A follow up to the Moan Moan Moan sermon...perhaps a bit more sympathetic!
Year A Proper 21 (2008) RCL Principal
Seeing from the other side…
Last week I preached on moaning, and talked about how good we, and by we I mean most human beings, are at moaning. It doesn’t matter what our usual temperament, or whether we are generally happy, give us the chance and we will be away, grumbling about the weather, the economy, the government, the way things aren’t what they used to be, the Church, the world, whatever.
This train of thought was inspired by the Israelites in this amazing story of the Exodus. Freed from Egypt following the 10 plagues, brought through the red sea without even getting their feet wet, they seemed to follow that up with a protracted campaign of complaint. At least that’s what the text seems to say. First of all we have complaints over bitter water, which is sweetened by God and made drinkable, then complaints over the lack of meat and bread in the desert. We had that almost incredible moment when they seem to say ‘it was OK in Egypt really because the food was good’. No matter that they were in slavery, no matter that at the end their children were being murdered, that they were being beaten and oppressed – they got meat and bread. Now I am as fond of meat and bread as the next person, as is obvious, but when compared to being free or being enslaved, even I would take the freedom and get on with sorting out the meals later. It reminds me of a picture I was sent yesterday which said in large letters ‘never underestimate the power of stupidity in large groups of people’.
And as we continue the story in today’s reading, we see more complaining, this time again over water. It seems as if the people collectively have forgotten just what God has done to get them to this point – they have forgotten his provision, his miraculous works and the way in which he has continued to care for them no matter what happens.
But, having said all that, we can if we look see a little of why they might react in such a way. They had to flee Egypt, with just what they could carry – some of which had been thrust upon them by terrified Egyptians just glad to see the back of them. Remembering that this was not the age of mass communication, there would have been many amongst them that probably had very little idea of what was going on. Many of them I expect were simply following their neighbours and friends and simply going with the flow, with no idea as to quite where or why they were going anywhere at all!
So imagine how many of them might have felt. They haven’t had particular instruction as to how long the journey will be, they probably weren’t quite sure why Moses led them to the Red Sea, but were mightily relieved when they got across it, they might not have known about what happened at the Spring but were happy to have water to drink, and then were probably bemused by both the Quails and this strange doughy substance on the ground in the mornings. So now they continue to wander in the wilderness and start to get rather concerned about where the next drink is coming from – for in a desert there is something of a deficit in water and with its rather essential part in their continued survival I expect there was a fair amount of anxiety in the camp, which soon translated into anger and complaint.
And on the other side of this is Moses, who gets the word from God, who has been at the centre of events, who himself suffers from a certain lack of confidence yet who has been called, somewhat reluctantly, to lead this rag tag brigade of somewhat disaffected folk to the new land.
But he’s the one who is expected to have the answers, he’s the one who everyone turns to, the one everyone complains to, the one who feels at the sharp end of things.
And he sees the frustrations of the Israelites, he hears the voices raised in anger, the questions, the concerns, the grumbles.
So he comes before God and again is called upon to perform a miracle, he strikes the rock and water flows out. God has again provided.
And we can perhaps see some parallels with our own Christian lives, and perhaps there’s a word here for those of us who take responsibility for leading our congregations!
Sometimes it can feel that our walk together in faith is somewhat lacking in direction! Its hard for a Church to share a vision, we all come from different backgrounds, different experience, different understandings of our faith. We are united by our desire to worship God and to know Christ, but we may all have very different ways of expressing this and we struggle to work together to make our Churches places where all are welcome and all feel at home.
It can sometimes feel as though there should be someone who holds it all together, and that role is often taken by those of us who have a responsibility for ordained ministry in the Church. And it is true that to a certain point we are responsible for leadership and guidance in the Church. But unlike Moses we don’t have the voice of God in our ear, we don’t spend quite so much time in the direct presence of God, and I personally (unlike Moses) have never had to wear a veil to shield those who meet me from the brightness of the glory of God.
No, in the Church we believe that there is only one who knows the big picture, and that is God, and we are all responsible for the life of the Church. I can see why people often turn to the Clergy to complain about the state of the Church in general, or to express their concerns and their anxieties – but in the end we all have a responsibility for the life and witness of Christ’s Church. We are all called to share the life of Christ with others, we are all responsible for making our Churches places which shed light to our communities and in our world.
In our Gospel reading for today we have a picture of two sons who are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One says ‘no’ and yet goes to help, the other says ‘yes’ but doesn’t actually do anything. In the end, says the passage, it is the one who does something that is obedient to his father, rather than the one who says something but doesn’t do anything. And though this story was particularly aimed at the religious who claimed to be following God but wouldn’t heed the call of Christ, unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors who weren’t considered worthy – it still has a message for us.
We are to be a Church that says and does! We all together have to put our faith into action. We are not to complain about the way things are and then do nothing about it! Nor are we to blame our Clergy and lay leaders for failing to build up the Church and have more people taking part in our services, or failing to get interest going in the Church or whatever. Though those of us who have responsibility for leading services, for pastoral care and for visiting will do our best to fulfil those duties, we are (in the end) not those who will fill our churches. People will be attracted to our fellowships by those who are seeking to share faith, and who are enthusiastic about Christ. And often the contacts will come from our everyday living, from friends, family and neighbours.
We are all in this together, God has called us to share in this task of living, loving, faithful following and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ – may he also give us the grace to do it.