Is the LORD Among Us or Not?

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 23, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A law professor at Michigan told his evidence class he could prove there was no God.  He dramatically stood on the edge of the lecture stage and prayed out loud “God if you are real, then knock me off this platform in the next 15 minutes!”  Ten minutes went by and nothing happened. So the law professor prayed again “God, I’m waiting for evidence you exist, you’ve got five minutes to knock me off this platform !”   A visiting Ohio State softball player passing by in hall (to get a drink of water before a game) heard the professor’s last prayer. She walked into the classroom and up to the professor and gently pushed him off the platform. The professor said, “Hey, why did you do that?” She replied, “God was busy; and sent me!” The class stood up and cheered. Of course OSU won the softball game.

That story was made up. I found the basic premise on line and gussied it up a bit.  It’s meant to be funny and make the point that God’s presence and action in our lives often depends on human action.  Plus it ties into the Lectionary text that we are looking at from Exodus where God and God’ presence are doubted and questioned.
The Hebrews in the Exodus text are in a crisis over thirst. The crisis makes them doubtful God’s in what Moses was doing, and they even doubted God was leading them. So we are told God shows Moses how to act out a miracle to quench the thirst that the people have as well as to prove God’s presence.

We are told Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”” Masssah means temptation. Meribah means strife. The people of God were quarreling over who God was with and where God was present.

Is the LORD among us or not? Of course, unlike the ancient Hebrews Christians as a people of God never quarrel or question God’s presence, do we? I say that tongue very much in cheek.  A day does not go by that quarrels and questions about God are not amongst Christians. We see it on the news, on Facebook, even in our local paper.
So the question in today’s reading. “Is the Lord among us or not?” is still very much relevant to us today. It creates temptation to doubt and it creates strife over who is right and where is God. We quarrel about God. We question God.

Do our quarrels and questions about God’s existence or presence cause God to show up and prove it?   If someone came and shoved another who prayed to be shoved by God, would that prove anything? If, like Moses, my actions could get water from a rock would that really solve all serious questions and doubts about God?

On one level this all sounds esoteric and complicated. So in fairness, given the nuances and acrimony in our debates, who can blame good and smart people for throwing up their hands and deciding the answer to the question “Is the Lord among us Christians or not?”,  is “No.”  Who can blame people –like the law professor in the story– for even being cynical about God given our own misgivings about one another?

Moses told the Hebrews that God was with him and them and so they followed him out of Egypt and into the desert. The hardships and complications of life they encountered out there made them question whether it was true that God was with them. That was a fair question. Modern people also encounter hardships and questions in our own wilderness journeys, and we still ask that question. Is God among us or not?

To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker from the late 1980s “Bad  Stuff happens.”
Why does “bad stuff” have to happen? If God’s all powerful can’t God just shove professors off the stage without using another human?  Couldn’t God just provide food and water and good health out in the desert to the people of God? Why does God need people like Moses to act on God’s behalf? Or better yet, can’t God just provide what we need without all the shhhh stuff happening? Or couldn’t God at the very least just provide simple easy proof in the Bible that doesn’t cause people to quarrel over who God is and what God wants?  Or as a sort of follow up question to my suggestion last week that  all are saved and there is no eternal hell or damnation, what’s to motivate us to behave or even care what God wants? Why does it matter.?

I suspect that most folks, from trained theologians to atheists to lay people and everyone in between ask these types of questions at one time or another. If they don’t ask them aloud, they at least ask them to themselves or to God. Is the Lord among us or not?

I don’t know if you have been following the exchanges in the Mount Vernon News over a letter to the editor I wrote in mid-January. To catch you up, my letter noted my secular and theological opposition to an anti-homosexual advertisement by a church. I felt the ad was an injustice promoting oppression and bullying.  The church whose ad I challenged responded with two ads challenging me and my theology. Two weeks ago a letter to the editor was sent further challenging me and this church. Another letter by Ron was sent in thoughtful response to the letter that opposed the church. It’s been quite the brouhaha.      I feel I owe you an explanation.

Now in fairness to all the writers involved, to one extent or another we appear to each believe we’ve expressed God’s will in the paper. My opposition, and their opposition to my opposition, and opposition to their opposition of my opposition by the looks of it have been motivated by expressions of faith in word and action. Each of us as Christian writers believes and claims we are following Christ.  Each of us believes that our positions are supported by words in the Bible – and some of us have quoted or cited Bible verses to prove it.

So it’s fair to conclude we are each serious about our faith and God and Jesus and the Bible. Yet it is obvious we are seriously on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to who God is and the Bible’s interpretation and application to our lives, at least when it comes to how we go about loving our neighbors.   So there’s a quarrel and contention. There’s temptation to bully or temptation to promote what others deem “sin” depending on which side of the discussion that you are on. Massah and Meribah – temptation and strife.
All of this has raised eyebrows with some folks no doubt asking of one or all of us “Is the Lord among us or not?” I cannot presume to know the other writers’ points of view, but, I can tell you where I am coming from, how I think God’s involved, what the motivation to follow God ought to it is not fear of an afterlife in hell.

I’ve been your pastor only since November, but even in that short amount of time it has probably become clear that mostly what I preach about is love.  Oh I preach about all sorts of stories and ideas, with of course fantastic jokes and brilliant and humble analysis, but I always seem to circle back to some shade of love for God– for God in creation, for God in our neighbors, for God in our self.

