Sermon: Are You Listening to This, God?

October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7
World Communion Sunday
Neighbors in Need Offering

The people of Israel were in a desperate situation. Again.

They had escaped from slavery in Egypt, a desperate situation, through a series of miracles: the plagues which eventually forced Pharaoh to release them. Pharaoh’s army pursued them, another desperate situation, until the parting of the waters protected them. When they found water but it was undrinkable, a desperate situation, God purified it. When they ran out of food, another desperate situation, God provided manna for them to collect in the morning and eat through the day.

Then they found themselves led to a place with no water at all.

But as Kathryn Matthews writes: “While manna is remembered to this day as God’s gracious response to human need, the water incident is recalled in terms of the grumbling rather than the gift, verse 7 tells us, in the names Moses gives the place, Massah and Meribah.” Those words mean “Quarrel” and “Test.”

Moses, indeed, came to God with more fear than he had before: “These people are ready to stone me,” he said.

And well they might. In the desert of the Sinai, water is life, and lack of water is death. Settled in one place, the people might have survived for a few days. Attempting to travel in the bright sun, some could have died in less than a day.

They were in a desperate situation. No wonder they were frightened. No wonder they frightened Moses, who had led them to where they were.

No wonder at all that they complained.

There’s a funny thing about complaining. Have you noticed this?

It works.

It had worked for the people of Israel. They had groaned their prayers to God while in bondage in Egypt. They had cried in fear when they saw Pharaoh’s chariots pursuing. They had complained that the water was foul, and that they were hungry. In each case, God had come with help.

God came this time with help, too. But while Moses argued with the people that they were putting God to the test, God said nothing of the sort. God simply told Moses what to do, and the water poured from the rock.

It was Moses, not God, who named the place after the complaints, rather than the miracle.

It’s the leader who heard, in the complaints, not the desperate need, but an attack on his leadership.

Moses made it about himself (and tried to make it about God), rather than about the needs of the people.

I never thought I’d find myself comparing Moses, the greatest of ancient Israel’s prophets and leaders, with our current president. But this week, the President’s response to the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, sounds just like Moses. Like Moses at Massah and Meribah. Like Moses at his very worst. And it doesn’t make either one of them look good.

Complaint is a vital human communication tool. It speaks of need and hurt and want. Complaint gets louder and more threatening as the need gets deeper. Complaint like that can be very hard to hear. Nobody wants to hear desperate complaint. Nobody wants to believe that the hurt is so painful, or the thirst so great. But that’s what leads to public protest, whether it be the Boston Tea Party of 1773, or the abolitionists’ protests of the 1800s on the mainland, or the protests in Hawai’i after the Queen’s overthrow in 1893, or the women’s marches that won them the vote in the early 20th century, or the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, or the Civil Rights marches of the years following, or #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations today, or NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Protests – complaints – aren’t going to make the rest of us feel good, most of the time. They will threaten our complacency, or our assumptions, or even our sense of propriety. Yet they remain cries for help that come from deep need.

It would be nice if protests were always clear and coherent. They’re not. Water in the desert is a simple need to express. “What do I need? Water. When do I need it? Now” (that makes for a nice protest chant, actually). But human needs aren’t always that simple. People feel hurt and need and want, but they may not know what will satisfy them. That doesn’t mean that the hurt and need aren’t real. It means they’re complex.

If you stop by Lincoln Park some time, you may see my name and picture on a sign. I’m being protested. And it’s true, I have different views from those protesting me, and I can’t satisfy at least some of the needs being expressed there. I do take the existence of their deep need seriously. But I see them as in conflict with other deep needs, needs I also take seriously. I don’t know how to satisfy them both.

That’s the other truth about human needs: they conflict sometimes. It makes the desperate problem of finding water in the desert look simple when we’re trying to meet the varying needs of many people.

Debie Thomas writes: “What the Israelites really yearned for – what we really yearn for – is not God out there in the cosmos. It’s God right here, in the messy particulars of our lives. We ask again and again because we need to know again and again. Is God among us now? And now, and now, and now?” [Emphasis in the original]

We are the complainers, and we are the complained against. We are those in deep need, and we are those who have deep needs. We are those passing the buck to God, and we are those desperately asking God, once more, “Are you there? Are you listening to this? Are you listening to me?”

Friends: complain when you have need. It works. People hear, and God hears. When you hear complaining, take it seriously. Know that God hears those complaints just as clearly as your own. Friends, say a prayer in the midst of conflict human complaints, because we need God’s wisdom to meet the deep needs. Friends, ask and listen, so that we have the best chance of knowing what will satisfy the deep needs which rise in protest.

And know that God is among us now. And now, and now, and now. Ever and always.


The image is of French painter Nicolas Poussin’s 1649 work, “Moses Striking Water from the Rock.”

Listen to the Recorded Sermon here:

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on October 1, 2017

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  1. by Carol Morioka

    On October 1, 2017

    Pastor Eric, just listened to today’s audio sermon – I hope there are many others who enjoy hearing and reading your sermons simultaneously.

    Thank you!

  2. by holycrosshilo

    On October 2, 2017

    You’re most welcome, Carol!

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