Monthly Archives: September 2017

Work in the Wilderness

A Sermon for 24 September 2017


A reading from Exodus 16:1-15.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear from the story of the Exodus.

“The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.  On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”  So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because God has heard your complaining against the Lord.  For what are we, that you complain against us?”  And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we?  Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”  Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for the LORD has heard your complaining.’”  10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.  11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”  13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.  15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


We could spend our time this morning seeing ourselves in this text.  When we stop long enough to get honest with ourselves, we confess:  we know well the Israelites in the wilderness.  We’re familiar with their complaints, aren’t we?  We know about fear of change.  Of lack.  Of growing into something or someone yet unknown – something or someone not like we’ve ever been before.  We know the desire to go back – even if the past wasn’t as fabulous as our memory makes it out to be.  We’ve learned a thing or two as we’ve aged – at least I hope we have.  So that going back really is something most of us only would be willing to do, IF we got to go back to re-live it all over again with our current hard-earned wisdom and courage and hope that we likely didn’t have back then, but that defines who we have become now.  We know the Israelites:  the blaming of their leaders, the finger-pointing at the Divine, the unwillingness to see what’s right before their eyes – the blessings that surround them NOW, though in a new place – an in-between place.  Though threatened by forces wildly beyond their control.  Though vulnerably uncertain about what the path ahead will require of them.  . . .  If we’re willing to be brutally honest with ourselves, we know that we know our Israelite forbearers well.

Here the LORD God, Sovereign of the Universe, is trying to do a new thing.  To liberate a people from their bondage.  To change a people into those who know deep down in their guts that they are free.  They are valued not for what they do but for who they are.  They are necessary to the Divine’s unfolding work in this world.  Through them – through what God will do in and among them – others will see the glory of the LORD.  Others will come to know the goodness of Love, the foundational nature of God.  . . .  It’s an interesting dance.  This two-steps-forward, one-step-back shuffle in the wilderness.  It’s just the fifteenth day of the second month since God re-set their calendar-keeping at Passover..  Some amazing work already had been done by God for them.  The Passover itself was the tenth miraculous sign in Egypt for all to see.  The whole company of Israel, over six hundred thousand men, and women, children, and livestock too, all went out of Egypt in haste when at last the dash to freedom began.  A pillar of cloud led them by day; and at night, a fiery column gave them the light they needed to find their way.  It was a roundabout path, purposefully, so that the freshly liberated people didn’t have to begin their freedom raging war through other nations’ lands.  Instead, through the sea they went – which was an unbelievable act!  Moses stretching out his shepherd’s staff so the waters themselves would recede, as in creation, for the feet of the multitude to cross safely on dry ground.  What may have seemed like the last leg of their journey, left them singing and dancing for great joy!  Moses’ sister Miriam led the women in joyful procession as Moses and the others sang with grateful delight.  . . .  Three days later in the desert, praise turns to protest.  No water.  No food.  No longer any happy campers!  It’s like that at the beginning of any transformation process, isn’t it?  Even when scary, the journey to something new entices – until the first real challenge comes along.  Like the caterpillar who thinks the world is over, until the moment it bursts from the cocoon as an incredibly new creature.  Wings now, it can fly to be in the world as something totally different.  . . .  Without water and food in the wilderness the people of God really could die.  But what makes us think God ever will lead us somewhere where there will not be enough?

In a wonderful book called, The Universe Has Your Back, spiritual writer Gabby Bernstein urges us to consider whether we truly believe that the Universe has our back.  Or, as I like to frame it:  do we really believe that God has our back?  That God knows even when we do not.  That God will guide so that we trust the beautiful words of the Psalmist, who wrote:  “God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber . . . the LORD will keep your life . . . from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3,7b,8b).  . . .  We could spend all our time today thinking about how we are so very much like our Israelite forbearers, or we could listen for the truth of the God of the Wilderness.  Later, when the keepers of the law would record one of Moses’ last charges to the people, we hear:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread  . . . because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; (and) the LORD will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  In Isaiah, the prophet records likewise, God saying thus:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:15-16a).  We continually are before our gracious God.  . . .   Manna already was there for them – a substance secreted in the desert from “two insects that live on the tamarisk tree” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A Additional Essays, Proper 20, 2011, Carol J. Dempsey, p. 6).  Quail annually migrate from wintering in Africa to Palestine and Sinai in the spring (Ibid.).  In unknown territory, the gifts of God still were readily available to the people.  Maybe they didn’t really know it yet.  Maybe years of being settled in Egypt had taken their toll so that the people couldn’t remember the incredible generosity of the One who had cut an everlasting covenant with their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and to their offspring forever.  Maybe it was just the beginning of their intimately knowing the God who, according to the Psalmists:  searches us and knows us and loves us completely (paraphrase of Psalm 139).  And, as also recorded by the prophet in Isaiah, God proclaims:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:1b-3a,4).

