Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Exodus 17:1-7
Matthew 21:23-32

For most of my life I’ve taken water for granted except on my grandparent’s ranch, located on the Mojave Desert in Lancaster, CA. As a child I was well aware of the anxiety of the adults in my family regarding the well– “THE well”. The well had a pump outside of it that channeled water to my grandparent’s home. Every winter bales of hay under heavy old army tarps would be mounded up around the pump. When the power would go out, all the men in the family would embark on the tedious task of getting the generator going in hopes of getting it fired up before the pipes froze.
In the heat of the long summers there was constant concern over whether it would “holdup”. The great fear was anticipating having to pay for a new well to be dug, and under that fear was whether or not water would be found. Farming is always a risky business, however, farming in the desert holds additional risks. The contrast of green alfalfa fields next to parched and deeply cracked dry earth was a constant visual reminder of what happens without water.
My grandma’s prized hollyhocks and gladiolas were often kept alive through the hot dry summers through her commitment to hauling leftover dishpans of rinse water. Whether it was clothes washing or kitchen chores, water was recycled for keeping the garden growing.
This water story in today’s scripture lesson is wedged between the account of the manna and quail and the establishment of structures to resolve legal disputes among the people. The story has a familiar ring to it. The people’s water bags are empty. They are parched, and I suspect that whatever animals might still be with them are getting weak from lack of water. I can appreciate their frustration and deep fear. When they made the decision to follow Moses out of Egypt, they had expected that the Promised Land was within a short journey. They are losing hope. The familiar fear based litany begins: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us?” Out of fear and extreme thirst, they have distorted memory banks of Egypt–memories that have blurred and deleted the reality of slavery.
Moses knows that his life is in danger. I suspect that there was a group promoting a Search Committee for a new prophet leader while others are busy gathering stones. Moses pleads with God. God lays out the next steps. Moses is to take some of the elders as witnesses, take his walking staff – the staff that has been a symbol of God’s power in the past, and he is to strike the rock on which God is present.
Moses pulls together the entourage and they step out looking for the rock. The rock is struck and water springs forth. And the place is named “Massah” meaning trial, test or proof.
Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I remember being struck by an article he wrote in Sojourners Magazine following 9/11. He held up the concept of “liminal space.” It is about space that is hard to define let alone experience in our society. When I think back to people who have spoken with me about their experience on a vision quest, or experiences that have come out of a week’s silent retreat, I would identify the gifts that they received as rising up out of “liminal space.” It is part of the world of mystery that we do not often enter unless we take the time to block out the outer world and enter into those deep places within.
I believe Rohr’s view has been prophetic. Over and over again I have reviewed his thoughts around liminal space. It is that ambiguous place in life where the old patterns have been tossed aside but the new is not clearly in place. It’s the in-between time. Our usual response is to run away from it, find something to soothe our anxiety and fill up that space with familiar things. We are often tempted to use food, alcohol or drugs to medicate and distance ourselves. However, that path only delays getting to the other side.
This is where the Israelites were in the desert. They were in liminal space. Yes, they had taken the leap of faith and followed Moses out of Egypt and witnessed the miracle of the Red Sea pathway and the defeat of the Egyptian army. And, yes they acknowledged the gift of manna and quail. But, like all of us when fear took hold of them, they reverted back to old patterns. They had heard Moses’ words that God was with them, but it was only head knowledge, it was not heart knowledge. As a people having spent 400 years in slavery, trusting in God was not part of their DNA. The whole 40-year journey in the wilderness could be labeled a liminal space experience. This period of after slavery and before Canaan taught them what they needed to know in order to change some of their core beliefs. Changing DNA takes the silence of the desert. It takes time apart. It demands a Divine companion on the journey.
For many of us it demands a physical presence companioning us like a counselor, spiritual guide or mentor. God often walks with us through the work of a trusted guide. And once we’ve identified and named the core belief that is up for review and have come to believe that it no longer serves us, we face the challenge of trusting that we will be given the waters of wisdom as well as the strength to do our inner work. And even after filling up on that water, we are often tempted to go back to those old stagnant beliefs, not because they are good for us but because they are familiar.
