Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
September 27, 2020
“Why Is This Happening?”
Exodus 17: 1-7 – The Message
Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?”
4 Moses cried out in prayer to God, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!”
5-6 God said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel. Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. And go. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.”
6-7 Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. He named the place Massah (Testing-Place) and Meribah (Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of God when they said, “Is God here with us, or not?”
Yup. They’re still in the wilderness. Still complaining – still griping and grousing and groaning. Moses is still exasperated. And God is still providing exactly enough for their needs every day.
Today’s reading is part of the Great Liberation Narrative. From the birth of Moses through his death, this foundational story of the Israelites of the exodus from slavery to freedom gets only 10 weeks of attention during our three year cycle of assigned readings, called the lectionary. And two of the 10 involve complaining – last week food, this week water. I was tempted to look at other options in the lectionary for today. Who needs another story about complaining and being stuck in the wilderness? And then I thought of our own.
And yup. We’re still in the wilderness, too. We have food and water, but the isolation. Separation. Church from home. Some still work from home. Some still go to school from home or some combination. And the complaining. People are still griping, grousing, groaning about masks and social distancing instead of realizing what a wonderfully simple way it is to save lives. I don’t mean to shame the Israelites for their complaining. And I don’t mean to shame any of us for feeling tired and frustrated. All of us just want this to end.
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? Not in the sense of some conspiracy theory, but a deeper “why”? Why is this happening?
One of the commentaries I read asked a really good, very basic, question: why not lead the people straight from slavery to the Promised Land? Hadn’t they suffered enough? Yes, still stop in Palm Springs for six weeks, but then get on with it.
Among the explanations for why it took 40 years in the wilderness is that it takes a long time to unlearn being enslaved. It takes a long time to learn freedom. So, they underwent a series of trials meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people with a shared story and experience of what it takes, how hard it is, to live with freedom. Matthew Myer Boulton said, “They had to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.” I like that.
We have been following the narrative in the Book of Exodus, but this story of liberation is also told in the Book of Deuteronomy which gives an explicit reason for their 40 year sojourn: “by letting you hunger, then by feeding you manna,” the people would understand personally, viscerally, that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cites this exact verse during his own 40 days of testing in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
So, I get this. I understand this explanation – sort of – that their trials and testing were meant to train them for a life as free people, to turn their longing into trust, to turn their doubts into faith, to turn their complaints into food and water.
I get it, but it makes me uncomfortable. And that’s because I’ve seen it lead to people making hurtful and ridiculous claims to people who are suffering. For example, You were given cancer so that you come to value life.
Kate Bowler writes about being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at age 35, mother of a young child, and in the midst of a promising academic career. She’s heard it all, including a neighbor who came to the door and told her husband, “everything happens for a reason.” He said, “OK. What is it?” The neighbor looked stunned as he waited. “What’s the reason my wife is dying?” Kate wrote a book about it. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Christians were particularly insistent that God had a plan for her – abbreviated – life.
A month into our pandemic separation, she was interviewed by the New York Times and asked about the idea that we should all just “stay positive” through this.
She replied, “The idea that we’re all supposed to be positive all the time has become an American obsession. The good part is: It gives us momentum and purpose to feel like the best is yet to come. But the problem is when it becomes a kind of poison, in which it expects that people who are suffering — which is pretty much everyone right now — it expects that people are always supposed to find the silver lining or not speak realistically about their circumstances. The main problem is that it adds shame to suffering, by requiring everyone to be prescriptively joyful.”
But the most poignant statement of the entire interview is this: A pandemic is not a judgment. “The trick is to find meaning without being taught a lesson.”
Do you ever wonder why this is happening? The explanation: we were given the pandemic so that… fill in the blank. I get the attempt at explanation. To be honest, I’ve also tried to rationalize, to redeem it. But, again, it negates the suffering of people in the wilderness, whether 40 years then or 6 months and counting now. Can you believe it? Six months and counting…
I was curious so I went back and looked at some of the sermons I wrote at the beginning of our pandemic separation. In the beginning we thought it would only last a few weeks. Take a break, flatten the curve, and we’ll be back in the sanctuary by Easter.
On our first Sunday apart, I said, “If we ever thought being a church member was just coming to church on Sunday, this moment is teaching us the value of community. So, reach out to one another.” We created Zoom meetings to stay connected.