What would our lives look like if we took those words deeply into our being?  How would we go about the living of our days – the ones when we are walking through turbulent waters that seem as if we certainly will drown.  The days when the pressure flashes like hot consuming flames.  And the days when everything within at last is at rest.  What if we lived our lives as if we trusted, what some have called, the sure and steady beneficence of God, the infinite generosity, the overflowing open-heartedness?  What would we be like if we took a little bit more into our souls, the truth of God?  . . .  Just a few years back, I read research that pointed to one of the primary reasons why unchurched Americans aren’t interested in being a part of a church today.  The key factor revealed that our unchurched neighbors don’t see that our lives look any different than their own.  It’s sobering to think that those who only know Christianity through our example, don’t perceive that our stress-levels are any lower than theirs.  That our priorities are any different than theirs.  That we approach connection with our families any differently than they do.  That the way we spend our money and time and lives really are all that distinct from their own.  Why get out of bed Sunday mornings if the other six days of the week aren’t going to be significantly impacted by what happens in us when we come together to worship and study and serve?  If we’re going to be as alarmed in the face of life’s challenges as all the others, why bother being a part of the church at all?

We have the power to change those perceptions; for we have the power of the Holy Spirit in us to go forth into the world a little bit different than how we were when we entered this place.  We can open ourselves to the unfolding of God’s work in our lives.  As joyously as possible, with eyes attuned in gratitude to the gifts that do surround us each day; we can invite God to work in and among us through whatever wilderness of transformation we face.  . . .  May it be so.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)


A Rule of Life

A Sermon for 10 September 2017

A reading from Exodus 12:1-14.  This may be familiar to you as it is a reading assigned each year for Christians to hear on Maundy Thursday.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.  If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.  Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.  They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.  10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.  11 This is how you shall eat it:  your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the passover of the Lord.  12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments:  I am the Lord.  13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live:  when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.  14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.


Today in Sunday School we learned about the Rule of Life.  I know it’s not entirely fair to tell you about it after the fact, but it is Christian Education Kick Off Sunday.  Maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to plan to attend adult Sunday School in the weeks to come!  And if you’ve already been there, see if I miss anything important!  . . .  The Rule of Life is an ancient practice, sometimes referred to as living life by a Spiritual or Sacred Rhythm.  The idea of a Rule of Life is to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation.  We commit to particular daily, weekly, monthly, even annual practices to keep ourselves open and available to God.  We set a framework for our lives with time for God to come in and do what only God can do.  Thus, we participate in the miracle and mystery that is spiritual transformation.  Day after day practicing certain spiritual disciplines like centering prayer or daily scripture reading or even a particular weekly service project in the community undertaken as a part of one’s Rule of Life to give God the space to show up in ways we can’t anticipate to work on us from the inside out.

As we were reminded in class today, we live in a world of rhythms.  The waves ebb and flow.  The seasons change predictably from summer to autumn to winter to spring.  Even our breath is a rhythm – and our heartbeat and our brain waves.  All are necessary rhythms we cannot live without.  Ruth Haley Barton claims that there are rhythms that are so necessary for us spiritually that “if they are not present in our lives, we probably are spiritually dead” (Sacred Rhythms DVD, Session 6, Learn In).  If we are not practicing solitude which simply is time alone each day with God if even for only 10 minutes.  If we fail to carve out this time with God, we soon will feel cut off completely from our Source.  If we never allow ourselves to get quiet to listen in a daily practice of silence, how will God have the chance to energize, as well as stretch us?  . . .  The idea of The Rule of Life is to arrange our lives according to our deepest longings . . . our spirit’s deepest desires for God – be it peace or connection or love.  In our lesson today, we were reminded that the great spiritual leader Thomas Merton once wrote:  “Ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for that” (Ibid.).  Who among us isn’t willing to arrange our lives for what we really want?  . . .  For children of God, hopefully among our deepest longings is a desire for God.  Maybe it’s to bring delight to the Divine, or to live a little bit more like Christ in order to experience abundant life now, or just to go deeper into union with God which will lead us out into the world renewed.

