September 27, 2020
Sermon - Reverend Bob Phelps
Well, Is He?
The assurance of God’s presence with us, whatever is going on in our lives, is one of the bedrocks of our faith. We might not be immune to cancer or other dreaded diseases because we are Christians, but we will not go through any of those things alone. We don’t get guarantees that everyone will like us and behave themselves around us because we follow Jesus, but we do not walk through any of those conflicts or lonely days alone. God is always with us. We are not guaranteed financial success or wealth, regardless of what some of the preachers on TV say, but even if we have to stretch to get to the end of the month, we are not alone while we struggle. The assurance of God’s presence is something we cling to, something we depend on.
But if we are honest, sometimes we need a little more than we get in this department. A friend of ours spoke in her church on a Sunday not long ago. Their church has come back to worship after a time away as most of us have. They are currently going through a series about the community of faith, and our friend was one of the people chosen to tell her story about that community and its value in her life. She began by telling a story about a little boy who was, like a lot of little kids, going through a time when he was afraid to be by himself to go to sleep at night. He was confident there were monsters under the bed or in the closet, and he was equally confident that if he called for his dad, he would always come and comfort him. Any of us who are moms or dads know that that might work for a while, but we also know there really aren’t any monsters under the bed and that we need to help our children work through their fear without climbing in bed with us every night. So, this time when the little guy called, Dad was ready. “I really don’t want to be by myself in here!” he told his dad. After assuring him again that he was safe and that the noise outside was just the wind, Dad told him, “And, Son, you know you’re never alone anyway. God is always with you!” Then he tucked him in, turned off the light and started down the hall. He hadn’t gotten very far when that little voice cried out again. “Dad,” he said, “I know you’re right, but I think I’m going to need someone with skin on in here with me!”
Most of us are a lot like that little guy. And most of us are fortunate because God has placed us in this community and in others throughout out lives where we experience God’s presence through real people, people who care about us and walk alongside us, people who share our faith and convictions, people who may have the same struggles we do, but who journey with us through ours. People with skin on.
The Hebrew people didn’t set out to be malcontented and quarrelsome as they set out on their journey from slavery to freedom. They were a huge crowd of people, men, women, and children. Providing for a group like that is a big undertaking. We worked through the quail and manna provision last week. The people knew they would be provided for even if they didn’t get an occasional pizza night or pulled pork during football season. But water is pretty essential. And it seemed that everywhere they stopped along this journey they had been on for at least a month by now, there was an issue with water. Either it was foul or there just wasn’t any. We talk about this journey as taking them through the wilderness, but where it really took them was through the desert. Surrounded by green as we are in most of the year in our part of the world we might think of the Homochitto Forest or the Appalachian Trail as wilderness country. But where these people were was in the desert, and water was always an issue. You’d think that if God were going to provide for them as he had promised, this would not continue to be an issue! But here we are again, right where we left them last week. The location might be different, but the problem is the same. They have traveled long and need to rest. And when Moses finally guides them to a place to make camp, there is no water!
Now I know and those of you who are familiar with this story know that these people have seen signs of God’s presence that we go our whole lifetime hoping for. The way they got out of Egypt was no small feat. The Passover. The parting of the Sea. This is not the first water supply problem they have had. And God has always provided for them. Yet here again, they find no water in this place and their first reaction is not to wait to see what God might do or how God might provide, Their first reaction, like to many of ours when things are not what we think they should be, their first reaction is to doubt, then to complain. “Why did you bring us out here to die?” they ask again. Their grumbling is so severe that Moses despairs and asks God for help. “What am I going to do with these people?” he asks. As if God hasn’t heard the complaints of the people, now even Moses become whiney.
Most of my aunts and uncles had houses full of kids, but I had one aunt and uncle who had one daughter. She was a handful. Spoiled rotten. Still is. I remember many times when she was growing up when one or the other parent would go to the other one and demand, “Do something about your daughter!” Something like that was what Moses was saying to God—what do you want me to do with your people? I can’t manage them by myself!”
And, of course, God had never asked him to manage those people by himself. “I will be with you!” God had promised. And that promise was as secure then as it is when we claim it today.
So, you heard how God responded. God told Moses to take the same staff that he had used to divide the Sea and to strike a rock with it, and when he did, water came gushing out, and the people were provided for yet again. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they had demanded to know, and God responded with water gushing from a rock.
As dramatic and as satisfying as this story is, we know these people, and we know we’re not done with them yet. And our labeling them as gripers and complainers is one of our quickest defenses to avoid confessing that things really haven’t changed much for God’s people after all these years. As much as we cling to that assurance that we are not alone, we still wonder where God is and how we are supposed to experience him.
How many days since March have you woke up and hoped, even if only for a minute, that when you turned on the morning news or clicked on wherever you check the news on your phone or computer, that this virus would be gone, that the count from the State Health Department would be zero new cases and zero deaths? I don’t know if herd immunity is a possibility or if we’re anywhere close to a reliable vaccine, but I’m just as weary of all the disruption we’re experiencing as you are. Isolation is wearing on all of us. No one has come to me and demanded that I make God do something about our plight, but I’m sure some have wanted to. Most of you know that my connection to God is the same one you have, and I promise I haven’t asked God what I’m supposed to do with this flock lately, but sometimes we just want to see some kind of tangible sign that God is among us. I tell you all the time that I believe that God is alive and active, saying and doing things in the world, but sometimes I wish as much as you do that I could see and hear some of that.
