Exodus 17: 1 – 7
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 with 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?”
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“Is the Lord among us or not?” Boom! That is such a mic drop question. Is it rhetorical? Was Moses asking it with a bit of an edge to him… a little frustrated that the people were down his neck about finding water? “There’s your water, people. Ha! Is the Lord among us or not?” “Is the Lord among us or not?” I think it’s truly a fair question to ask of us now, today… you and me, living amid various situations, wondering if God’s a part of the movement or lack thereof of our lives. We may ask that question in the hard times… as if we’re testing our own trust of God – “Is the Lord among us or not?” And maybe we ask it less when things are floating by relatively smoothly. After all, do we really need God then? Does it matter then if the Lord is among us or not? Hmmm. And here we all are, each at a different point of life, each one contemplating the biggest questions of life with different levels of interest; each of us suffering in some way and hopefully thriving in another. Here we are all so very different and yet all so very much the same.
I’ve been on a bit of a Schlotzsky’s kick of late. Do you do that? Find a little place you like to eat and find yourself going back over and over? Or maybe it’s Avocado toast or a certain cup of coffee or whatever it may be. A friend of mine got me on this little Schlotzsky’s kick. It’s not an obsession and I’m not getting any kick-backs from Schlotzsky’s for the name-drop here but I was taken by their cup which has this beautiful tapestry of humanity pictured on the side – all shapes, colors and varieties with a message that says: 19 people: That’s all we could pack into the handful of family-style tables and counter seats in our tiny shop on South Congress Street in Austin back in 1971. Everyone – hippies and politicians, artists and farmers – sat side-by-side. We’ve always believed that whether it’s food or people, when you welcome all flavors, you get an experience to savor. That’s our spirit of originality. GLAD YOU’RE HERE! And of course, I’m always thinking about church. Here we are, all God’s children, making the journey on our own and together – wondering if God, or anyone else, is glad we’re here; curious if there is any real purpose for our existence. I’d put your picture on a side of a cup if I could so that you might know I’m glad you’re here… not just in this sanctuary in this moment, but here in the world, eager, longing, yearning for a life that is full and meaningful. A life that is whole.
WHOLENESS is our congregational star word, our focal word, in 2019. That word rose from your prayer requests, your hopes and dreams, shared with our ministerial team late last fall. We’re diving into that wondering directly this month with this series we’re calling, “(y)our whole life.” I took a little good natured ribbing from some last week about this title – the parentheticals and double entrendre. “Is anything straight forward, Briley?” And I admit to having a little fun with titles, knowing everyone will look at even titles from varied perspectives. What is your way into the Gospel? How do you see even a title from a spiritual perspective? It was like one pastor who posted out on the sign along the street in front of the church. “Next Sunday’s Sermon: “The Church Member I’d Most Like to Go to Hell.” The church was packed next Sunday, everyone anxious to see who got under the pastor’s skin. Of course, the sermon was about one of the elderly church saints who the pastor wanted to send to hell to convert all those souls and draw them to the heavens. People were disappointed. Everyone wants the dirt more than they want grace.
(y)our whole life. The parenthesis around the ‘y’ give space for this to be an individual transformation even as the ‘our’ makes it a collective one. This is always true. We’re all interconnected. One of us is transformed, all of us are affected. One of us falls away, we all feel the impact. So that’s happening and the word ‘whole’ speaks to what it means to have a whole, fulfilling, peace-filled life and also can speak to the duration of our lives… something that will carry us not just for a while but for our whole lives. So, we’re considering, in this five-week series, several virtues or characteristics or spiritual disciplines that may help us find wholeness in our lives.
Kevin launched us well last week with a look at courage. And when we talked about the flow of the series, we initially questioned having “patience” as the follow up to courage. After all, courage involves a certain “GO!” quality to it while patience has a certain “WAIT!” quality to it. It’s like that feeling of learning to drive a stick-shift. You don’t quite get that shift down and your grinding it until you find it and the car just starts convulsing forward in this start-stop-start-stop sort of motion. But our reality is often that we resist the courage to go because we know we’re not patient enough to wait, endure, suffer through the transformation of time and hardship that comes with letting go of something to imagine something more aligned with God’s passion for our lives. And so, today, we sit a while with patience.
I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t feel like they could be a more patient person. In fact, more than a couple of people this week, knowing this was our topic, joked about “So-and-so really needs to be there,” or “I’ll make sure I get my husband there this Sunday.” It was all tongue-in-cheek fun but there’s some underlying truth… patience is not a natural inclination for most any of us. It’s sort of like someone saying to me recently: “Being an adult is like folding a fitted sheet. No one really knows how to do it.” If that’s true, then being patient is sort of like trying to put that same fitted sheet on the mattress… we seldom get it on there the right way on the first try. I swear I can hold it up, look it over, be confident in the direction it belongs on the bed and sure enough I’ve got it stretched the wrong way and I plead in my angst, “Is the Lord among us or not?!” Kidding aside, I will say this: Most of the deepest and profound moments of spiritual growth I’ve experienced in my life started with the thought or internal shout, “I don’t have time for this.”
