Homily for Proper 21, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
I went through a phase in my childhood, like a lot of children do, where I was fascinated with magic tricks. You know the kind I mean…the secret slight-of-hand things that you can do with coins disappearing in glasses of water by knowing the right way to hold things just out of audience sight, or the “pull the scarf out of your sleeve” trick with some hidden knowledge of what was hiding behind seemingly nothing. I’m sure that loving family audiences feigned their amazement after watching me sneaking around practicing these tricks for hours, reveling in my secret knowledge.
There is a sense of delight that comes along with the surprise of seeing something appear out of nothing. Pulling a rabbit from a hat delights us, but I’m not sure it changes us. We’re often still skeptics at heart, and when our surprise subsides, we just work a little harder to figure out what the trick might be that the magician knows that we do not.
If we read it superficially, our first lesson today might seem like magic. The story involves Moses wielding some sort of a magic wand, appeasing an angry, thirsty crowd who have spent far more time in the wilderness than makes them comfortable. This story has all the set up components of a great magic trick as the people look to Moses to do the impossible: make water appear out of nothing. Our skeptical minds might even wonder if Moses knew some trick or some secret source where water was plentiful. But Moses isn’t a trickster or a magician. What we know from these Exodus stories is one constant: Moses is a person of God.
If we understand that fundamental fact about who Moses is, it shifts the pivotal point of the whole story. Like the fire of the burning bush, we are drawn to the sight of water pouring forth from nowhere. But Moses recognized God in the fire and Moses recognizes God in the wilderness. So the real pivot point of this story is when Moses turns to God as his friend and confidant and asks “what should I do with this people?”
That question is everything. Think about it. Moses is in this with the people. He had been wandering through the wilderness with the people he was leading, all of them exhausted and thirsty. People were looking to him for leadership, “to do something” and alleviate the suffering of their present condition…a condition which he was also experiencing. Whether compassionate or dismissive, his response to the people could have been “Yep, times are hard and in case you didn’t notice, I’m rather thirsty myself!.” Alternatively, Moses could have gotten pulled into the existential angst against God right along with them. We could imagine a perfectly justifiable anger in this story if Moses raised his fist heavenward and said, “why are you trying to kill us?”
Instead, Moses turns to God as a trusted friend and confidante, seeking advice. Moses had followed where God had led him, and Moses turned toward God who had been guiding him and caring for him his entire life. So in this dry spell, Moses moves, again, to the holy ground of God’s presence. Just as Moses drew near to God in a burning bush, he again draws near to God in the thirsty desert. Moses chooses to recognize holy ground in the gap between faith and fear, which is where God is. Moses asks God what he can do to participate in God’s plan of salvation for God’s people.
God always hears the cries of God’s people. What God provided wasn’t only water needed for bodily hydration, but providential sustenance for the people’s spiritual thirst. God’s instruction to Moses invited Moses’ participation: he walked the people through an embodied remembering of God’s constant, divine providence on this journey with them…from the parting of the Nile to the calling together of the tribal elders to the visible presence of God to mark the way forward. God instructed Moses to engage in a public action, made possible by a God of love reaching to beloved people to provide what they need and, through engaging their collective memory, to be made known to them again. The beauty and depth of this story is found in a loving God who recognizes physical and spiritual thirst, and responds abundantly.
I think this might be exactly the story that we need for this present moment of our collective lives. We’ve been in our present pandemic wilderness for a long time. We may find ourselves spiritually thirsty and psychologically exhausted, too. What we thought was going to be a few weeks has become six months, and we’re realizing that the vision of a promised land might still be too far off for us to see. We wrestle with the reality that it might not look like we imagined that it would. Add to that the personal precarity of the journey, the burning fires of injustice, the heat and exhaustion of doing all the things. All the things. We are exhausted. We are wandering. We are thirsty.
We may find ourselves in this story relating to the crowds, looking for a leader who can be a source of inspiration and hope, listening to us and responding to our demands of what we need to survive. Or, we may relate to Moses, where people are turning to us for guidance and asking us to be the face of faith for them, even when we also are in the wilderness..
Either way, our spiritual thirst is showing. And either way, God sees us.
