Is God Among Us…or Not?

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

From our Exodus passage today,

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Things are bleak. As I look around, all I see is pain, suffering, and hardship. I can’t remember a time when life was this difficult. My life and the lives of others have never been so uncertain. What about our children? How is this experience affecting them? Resources are drying up and I am worried about our survival. All I can think about is how I want to go back to the way things were. Life wasn’t perfect, but I could at least make sense of most things—life was hard, and I often got angry at God, but it was rare to be so filled with so much fear and hopelessness that I questioned God’s existence. But now, that is my daily experience. With all that is happening around us, is the Lord among us or not?”

These were the thoughts and the feelings of the Israelites during their time in the wilderness—the time following their exodus of bondage and slavery, but now in the desert thirsting for water to simply keep them alive. “Why did you bring us here? We are suffering more now than ever! Does the Promised Land even exist?” They are probably the thoughts and feelings of most of us in our own modern-day wilderness.

The last time the topic of wilderness was preached to this congregation was on March 1, 2020. At that time, we heard Stephen connect our time of transition without a rector as our own wilderness. He said, “you won’t like everything about going through this wilderness. It is a dangerous time. Life is unpredictable in the wilderness. Everything that once was familiar isn’t so familiar anymore.” In the midst of what a colleague recently said is a “convergence of intersecting problems and crises”—a pandemic, remote learning, issues surrounding racial injustice, partisan collusion and political corruption, losing trusted and cherished leaders who inspired us and protected the values and rights of all—I don’t think Stephen knew just how right he was going to be… “everything that once was familiar isn’t so familiar anymore.”

On the surface, the wilderness is a dangerous and uncertain experience—one in which we don’t know how long it will last and what life will look like on the other side—and this can lead to us feeling unthinkable despair and fear. But, if we dig a little deeper, we will remember that the wilderness experience has always been a part of our history, and yes, while the wilderness will always challenge us, it has also been and will always be a time for God’s people to encounter a loving and caring God and then be changed and transformed forever.

Over and over, we hear stories in Scripture of how God saw God’s people in need and then provided for them enough to continue on their journey. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the Israelites in Exodus, and even Jesus after he was baptized went into the wilderness. In every story, the wilderness created an experience that made the people dependent upon God alone. After experiencing God’s provision and continual help, the people were transformed and they cultivated a faith that helped them to trust in God, no matter what hardship they were going through.

This morning, the Israelite people are terrified of dying of thirst, and they are questioning, “Is the Lord among us or not?” It would be natural for them to ask this question if they hadn’t been helped by God in the past, but the exact opposite is true. At this point in the narrative, not only had God freed them by parting the Red Sea and drowning Pharaoh’s army, but God had already miraculously provided water in the desert and rained down enough food for them to survive. Even with being shown God’s gifts of life and protection, the Israelites still doubted that God would provide for them. They lacked trust in God, but according to Walter Brueggemann, this lack of trust is completely understandable. The Israelites took a leap of faith to leave Egypt, but everything they knew about how the world worked was completely turned upside down. Brueggemann says, “the Israelites were taken out of an economy of domination (a life they knew well, where they lived under Pharaoh’s rule, and were dominated as slaves and victims), but NOW God is trying to transform their world view to function within an economy of trust.” The only way to do that is for God to provide for God’s people, and for the Israelites, that meant daily provision for 40 years until such an inner transformation could take place.

The wilderness is stark and desolate. It has a way of stripping away things that obstruct our view from seeing things more clearly—keeping us from knowing the truth. How we view the world now should be different than before the pandemic. Our current wilderness has forced us to see the many issues of inequity that many of us may have been blind to before, but now is the time to pray for God’s transforming power to change our worldview to see God’s people the way God views us. One example of how this pandemic has shined a light on viewing things differently is that a pandemic should affect everyone equally, but instead, our eyes are now clearly open to multiple systems of injustice (economic, healthcare, judicial and law enforcement) that disproportionally affect people of color.

Is the Lord the among us or not? The answer has been and always will be a resounding “yes” but the more we try to hold on to life and world view that will never be the same, the more difficult it will be to trust that God will provide for us. Episcopal priest and activist, Stephanie Spellers, says what we are collectively experiencing during this wilderness is “existential terror”—something we have never experienced before like the “convergence of crises.” And it is natural to want to dig our heads in sand and not see what is happening. But the burden of this wilderness is not confined to a select group of people—it should be, and is, a shared burden that God wants to relieve, but similar to the Israelites, it will take time. For now, when seeing all the suffering and pain that exists in this world, for me, it is too much to think about the far-off future—thinking about tomorrow is hard enough—but I still need nourishment. We all do. With that said, I firmly believe that God did not make this pandemic happen, but I do believe that God is at work redeeming our world by providing us water from the rock to keep moving forward. It is with our eyes that are continuing to be opened by God, that our thirst for justice will continue to move us toward transformation.

Is the Lord among us or not? Absolutely! Now more than ever! In the midst of our collective burden and challenge, may we remember that with each other and with God’s daily provision, we can trust in God that the Promised Land is most certainly a reality and awaits us after we’ve done the hard work of transformation and trust with God’s help. Amen.