Of course, when I get still and think beyond myself a bit, I realize that I am surrounded by signs of God’s presence even in the midst of events I’ve never seen before. What I see may not be as dramatic as the water that came gushing out from those dry rocks that surrounded the people in the desert, but God will not leave us without some assurance of his presence among us. And we must not lose sight of the possibility that we might be the signs of God’s presence that someone else needs to see. The ways our congregation has come together to support and sustain the ministry of our congregation is one of those signs. Not just with your financial gifts, although those are no small thing, but with your concern for one another and for the Church through all the things we have experienced this year. Those of you who have returned to join us for worship here in person demonstrate to our community that our Church is alive and well even in adverse circumstances. Those of you who join us online or in print every week have been amazing to me. I will admit that when all this first hit us in the spring, I was doubtful about how we would get through it. No Easter. Who ever heard of such a thing? No Pentecost celebration? No Vacation Bible School? None of the things that we thought defined who we are and determined what we do? But Beth and Suzi keep sending the daily reflections on Scripture we put out there for your consideration, and you keep letting us know that you’re reading them and what you’re thinking about as you do. We are in the process of recruiting those who will serve on the Session going forward. We’ve never done that the way we’re doing it this year, but we found a way to include people in the process and, as it always does for Presbyterians, the process is working. We will have a slate for you to consider soon. And those who join the six who will remain on the Session will continue to guide us through whatever comes after this. And, together, we will continue to be witnesses to this community and beyond that God is with us and that we are with God!
2020 has been the strangest year that most of us have ever seen. Most of us are ready for it to be over. But we have a divisive election and its aftermath to get through yet. None of us knows yet what we will and won’t be able to do as the holidays approach. None of us knows when we can invite everyone who usually worships in this room to join us again and whether they will come or not. And not to borrow trouble we don’t need, none of us knows if there will be a fall spike in Covid activity that might send us back to places and practices we don’t want to do again. The easiest thing to do about all this is to whine and complain. We’re good at that. Always have been. We learned from good teachers as far back as Moses and that bunch. But doing things the easy way has never accomplished much. So with all the perseverance our Presbyterian faith can muster, I urge us not to ask the easy question: Is God among us or not? We know the answer to that.
One of the favorite phrases I learned from the years I taught in a small, struggling African-American Bible College in Alabama comes to mind. All the students there had full time jobs. Most of them had families. And all of them were committed to serving the Church in some way. Most of them were coming to school two or more nights a week after working all day trying to get credentialed to serve their church in some way. Sometimes the load would pile up pretty heavily on them. I’ll admit that I sometimes piled some of that load on with papers to write and books to read and sermons to prepare. I’d worry sometimes about how they’d get through it. Few of them ever complained. The ones who did, for the most part, didn’t make it. Sometimes, I’d ask them how they were doing, how they were experiencing God’s call as they responded to it. How would they complete the work? What would happen if they didn’t? Over and over again, their response was the same: “God didn’t bring me this far to leave me.”
It took the Hebrews a long time and a long journey to believe that. It takes some of us about as long. But it is the truth. It is the foundation of our faith: God is with us and God will never leave us for forsake us. The same God who is alive and active, saying and doing things in the world is saying things to us and doing things among us. Watch for them. Count on them. The Lord is among us. Thanks be to God! Amen
Prayers of the People
Loving, Caring God, it is tempting for us to let adversity get the best of us, and to give in to quarreling with you, with each other and, with all of our online options, even with random strangers. We live surrounded by animosity bred by fear and by anxiety and distrust. We have heard your call to be in the world but not of it, but it is so easy to get caught up in all the world is doing and saying and to forget who we are. We need for you to intervene in our lives, to work within and among us so that we discover we don’t have to participate in discord just because it’s there. Help us to turn our hearts and minds toward things that shape us for your service, and help us to show compassion for one another even when we disagree. Help us to be signs of your peace. Use us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus when the news all around us moves from bad to worse. Help us to use the holy imagination you have placed within us to bring the new things you are saying and doing to light so all the world can see them. Keep us from growing weary so that we can bring hope when all appears to be hopeless.
Merciful God, our prayer list grows longer and longer. We cannot possibly name all the people and events and situations that need your attention. We cling to our conviction that you know our needs even better than we do and that you are at work even in the things we dare not speak. Pour out our care on all the need that surrounds us, whether it is among those cleaning up from storms or returning to homes that are gone after fires or leaving destructive relationships to find a new future, or even in situations we don’t know or need to. Wrap your love around all who cry to you for help. Grant your unwavering strength to those who try to speak your Word and guide us all toward your way. Give your peace, that peace that passes all our understanding, to all who are overwhelmed with anxiety or grief or despair or loneliness or any of the things that have become far too common among us. Help us to be confident that you really do know our needs better than we do, and help us to turn over to you all that has become too heavy for us to bear. Somehow in your gracious mind, you have decided to trust us to do your will even though we’re not particularly good at it, so we ask you to show us how to be faithful even when it’s hard and how to be gracious when we don’t want to. We make this our prayer in gratitude for your grace we do not deserve and cannot earn in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, who taught us all to pray when he said: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189