St Mary’s Whitby 28 September 2014
Exodus 17:1-7, Phil 2:1-13, Matt 21:23-32
There is a theme in our readings that links the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness with the Pharisees questioning Jesus over where he gets his authority.
The Israelites are grumbling that there is no water. They tend to get a bit of a bad rap when so many of the accounts of the wilderness days are about how they are never happy, but let’s put ourselves into their shoes for a minute. They had been led out of Egypt, putting all their trust in an elderly shepherd who had turned up out of nowhere, speaking their language. They had been led through the sea, and they had seen Moses part that sea by raising his staff. So on the one hand they knew that their leader was someone special, who could do the miraculous things, or rather, a channel through whom God could deliver them.
But when it came to the more every day sort of things, they weren’t so sure. Parting the Red Sea is one thing – and images of walking through glistening walls of water, with fish on the other side, are a vivid way of imaging that. But when it comes to dry mouths, grumbly tummies, sore feet and the usual day to day problems of existing, they quarrel. Fair enough though, you might say. They did need water. The livestock needed water. So they came to Moses to ask for this basic need.
How often do we forget to ask for help for the basics? The Israelites knew that Moses had the ear of God, or if they didn’t he soon put them right. ‘Why do you test the Lord?’ he asked them. Then Moses took their problem straight to God. ‘What do I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!’
Do you notice the way Moses talks to God? No fear and trembling, no churchy language, just talking to God in an intimate way, as if God were his brother, or best friend.
We can learn a lot from Moses here. It’s not just the big stuff that we can bring to God. Sure, we all think of praying when there’s a really big problem, such as sickness, or need. But how about the little stuff? Maybe you are trying to put up a shelf, and you can’t find the stud. We had this problem recently in our older house. Yes God is interested in those little things. Talk to God about these small issues too. If they matter to you they matter to God.
Maybe you have to get into town and are running late, and stressing over finding a car park. Ask God for help! I used to teach singing at one of the colleges in the city, and there were only ever about three possible parks available on the side street near the music room, that did not have residents- only stickers. As you can imagine, getting one of these parks was never guaranteed. But for the three years I worked there, every day that I prayed for a park, usually as I was going down Ngauranga Gorge- it got to be a habit – there was park. The only time I didn’t get one was when I was too caught up in something on the radio to pray!
God will hear our needs for little stuff, for day-to-day stuff, for the ordinary.
We can also learn from the way Moses relates to God. He talks to God like a best friend. I want to say something here about language. The way God is referred to has traditionally been using male words – he, him. his. This does not mean that God is male, like Neil or Bill or little Nathan is male. It’s just that our language hasn’t got a pronoun that includes the beyond- gender hugeness of God. It would be just as appropriate to refer to God as she. ‘Moses asked her, what shall I do with these people?’ See, it works. We are all made in God’s image, male and female. Attributes that are nurturing and creative are godly. They are not just female, and courage and thirst for justice, for example, are not just male.
The other option is to use ‘it’ to refer to God, but that goes against the personal relationship God wants with us. That’s a big difference between Christianity and faiths that worship idols.
So when we see Moses talking to God like his mate, it could also be compared to me talking to God like I talk to my sister, or my girlfriend.
I wonder whether God is yearning for that intimacy with us too.
The reading from the Epistle talks about Jesus’ humility. It also challenges a picture of God as too huge and important to talk to. Maybe Jesus as a servant could be encouraging us to talk to him about the little things too. I don’t know how to talk to a servant, in our culture servants are not common.
I had a friend though who used to live in South Africa, and when she came to New Zealand she had to learn how to do all her own housework, because there was no domestic help here. I asked her about what it was like having a servant, ratter enviously I must admit. And the picture she painted for me was of sharing all the running of her household and family with another woman, who soon became a close friend. The servant lady would mind the children when my friend was at work or out, and was closely involved in the whole family.
Maybe if Jesus has come to us a servant, we can take that image of the intimacy of sharing our home with him. More to the point, we can imitate him, serving others in humility. I know that all of you do that, in so many ways.
But do you share your home with Jesus? Do you talk to him about whatever is going through your mind? If it matters to you, it matters to him. Nothing is too small. You can’t find your keys? Ask him. You are cross because someone used up the toilet paper and didn’t replace the roll? Talk to Jesus about it. If nothing else, it will help you feel less grumpy as you call out for someone to pass another roll through the door!
When we come to consider our Gospel reading, the question of authority is raised. The Pharisees were doing their usual debate and trick thing. It’s a
bit like the election debate isn’t it – they were trying to get clear answers, and Jesus, also like a politician, doesn’t give them a clear answer. He is aware that they already know in their hearts where his authority comes from. Jesus lets them listen to that inner voice, to really understand the complexity and depth of what his presence meant for them.
Then he tells them the story of the two sons, which probably made them all laugh – it’s very real isn’t it, asking a kid to do something and have them say no. Or the opposite when they say yes but don’t actually do it.
This also guides the Pharisees that what is in their heart matters. The inner voice that niggled at the first son until he did what he had been asked. The son who albeit eventually listened to that voice. He did the will of his father.
Compare that to the other one who is a people pleaser, says what he thinks his dad wants to hear, but in his heart doesn’t care about anything outside himself. ‘Yes dad I’ll do it.’ You can just see that kid today, not even looking up from his computer game, speaking on automatic pilot. His conscience wasn’t even given the chance to niggle at him.
Jesus compares the first son to the tax collectors and prostitutes – the outcasts of their day – who listened to their conscience, to their heart, and followed what was asked. but he compares the Pharisees to the second son, who didn’t listen properly, who didn’t consider that there might be something worth hearing. The Pharisees would have heard the message that those outcasts of their society were important to Jesus, and that their own self-righteous attitude was a barrier to them.
What can we take from this?
I believe it shows us that it’s never too late to come to Jesus. Outcasts from our society are special to Jesus too. If we are open to his voice, we will be welcome. Even if it takes until our last breath. And if it’s never too late for us, it’s never too late for other people too. No matter what ghastly – in our eyes – sin they are living in, no matter how far away they seem from God, he is still waiting for them.
It’s the other lot who are much harder to reach. Those who say, ‘yes I know all about God, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but I’m a good person.’ They equate Christians with well-behaved people who don’t rock the boat. Was Jesus like that? I think not.
These people don’t realise that they need Jesus just as much as the more obvious outcasts and failures of society. Maybe that is where we can focus our message, praying for those people we know who don’ t know God, and who are fine with that. And maybe these are the people we are inclined to treat as outcasts – those who seem to have completely different DNA from ours. The people who never factor going to church on a Sunday into their lives. Each group of people has those they feel uncomfortable with, but my question to you is, what would Jesus do?
In the words of our Bishop Justin, Jesus would offer radical hospitality. And that is the challenge for us today.