A Reading from the Book of Exodus (17:1-7)
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Psalm (78:1-4, 12-16)
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
12 He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, *
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
13 He split open the sea and let them pass through; *
he made the waters stand up like walls.
14 He led them with a cloud by day, *
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
15 He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
16 He brought streams out of the cliff, *
and the waters gushed out like rivers.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians (2:1-13)
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (21:23-32)
When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“The whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages” (Ex. 17:1).
Isn’t that the way it always is? The long road of life, on which we spend our days, is never a perfectly straight highway, with us rolling along at an unvarying speed, our surroundings never changing. Actually, a road like that would be unbearably boring. Instead, like our spiritual ancestors, we travel along by stages, each phase of life bringing its own set of experiences, having its own landscape, providing its own unique perspective on the overall journey.
Last Sunday, in the late afternoon and early evening, our family joined with our closest neighbors for a block party. At one point in our time together, while kids were riding their bikes as fast as they could down one driveway, across the blocked-off street, and up the driveway on the other side, several of us who have lived near each other for 20-30 years or more got to talking about the stages in life that we have experienced at more or less the same time. We recalled our older children growing up on our block and making their way through elementary school and then through high school and beyond, most of them eventually finding significant others with whom to share their lives and, in several cases, having children of their own. We remembered the experience of becoming empty-nesters – although for one other neighbor as well as us, that was a temporary condition (but it will come again, seemingly before we know it). And we talked about our plans for our next stages in life.
Each of these stages has its own set of challenges and also its own set of blessings. As we travel along, we find some times when we recognize, more acutely than others, our need for God. And sometimes we even recognize that God is actually with us on our journey, although God’s presence is not always as obvious as we might like it to be. More often than not, we recognize God’s presence only in retrospect. We look back and realize that we never could have gotten through certain situations without God’s help, but that often, God was helping us through the people and circumstances around us, from what we often consider to be “just” the natural world.
That seems to be what happened to the Israelites in the events in and around today’s first reading. At first, they had looked to God to rescue them as they stood at the Red Sea and saw the Egyptian army pursuing them from behind. After they had survived that threat, they began their journey in the wilderness, only to find that their food supplies were quickly dwindling; and, as we heard last week, God was present in the seemingly ordinary workings of nature to feed them. Now, with that crisis averted, they had moved on to another place, only to find that they had virtually no water and that there wasn’t an oasis in sight. Again the Israelites began complaining to God and to Moses. (It seems that they were always complaining about something. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that we can identify with them so easily.)
They thought they needed a miracle: some extraordinary divine intervention. Basically, they wanted God to step in and fix everything for them. But notice that God essentially told them: “You already have all that you need to solve your own problem: I’ve given you a stick and a rock. Now go out there and use them.” And Moses took the stick and struck the rock and they found that God had already provided them with the water that they needed. They just hadn’t recognized it, and they just hadn’t used the gifts that they already had.
But there was more that they weren’t seeing, more that they weren’t recognizing, than the fact that they already had all that they needed for the journey. They didn’t recognize the fact that God had been with them all along. They thought God had abandoned them. But, as God reminded Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” None of them, it seems, saw God there: on a rock on the side of a mountain in the middle of what appeared to be a lifeless wilderness. Yet even in what seemed to be a totally god-forsaken place, God was present, traveling with them, always caring for them, always providing for them.
God still is with us in all the stages of our journeys. But it usually seems that God continues to work through the seemingly ordinary things and gifts that God has given us: the resources that we tend to overlook – our sticks and rocks, if you will. But we can’t just sit back, as the Israelites tried to do, hoping and praying that God will step in and do all the work for us. We need to use our sticks and our rocks, all the blessings that God has put at our disposal, to accomplish the work that God has given us to do.
And through it all, like the first son in Jesus’ parable, we need to discover that what counts most is a commitment to living a life of with integrity before God. It is never enough simply to profess our faith in God and to have a purely theoretical and abstract love for our neighbor. Our faith must be something that we live, the power that infuses and empowers our lives. As Jesus puts it in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:21): “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Doing the work of God by using all the gifts that God has entrusted to us – that is what builds up the kingdom of God; and that kingdom is the ultimate destination of our journey.
The time in which we live is obviously a difficult one for churches. Across geographical areas and denominational lines, participation tends to be down, and resources are sometimes scarcer than they were in the past. St. Mark’s, for example, reached its peak attendance 50 years ago, back in 1964; and I suspect that that is typical for all the other churches in our area.
It is easy to get discouraged when we look at all the needs in our community and the seemingly few resources that we have to address them. We find ourselves tempted sometimes simply to give up and ask God somehow to step in and fix things. But God might just look at us the same way that God looked at the Israelites out there in the wilderness, and God might just tell us again, “You’ve got a stick and a rock. You’ve got everything that you need. So go out there and use what I’ve given you. Go out and do the work for which I have called you and for which I have sent you. Go out and live a life of integrity: putting your faith into action. And, like the Israelites standing there at the foot of Mt. Horeb, take a fresh look at the rock that seems to be blocking your way. You might just find that I’m standing on that rock, too.”