And usually, not always, but usually, my preaching and teaching is how to lovingly relate to others, our neighbors.  I try to take it seriously in my day-to-day life too. I do this because I take very, very seriously Jesus’ claim that there is no greater commandment than love of God and neighbors.   Here is how Mark the oldest Gospel records it:

One of the scribes came near and . . . asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mar 12:28-31)

The scribe, that is a lawyer, agreed with Jesus and Jesus told him “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mar 12:34).   I hear this to mean that the commandment to love is more important than any other rule, law or commandment in the Bible. Love trumps – wins– over anything. It. Is. Paramount. I am not alone in this. Paul claimed out of hope, faith and love, love is the greatest (I Cor 13:13). Paul also believed that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the sum of other commandments. Here is how Paul put it

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:9-10

I mentioned last week that Paul goes on to note that this means “Love does no wrong to a neighbor . . .” (Romans 13:10). When I hear and read this, and Jesus’ love commandment I see no wriggle room that allows us to claim love lets us do some harm to a neighbor.  No wrong, to me, means NO wrong.

Jesus commands us to not judge others, he put it in clear concise words “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not judge. This would included calling another profane or unclean– FOR ANY REASON! Which explains why Acts (10:28) – which I also mentioned last week and in the letter to the editor– reports that God commanded Peter “to not call anyone profane or unclean.”   Prohibitions against homosexuality arise in Israel’s purity laws, so this commandment is particularly applicable to the type of ad I opposed– a type of ad that I might add has yet to reappear in the local paper (so three cheers for the local paper!).

Knowing Jesus’ love commandment, like the lawyer in Mark, brings us as Jesus notes, close to God’s Kingdom, God’s Realm. Close is good, but here’s the thing, ACTING the commandment out brings God’s realm to earth . . . it makes God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. See we are God’s agents on earth, how we act matters, it is in fact essential. Hell may not exist as an eternal punishment, but it sure can exist on earth as consequence of our actions or inactions.

We need to do ALL that we can to stop hell from coming to earth for anyone. Christ showed us how to do this and how to bring in the realm of God, as well as how much just one person’s efforts can matter. The consequences of Christ’s work on earth – through us– leads to heaven on earth.  A lot of work to stop hellish experiences and bring heaven to earth remains to be done.  Our motivation to do good is the same as Christ’s, to stop hellish experiences and bring heaven to earth. And we are all that’s Christ has got to do it.
St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century said it so well. She wrote:

 Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

Bishop Despond Tutu more recently put it like this:

Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us. St. Augustine of Hippo has said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot” 1

Bishop Tutu also teaches that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Throughout the Bible God is not neutral in situations of injustice and
neither is Jesus. They both oppose oppression over and over again. See not only did Jesus not oppress anyone, he advocated against every form of oppression that he encountered. The oppressed, like the alien,  adulterer, tax collector,  imprisoned, sick, poor, ostracized, Jew, Gentile, women, children, enemies, even the insane and convicted were (and are still) targets of his love and compassion and advocacy.

Jesus does not tell the men about to throw rocks at a convicted sinful woman they can toss them later if she sins again. He gets between them and the woman –in danger’s way– and says the person without sin can cast the stones. They all walked away.
We can learn from this that loving your neighbor means not casting stones at anyone, and it also means standing in between those who threaten to cast stones at anyone. I understand that “Stones” to metaphorically include barbed words and harsh messages that call others profane or unclean for the way God created them.

Others may argue that loving your neighbor is getting them ready for afterlife regardless of how antiquated, hurtful or irrational their idea of the preparation that they judge others need is. That’s how I see it.

We need to leave it to God to judge such judgement. That’s not to say we cannot decide if their conduct has hellish consequences now on earth for others, and stand up to stop it.  We can decide if oppressing another for how God created them is an injustice and, if so, how to best be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and mouth in response.

On issues surrounding oppression we must ask would Jesus of the Gospels oppress anyone? The answer I get is “No, never.”

The next question we must ask is would Jesus of the Gospels advocate against oppression. The answer I get is “Yes. Always.”

From this way of understanding the Gospel and Christian theology, God is present in such opposition. This helps answers the question “Is the LORD among us or not?” How do we know?  Well, doing as Jesus did, opposing oppression was, and still is, a form of love.
And God is love, right?  So whenever there is love there is God. That is why God was experienced and present so profoundly with Jesus.

We are not God, but we are God’s actors. When loving opposition to oppression is needed, we must act. The motivation is that it, and all good behavior, helps stop hell on earth –and it helps heaven break in. It brings God’s realm to earth.

Our motivation is there’s no one else to do it but us little frail finite humans. “God without us will not as we without God cannot” 3

I pray that this church never ever gives up it long and loved-filled  tradition of being God’s hands and feet and ears and mouth in each others’ lives, in the community and in the world– most especially when the injustice of oppression is being done.
Is the Lord among us or not? The answer needs to always be a loud and sure “Yes! The Lord is among us!”

How will we know that? As the chorus in the song we are about to sing says, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1.  Tutu, Desmond,  No Future Without Forgiveness, New York: Doubleday, (1997), 158.

COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED