Sunday, October 1, 2023
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Is the Lord among us or not?

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Exodus 17:1-7

“Is the Lord among us or not?” That’s the question the people of Israel were asking as they wandered in the wilderness. What a profound question it is! Is the Lord among us or not is a question that rings out over the millennia and one that people often ask.

Since I have not spent any time on the Exodus story that we have been reading for the past several weeks let us take a moment to rewind the story and bring you up to speed.

The past several weeks have been stories of thirst, hunger and thirst again. Back a few weeks ago they were thirsty and Moses finds a spring but the water is bitter. God tells Moses to throw a stick into the water and it becomes drinkable and they are satisfied. Then a week ago we had the story about God providing quails and manna for their hunger. This week they are again thirsty. God sends Moses out into the wilderness, instructs him to tap a specific rock and water gushes out. Again, they have water. Moses then names the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God which is what those two words mean.

The Israelites seem to need physical reassurance that God is present. That proof comes in the form of food and water. So one question for us to ask is what proof do we tend to want from God that proves God is with us, loves us, and how to we get that proof?

Now I am painting the wilderness as a negative place and many people consider wilderness time as negative. However, a wilderness experience can also be one of great growth and development. My time on the Camino was in many respects a wilderness time. That is ultimately what the 40 years of Israel’s wander is all about. Out of this crucible the nation of Israel is formed. Without the teachings of their wilderness time, they might not have succeeded. This is why the Exodus story is the most important story for Jews today. This wilderness time defines and continues to inspire them.

We have forgotten that in a large part of the world a time in the wilderness is part of the process of growing up. American Indian males would be sent into the wilderness as adolescents to find themselves. They had a quest that resulted in their finding their adult name and claim their adult identity. We have lost that sense of quest in the wilderness in our modern world. We seek to shield our children from wilderness experiences and I wonder if that is always the best plan? I believe that as a result we do not know how to handle the wilderness experiences that confront us in our lives.

Jesus spends time in the wilderness before he begins his ministry. It is a time of testing, temptation and challenge. This wilderness time prepares him for the difficulties of his ministry between his baptism and crucifixion. I believe his wilderness time is one of the most important formative experiences for him and one we just sort of pass over without much consideration.

When we find ourselves in a time of challenge, a wilderness time when life seems overwhelming, we may find ourselves asking God the “why” question. Why is the happening? Or we ask the “Where are you God” question.  Sometimes we get angry with God like the Israelites are with Moses and yes with God as well. Now first of all it is perfectly all right to get angry with God. God is used to it. People have been angry with God since humanity showed up on this planet. God has heard it all and God can take it.

Sometimes like a child having a temper tantrum though, God will wait until we start to calm down before anything happens. A basic teaching of St. Ignatius is important to remember at this time. Ignatius in his spiritual exercises writes about times of consolation and times of desolation. Times of consolation are those wonderful warm moments when we know without doubt that God is with us. Life is good, but we also often forget to notice how God is present in the good times. That is why the Ignatian Examin is good to do if not every day, but several times a week. The Examin is a time when we look over what has happened during the day and especially look for moments when we can see or feel God’s presence. Then we thank God for God’s presence and look forward to the next day asking what it is God is calling us to do.

Then there are the times Ignatius calls times of desolation. These are the not good times, the challenging times, wilderness times and to us God seems distant, maybe even unapproachable. Ignatius teaches that these are the times when God is truly closest to us, but we need to reach out and ask for God’s presence and help. These are times when we need to move from the why God question to the what is God calling us to do question. After the why is the what now. Asking why is not going to change the situation, we just sit there a stew about it. The “Ok God, now what” question is what begins to move us out of our stuck spot.

We are I hope coming out of a bit of a wilderness time as we move into our post-covid world. Things have changed and will never be quite the same. Even if we like the Israelites look back in fond memory of how great it was before Covid or maybe all the way back to the 60s when churches were full. We are however not anywhere near that world, and I can go back and list all kinds of issues that were in the church and society in the 60s that made it not such a great time. Segregation and sexual discrimination being two of those issues.

Mainline churches in America are in a time of wilderness. People are hungry for a deeper spiritual experience but fewer and fewer even think to look to a church for this. Covid just sped that process up.

One of the challenges is that we are in a time of drastic change in many areas and churches like most institutions and people hate change. People seem content to continue to do what they’ve always done and try to use the same solutions over and over again even when the solutions fail. The seven deadly words for churches are “We have always done it this way or We have never done it this way.”

I learned a long time ago while in a wilderness experience in my family. My mother was addicted to the psychiatric drugs that she had been given. This had gone on for years. Now I had been trained in intervening in drug and alcohol situations as a high school teacher. I did that ever busting four kids at band camp with pot in their room. I wanted to know more about how to fight this issue. Long story short I finally got my mom into a rehab program back in the 80s when they were rare. At the family week session a couple weeks before she was to be released the counselor told us this piece that I have always held onto. “Change is the exchange of the known, no matter how painful, for the unknown.” People often know their pain and would rather hold onto that pain then exchange it for the unknown. You hear that in the Israelites remembering how great it was back in Egypt in our passage today. Oh the fleshpots, the leeks life as a slave was so much better. Well no it wasn’t. God knew that they needed this long wilderness time to be tested and refined to become the nation that we see later in the Old Testament and continues today.

I believe we are in a period of wilderness in many respects but especially as the church. Phyllis Tickle wrote a book 15 years ago called the Great Emergence. In this she speculated that we are in a period of change in the church on the magnitude of the Reformation. The church has had this upheaval every 500 years and we are 500 years post reformation. We will probably never see the outcome for this takes a long time to sort itself out.

As we define ourselves in our wilderness time, in a world that is terribly broken in so many ways, where is God in all this? God is calling us to put our trust in God’s presence with us even when we wonder like the Israelites asked “is the Lord among us or not?”

For us as a Christian church we must keep the two great commandments in front of us as the guides Jesus intended them to be. Love God as God loves us and Love our neighbors as ourselves.  On these two commands everything is judged and weighed. Welcome the stranger, the seeker, the Gentile, the tax collector into our midst. Learn from them even when they may challenge us. Who knows any one of them could be Jesus in our midst. Are we a church that if Jesus walked in the door some Sunday that he would recognize us as his followers. That’s a high standard, but it is the only one that really matters. For ultimately we know that God loves everyone, no exceptions.