And so we join such a spirited bunch of folks in the book of Exodus. They are in the throes of what many a scholar have called “the complaint narratives.” By the time we’ve reached chapter 17, many of the preceding chapters include a great complaint. The people have been oppressed and enslaved and Moses leads them through the parted sea into a free world but, as you can imagine, a whole new set of issues arise in such freedom. But they’ve only been in the wilderness for about two and a half months … easy for me to say ‘only’ of course… but in chapter 14 they panic when the Egyptians are pursuing them and complain bitterly to Moses about why he brought them out there in the first place. He’s like, “Uh, remember where we came from?” In chapter 15, it’s the water at Marah that they don’t like – too bitter. It was no Aquafina. In chapter 16, it’s the lack of food and yet the provision of manna comes to sustain them but then the manna doesn’t taste so good, “thanks but no thanks.” And now it’s thirst which is not something to squawk at, right? Water is a necessity. Jesus tells the disciples when they’ve said the people are hungry and thirsty, “You give them something to eat and drink.” He says in Matthew 25, “When you take care of the least of these with the essentials of clothing and food and water, you’ve honored me.” So, who are we to say, “Just be patient people and water will come eventually.” It’s way easier to be patient when your needs are met and when you’re not the one who is stressed. I mean, I was a much more patient parent before I had kids.
And, to look at this honestly, the notion of patience as passive waiting is a false conception often used by those with power or privilege to keep marginalized people under control. We have another matter of sin to consider if we’re demanding patience of those being oppressed while all our needs are comfortably met. Don’t confuse the virtue of patience we imagine today with a freedom to oppress another. This is about our own heart work. If the Latin root word of courage is heart, couple that with the root word of patience in Latin which means enduring suffering. Have enough heart to endure the suffering – which collectively points us to compassion – the idea of having heart enough to endure the suffering of others.
Where the complaint narrative of the Israelites wandering the wilderness intersects our own complaint narratives is the hardening of the heart. Patience is about keeping our heart soft enough not to lose ourselves in the struggles of life. Impatience has been defined as an “inner restlessness… experiencing the moment as empty, useless, meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the here and now as soon as possible.” Who of us hasn’t experienced that reality? Some of you are feeling this right now! When you get frustrated and impatient with some person or some situation or even some moment, don’t you know that feeling? “This is a waste of time. This moment is empty. It’s useless! It’s meaningless!” and you follow that emotional outburst with a “Get me out of here, now!” This is where courage implores us not to give up. It’s why Jacob won’t let go of the angel when they’re wrestling near the Jabbok. Jacob has the angel in a headlock and yells, “I won’t let you go until I get a blessing out of this.” Now Jacob walks away from that knock down drag out with a limp that he carries the rest of his life. We all have some scars from things we have long endured… but it also takes that enduring patience … that courage to stay engaged… to find a later blessing, even if we don’t understand it all at the time. Maybe we can begin to understand patience as growing into a third way between the polar extremes of fight and flight. In patience, we learn to abide … or be present in… each particular moment, finding it not empty after all but rather full of the grace of God. Easier said than done.
Moses asking the people to be patient wasn’t going to make them be patient. I mean, who becomes patient just because someone demands, “Be patient!” Aren’t we typically more resentful at that point… or even ramp up our impatience? “Calm Down? You don’t tell me to calm down.” No. Patience isn’t an instant virtue any more than doing one sit up will give you instant six pack abs. Tertullian, prolific Christian writer just a hundred years after Jesus walked the earth, says patience is tied closely to the virtue of love. He reminds us that the first word used to describe love in Paul’s Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13 is patience. It’s something we work at. And, like love, it’s worth it. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t admire the patience of another. When we witness someone being patient, we admire it. When we witness someone blowing up or losing their cool, we don’t admire that spirit nearly as much. We all long for the gift of patience but we seldom want to work at it. But if it is something we truly, ultimately want, we have to put in the practice now to reap its full gift later in life. A father with kids now grown recently said, “I guarantee you’re going to want to be respected by your adult children.” It’s not a given. Such respect is earned. What we’re doing now is building that opportunity… or not. Don’t harden your heart… no matter what suffering you are currently enduring. Stay steady. Stay open. Allow others to come alongside of you and be willing to come alongside another in their time of suffering. That is the gift of patience. “Is the Lord among us or not?” We may answer that question to others by our patient presence.
Tertullian says we work on bodily patience as well as spiritual patience. He says by denying ourselves the lusts of the flesh by maintaining a simple diet and drink and fasting for example, we prepare our bodies for times when we are subjected to persecution, including prison and martyrdom which were very real threats in his time. We’re not good at denying ourselves every pleasure which the practice of such convenience makes us less and less patient as individual’s and as a society. It’s why the “door close” button is the most pressed in any elevator. We want to quicken what is, on average, only a two-second wait. It’s why if we’ll learn to discipline our now cravings, we’ll be more equipped to serve more faithfully even in the lean years. It’s Dave Ramsey’s, “Live like no one else so you can live like no one else.”