It is fitting today that we who gather…who are walking through the wilderness of this world in which we live…should be reminded of the great gift of our salvation, lavished upon us by a loving God throughout history. Today’s Epistle beautifully recalls our salvation history, providing us a hymn of encouragement that Paul was employing to help those whose spiritual thirst was creating division among their community. By focusing our attention on our common life in Christ, we can return to the center of who we are as the Body of Christ, the church now in the world. Like Moses, Paul was also standing in the gap between fear and faith, recounting a history of salvation grounded in kenosis, the great emptying of God’s own self, all for the love of God’s own people. Christ, incarnate, who was born into this world through this great emptying came to God’s people to live and serve not as a mighty ruler but in poverty and at the margins of this world, serving with those who were outcast, like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus spoke of in today’s Gospel lesson.
These lessons are a cold, cool sip of water responding to our spiritual thirst. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we begin to see again the ways in which God’s greatness and providence transform us, and the world. We remember that we have been lovingly embraced by God whose answer to our prayers isn’t a slight of hand or a magic trick to keep us placated and amused, but a God whose answer to prayer is to lavish upon us powerful and persistent reminders of divine love and grace even when we are thirsty, lost and afraid.
Six months into this pandemic journey, it occurs to me that it is especially when we are thirsty and lost and afraid that God’s presence is revealed to us in new ways. We are reminded of God’s care for us when we see those who are leading vulnerably and with courage to respond to the needs of the world, standing in the gap between faith and fear. Or, we may find ourselves asking God, “how do I help these people?” and discover that we ourselves are being asked to be the face of faith for another. God loves us, and God entrusts us with the ability to be the face of faith for each other. That’s what it means to share the journey, and to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, especially when we are lost and thirsty and crave the reminder that God is in our midst.
I want to tell you all a story about my own reviving spring of water. Some of you may have seen the St. Phoebe School liturgy that I shared on our facebook page with you all, Holding Space for Hope. That project has been a labor of love since June, when the deacons-in-formation and I met and I asked them to think together about what the needs of the world were that they were hearing…which is something that Deacons learn to do…and to work together with me to create a liturgy for the church that would help those needs be heard. Over the summer, they reached out to people and deliberately spoke with those whose views and perspectives were often marginalized or silenced. They asked one question: what does hope look like for you?
At first, they were dismayed and lost because so many people initially said, “I don’t have any hope.” But, they went on asking. And some people began to form words, or send pictures. Some people sang songs, and sent in their stories. One of the St. Phoebe School class said to me, about a month into the wandering wilderness of this project, “I’m pretty sure its not even about the video we’re making anymore. I’ve changed so much from hearing and holding the stories…and I realize that is what God needed me to do.”
They learned, and they did go on and make the video. Actually, God’s Providence intervened in the midst of a time of my own thirsty moment because I had encouraged them to do all these things not knowing how we were going to pull them together and knowing that I had no digital video experience. An opportunity came along, though, in the form of a reminder from a church foundation that had sponsored me in the past. I reached out to them and received a small grant to support our work and hire a professional digital editor. So, bolstered and affirmed by that cool drink of water we moved forward. We all filmed our individual pieces of the liturgy, and handed over our images and stories and quotes in trust to someone who saw hope in what we were doing. Along the way, we brought in a musically gifted collaborator who was so moved by the project that she reached out to several others who joined in with their musical gifts. Like streams of water, our ideas and words and hopes began to flow together. That’s how God works, in the power and presence of community and relationship. The gifts of each person came together in a final liturgy that made hope overflow in me when I saw it. Each time I watch it, I am reminded over and over again of God’s abundant hope, love and grace..
I’ll share the Holding Space for Hope liturgy link with you all again along with my sermon. Set aside 40 minutes to watch it during a moment when you feel thirsty and tired in spirit. There’s an outpouring of love and grace in words, images, music and stories which will revive and restore your spirit, of that I am certain. That’s how God works through us, again and again. It isn’t magic. It is love. God’s divine, transforming Love in which we are invited to participate fully and completely..
At points in this story of “Holding Space for Hope”…just like in our lives…I have felt myself among the tired and thirsty crowd, and I have been like Moses standing in the gap of faith and fear and asking God, “what do I do with these people?” Like the flowing waters of a babbling brook, I have heard the response echoing back to me in the language of serendipity, abundance and grace. What I can tell you is this: God hears us. God loves us. God provides for us as has been the story from ages and ages past and will be in ages yet to come. If you take away nothing else today, take away that message for your tired and thirsty souls. God hears you, God loves you, and God will meet you exactly where you, inviting you to participate in God’s vision for this world.
May the rushing waters of hope pour out upon you today, and bring rivers of peace to your tired and thirsty souls.