It is easy for us to be critical of the Israelites. They are often not a very attractive lot: whiny, complaining, ungrateful, and stubborn. Moses is clearly the hero in this morning’s reading from Exodus: poor, frustrated Moses, leading a people who refuse to be led.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” What a question! They have just miraculously escaped from what was arguably the strongest military force in the world, had the waters parted for them and seen their enemies drowned, and, when they complained of hunger they were fed with manna and quails. And they ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Clearly they had expectations that their every need would be taken care of with very little sense of their own responsibilities.
So we consider these Israelites and we shake our heads and perhaps even mock them a little. We are at least more faithful than that.
And yet…Is the Lord among us or not?
That question has haunted me all week long as I have lived with these readings. Like a bad song, I could not get it out of my head. So I put it on the cover of this morning’s Service Leaflet, and then I took it off, and then I put it back on, and then I took it off, and then I let it stay on.
I first put it there because I myself ask that question with some frequency. And I let it stay on in the end because I know you ask that question too, at least many of you do. The kind of faith that allows one to never ask that question is a gift, I think, a gift that not all of us receive.
Now that may sound like I only have bad news to tell this morning, but that is not true. To ask this question is actually good news, and here is why.
This is a question that people ask almost universally. Is the Lord among us or not? Or its other forms: Is God real or not? Is God active in people’s lives or not? Is there a God or not?
Increasing numbers of people ask that question at some point in their life and arrive at a fairly quick answer. No. There’s no evidence for God. Or perhaps their answer is not so hardcore. Some people just don’t care. The question is irrelevant.
It is tempting for us to say, perhaps defiantly, “Yes, God is real. Yes, God acts in my life.” And you might give examples and all of what you say may be true, but we have to admit that there is precious little evidence, which means there is one thing we people of faith have to grapple with and be honest about. God is a rumor.
Oh yes, the Bible talks about God, and people have worshiped God for centuries and I can give testimony to God’s activity in my life, but in all those things I have to exercise faith, which means I have to admit that God remains a mystery to me. I do not have the evidence to prove anything. I can only continue to spread the rumor.
Now, I and millions and billions of others have bet our lives on this rumor. And we continue to do so every day of our lives. That’s what Paul means when he tells the Christians in Philippi to “work out their salvation.” He doesn’t mean “earn it.” He means something like figure it out, struggle with it, get in the mud with it. Christians ought always to be spiritually dirty from mud wrestling with the rumor of God.
So where’s the good news? The good news is that I do not have to be sure about everything. In fact, I do not have to be sure about anything. I am released from that. I am free.
I am free to bet my life on something. I am free to give and accept love. I do not have to believe in God, and in my more rational moments I think I may be a fool for doing so. But I do love God, I love this rumor, because it is a story I can bet my life on. It is a story I can use to “work out my salvation,” or “work out my liberation”—a fair translation.
One of my tries at being a Christian was accepting a fairly conservative, evangelical worldview. The reason why I could not ultimately stay in that place was because of the bottom line: I was either sure or I was dead. The whole system ran on threat: certainty or death.
They were doing a good thing and teaching me the Bible. But the problem was I was not seeing their system driving the story. Sure, threat pops up now and then in the New Testament, some books more than others, but it was very clear to me that threat was not what was carrying the story of Jesus along. It was life itself and the most difficult but essential response we can have to life: love.
Jesus says to the religious authorities in this morning’s Gospel, “You watched John the Baptist widen the circle of God’s community, and you chose not to believe that what was happening before your eyes was possible. And now I am showing you a world that is turned inside out—the outsiders are on the inside and the insiders are on the outside, and you still don’t believe it is possible. All that I am asking you to do is to step into the circle with the outsiders, but you refuse to do it. You will get rid of me and hope that no one will ever again be able to move the boundaries.”
Why has God remained a rumor? Why must we still ask with all sincerity, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Because we are free. We are free to love or not. We are free to believe or not. We are free to bet our lives on a rumor or not.
Sometimes I think that if there is anything wrong with our church, our tradition, the songs we sing and the liturgy we pray, it is that we often sound too sure of ourselves, as if there is no room for the question. And that hurts us because when we are too sure of ourselves the inevitable consequence is that our circle gets smaller and smaller, and our love gets more and more restricted, and we think it is our job to tell the word to sit up and fly right.
But all that we have been given is a rumor. I believe that it is the most amazing rumor of all, that love really is at the center of the universe despite all signs to the contrary. There is a God, the Lord is among us, and God’s purpose is to love us into freedom and abundant life.