Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Basics: Water, Spirit, Honesty

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What is more basic to life than water? You might hear that question rising from our first reading—and from the daily news, national and international (even extra-terrestrial, as we keep looking for evidence of water on the moon as an indicator of life).

Migrating Israelites were looking for water to slake their thirst during their long seasons and years of wandering in the wilderness, searching for a new homeland. Thirst, profound thirst, did not bring out the best in them. Leaving Egypt, these Hebrew refugees had had a uniquely profound experience of water: as our psalm announces, God “split open the sea and let them pass through; God made the waters stand up like walls.” At that moment they knew without a doubt that God was with them.

But we witness a different moment in today’s portion from Exodus. These were not avid campers. These were folks who liked hot and cold running water. These were people many of us can relate to. They even asked a very modern question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”, indicative of how hard a pendulum can swing from facing too much water and so much grace all at once, to facing the absence of water and a strong sense of abandonment on a march through the desert. Even religious faith appears to hang on what’s in your canteen at the moment.

In this story of the migration of God’s chosen people, God keeps accommodating their needs, but only when those needs reach the proportion of crisis. It’s as if first the President must declare a federal disaster, then FEMA moves in. But in this story, the President, Moses, feels even more helpless than his people. They’re an organized mob. He’s surrounded by their anger. He’s the one who now most must behave as if the Lord is among them. He cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!”

There’s a passage that evokes sympathy for presidents.

The back-story in Exodus is how God loves Moses. God may have a demanding way of showing that love, but greater than the burdens placed by God on the shoulders of Moses is the power, the grace, the spirit with which God endows him. So at this critical moment God prompts Moses to surround himself with some of the elders of Israel (not to go it alone) and to lead that angry crowd to a certain rock at Horeb. “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing in front of you. Strike the rock, and let the people find evidence that I am among them.” There and then, as the psalmist sings, “God gave them drink as from the great deep.”

A legend sprang up among later rabbis, how that rock followed the Hebrew people throughout the rest of their journey. Perhaps they meant the memory of it never left them, but the tale they told for imaginative refreshment was that the rock went with them: a wonderful sacramental answer to the peeving question, “Is God with us or not?”

And if you think that’s an astonishing legend, you should hear what St. Paul makes of it in one of his letters: “And the rock was Christ!” I’m not making that up. That is what Paul said, perhaps his way of declaring that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the wandering, the thirsty, all whose resources are dried up.

May countless Somali refugees, fleeing drought and famine, find him with them in their desert migration. And victims of drought in the American Southwest, their homes in ashes after wildfires, may they find him in their desert.

Meanwhile, we in the Northeast are awash as rivers rise and super-saturated air shows us what monsoons can do to a settled way of life. If three days without water can kill a person, one day of a tropical storm making landfall can devastate the vulnerable parts, the vulnerable people, of a community.

What is more central to life than water? Spirit. That is one truth we discover, after a disaster. When a river overflows its banks, neighboring victims experience a flooding of anxiety, a drowning of hope, a washout of energy, the components of depression. As spirit sinks in people whose homes were submerged, the supportive spirit of the wider community helps carry them.

This is what St. Paul talks about when he writes to the church at Philippi, in a different crisis, a time of persecution when the emperor’s men imprisoned and executed Christians who refused to treat the emperor as if he were a god and not a man. Listen to the simple but powerful dimensions of spirit that Paul names and commends among the Philippians: encouragement… consolation… love… sharing…compassion… sympathy…unity… humility… By these spiritual powers a community comes together, people look beyond their own interests to the interests of others. As if defying gravity, people learn to regard what is best in others, what unites them, not separates them. A common mind emerges, and it is one of self-emptying service; it is the mind of Christ.

This is not only Paul’s experience in the first century: it is ours in this community in this 21st century, on the heels of a hurricane.

More central to life than water is spirit. But our hierarchy of values is not yet complete. We take Jesus’s little parable to heart: Honesty is also central to life.

Jesus turns the tables on an argumentative gaggle of clergy in the temple. They try to corner him into naming the authority by which he heals and teaches. What are your credentials, they ask him. Who gave you this authority?

He replies to their question with one of his own. It is designed to put them in a bind. His question takes them right into the muddy waters of the Jordan River. He has stood there, but they have not. Countless other people have stood there, experiencing the baptism of John the Baptizer, an open-air ethical-spiritual revival movement that would have given those temple clergy the heebie-jeebies. But now, when Jesus asks these establishment figures whether John baptized by divine authority or just by his own will, these men cannot answer Jesus. They don’t believe for a moment that God would utilize the outspoken loose-cannon unordained likes of John the Baptist—but they won’t say so in public because they fear alienating the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, in whose eyes John was popular.
When these men refuse to answer Jesus, he refuses to answer them.

But he does tell them a parable, a pithy little story designed to tweak their imagination enough to wonder what he meant by it.

Two sons of one father. The father approaches one son and orders him to work in the family vineyard. “I will not,” this first son sasses back; but later he changes his mind and goes to work.

Then the father says the same to the other son. “I go, sir,” he answers, but he does not go.

“Which of these boys does the will of his father?” asks Jesus. “ The one who contradicts his father but then acts to honor his will, or the one who claims to honor his will but never acts?”

That’s easy, answer the temple clergy, “The first.” But it’s not so easy, is it? Of what does honesty consist? Action, not talk. Remember the touchstone question of Micah the prophet:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
--Micah 6:6-8

A similar message is remembered on the lips of the prophet Amos:

“Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
--Amos 5:23-24

Jesus drives home his point. Honesty is the paramount value of the spirit, honesty is required in the kingdom of God. But Jesus finds more honesty among tax collectors and prostitutes than among the established religious community.

It takes honesty to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, placing of first importance what matters most, letting go of the rest. It takes honesty to recognize our need for God. And honesty to recognize that God is at work in us, making us able to see and make our best choices, avoiding the worst. Perhaps that gives us a working definition of honesty: It is the courage to choose what is best, what is true.

Honesty is of paramount importance now as our nation struggles with recession, as too many leaders appear to be bent on trapping one another in corners, turning tables on one another—even at the expense of such urgent business as funding FEMA.

Honesty is needed in this community as we come to terms with what is happening at The Spruces—for mobile homeowners to discern what is in their own best interest, for Morgan Management to come to fair terms with respect to their own future and the future of the residents, and for our wider community to recognize how best to support Spruces residents, and respond to the urgent need for additional affordable housing that is both adequate and safely located.

It may be that we feel like the psalmist who cried, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck!” But we are here today to affirm that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the thirsty, to renew all who think their resources are dried up, to support us all and teach us how to carry one another.