‘Parched” May 14, 2017 Doug Norris
Not long ago, coming down the big hill on Avenue Road just south of St Clair, where for a moment the confines of the city ease off and a view out over to the lake opens up, coming down that hill in the car I stopped believing in God. For all the usual reasons.
Just to be clear, nothing to do with Avenue Rd, or St Clair – it’s a nice part of town. It’s just where I happened to be when a few things crowded into my awareness – news on the radio again of refugees, famine in Sudan, a and my heart sank and the sinking of my heart pushed aside the possibility of God, for a time. A few hours later I was a believer again. Begrudgingly. But this is how it goes, isn’t it? Happens all the time. Robert Munsch, famous children’s author, wrote a thoughtful article in a book about spiritual journeys – he said,
“It’s not that I don’t believe in God, just not in a God who makes a difference. And who needs a God who doesn’t give a crap?”
One moment you’re sitting in church singing ‘God, we praise you for the morning; hope springs forth with each new day’, one moment we’re singing about joy and light is lighting the place and beautiful people are nearby and then you look up and you’re in some gritty place and some fresh evil crawls up your arm and into your heart and smacks you on the head and says are you nuts?? There is no God! Look around!
And then not singing but muttering, quarrelling, with the Hebrews in the wilderness : guide me o thou Great Jehovah – if you really exist ! – through this barren land where I am thirsty and afraid and I wonder I really wonder if you are there and if you are there why in God’s name why in your name is THIS going on?
This is why Exodus chapter 17 is in the Bible – to be reminded how hard it is to be a believer. How odd it is. We have grown up with God as a kind of benign wallpaper, taught at our mother’s knee that God is present and watching – Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep… But we learn then for ourselves about the thirsts – about how hard it is and how sporadic belief can be.
“Prayer and love are really learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart turns to stone.”(T Merton)
They renamed the place – Meribah – in the Exodus passage – – Mariah – mean, ‘here the people complained’. I might start collecting the places where this happens. Put a sign up. We would be forever banging our heads on the signs – Meribah- this way – Meribah 5km…
Moses looks very very good in this story. Which is the point of course. Moses gets to solve the thorny problem of whether God is there, with a bit of magic. Great to be Moses. I imagined the story team writing all this down – oh, and let’s give him a stick! Make him look just like that guy – you know, the guy! Jesus? No, the other guy – Charlton Heston! – give him a stick and he can smite the rock and there will be water and they will be OK – They’ll trust Moses and trust God again. Moses looks very very good in this story.
Well what an atrocious sermon this is so far. Let’s be honest. The preacher doesn’t always believe in God, and life is hard and the Bible is dubious. So here’s a plan – a project, that might scatter a little bit of light on all of this.
Understand the thirsts. At the heart of Exodus 17 is not just Moses looking like a magic hero, but the gritty reality of the people who are thirsty. And this is the human condition. And it’s hard to look at – but we’ve got to understand the thirsts.
Point to hope. Nobody needs to come in here to be reminded that life is hard. But not every place not every group has as it’s reason for being to lift up hope. We do. It’s the only reason we are here, the sole reason we have existed on this corner for 100 years. To point to the hope embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. To speak it, to sing it, to let hopeful music fly out of these pipes to have hopeful people pour down these steps.
Understand the thirsts, point to hope. aAnd, Start in the wrong places. We will almost always look for a Moses. For a lot of very fine reasons we place confidence in the powerful ones. Hope will also be found in odd ways – unlikely people.
In the earliest days of the the church, there was an embarrassment about Jesus. In a sense he started out looking like a new Moses – a captivating leader, a bit of magic, and he ended up in the scandal of the death of a common criminal. Moses at least had the good sense to die of old age.
So what did they do with this? In one of the earliest pieces of writing Christians ever jotted down, we have this passage in the letter to the Philippians. And they reframe the situation.
Oh yes, (the letter says) he could have been one of the BIG ones – he had every right to have a large and full life, and he chose to empty himself and to be among us as a servant, and not as a boss. And there is the whole enchilada.
If you want to point to any kind of hope – the letter says – if you intend to be any kind of light, if you believe you have any kind of vocation to follow him – let that same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Who emptied himself and took upon himself the shape of a servant. And if we, in the midst of the thirsts of the world, in a wilderness, are watching for who might guide us toward hope, our eye may go to the full ones, the strong ones, and they will have something to say, Moses always has something to say, but I also want to learn to find and hear the empty ones, the quiet voices at the edges, the nearly forgotten ones, who sit in wilderness thirst where God is scarcely believable.
Here’s what we get : If we are paying attention : In that wild place, a spirit is moving. She flies on…
(art by Gill Sakakini – ‘Tree of Life’)