"The Circular File"

Sunday sermon for October 19, 2014
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7, 18:13-27
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

So, we are doubling up on our Exodus stories today, as you have already noticed. Partially this is selfish: the schedule of readings only permits us room to read one of these, but they are both so good, and so juicy, and offer some irresistible fruit for the preacher, and so why not read them both? But of course that would hardly be helpful if the stories were not also in some way connected, that is, connected beyond the obvious, which is that both stories land us in this in-between time in Israel’s journey, in-between the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, as we read several weeks ago, and the delivery of the Ten Commandments from Sinai, which will show up for us next week. For now, they are liberated from slavery, in the wilderness, a bit adrift, and without any kind of operating manual. There’s something of a college campus Psychology 101 experiment going on here, or some tawdry reality show: what happens when you take a group of people out of bondage and leave them to freely wander the wilderness with only the bare minimum of food and water and without any kind of direction? Is this what happens when God stops being miraculous and starts being real? How do the people respond?

And the answer, time and again, in these stories and elsewhere, seemingly everywhere in the Old Testament, is that the people complain. Biblical Israel loooooves to complain. You may recall that in last week’s text the people had begun to complain for lack of food — “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt; you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” And this week of course they’re complaining for lack of water – even though they have already camped in places where water was abundant, but as soon as it’s not, of course, Moses hears it: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Honestly, for a story that we only have because later generations of Israelites saw fit to treasure it and hold it close, it doesn’t exactly put the people in the best light. They come off as whiny. They come off as overdependent. And they certainly come off as what I am calling severely over-miracled. That is, you know, God sent ten whole miracles to Egypt to get them out of slavery. And then God went and divided that whole sea in two just so they could get across the border. And just when you thought God was done, when they needed food, there God is again with Manna. Not that I have anything against the cause of liberation, but honestly, these people have grown a little bit entitled. And so they complain.

They complain to Moses, and Moses has just about had it. In our first story he loses it to God – “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” – but the second story is at least as interesting. Here we find that, when the people are not complaining to Moses about God, they’re complaining to Moses about each other; that he has become the single arbiter of every petty debate that the entire wandering nation of Israel manages to have. Just imagine the United States Supreme Court working its way through Judge Judy’s docket and you’ve got the idea. “Britney told me that she’d pay me $40 to wash her camel and I washed her camel but she never paid me and I want my money,” and, you know, Moses didn’t sign up for this, and he knows it, and so his father-in-law, Jethro, says: look, this is ridiculous. “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” You have no business hearing every single little asinine complaint for all these people. You got to delegate. So Moses does as he is instructed, and appoints judges from among the people to hear all these petty cases. This is actually the origin of the system of judges that will persist as Israel’s political organization up until the emergence of King Saul in 1 Samuel. But it’s just as big for the folks on the ground — Moses, who gets to save his energy, and these complaining people, who get recruited to be agents of the system against which they have been so vociferously complaining. Complain loudly enough, and they put you in charge.

Isn’t that always the way? Complain loudly enough, and you get put in charge. Husbands and wives know this, I know they do. Complain about the laundry, and pretty soon, you’re doing the laundry. Complain about having the same dinner too many times, and pretty soon, you’re cooking dinner. But no one specializes in this like churches. I have a friend who is married to an Episcopal Priest. They moved to Baltimore a few years ago for a new call and my friend, Mark, himself also Episcopalian, decided to tag along to the annual Diocese-level Convention as an alternate delegate from his area. Not much authority granted to those who attend annual Convention as alternate delegates. Not much at stake. But Mark made one crucial mistake. When the convention was over, he filled out one of those post-conference comment cards, and he didn’t just check all the boxes, he actually gave some prose feedback, and, of course, nobody takes the time to do that unless you’re really on a soapbox about something, and I don’t know what it was, but Mark was complaining about some part of their programming and there you have it, his whole list of complaints, right there underneath his contact information. Crucial mistake. Wouldn’t you know it, a few months later, Mark gets a phone call. You obviously feel very passionate about some of these planning issues. Won’t you come join the Planning Team for next year’s Convention? And of course a few months after that, he was made Co-Chair, and the year after that, he was running the whole show. Now, he’s a major player throughout the Diocese, like it or not, all because had the energy to complain.

Complain loudly enough, and they put you in charge. It’s exactly the thread that holds these stories together. Israel complained about starving in the desert, and God gave them Manna. But a few days later, when the start in about the water, you can hear God and Moses both start to get just a bit exasperated. What, do you think I am just made of miracles? You think this stuff grows on trees? Yes, God does put on one more show; under instruction, Moses strikes this rock with his staff and water flows from the rock and the people have water to drink and one more sign of God’s power although at this point if they still need signs and wonders to believe I think we have some basic questions about their sanity that would be worth asking. But what separates this story from the Manna story is that the miracle isn’t just about providing for the material needs of God’s people. God tells Moses to “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you,” and when Moses strikes the rock he does so “in sight of the elders of Israel” and what is most notable here is that this is the first time that Israel even gets to have elders. This is the first time that the Biblical text in any way recognizes an office among the people of Israel, besides Moses, an office that by definition should be part of the solution and not part of the problem. As soon as you have officers, you have people who get complained to instead of just people who get to complain.

