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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

September 27, 2020: Exodus 17:1-7

Is God with us or not? – Proper 21A

Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Bread and water: the basics of life….and in the wilderness it’s hard to find either one. In last week’s reading from Exodus, when the people of Israel were suffering from hunger and perhaps a touch of sunstroke, they complained to Moses for bringing them out to the wilderness just to die there. If you’re hungry enough and hot enough, even slavery in Egypt starts to look not so bad, if only for the security it provided, no matter how terrible the price.

And God responded to the cries of the people, just as God had heard their groaning in Egypt – which of course, is why and how they found themselves out there in the desert, hungry, and very unhappy. God, always faithful and compassionate, gave them bread from heaven – manna to feed them throughout their time of wandering. They had enough to survive.

Now, the hunger story is followed immediately by this one about thirst, in the same wilderness, during the same wandering, and it goes very much in the same way. When the people complain about having no water, they again question Moses’ leadership for bringing them out to die in the wilderness.

And again, Moses goes to God and asks for help – but this time there’s a touch of fear as well as a note of frustration in his conversation with God. The great leader senses that he has this time more than a cranky, thirsty congregation on his hands: it’s potentially an angry, dangerous mob that could rise up and stone him to death.

In providing water, God is saving Moses’ life as much as meeting the needs of the people, isn’t he. And, in addition, we should notice that God doesn’t seem to get angry or impatient with his thirsty people, maybe because water is a reasonable request from people wandering in the middle of a hot desert.

But, the Israelites are in another kind of wilderness – finding their way not just to the Promised Land of milk and honey, but on their journey to a new way of living once they receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. An entirely new way of living.

So, isn’t their wilderness experience a time of learning, of seasoning, a time of preparation for what’s ahead – up on that mountain and long afterward?

Could it be that God in this wilderness time, is teaching them to live their lives in trust? I think we might resist the thought, though, that God tests us – my vision is not of a God who puts tough stuff in our lives to see how we handle it, to test us – my vision is more of a God who first of all, wants to be in relationship with us, who loves us, who also holds us accountable, who provides teachable moments at every opportunity, who puts options in front of us – we have to stop and chose them, don’t we. Seems to me, then, complaining to God in frustration and even anger expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what we trust to be true about God – let’s remember that doubt is not the opposite of faith – fear is.

We’ve talked for the last several weeks in our scripture lessons a lot about the wilderness, haven’t we – and it’s certain that we continue to be in a wilderness of our own these days. Could it be that we, like the Israelites, are in the midst of our own desert journey on the way to a whole new way of living? How’s it going for us?

We’re feeling thirsty, aren’t we. Amidst all the bad news of these days, we’re feeling parched. Maybe a little lost. Everything seems to have changed! This whole new way of living isn’t always very comfortable, pleasant – but, much as we want to go back to normal, we can’t. Just like the Israelites, we’re facing a new normal – we’re still defining what that is. But there’s living water available to us too.

This past week the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC gathered – virtually – for the Annual Meeting. On Thursday night our Conference Minister, Freeman Palmer, gave his State of the Conference address – and it was wonderful.

Of course, the effect of the COVID pandemic was front and center in his talk…and we all can’t help but remember what happened - it was in the space of just 2 weeks back in March as we realized how serious the pandemic was, that we entered the state of emergency with stay-at-home orders, businesses and churches closed down, that we were all scurrying to find masks, gloves, and we began to watch the growing death toll in our area. How will we be church? Our last worship service in our sanctuary was March 8 – the second Sunday of Lent – we cancelled our service on March 15 – but on March 22 we gathered in worship via zoom for the first time. Sure, we had some technical issues in the beginning – as did every church – and who knew we’d still be online 7 months later! Sure, it’s extra work, takes extra planning, especially for our musicians, but we’re here, joined in worship each week – both live on Sunday mornings with folks who live both close by and a distance from Nutley - and recorded on our facebook page where people are watching! We’re adapting, aren’t we. But we’re not done yet. At least I hope not.