The next Sunday I asked, “what has this pandemic revealed so far?” For one, not providing health care for everyone leaves an entire nation always at risk. But, I said, it has also revealed the blessing of belonging to a community. I said, “I wouldn’t say we got the Coronavirus so that we can appreciate community. But, because of Coronavirus, it’s been even more clearly revealed that we need each other.”
I asked what things we will never take for granted again. Like a handshake. Full shelves at the store and enough toilet paper at home. The mad rush to school in the morning. Dinner with friends. And finally, the question: Who do you hope this pandemic will help you become? Looking back, it’s funny we thought we could answer that yet. We had no clue what was still coming.
The third week I spoke of these being inspiring times, praising the heroism and sacrifice of everyday citizens rarely seen in our lifetimes.
On Palm Sunday I asked us to choose vulnerability, like Jesus. To be awkward, brave, and kind. And on Easter, to be real with one another. It’s OK to be sad and long for normal.
Six months ago we had no clue we would still be worshiping like this. Nor do we know when it will end. And neither did the Israelites. Why did they spend 40 years in the wilderness? We are told it was meant to form them, strengthen them, and prepare them to be a people who live with freedom. And part of that is to learn that the heart of freedom is trust.
Perhaps that’s why freedom feels so fragile for us right now. For freedom to work, we must trust in institutions to work, we must trust in the constraint of laws, and we must trust in our fellow citizens and neighbors. The real or imagined threat of tyranny in the land of the free right now is not only frightening, the destabilizing power of mistrust makes some fear our democracy could topple over. Can the republic survive?
How do we explain the wilderness of the past 4 years? Perhaps historians will suggest: you were given Donald Trump so that you would come to understand the value of democracy and the rule of law – not the kind of dog whistle slogan of law and order, which is to uphold the order of white supremacy, but how the rule of law is meant to constrain wanna-be dictators. The explanation is that without this disruption of norms, you wouldn’t appreciate them and guard them, protect them.
So, I get this. Like scripture attempts to do with the Israelites, I understand this explanation – sort of – that the trials and testing of today are meant to train us and form us into a people with a shared story and purpose. But it still makes me uncomfortable. Again, the terrible suffering of so many already vulnerable people.
Therefore, I risk suggesting, perhaps there is no lesson to be learned. Instead, however, I embrace what Kate Bowler said: “The trick is to find meaning without being ‘taught a lesson.’”
And not worrying about whether we can redeem this suffering. But rather, as the Israelites finally learned: to trust and let God redeem this suffering. And leave our task to keep caring for each other and remain present in this moment, as the song we’ll now sing says:
“You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.”
Thank you for meeting us in our anxiety, dear God.
Thank you for always walking alongside us.
Thank you for welcoming our questions - like why is this happening.
And it's not only the pandemic, God -
the 200,000 of your precious souls in our county,
but also the 76,000 people in Mexico,
93,000 in India,
and 13 people in Sri Lanka - each with families devastated by their loss.
And only the pandemic of Covid 19,
but the pandemic of racism,
and not just 6 months of deaths like George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks captured on cell phones,
but 401 years of enslavement,
and lack of justice for Breonna Taylor who can't even sleep in their own homes,
for whom on one will take responsibility.
For families still separated at the border.
Why is this happening?
We have questions, like
where is the integrity among our elected leaders
Where is the sense of fair play and civility
Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will fight for our rights?
The wandering Israelites asked, is God here with us, or not?
Yet, when they cried out,
you opened the sea for them to pass.
When they cried out,
you provided manna in the wilderness.
When they cried out, water gushed forth from a rock.
And if you can produce water from a ROCK!,
you will quench our thirst for justice,
our hunger for righteousness,
our demand for the liberation of all who are enslaved today.
You will, despite our question - WHEN!?
When, O Lord?
But in between, you never leave us alone.
You walk with us through our illnesses and death.
You walk alongside us when we lose patience,
when anger threatens to overwhelm.
You walk alongside those today who pray,
who ask our community to pray,
and you give us sighs to deep for words
when we don't know what to say.
And you invite us to prayer the words Jesus taught...
 Deuteronomy 3:8
I love being the