And in fact this is no mere subplot of Israel’s time in the wilderness. This is the big narrative arc. It starts with Israel completely at God’s whim, sprung from captivity by a God determined to move Heaven and Earth in their defense. It ends next week at Sinai when Israel is given instructions for their own participation in this whole God-relationship. The arc here is God’s gradual call upon Israel to be a responsible party in its own theological journey. I got you out of Egypt; I did that part for you. I even got you some food. But at some point here you’re going to have a part to play. At some point here you’re going to shoulder some of the burden. That’s where this arc goes: they’re about to sign a covenant together, Israel and God, and that’s what covenant means, it means that each party has responsibilities to the other, and if Israel’s going to shoulder those kind of responsibilities than the least they could do would be to learn how to find some water for themselves and not just spend all day complaining. Or, rather, they complain loudly enough, so God puts them in charge.

Now, my point this morning isn’t to write a cautionary tale about what happens when you complain, nor is it to encourage complaining. Complain if you want to. You might get put in charge of something. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and let’s move on. Because I think in fact this is one of those times that it’s important not to precisely locate ourselves in this text. We are not as Israel here wandering without a covenant. We are not wandering without a set of instructions to help guide our participation in God’s journey with us. The basic movement of these stories – Israel complains, so God gives them more responsibility – it’s not in our present. It’s in our past. It’s in our heritage. It is the deep current that flows underneath our relationship with God; it’s the hard-coded stuff. Which means that the point of preaching these texts this morning isn’t to warn us about the possibility of having responsibility in our walk with God. It is rather to remind us of the responsibility we already have. It is rather to say that we all hold this covenant in joint custody. God may be the miracle-worker, but we also have our own work to do. We know how to gather the Manna. We can find water for ourselves. We can do it, I know we can, because God called Elders out of the church and showed them how. We can do it, I know we can, because God gave Israel the freedom and responsibility to hold up their own end of the bargain – not alone, but as partners, joint stake-holders, in a journey that continues here, now, in this place, with us.

That’s why we call it stewardship. Because we are all joint stake-holders in the particular journey of God’s people known here as Amherst Presbyterian Church. As you may know, we are gearing up here in this congregation for our annual stewardship campaign. Letters will go out. Budgets will be on display. We will ask you, as we do every year, to make a pledge for 2015 — a dollar amount that represents your financial commitment to the basic operating expenses of APC. And it seems to me that there are two ways to approach this process. One is to file “church stewardship” alongside every other charitable contribution that any of us make. On paper, that makes a lot of sense. In our house, church contributions and our other charitable gifts get filed right next to each other — it’s all charity, when the IRS comes around. A few bucks to Doctors Without Borders. A few bucks to the local food bank. These places will not thrive or merely survive based solely on your support alone but it’s nice to give when you can. A few bucks here and there, whatever your preference. And surely if you want, and this is so very often what happens, surely if you want you can toss church stewardship in that same file, a few bucks to Amherst Pres. They seem nice enough, and why not? I can write it off on my taxes.

The alternative, of course, is to be formed by the story of Israel in the wilderness, and to choose to live as joint stake-holders of this particular journey. To choose to live as people who have claimed ownership — or at least co-ownership — of the community known as Amherst Presbyterian Church. The difference, of course, is that living as joint stakeholders in this church will fundamentally change who you are. It is not as simple as tossing a few bucks in the plate. It is as complicated and costly as saying that who you are and what the church is are fundamentally interrelated. This is your church. The church is you. Its ability to thrive and stumble does not rest on somebody else’s shoulders or in somebody else’s checkbook. It rests on you. And just for the record, let’s be clear: joint-stakeholdership respects no seniority. From the moment you join the church you are called to assume ownership, and that call rests upon you until the moment God calls you away. It falls equally among those of us who have been here for five minutes or for five decades. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that I am speaking to the person sitting next to you. This place is yours. You can choose to act as stakeholders or not, but either way, this place is yours, and it absolutely will thrive — or merely survive — based on your support.

The good news, of course, is that you all are miraculous. That’s the arc of this Exodus story, right? God does miracle after miracle, and then, after a while, the people find their own food, and they find their own water; it doesn’t flow out of a rock forever. The people take ownership of their stake in the wilderness journey and they themselves become the instruments of God’s supernatural work. They become the miracle, and I have no less confidence in you. You all are miraculous. When someone here needs food, you show up, and soon enough the room is swimming with ham biscuits and casseroles. When the roof leaks, you show up, and soon enough everything goes back to normal. When someone here needs comfort, you show up, and soon enough the room is swimming with the powerful mercy of the Holy Spirit. You are feeding this whole community, through Meals on Wheels, through this Preschool, through your commitment to worship and service and justice. That this unlikely church has survived — has thrived — on this corner for almost two centuries is nothing short of miraculous, a miracle of God made manifest by your labor. So I don’t care what wilderness we may wander into. I don’t care if food looks scarce on the ground. I don’t care if our water supply runs dry. This church is in good hands, because it’s in your hands, because with your hands God works miracles.