Thursday, September 18, 2008

September 28--Hitting a Rock with a Stick

Text focus for this week:

Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

(Additional lectionary texts for this week:

Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32)

My mother has a black and white photograph hanging in the hallway of a three year old girl holding a two foot long stick. The girl’s eyes are wide with anticipation as she prepares to whack the brightly decorated papier mache llama hanging just to her side. She has been told there is a special treasure inside that piñata and that if she just hits it hard enough with her stick, then streams of candy—butterscotch and peppermints and Hershey kisses—will flow down like river. She really wants that candy.

The three year old girl hits the piñata really hard, harder than she has ever hit anything in her life. She swings that long stick so hard, in fact, that she loses her balance and skids onto the concrete floor, scraping her hands and her knees.

No candy flows down from that pretty piñata. The only things she has to show for her valiant efforts are bruised up limbs and a deflated dream.

“There was never any candy in that stupid llama!” she screams at her parents in her distress. “You tricked me and now everyone is laughing at me. I wish I could just go home. I wish I had never come here at all!”

She stomps over to the corner and refuses to speak to anyone. Not to her mother, who tries to convince her there really is candy in that llama. Not to her father, who chastises her for acting like a baby. Not to her best friend, Susan, who brings her the stick and begs her to try again. This candy-loving, stick-whacking three year old has given up hope and refuses to pretend otherwise.

The ancient Israelite community we encounter in our text from Exodus this week has also given up hope, but on a much more spectacular scale than our piñata-challenged three year old. The ancient Israelites are literally wandering from one place to another in the wilderness between Egypt and the land of Canaan, never quite sure where they will end up next. They live “paycheck to paycheck,” which for them means gathering up frost-like flakes that fall on the ground each morning and a handful of quail each night. It is not much—not butterscotch or chocolate or even milk and honey—but it is enough to sustain them from one day to the next.

The industrious ones among them fear their luck may run out and want to save for the future. Maybe the manna won’t come the next morning! Maybe the quail won’t come the next night! But when they try to save the manna and the quail, it just turns to worms overnight. Day-to-day living is the only option in this barren desert.

The social climbers among them crave the stability of food and drink from their former lives in Egypt. Slavery is better, they say, than this uncertain existence. But the decision to leave has already been made, and they have no choice but to press ahead.

And so the ancient Israelites arrive at a new camp on a new day—sustained but worried, pushing forward but second-guessing—and realize there is no water for them to drink. And it starts all over again. “There never was any land of milk and honey calling us out of Egypt!” they lash out at Moses. “You tricked us and now we will die and our children and our farm animals with us. We wish we could just go back to Egypt. We wish we’d never come here at all!”

What do you do if you’re Moses, the reluctant leader of this rag-tag alliance? What do you do if you’re the parent of a three-year old who has never seen candy spill from a piñata? What do you do if you’re stuck in a day-to-day existence and don’t know how you’re going to pay next month’s rent?

“I will stand in front of you on a rock at Mount Sinai,” the Holy One offers to Moses. “I will stand with you in front of that papier mache llama,” says the parent to the small child. “I will stand with you as you go to that temp agency,” says our God to the laid-off social worker. “Hit that rock with the stick, and water will come out of it so that the people can drink.” Hit that rock with the stick and streams out of the rock will cause water to flow down like rivers.

Hit that rock with a stick, says our God to everyone who wonders how we’re going to survive in these uncertain times. Keep on hitting it, even though you’re blindfolded, even though others second-guess you, even though you second-guess yourself. I have led you out of your slavery, and I have given you manna and quail, and I will give you more than enough water, as if from the deep ocean. I have done it before, and I will do it again. And I will stand with you, even until the end of the age.

We don’t know when that papier mache piñata will finally break, we don’t know when that rent check will finally come, we don’t know when that stream will finally flow, but God is still with us, and we are still with God. May we trust it in plenty and in want, in certainty and in doubt. Amen.

P.S. Kelsey Rice Bogdan has graciously exited her role as MBS Blogger and passed on the duties to me! I'm Gusti Newquist, a June 2008 graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Presbyterian minister-to-be. I served as the MBS seminary intern from October 2005-May 2006 and am delighted to be back with MBS in this capacity.

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