Sermon: Counting Our Blessings: God's Sustaining Presence

28 September 2008


Counting our Blessings: God’s Sustaining Presence
Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our minds and hearts gathered here be acceptable in Your sight, Oh Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

             Have any of you spent time in the wilderness?  Having been a Girl Scout and having grown up going on camping vacations my entire life, I have been known to spend some time in the great outdoors.  When I tell people that for vacation last year Ryan and I went with my parents and some friends to live on an island in the middle of Lake George with no electricity, no showers, and with outhouses they tend to think that I am crazy.  Now, usually when going on these kinds of adventures I am the ever practical one – creating “things to bring” lists, checking and re-checking packed bags.  Do we have everything we need?  Tent?  Flashlight?  First Aid Kit?  Water?  Food?  And my favorite last minute check – underwear?  Ever so aware of being sure that I have everything needed so the blame can be placed somewhere else if something is forgotten.  And yet I have had my days out in the wilderness when I wasn’t quite so prepared.

             I laugh when I tell this story now, but it wasn’t quite so much a laughing matter when it happened.  You see last fall on the Senior Youth Fellowship camping trip we decided to take a hike in Pound Ridge Reservation over the border in New York .  By the time we got underway it was getting pretty late, and we knew it would be dark soon, so we hurried to get everyone onto the trail.  I made sure to set the supper crew up before we left with everything they needed and then rushed to join our group of hikers.  About a half mile onto the trail I realized what time it was, that it was going to get dark sooner rather than later, and that we had just enough time to finish the hike that had been mapped out ahead of time.  And then I realized all of things I had forgotten in my rush to leave our campsite.  Trying to play it cool I spent the next ten minutes or so complaining to God about my stupidity and lack of awareness, trying to place blame on anyone else, and praying to God that nothing bad happen – because I had managed to forget a flashlight, a first aid kit, a cell phone, and the emergency information sheets for the folks on the hike.  My trusty backpack of necessary items was left behind in the rush to make our way out to the trail.  Then we got lost.  Yup, it turns out the trail wasn’t marked quite as well as we had hoped – or that the 20 of us had a moment of temporary blindness – and the trail that led to the cave we were searching for became a trail that led to a road on the other side of the state park.  It was growing darker and darker.  We were on our own version of a 40-day hike in the wilderness, and all I could do was pray to God that we all made it out okay.  First and foremost so everyone was safe.  Then because I didn’t want to have to explain to any of our parents that “so and so” was eaten by a bear – or a really hungry squirrel.  And finally because I really do like my job here.

             Well, I am here to tell the story today, and I promise that I have been much more vigilant since then about keeping and fulfilling the “things to bring” list.  However, it makes me wonder -- why is it that in most cases we only turn to God and care if God is there in our wilderness times – those times when it seems like nothing is going right and we need something or someone to make it all better for us?  Those times when it perhaps seems like God is not with us at all?  Why is it that when things are rolling along smoothly – when we have remembered our underwear and the biodegradable soap, that we take all the credit, don’t thank God for setting us on the path of least resistance, and can tend to forget that God is even there?  In our humanity we question and challenge God’s presence when things are going wrong, and in good times wonder why we haven’t heard from God in a while.  Never realizing that God is always with us.

             In our scripture passage from Exodus today the Israelites are doing the same thing – grumbling and complaining to God when they do not seem to have what it is they need and then managing to forget God’s presence as soon as they get the very thing they request.  Moses is leading the Israelites on what might seem like a never-ending journey in the wilderness.  This journey is so long, exhausting, and challenging that the Israelites begin to wonder if it wasn’t better to be held captive in slavery in Egypt under the watchful eye of Pharaoh after all.  At this point in their journey they have already been chased by Pharaoh’s army, and God has rescued them by bringing them through the Red Sea .  They have been hungry, and God has provided both bread and quail in the desert.  Now they are thirsty and once again complaining that they do not know why it is that they followed Moses in the first place.  Why didn’t someone stop them and talk them into staying in Egypt ?  Life may have been unpleasant, but at least there was a little bit of security – the knowledge that all of their basic needs could be met.  So they test God … And once again God provides.  In Moses’ humanity he gets frustrated with the people and turns to God as a leader who is growing increasingly impatient.  And once again God leads Moses in the right way with infinite patience.  “Go to the rock at Horeb.  Bring your staff and some of the elders as witnesses.  I will be there waiting for you, and I will provide.”  And sure enough, Moses strikes the rock as God commands and enough water comes out to hydrate all of the Israelites on their journey.