In the Exodus reading for today, the people of God are being instructed in a practice that will be an annual part of their Rule of Life.  It will be a communal practice – something whole households will do together each year as a remembrance of the night of God’s decisive action.  We likely have heard of Passover; the high Holy Day our Jewish ancestors still observe not only to remember the past, but also to keep themselves open and available to God today.  When at last Moses went to the Egypt’s Pharaoh to deliver God’s message to let God’s people go, the command was met with defiance.  No way was Pharaoh about to give up the free labor the Israelites were forced to provide.  According to the story, it would take ten miraculous acts before the slaves were liberated – the tenth being an act so violent that many of us have difficulty reconciling the destruction of the firstborn of every creature living in Egypt as an act undertaken by God.  The Passover is instituted as the blood of a spot-less male lamb hurriedly is splashed over the door of each Hebrew home.  Thus, the blood was a sign for no harm to come upon that house.  Its inhabitants belonged not to the Pharaoh, but to God.  And the ones inside had better be ready.  Loins girded, sandals on their feet, dough not yet risen in the bowl.  When at last freedom came, it was a dash out into the night at Pharaoh’s request to go!

Passover is an annual practice in a Rule of Life centered around the freedom we have in God.  It is essential because it defines the people of God.  We can read the whole Exodus story as a clash between two Sovereigns – or between One Holy, High Sovereign and another who just thinks he is.  Soon enough we’ll get to the ten commandments with its classic thou shall have no other gods before me.  Freed from the chains of Egypt’s claims; the people of God need an annual, weekly, and even a daily practice to know the One to whom they really belong.  They need to arrange their new lives in such a way that they never forget.  They belong to the Sovereign who acted for their benefit and continues to do so every day.  It’s our story too so that our Rules of Life, our own Sacred Rhythms demand rest in order to know the Master to whom we always have belonged.  One who desires us deeply enough to ensure praise to our Creator ever remains on our lips.

In that light, it might be high time we each got clear about our own Rule of Life – if we don’t already have a Sacred Rhythm to which we have fully committed.  It doesn’t have to be something imposed upon us.  In our class lesson today, we learned the characteristics of effective rhythms.  Things we must keep in mind as we arrange our lives to stay open and available to God.  Connected rightly to our Source.  Our Sacred Rhythms need to be personal to us.  I would argue that there are certain disciplines disciples of Christ need in our lives.  Like, we need to commit to weekly worship – gathering with one another when our hearts are full of gratitude, when they’re breaking, and even when they are bored.  And we need practices for our days that uniquely feed us.  I have to be outside in silence with God for at least ten minutes each day.  When I’m not, the souls of my feet cry out for the feel of the grass under them.  I know someone who creates a mandala – a circle of wholeness from whatever bits of nature she finds each Sunday outside on a walk through her yard.  Maybe you have to use your body to create music or movement or a beautiful work of art.  Commit to it as a spiritual practice – as a time in which God can show up to work in you.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of things each day.  Don’t overcommit.  One daily spiritual practice is enough.  We might even re-purpose things of our lives that we already do but do them now with the intention of allowing that act to keep us open and available to God.  The spiritual life isn’t about practices that bore us to tears.  I suggest building monthly review into our Rules of Life so we can assess now and again and change course as needed.

A good Rule of Life is realistic about the demands of our lives.  If we’re working a job that takes us out of the house for twelve hours each day, it’s likely we won’t have anything left for an extended time of silence every night.  In those circumstances, it’s unrealistic and shouldn’t be attempted.  Last week in Sunday School, we learned about the practice called the Examen.  A practice I once heard referred to as sleeping with bread.  Ten minutes before bed – maybe even as you’re brushing your teeth and getting yourself ready on auto-pilot at night, or in the morning if that works better for you – review the past twenty-four hours with God.  Name how you woke up, what you did to care for your body, how you interacted with others, and even what you did throughout the hours of your day.  Look for traces in your day of seeing the Spirit of God at work – surprising you, guiding you, maybe even making you a little bit better at handling life’s situations – which is evidence of the Spirit’s expansion in you.  Confess before God the ways you weren’t who you wished you would be.  And commit to beginning again tomorrow.  Then simply thank God for every breath of your day as you lay your head down for the refreshment of the night.  The Examen is a simple enough spiritual practice to make a part of one’s Rule of Life.  Over time, it can bring us great wisdom and deeper compassion for ourselves and others too.

We’ve got to make sure the practices to which we commit are life-giving to us.  It’s a good idea as well to take on one practice that stretches us a bit to keep ourselves growing towards wholeness.  People who lose themselves in talking with others, need the discipline of silent time alone with God.  And those of us who otherwise would ignore our bodies, need to take a holy walk around the block to feel the way God amazingly created this home that is us.  In it all, we must remember grace.  Rules of Life are not meant to enslave us.  We must hold them flexibly – knowing some days unexpected events occur.  Tomorrow we can get back to our Rule again.  . . . It’s how we stay alive with God as God lives more fully in us.  How we keep connected to our Source and remember the Master to whom we really do belong.  We don’t need to make ourselves into some other people for God.  We only need to arrange our lives in ways that keep us open and available.  Just like in Egypt, we can trust; God will do the rest.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)