In order to understand our Gospel lesson out of Matthew, we need to back up and review what has taken place. This passage is part of an intense controversy between Jesus and the Temple officials. He had arrived in the city accompanied by shouts of “Son of David.” He broke all the rules when he took his social justice march through the Temple and drove out all those selling and buying. He clearly enraged the hierarchy when he knocked over the tables of the money changers and called the Temple a “den of robbers.” The old guard wanted to know by what authority he is acting out this outrageous behavior. Like a good rabbi, Jesus answers a question with a question. He could have identified with various leaders –but he chose John the Baptist, a marginal character taken from Israel’s prophetic history. To those leaders who were born into priestly families, Jesus made it clear that the children of God are not necessarily those born into privilege.
Jesus offers a parable—and it’s up to us to define what this story is really all about. The vineyard was about wine making which is one of the symbols for transformation. The vineyard needs human help. We are given the need for cooperation between the Divine and the human. Our scripture lesson gives us two answers. The first son’s “no” leads to repentance. The second son agrees to go, but doesn’t. His “no” is about rebelling against authority and refusing to go along with the father’s will. The first son faced whatever issues were blocking his ability to say yes. It shows the free choice that is available to all humankind. We are reminded that if we are truly listening to ourselves, we do know when and why we defy the right choice.
The second son does not do his own work. He put out what he thought his father wanted to hear, but he lives into denial and remains unconscious about the mask around his “no.”
Matthew’s gospel is about awakening. Its focus is on unmasking the powers of the day and it’s about providing an alternative vision. No wonder the religious authorities of Jesus day fought so hard to cling to their own rules. To follow the way of Jesus was, for them, a sure way to lose the power and privilege that came with keeping the status quo.
As dramatic and wonderful as unmasking the powers of the day sounds to me, I’d rather watch it on film and not have to live through it. It’s been a challenging week. On Friday I listened to the radio on my way back to Ashland from Eugene. I heard all the ins and outs of the war on Isis. I struggled listening to the debate in Parliament while our own leadership is not in session debating the issue. I listened to the newest reports on the Ebola epidemic in Africa and I heard Ebola survivor Kent Brantly, missionary doctor, pleading for more help to be given to Africa. The only good news that broke up the difficult news was the incredible closing act of Derk Jeters in Yankee Stadium. If it had been a movie, it would have been pummeled for being unbelievable.
So what does this mean for Ashland First Congregational United Church of Christ? I’m convinced that we’re going through the painfully/joyous and tough reality of what it means to enter more deeply into the work of the vineyard. Could it be that this in-between wilderness season –this liminal time, is inviting us to wrestle with and get clearer on who we are as a community of faith? We are being challenged over and over again as to how to fully live into being the Church for a new generation. We are seeking to answer God’s call for this time and this place. The work we are called to be about is demanding. If we take it on without the sustaining grace and strength of the Divine, we will burn out.
Last Sunday 400,000 made their way through the streets of New York in the People’s Climate March. This event followed the hottest summer on record for the globe. 2.1 million Signatures were gathered. Like Jesus dealing with the temple leaders, it’s not easy to get the attention of those in power. They have too much to lose to listen. Today we can celebrate the workshop on Climate Change that our own community provided this weekend at our Annual UCC Conference in Pendleton. Paula let Chris and I know what songs were being sung in Pendleton so that we could join together in solidarity. Our stand on inclusion took place 23 years ago when this church voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation. And yet, we are still in the minority within the UCC denomination. 3/4 of the denomination are not Open and Affirming. Part of our faith mandate is to stay focused as we continue to deepen our faith journey. We’ve made a commitment to keep awake regarding the refugee mothers and children coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
God’s leading does not always move us directly toward oasis. In this liminal space, we as people of faith are seeking the water of wisdom to discern where we spend our energy and what we say “no” to. We need to seek the Spirit’s guidance in order to discern our priorities?
John Lennon’s “Imagine” was not his hit song when it debuted in 1971. However, its appeal to the human need for transcendence in the midst of war makes it a song that fits this national and global season of liminal space. It’s when we come together at our common table that we have the hope of using our sacred imagination to define and live into a place where we can “Imagine all the people sharing all the world…”
As we seek direction and continue to discern God’s call upon us may we have the courage to continue to listen for the still small voice within us that is inviting us home to God, to self and to authentic life? And, may we have the courage to say “yes.” Amen.