             Yes, if you are like me, and like the Israelites, then you have spent time in the wilderness.  And at this point in time I am not just talking about living in a tent and sitting by the fire for warmth.  I am talking about those times in life when you feel alone for better or for worse.  As Kate Huey writes in the UCC’s reflection on this passage, “Wilderness can be a lovely, pristine, holy place where you can draw closer to God.  Or it can be a lonely threatening place, symbolizing despair and abandonment” – much like the Israelites felt it to be.  It can be a place either physical or metaphorical where it seems like you have tried everything, you have no idea where it is that you are on your journey and no idea where you are going.  Those times when it seems like all hope is lost, and you should just give up.  I can now say, believe it or not, that I have been blessed to spend time in both of these wilderness places.  I have spent moments alone in awe and wonder just trying to soak up an experience of God, and I have spent nights on my knees sobbing and praying that I might receive some guidance – my own version of water in the desert.  And when I think back to the answers I was seeking I can now say that I have received them – although not always the ones that I would have planned.  There is truth to the saying that God works in mysterious ways, that God is patient with us and sustains us with a constant presence – whether we acknowledge it or not.

             The question for us is the same for the Israelites.  Will we allow God to be our God in both the good and the bad times?  We are more than happy to have comfort and contentment – to think that God has provided for us or more likely that we have provided for ourselves.  But in the dark times we tend to come up with every complaint we can against God.  And yet when I think of the dark times I am reminded of the poem “Footprints.”  I think about the man walking on the beach challenging God – asking God why He was not there is the difficult times along the journey when there was only one set of footprints in the sand.  And God’s answer is, “It was in those times that I carried you.”  We can be assured that God does not leave us high and dry.  God sustains us with a constant presence. 

             In Psalm 78 we are reminded of the ways God went to the rescue of the Israelites in the exodus.  We are reminded of the countless miracles God performed, the ways that God was there guiding and leading them – even if it felt to the Israelites at times like God was worlds away. 

             In this political season we spend a good deal of time looking at people’s records and using them to predict the future.  If the same could be said for the Israelites then they would have recognized that God’s record was one of constant presence – one that made sure to keep them alive and well sustained – an A+ record by all accounts.

             Today we look to a variety of different sources to solve our issues.  After all that is why the advertising industry is booming, and companies spend millions of dollars to get their product out there.  We turn to creams, drugs, self-help programs, gym equipment…you name it.  And yet none of these things is able to do for us what God and being in a community of God’s faithful people can.  Just as the Israelites discovered in the wilderness so long ago, and as Walter Breuggeman – preacher extraordinaire – says, “[Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides – our lives] moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from leprosy to cleanness, from blindness to sight, from poverty to well-being, and in the end from death to [eternal] life.”  I might add as well, from loneliness and solitude to support and care in community.  We are blessed to be among God’s people in this place – a people who have either felt God working in our lives or are desperately wanting to feel or know God’s presence.  We share the history of faith with countless ancestors who have gone before us and passed down their stories of faith and encounters with God through the words of hymns and laments like those in the Psalms.  And our faith journeys continue even despite, or perhaps because of, the difficult times when we feel the need to question God’s presence.

            We gather today to realize that God sustains us not only individually but in community.  The hope is that this is one of the places in our lives where we can bring our whole selves…the selves that are celebrating because of a promotion, a baptism, a wedding – like drops of life-giving water…and the selves that are suffering through dark times of uncertainty – unsure of the next step to be taken along our journeys.  The hope is that we can open ourselves to each other and welcome each other as God does with grace, generosity, and goodness – that we can walk together on the journey knowing that God walks with us – supporting one another through the difficult wilderness times for which we seem ill-prepared.  That we can share ourselves, our stories, and our experiences of God with each other and with the generations to come.  That we can together count among our blessings a community marked and supported by God’s sustaining presence.  Amen.



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