Homily: Pentecost 17A

September 27, 2020; St. Stephen’s Maple (Zoom Eucharist)

“He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”

I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you’re in the habit of saying Morning Prayer from our 1962 Prayer Book, you might be reminded of the episode at Massah and Meribah on a daily basis. That’s because Psalm 95, which concludes by retelling this story, is employed as a call to praise and prayer near the beginning of the service. But the Psalm doesn’t simply repeat the episode from our Exodus reading tonight; rather it serves as an impressive example of Scripture interpreting itself, and serves as an equally impressive warning for its hearers:

“’Today, O that ye would hear his voice:

‘Harden not your hearts as in the Provocation,

and as in the day of Temptation in the wilderness;

When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works.

Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, and said,

‘It is a people that do err in their hearts,

for they have not known my ways’;

Unto whom I sware in my wrath,

that they should not enter into my rest.’”

Or as the BAS puts it:

“Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

Harden not your hearts,

as your forebears did in the wilderness,

at Meribah, and on that day at Massah,

when they tempted me.”

“Harden not your hearts”

The “hardened heart” is an evocative image, but it might be hard for us to see how it applies to the Israelites’ response as they set up camp at Rephidim. God has brought them to a spot in the middle of the desert, but there’s no water to be found. They complain about the lack of this all-important substance of life, and the content of their complaint is only natural: to express your need for water does not mean that you are “hardening your heart.” The key however is their posture, their attitude. The narrator tells us that they “quarreled,” they “tested,” not just Moses but with the God who had sent Moses to them. The Prayer Book translation of Psalm 95 goes further: they “provoked” on the “day of temptation” and dissolved into fractious conflict. But beneath it all, there is a palpable fear of abandonment in the unknown: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I’ve found that when it comes to faith, to our ability to see God’s goodness and power among us, the type of questions we ask often determines the types of answers we get. Our posture determines what we can see. The Israelites at Massah and Meribah asked their question with “hardness”: “hard” in the sense of a defensive shell, but also “hard” in the sense of “difficult” or “harsh.” This only made it more difficult for them to hear God’s voice and see his continuing presence among them, because they were predisposed against the signs of his presence that he had already given. They were predisposed against the voice of Moses and Aaron, had already forgotten the bread they had just received (which we heard about last week), and were no longer awe-struck by the fire and cloud that delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

Amid all the changes and societal upheavals of this pandemic, in view of the virus’ power to weaken and take life, we might be asking if God is still with us or if he’s left us parched in the desert. Even the very benign transition in the leadership and identity of this St. Stephen’s community, might prompt us to wonder if God will continue to journey with us and provide for us. Now our posture at St. Stephen’s has not been “hard”: we aren’t prone to defensive shells or difficult attitudes. But as we navigate these new and changing circumstances, it never hurts to hear, at least once or twice, the warning of Exodus 17 and Psalm 95. It can be a helpful reminder that we ask our questions of God and of church leadership with a posture of “softness,” open to what God might be saying to us, open to the continuing sign of God’s presence among us.

Because alongside God’s voice in Scripture and his Body and Blood in the Sacrament, an essential sign of God’s presence has always been, and continues to be, our life with each other, that love and welcome that we at St. Stephen’s continue to excel at. We heed the Psalmist’s warning by remaining soft with each other, by offering simple and genuine curiosity when someone shares their creative ideas, their struggles and doubts, and by remaining open about our own vulnerabilities.

I want to be clear: questions themselves are good, welcome and critical in this time of change and transition. And I need to name something about our act of questioning in society at-large: the Black Lives Matter protests of recent months are not examples of a quarreling and testing posture against God and neighbour. Rather, they show a creative compassion towards those who have suffered the boot of police brutality; peaceful protests bear witness, just like that of Israel’s prophets, against leaders who have not lived up to their God-ordained mandate to serve their people. Human beings need water, air and healthy social infrastructure to live; the ministry at St. Stephen’s needs financial stability and collective vision in order to further our mission in this neighbourhood. We all have hopes and dreams for this mission, for our society and for the world, and we need to express those.

And we express this vision through compassion and with open welcome, by being “soft” and “simple” with each other as opposed to “hard” and “difficult”: doesn’t that just resonate so much with who we are and what we’re all about? It resonates because we are all about the love and compassion of God, shown to us in Christ, and flowing out into our neighbourhood. If we’re soft with each other, open to people and new ideas from all corners of our community: that means that we’re all the more open to the surprising, life-giving, hope-redefining word that God wants to speak to us in this time. Who knows where the next great idea will come from? If God can bring water out of a rock, he can surely sustain us, continue to empower us to be his loving and healing presence in this community and society. As we continue to show each other this love and compassion, we will see God’s love among us ever clearer, ever deeper, ever more.

I’ll end by repeating the collect that Dan prayed at the beginning:

“Grant, O merciful God,

that your Church,

being gathered by your Holy Spirit into one,

may show forth your power among all peoples,

to the glory of your name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.” Amen

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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