A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, October 1, 2023, the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. “Reunite and Renew” series, Stewardship kickoff, and World Communion Sunday.
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-18
When circumstances are difficult, it’s a real temptation to get nostalgic about the “good ol’ days”—the days before government shut-downs were even a thing, the days when it didn’t occur to most Americans that they needed to worry about the sustainability of our democracy, the days when our lives were less complicated, the days when lightning bugs still lit up summer nights, the days when we were living in Egypt as slaves----wait. What? One of these things is not like the others.
But that is what we receive in our text from Exodus today. The Israelites have been journeying by stages, being sustained by meat and manna as promised by God, and resting on the Sabbath. And now, at their camp at Rephidim, there is no water. And so, harkening back to a time when they weren’t so thirsty, they come after Moses, blaming him for their thirst and demanding that he give them water. They twist the knife even deeper saying that Moses has brought them out of Egypt just to kill them with thirst. I wonder whether the people had gotten confused about who was providing for them—I mean did they really think Moses could wave his magic staff like Harry Potter or say magic words like the fairy godmother’s bibbity bobbity boo and make water appear?
Moses, knowing that he doesn’t have the power to conjure water in the desert, turns to God and there is no hesitation. God lays out the plan: take some of your people ahead of the congregation and take the staff you used at the Nile. I will be present there at the rock; strike that rock with your staff. Moses trusts God and is obedient and, it is implied, water pours out from the rock. God has provided for the people’s need.
It's curious that the place doesn’t get named for the gift of water, but rather for the testing (massah) and quarreling (meribah) of the people. Perhaps the name serves as a reminder of God’s compassion. Even in the face of human grumpiness and short memory, the ways we blame others and God for whatever difficulty we face—even then, God’s compassion is poured out like water, giving us what we need.
Today as we launch our annual campaign to secure funding for the life-changing work God will do in and through Foundry in 2024, we face plenty of challenges. Foundry, like every other faith community and civic organization after the pandemics of the last 3 years, is in a time of rebuilding, sorting out who has moved away, who are now steady members of our online congregation, who are still around but have drifted away due to new habits or other concerns, and who are the newer members of our congregation who are looking for connection and ways to serve. We are rethinking and rebuilding our staff model for this next season, with an emphasis on cultivating even more lay leadership for the work God is calling us to do. As a congregation, we will journey by stages on a strategic visioning process that will continue into the new year, whose outcome is unknown. 2024 is both a General Conference year with all the anxiety and uncertainty that brings and a presidential election year that is already inspiring a lot of fear. And in the midst of all of that change, challenge, and uncertainty, we continue to strive for financial sustainability that allows for the ebbs and flows of congregational life in DC and that also fuels growth and new vision—at a time when everything costs a whole lot more.
Considering all this, one option is to focus on the gaps, the places where there seems to be less than in the past, to worry about not having enough, to be fearful about the future, to entertain a scarcity mindset. …Like looking around and only perceiving sand, dryness, rocks, thirst—a desert to cross with no water.
But God’s modus operandi since the very beginning of the story is to do new things, life-giving things right at the point we think it’s not possible and right when we need it most. Maybe some of you could tell a story about how that has worked in your own life. For the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s manna from heaven and water from a rock. And notice that God uses what is already present, what is available, who is available to provide what is needed.
Moses is available and responsive to God’s call; and Moses takes up his (non-magic) staff and becomes an instrument through which God’s power flows.
That makes me think of the words of Sufi mystic poet Hafiz who writes, “I am a hole in the flute that Christ’s breath moves through…” Each one of us—and we collectively—are instruments through which the breath of God, the power of God may flow. It’s a similar idea to what we read in Philippians 2.
The Revised English Bible translation of the first verse reads: “If then our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart, any consolation of love, any participation in the Spirit, any warmth of affection or compassion…” In other words, if we’ve let Christ in—if Christ fills our hearts and minds—then we will be able to live together in unity, with humility, self-giving love, and joy. The “breath,” the Spirit, of Christ’s love, compassion, and power moves through us to make a certain kind of person and a certain kind of community. Eugene Peterson interprets verses 1-4 this way: “ If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” That right there is a different kind of community…
And when Paul introduces the ancient hymn to Christ found in verses 6-11, he writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” What we’re talking about here is not an individual endeavor. This is about how to live together in such a way that we embody and show what it looks like for the Christ breath to be poured out into us and to flow through and among us.
Christ “emptied himself”—poured himself out in humility and love, not asking for special treatment, not taking the easy way out, not avoiding the hunger and thirst of the wilderness, the ups and downs of life in community, or the suffering of the cross; but rather trusting in God’s provision and power. By becoming empty, Jesus made space for—became full of—God’s new-life-giving power, power that he poured out with and for others.
It’s one thing to know that God is with us and will provide for us in our wilderness places. It’s another to realize that no matter our current circumstance, we are called to let the mind of Christ, the breath of Christ, the Spirit of Christ be in us and among us in community so that we can do as Jesus did and pour ourselves out with and for others.
As we continually empty ourselves, allowing ourselves to receive the grace, love, and power that flows from God, God will make of us a certain kind of community: one that is poured out to quench the thirst of bodies and souls; one that responds and does our part to meet the needs around us; one that trusts God to sustain and guide us through the challenges of this present moment as a congregation and a nation; one that remembers the compassion and providence of God and rejoices in streams of possibility rather than complains about what feels lost. //
God pours into us what we need so that we may provide what others need. Jesus the Christ gave himself for us so that we may go into this beautiful, broken world and give ourselves for others in humility, in peace, in power, and in love. As we gather at the table today, remember your place among God’s people all around the world, give thanks for God’s abundant love and mercy, and pray that God might reveal where you are called to be poured out for others. Amen.