Seeking Freedom in the Wilderness

Seeking Freedom in the Wilderness

18th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Laura Kavanagh October 1, 2023 Proper

“Is God among us or not?” Some of us have been wondering that recently. Is the idea of collaborating and potentially combining our resources the direction that God would have us go? Are our individual congregations struggling so that we can come together as a renewed, stronger and more vital community of faith with a critical mass that will enable us to engage more fully in the ministry to which God calls us? Are we resisting the difficult questions or embracing them? Are we prepared for the wilderness of uncertainty that looms ahead – the loss and fear and sense of failure? Do we trust that God is with us – among us – or not?

This provocative question weaves itself through today’s readings. Our Exodus reading this morning reminds us of a familiar scene. The Israelites wanted out of Egypt. So, God, working through Moses, helped them get out. But once they were out, they began bellyaching. Expectations turned sour in the face of reality. The Israelites begin to quarrel and complain that Moses has led them on a death march.

They ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Each of us can tell similar stories, about when the reality didn’t live up to the advertising – how the relationship went south once the honeymoon was over. When a new minister arrives to provide leadership and care in a congregation, all too often that person is not perfect – never claimed to be – and the cracks in a community of faith that had been glossed over begin to show again.

In the wider world – in the political sphere – the safest prediction anyone could make is that after any election is over – whatever the outcome – the reality will not live up to the promises. But then, that is true of almost all advertising. The product seldom lives up to the hype. Like herbal tea – the smell is nearly always better than the taste. For his part, Moses appears frustrated at their impatience.

If you’ve ever been in a leadership role, or followed a leader, you’ll know how initial dreams and expectations tend to dry up in the desert of reality. Most often, God’s call is not to be a triumphant warrior riding into spiritual battle. The call is to keep on, living faith bit by bit and day by day – hanging in there, through forty years in the wilderness.

Crossing the Red Sea, finding manna and water – those are the easy parts. The toughest call to answer is God’s call to faithfulness.

The wilderness is no place to lose your way, but it’s a wonderful place to find it. The wilderness is the place of desolation and waste, a place hostile to human existence. It is an unforgiving place without the things needed for survival and life. And yet ever since a group of ex-slaves stumbled out of Egypt and into freedom, the wilderness is where the people of God have gone to find their way. Beyond the hunger and thirst – the dry desert and the awesome expanse of emptiness that stretch to heaven and back again, there is richness and blessing and a world filled with God.

It was to the desert that John the Baptist went and called out, “Here, in the wilderness, in this place make a straight path for God.” It was to the desert that Jesus went to be tempted and to prepare for his public ministry. It is to the desert that monks and hermits and even people much like you and I still go. There are treasures to be discovered if we have eyes to see.

So here is the whole congregation of the Israelites who have journeyed by stages as the Lord commanded – here they are at Rephidim – deep in the wilderness – in a place which shows up on no maps, even today. They were nowhere, and when they got there, right in the heart of nowhere, they set up camp. But there was a problem with this campsite – there was no water, not even bitter water. And the people were not pleased.

“Moses,” they cried, “give us water to drink.” The demand was direct and insistent. Should they not ask for something so basic? Should Moses, as their leader, not provide them with this? There was no thought of asking God. Despite the miraculous breakout from Egypt and the miracles of the past few weeks, the people were still not accustomed to looking to God to have their needs met. Moses hears their demand for water, but he turns the demand back on to the people. “Why are you arguing with me?” he asks. “Why are you testing God?” “Testing God? That thought never crossed our minds,” the people must have been saying. “We’re thirsty. Is that a sin?”

Moses sees that beyond their physical needs there is a theological problem. And though the two can never be wholly separated, they are equally serious. Moses sees that their questioning of him is really a way of questioning God. Is God really there? Can God really do something? In response to the conflict and irritation – in answer to their thirst – God miraculously provides water from a rock. And perhaps even more significant than the provision of water is the means by which God provides. The same staff used to strip God’s enemies in Egypt of drinking water now provides water for God’s covenant people. By having the elders as witnesses, the community is shamed for its forgetfulness. Just as God had the power to take away drinking water, the same God has the power to provide it.

Water and its potential to sustain or destroy life is a potent theme in Exodus. From baby Moses’ river-rescue that we explored at our picnic worship in August to the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea, to the Israelites thirst for water in this chapter, water imagery is present throughout the narrative. How do they know that God is among them? Because God continues to use elements such as water, which can give or take life, as a tool for life-giving acts on the way to the Promised Land.

So Moses talks with God and strikes the rock as God commands and water flows out for the people to drink. And then Moses does one more thing – he names the place where this episode occurs. Moses gets the last word, and he uses it to interpret what has happened. He calls the place Massah – which means testing and Meribah – which means quarreling, because for Moses none of this was about being thirsty and having no water – it was about the people of God questioning God’s very presence among them. Though they never used the words, Moses says that the people were asking the question, “Is God among us or not?”

That’s a good question to ask in the desert. Amid harshness and emptiness – is God really present at all? In the middle of muddles and messes and major disappointments, is God present as we seek to find our way? The hymn we are going to sing next has a wonderful phrase in it that interprets the wilderness as a place for the people to seek not only their way but their freedom. I wonder about the wilderness and the cry to allow the people their time in it. It seems that in our 21st century lives not only do we shy away from the wilderness, but we seem bent on obliterating it altogether. What does it do to our faith journey if the path is always groomed, weeded, smooth and comfortable? The hymn suggests that without wilderness we cannot see the light.

Even our efforts to control everything are seen as a type of wilderness. It seems that we must struggle and admit to our need of God. Recognizing that there is wilderness out there that we need to traverse, are we listening for God’s word and watching for God’s hand? Do we accept that we must be scattered in untamed places, removed from our zones of comfort and placed at dis-ease to be the people God needs us to be? If we manage and confine and contain our faith – if we say “no” to every suggestion of compromise or change – aren’t we resisting the very wilderness God calls us to explore – the very wilderness God invites us to journey in preparation for the life of promise offered by divine grace? Let us pray…

Great God of cloud and water, where is the wilderness through which we must wander? Help us to be open to the rugged way you set before us. Give us a clear voice to call on you when we are in need and wisdom to know that need when it arises. In this way O God, may we discover the freedom of abundant grace – living to serve others in your name. Amen.