Freeman noted in his state of the conference address – the pandemic made the church hustle! The church had to act, to create in a new way! The church had to change! And we hustled too!

He went on to observe, “The power to tell the story is with us! Bidden or not, God is with us!”

Even in the wilderness! Especially in the wilderness! It was a wonderful experience to hear the stories from other churches in our conference – how they’ve adapted in worship, and how their ministries of outreach have changed and grown, how their community relationships have developed, how their justice efforts have come into focus. And to hear how churches are finding themselves transformed, experiencing a sense of hope and joy, the likes of which they’ve never thought possible.

Who knew? Friends, God knew.

This week we gathered for the first Church Council meeting this fall – again, via zoom! We’re starting to get used to that, aren’t we – there are benefits to not having to leave home at night but still being together, though we miss the closer human contact.

We received the financial reports – we all know the costs of the new furnace and the associated repairs to our aging pipes were huge expenses – thanks be to God those who have gone before us who provided gifts to our memorial funds but our finances are stretched. That’s no secret indeed – we also give thanks for those who are continuing to mail in their gifts to the church. But, even with the grants we’ve received and the help we received from the Payroll Protection Act, we’re not entirely out of the woods. We know we have an old building – there are always things that need to be done, to be repaired, to be refreshed – and there’s a big old dead tree outside that needs to come down before it falls down – we’ll get estimates on that and get that done!

We talked about how our membership has declined over the past several years – there are fewer people available to do the work, the ministry of the church – we’re not alone in that dilemma for sure – sometimes it feels like we’re in quite the wilderness time. But then, one of the Council members remarked that in these uncertain, scary, hard times, the church has something to offer – people are looking for some stability, most of all, some hope. Why don’t people look to the church for some help?

Well. It was quiet for a minute but then this led to a wonderfully creative conversation about the mission and ministry of St. Paul’s Church – questions about how do we get our message out to the community. Deep questions about a focus on faith, not on the building, the budget. What about our liturgy? How are we feeding our congregation? Where is our prophetic voice? How are we touching how people are feeling these days? How do we show how we’re living our faith and are we inviting others to share this journey? How are we sharing our own experiences of hope, joy, transformation – how are we sharing our story? How and when do we notice God at work in our lives? In our life together as church?

How do we share the living water we’ve received?

Lots of food for thought at this meeting – one of the most profound I’ve experienced here. Maybe a breath of fresh air, a light in the wilderness. All because of a pandemic that’s brought us into a new normal.

These questions are for all of us. Not just the Church Council. We’re all part of the Body of Christ here at St. Paul’s on this journey through the wilderness – many of you so fondly remember the “good old days” – and, of course, we learned from them – the reality is, though, the world is so very different now.

But what’s not different is this fact: the desire to make meaning in life, to connect with Something bigger, wiser, more loving, more compassionate, more just, more inclusive, is still with us. What story do we have to tell at St. Paul’s? How do we tell that story, live that story, be that story?

In conversations with some of you following that meeting, the ideas began to flow: more visibility on Social Media – yes, friends, that’s how people are connecting with each other in new ways and that’s already happening thanks to someone on Church council;

More person to person outreach: another member of the council asked for addresses of some people he hadn’t seen in a while;

Advocacy ministries – how can we advocate for the marginalized, take a stand on the injustice that we see or experience around us.

Let’s share with our friends and neighbors our stories of hope, joy, and transformation that have blessed us.

We have a choice, friends: yes, we’re in a wilderness time. But throughout the story of the people of faith, right down to today, the wilderness can be a lovely – in a rugged and stark way – pristine, holy place where we can draw closer to God, or it can be a lonely, threatening place, symbolizing despair and abandonment. What will it be for us?

Let’s get our juices flowing – let’s receive that living water in the wilderness, and even more importantly, share that living water with those we meet as we move through the wilderness into God’s light and love. So may it be. Amen!


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