All well and good, Briley, but we’re thirsty! We’re suffering! And I understand. I succumb to stresses in my life at times and don’t always practice patience well. But a hardened heart is what we seek to avoid. It’s why Chris Smith and John Pattison wrote a book called, “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.” They say, “Patience can hold us together when other forces conspire to rip us asunder. The forces of fragmentation often emerge through the sufferings of others – including financial difficulties; addiction to pornography; infidelity; the alienation of members based on economics, race, age, sexual orientation and so on; and fears that lead to divisive behaviors like gossip and power grabbing. In those difficult times, it’s natural for us to want to fix these struggles from a distance or to run from them altogether. But we learn patience by immersion, journeying faithfully alongside those who are suffering. It’s easy, for example, to lob advice or judgment when a friend’s marriage is falling apart. It’s more complex, and more demanding, to sit down with the couple, to listen, to work slowly and conversationally toward healing, to celebrate reconciliation or to grieve a divorce.”
It seems our quest for wholeness does not include an avoidance of suffering or always taking the easy road. It’s the courage to risk, to engage, to invest the time and energy into relationships, and the patience to be present with ourselves, one another, and with our Maker as we make our way to experiencing the blessing. Sheri Dew wrote a book whose title captured me first. It’s called, “If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn’t be Hard: And Other Reassuring Truths.” Sounds like something Yogi Berra might have written. But she challenges us as people of faith: “If you’re serious about sanctification… (which is a churchy word but essentially means becoming holy – we might say, “If you’re serious about growing in your faith, becoming more like Jesus…” ) she says, “You can expect to experience heart-wrenching moments that try your faith, your endurance and your patience.” It’s not a matter of if but when and how often.
What are you doing with your inner-restlessness? I know it’s a struggle. I heard someone say, “I can’t wait to go to bed tonight and stay up thinking about all the things I can’t control.” Impatience with our circumstances fuels our anxiety and I know that is a real struggle for many of us. But what if we could gain some quiet space each day, even a few minutes to start, where we work at patience…. Where we find the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. “Do we believe the Lord is among us or not?”
Moses – found his way to Mt. Sinai and with his trusty staff that had served him through many a pinch… and even just the day to day steps of his living, is told by God to strike the rock in just a certain way and find the flow of water for the people to drink. I have this image of Moses holding a Heinz ketchup bottle unable to get anything out of the bottle. He’s pounding on the bottom of the bottle and hitting it harder and harder all the time… and I picture God saying, “No, Moses. Just tip the bottle like so and tap on that little mark on the side of the bottle and watch it flow.” We live with a squeeze bottle faith – we want access to what we want when we want it but life is more often like that glass ketchup bottle. We bang around impatiently and live constantly frustrated that things don’t flow our way.
I gave a gentleman a ride this week. We’ll call him Bernie. He came into the church a bit panicked about a place he needed to be and quickly. As circumstances played out, I decided to take this new friend to where he needed to be. On our way to the car and every second of our ten-minute drive, he filled the space with the story of his life…. Hundred miles a minute. And, at least a dozen times he prefaced what he said next with “Pardon my French but…” Now, I took two years of French in high school and I promise you, nothing he said was French. He was eight months clean, however, holding down a job longer than ever before in his life and trying to do the right things. He said, “You know, I’ve had much greater struggle since I’ve been doing all the right things than I ever did when I was doing all the wrong things.” You may know that feeling. But he looked at me and smiled before he got out of my car after telling me all of this and said, “But I believe God’s gonna do something with my life yet.” He shut the door and all I could hear was that pesky question of Moses: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Bernie and I have very different lives and he speaks way more French than I do… but at least in that moment, we both seemed to believe in the slow work of God. His patience that day may have gotten him a ride. My patience afforded me some perspective that I really needed in that moment without even knowing it. That’s the gift of patience. Tertullian says it like this…
“Patience fortifies faith; is the pilot of peace; assists charity; establishes humility; waits long for repentance; sets her seal on confession; rules the flesh; preserves the sprit; bridles the tongue; restrains the hand; tramples temptations under foot; drives away scandals; … consoles the poor; teaches the rich moderation; overstrains not the weak; exhausts not the strong; is the delight of the believer.”
Whether you’re at home or church, Schlotzsky’s or some stuck place in your life… I pray that patience will be a developing companion. It is a friend that will help us always to answer the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” with a soft-heart and affirmative “Yes. The Lord is with us; now and forever.” Amen.
 From Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison’s book, “Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life.” Utilized here as shared in “Slow Church.” See next reference. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison. IVP Books. 2014. This quote as well as the quotes from Tertullian come from this book within the chapter entitled, “Patience: Entering into the Suffering of Others.”