View today's sermon on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wfj7nPC6kKs.
Exodus 17:1-7 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
17 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Matthew 21:23-32 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it you did not change your minds and believe him.
The Israelites wondered, Is God among us or not? Freed from their captors only to wander in the desert – lost, hungry, thirsty. They were worse off, they complained, than when they were captives. If that is what it is like to have God on their side… well… what kind of God is that? Better that they go back to worshiping their pagan gods. They needed a God that would protect them, keep them safe, defend them from their enemies.
The question continues to swirl all around us. Where is God when we need help, encouragement, security? Where is God when things are not going well? Illness, job loss, not enough food or inadequate housing. Injustices stemming from discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or other biases. Where is God? “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In our Hebrew Scriptures God is frequently vengeful, violent, or angry. God is often depicted that way. Those were some of the earliest interpretations of how God interacted with humankind. Doubt when things were difficult. Confident when things went in their favor.
We all like to think that God is on our side. And God is on our side. But God is also on the side of everyone else. Those we know and those we don’t know. Those we love and those we don’t love. Those we agree with and those we disagree with. God is Love. God is for everyone. God is always with us – not sometimes, depending on what is happening around us. Even, especially when bad things are happening in and around us.
God is Love. A seemingly stark contrast to the God that plays favorites in the Book of Exodus. God does indeed show up on the battlefield, but not to ensure victory for you or for me, for us or for them. God shows up wherever we are to be with us in our joy and in our sorrow. God is with us, all around us, manifesting in ways majestic and mundane. As the brilliant poet Mary Oliver stated, it is our job to pay attention.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spars with the chief priests and elders regarding the question of authority. The chief priests and elders are troubled by the young Jewish peasant that is undermining their control. He is gaining notoriety through his radical teaching; through his radical love and compassion that he pours out on everyone willing to receive it. He heals, he visits, he listens to, he shares meals with those whom others systematically exploit or simply ignore. He teaches that those in the lower echelons of society are as worthy as any other. He teaches that all are welcome in God’s kin-dom, at God’s table. He makes things difficult for those in power who fear that the working class may revolt, to insist upon their rights and insist upon being treated with dignity and respect.
I am going to make what might seem to be a big leap here… based on my two days at The BTS Center Convocation, two days spent immersed in nature, steadying my focus on the big picture, our ecosystem, our planet, our universe, I could not help but use Creation and Creator as my lens for these scripture passages. All of Creation.
Where do we get our authority? Where do the flora and fauna get their authority? The birds of the air and the fish of the sea? We are all created by the same divine being, we all answer to the same divine being, we are all connected to the same divine being.
What does God want of us, his beloved created beings? To live in relationship – with God, with our human kin, with the other life forms in our kin-dom. We are meant to live in unity with all that God created. All of it. Animate and inanimate. We are to be accountable to God and to all that God created.
Our Exodus scripture asks, “Is the Lord among us?” The Gospel of Matthew points to the answer. God is there. God is here. God is everywhere. God is waiting for us to engage.
I heard God and saw God and felt God on Thursday and Friday when listening to and looking at and soaking in the splendor all around me. The Lord is among us, indeed.
I spent Thursday and Friday of this week in Hallowell, Maine at Maple Hill Farm with a hundred or so others that wanted to come together to refresh our spirits. We attended The BTS Center’s annual Convocation titled Kinship: Re-Weaving the Great Web of Belonging.
Many of you know that I experience God in nature, and so this was a lovely way for me to spend two days, with like-minded humans, exploring ways to deepen faith and commitment through immersion in the splendors of our created world.
Thursday I spent some time with a small group of seekers pondering hope. Our instruction? Spend twenty minutes communing with the environment around us in this particular way: looking up and kneeling down, and paying attention to what we saw and heard and felt or smelled or maybe even tasted.
During this particular twenty minutes I stood and watched a bird circling overhead; riding the thermals, presumably hunting but maybe just gliding for the sheer joy of it. I stood and watched as long as I was able, then when my neck complained to me about looking up, I laid down on the grass and looked up and watched the flight some more. When the bird was out of my line of sight, I stayed on my back, looking up at the sky, and soon my attention was drawn to flight of a different type, only inches from my face. Small flying insects, gnats I presumed, in a loosely formed swarm above me. And I marveled at the immensity of one flying creature and the near invisibility of the other. I marveled at the circumstance. If I would not have gotten a stiff neck looking at the bird high in the sky I would not have disrupted the resting place of the itty bitty insects in the grass beneath me.
I was self-conscious about the next part of the assignment, even though the leaders said that we could kneel literally or figuratively. I dropped to my knees anyway. A good excuse to stretch; to do a few yoga poses. And when my face was mere inches from the grass I saw a tiny flower, jubilant yellow amid the greens and browns of the lawn.
Through it all, especially the time spent on my knees, in that pose of humility, I experienced a deepening awareness of connection with everything around me. Not as superior to it, but one with it. Gazing up at the sky again before returning to my group, nothing in my field of vision except vast sky, I experienced an overwhelming peace, a hopefulness.
Another immersion experience that same day was called Lectio Terra. We shared a Lectio Divina experience here in these pews in late July – reading the scripture and listening for the way the scripture called to us – individually and as a congregation, and then some of us sharing how we heard the scripture speak to us. Lectio Terra adds another layer. It is listening to the scripture through the lens of nature. We were directed to find a place on the lawn, or in the fields or woods, and observe, again, using all of our senses, to really pay attention to what was present. After ten minutes or so of absorbing our surroundings we were invited to read our scripture passage and listen for a word or phrase – and to pay attention to the interplay between the scripture and what we were witnessing all around us.
Job 12:7-12 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you, and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. Does not the ear test words as the palate tastes food? Is wisdom with the aged and understanding in length of days?
I was drawn to sit near a birdhouse. No activity. Then my eyes wandered to the horizon. Tree lined hills painted in lush greens. A light gray sky, the clouds keeping the sun under wraps. Moving my eyes mid-way between me and the horizon I saw lush fields, unmowed. Milkweed spilling their seeds, offering them up to the wind. Yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tall stalks of grasses. I was struck by the sheer beauty of it all. Humbled by the fact that non-human created life so fully lives into their mission of being, while humans so often push back and refuse, wasting so much time fighting against our nature, fighting with nature, harming the natural world, rather than being one with it.
God is in relationship with all of creation and designed all creation to be in relationship. We have the authority, the responsibility, the accountability, to God and to all other life forms. God wants for all of Their creation to be protected and safe, and God works with and through us all for that outcome. We must all be actively involved in this relationship, these relationships.
I spent two days learning from the diverse teachers placed before me. The caterpillars moving forward, the bees humming along, the trees firmly rooted and reaching to the sun, the water reflecting, the rocks steadfast and humble. These are our kin. These are our siblings. We share the same Creator, the same parent.
The simple act of immersing my physical body in nature reminded me of my deep connection to nature. We are not separate from the people or the landscapes and seascapes around us. We are one with all of creation. We depend on the land, and the water, and animal life and they all depend on us.
The two days that I spent paying attention to our Maine landscape have renewed my hope for our planet. They have renewed my hope for our species. They have renewed my hope for all species. Yes indeed, it is evident that the Lord is with us. The Lord is with us all.
Rev. TJ Mack – October 1, 2023