Wednesday, September 27, 2017

New Problem, Same Response, Familiar Solution


If you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see? Sometimes clergy or youth ministers ask that question during the ice breaker known as Four Corners. In the get-to-know-you game, a series of questions is asked, and participants are asked to choose one of four options and move to the corner of the room represented by their choice. At the beginning of the exercise, the questions are frivolous, providing easy and non-threatening answers like one's favorite season or dream vacation spot. Then, as the game progresses, the questions become more substantial and, eventually, allow for some discussion. For example, if you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see: the creation, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus? Once you make up your mind, take five minutes and talk with the other people in your corner about your decision.

It's easy for me to think that by being there and seeing firsthand something like the empty tomb I would erase all the doubts I have ever had about whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. I don't dwell in those doubts. I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but I still have a desire for unassailable certainty--if not for myself then for others. I want to be able to tell people, "I was there! I saw it with my own eyes! Like Mary and Peter and the Beloved Disciple, I saw the empty tomb." It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that seeing is believing, but seeing is never believing. Believing in something is always more substantial than just seeing it, and this Sunday's OT Lesson (Exodus 17:1-7) wants us to remember that.

Last Sunday, we read from Exodus 16, and heard the grumbling of the people of Israel against the Lord and against Moses for leading them out into the wilderness to kill them of hunger: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." It feels particularly disrespectful and faithless to have been set free from slavery and delivered from the Egyptians by the Lord's almighty hand only to wish it were all undone. Nevertheless, instead of punishing them for their faithlessness, God gave them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Quails covered the ground in the evening, and in the morning the people gathered up the manna, and everyone had enough to eat. Problem solved...until the next chapter.

This time, instead of griping about food, the people are complaining about water: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" Different problem but the same response. It did not matter that their stomachs were full of God-sent bread and meat. This time the people were thirsty and could not see any source of water, so they return to their faithless grumbling: "We wish we were back in Egypt." Were they suffering from short-term memory loss? No, faithlessness is a symptom of the human condition.

It's hard to believe that God will take care of us. Instead of providing a new opportunity for faith, each new crisis seems more like an opportunity for panic. Some people, however, seem to cultivate an attitude of faithfulness that transcends today's crisis. Isn't that God's invitation to us? How does it happen? Daily gratitude. Daily trust. Daily prayer.

If this sounds like a stewardship message, it is. Think of all the ways that God has provided for you throughout your lifetime. How can you translate those memories into a foundation of confidence that God will provide for you today and tomorrow and the next day...even when you don't know where your next meal will come from, even when you can't see any sources of water, even when the waves come crashing down upon you? Become a steward of God's blessings. Manage them, use them, devote them, dedicate them in ways that cultivate your faith. How do you do that? Count your blessings. Decide to trust God by living on less. Make a plan for sharing some of what you have with others. Let the act of letting go today teach you to count on tomorrow's blessings. You don't have to fill out a pledge card at your church in order to do that, but you can't do it haphazardly. If you aren't intentional, you can't make the connection between today's blessings and the promise of more blessings tomorrow. The practice--seeing, counting, planning, sharing--is what leads to deeper faith. It's what helps us stop our grumbling over today's crisis and remember the blessings we received yesterday.

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