit there. Do something.” was turned around. We didn’t just do something, we sat there, ready to encounter the 1,001 thoughts that went through our minds in twenty minutes.
We did not respond to any of them …or we resisted the temptation to respond. What we learned was that we were processing hundreds of thoughts every ten minutes and if we did not sit and look at them calmly a dispassionately, they would rule us, not we them.
We would become the twitchy, anxious people who had come to camp on Sunday, seeking a deeper understanding and a calmer spirit. But when we did sit and look at them…give them to God for God to help us with them…we also knew that we emerged from our prayer time refreshed, relaxed and rebooted…ready to take on the next challenge life might throw at us.
Jesus is confronted in our Gospel reading today by the powers that be, asking him who gave him the authority to do the things he was doing. They were trying to disqualify him.
He was creating a stir, shaking things up, always siding with the people…their people…giving them hope that they could be as free as he was. “Who gives you that authority?” they asked him.
I will answer your question if you answer mine, he replies. “Who gave John the right to baptize? Was it God in heaven or merely some human being?”
The priests calculated the chances of winning the hearts of the people if they said God and if they said it was merely some human being. They lost both ways, like the Presidents who got us into Vietnam, and eventually they simply said, “We do not know.”
Isn’t that something they should have known if they were to stand by without protest when John was beheaded? If he was from God, shouldn’t they have done something to try to save him or to express their disapproval?
If you are going to ask a nation of people to come out into the desert, shouldn’t you know why they are making that sacrifice? Moses knew the reason, but he needed time alone with God to see the way.
As he sat quietly, opening himself up to all the possibilities, answers came to him. This is the model, by the way, I think, for the prayer we have been saying all year: “Lord, what is it that you want to do through me today?”
How are we to arrive at the promised land of more ministries …and significant ministries…in our community? Enough answers came to enough people that we have received enough three-year pledges to get there.
I think it is uncanny that Jesus presented the priests with the answer to their question in his question. Did his authority come from God or did it come merely from a human being?
Then he pivoted with the truth that John the Baptist had given the people real hope, a clear vision, to prepare them to hear the voice of God in their own lives.
He was called be God and obeyed God and the people were able to see that in him…even though the priests, evidently, were not.
He says look what John did and you will know where he got his authority …but implied in that statement is a road map for the priests…if you want to know whereby authority comes from, look at what I do. Is it merely a human power that can produce such results, or do you see the hand of God in it, too?
God has gotten Moses to lead God’s people into the wilderness with only one promise: I will be with you. Moses asks God to be with him this day and the Lord tells him to take witnesses and find a certain rock…then, simply, “Strike the rock.”
What flows from the rock is water, the basis for all life as we know it on this planet. God is faithful. God is with us. God is love…the power above all powers in the universe.
We are called to pray. We are called to listen, with all the love of God given to us by the scriptures. We are called to do, with all the faith of Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Rachel, Moses and Miriam.
God will be with us as we listen humbly. God is speaking to us, if we will only listen. God is with us, if only we will hear God’s voice, go to the place he sends us…and strike the rock. Amen.