Sermon for February 24, 2008
I'd like to start this sermon off -- just as we typically start off our Presbyterian worship services -- with a confession. Don't worry, I'm not exactly expecting an assurance of forgiveness.
The confession is this: I'm not a biblical literalist. I do value the Bible a great deal, and like the Presbyterian church, I affirm that it is the "unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal" (that's a mouthful), but that doesn't mean I see the bible as an exhaustive encyclopedia, a perfectly accurate history textbook, an up-to-date road map, or an infallible instruction manual. I know there are many people out there see the bible as all these things, and if they find that perspective useful, who am I to say they are wrong? -- all I can say is that for myself, I don't share that perspective. And I'm not so sure it was the perspective of the ancient Hebrews who first recorded some of the oldest books of the bible, either.
They certainly didn't share our modern obsession with history, observable fact, the scientific method, and objective truth. These are contributions from Greek and Roman culture, and later from the French Age of Enlightenment.
It's true that Genealogy was important to the Ancient Hebrews, because they valued connection and shared heritage (which is not exactly the same as our concept of "history"). They also valued stories, because stories passed down from generation to generation were the primary method of teaching and preserving important moral values.
I think the ancient Hebrews would have found puzzling some of our modern speculation over "where the garden of Eden actually was" or "How did Adam and Eve alone populate an entire world" or "did Noah really fit every single species in the Ark?" They might have looked at us, rolled their eyes, and said: "You're missing the point."
Now don't misunderstand me here: I'm not saying, "the stories in the Bible are all made up and they're not true." That would be missing the point as well. The earliest stories in the Bible, including today's scripture passage, make up what anthropologists recognize as Judeo-Christian Mythology. A myth, contrary to popular misunderstanding, is not something that is "fake" or "untrue." A myth is simply a story (and all cultures have them) that is so old it is unverifiable one way or another. It cannot be proven true, but it cannot be proven false. It's purpose is to explain the origins of a people, to convey their understanding of the universe, and pass on their collected wisdom to their children. And so the "truth" of the ancient Bible stories lies in the wisdom we can glean from them.
Unfortunately, our 21st century minds have a real hard time getting past the mere surface-level concept of a man hitting a rock with a stick in the middle of the desert, because God told him to, and producing enough water for two million people? Ok...let's be careful not to miss the point, here. And I don't think the point is simply "God can do anything."
Consider this: What would you have said (or thought) if I had stood up here this morning and said, "I'm going to smack this table with my microphone, and a river of water will come flowing out of it." You might have said, "Neal, there's a water fountain out in the hallway that already does that." But you probably at least would have thought, yeah right. He's crazy. That kind of stuff just doesn't happen.
But on the other hand, what would you have said two months ago if a minister had stood up before you and said, "Someone is going to donate a million dollars to our church to pay off the mortgage." Yeah right. He's crazy. That kind of stuff just doesn't happen. In fact, I seem to remember that when that *did* happen, Philip had to say it three or four times before some of us actually believed him.
Water, of course, is essential to life, and the Israelites were in the desert. If you've read Exodus, you know the Israelites whined and complained a lot (just like we do), but I'm actually with them on this one. Water is not a luxury -- it's a necessity. Their lives were at stake. How can we possibly identify with that? We don't need water, and our lives aren't at stake. But the life of our church certainly was, a few months ago. Many of you probably weren't aware of this, there may be a few who are uncomfortable with me sharing this at all, but I remember sitting in a session meeting last November, where our church finance elder was projecting very bleak numbers -- and putting out drastic options on the table like getting rid of the youth & music director, and eliminating funding for all ministries. Faithbridge was dying of thirst in the desert. At our session meeting this month, our church treasurer (who is now a lot less stressed out), said, "Oh, by the way -- yesterday is the day we were projected to go bankrupt." Thank God for water, and for whatever solid rock produced it.
I've been comparing our "Faithbridge miracle" to the one in today's scripture passage, but maybe being set free from the weight of a million-dollar debt is more like the Israelites being liberated from slavery in Egypt. If that's the case, then we are now wandering in the desert, in a time of transition, learning as a people to become dependent on God. I think that's true enough for us, as well. But what does that mean, to "become dependent on God?" Those Israelites who were using their brains, their wisdom,and their world-gotten experience...we know what they said: "Let's go back to Egypt." It's not the best option, but it makes logical sense. More sense than banging on rocks with sticks, expecting water in the desert.
Being dependent on God means sometimes being willing to check your business sense at the door. Because giving away a million dollars certainly doesn't make good business sense, especially if it's done anonymously, no strings attached. Striking at rocks means taking risks. Moses took the elders of Israel with him when he struck the rock with his staff. If it had been me, I would have snuck out by myself and done a little trial-rock-tapping beforehand. But Moses risked his reputation, and (since going back to Egypt was probably a pretty popular option to reject) his life, and the lives of his people...all because he trusted that God did not lead them out of Israel just to abandon them in the desert.
Are you listening, Faithbridge? God did not lead us out of debt and bondage to abandon us now! When it comes to miracles, I believe that you ain't seen nothin' yet! But when God asks each of us to stand up, to lay our comfort and security aside, and start striking rocks -- let us be ready and willing to take the risk.
I don't know whether God really told Moses to strike a rock. I don't know whether that rock really produced enough water for two million Israelites wandering in the desert. But that's not the point of the story. What I do know is this: That in our darkest hours, that in our time of dire need, God takes care of his people. That's a story everyone in this room can testify to, in a cynical, unbelieving world. I also know this: When God sets people free from bondage, the journey doesn't end. The work doesn't end. The danger doesn't end. But God still calls us to move forward in the face of uncertainty -- God calls us to work even harder when we're free -- God calls us to take even greater risks in the face of danger. And in this way, we learn to no longer rely upon ourselves, our work, our finances, or our security. Instead, we come to rely entirely on the goodness and the grace of God, who leads us from the desert into the promised land. That...is the truth in this story. That is the truth in our own story. And that is more than enough.