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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
October 8, 2017
A Reading from Exodus:
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
There a variety of ways in which we mark the arrival of fall, even when the weather here in Austin doesn’t fully cooperate. For some of you it will be the familiar routine of the school year; for others, the soothing sights and sounds of football; for even others, the somewhat incomprehensible smell of pumpkin spice. For me, alongside these other hallowed traditions, I know that fall has returned because something in my own circadian rhythms activates and, like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter, I am compelled to make chili. It activates in me like something once given under hypnosis, and I just have to do it — in fact I was somewhat relieved when I realized that there was an entire church potluck today that could be the outlet for my chili-making, so you will find if you join us for lunch a vat of some perfectly respectable chili. It’s not the best I’ve ever made, and it’s not the worst. It’s just the easiest recipe I know, which is a good thing when you want to make a vat of it.
Of course, years of dealing with this chili-making addiction have led me to all sorts of strange recipes. Thanks in large part to the Internet, there are more publicly-available ways to make a pot of chili now than there ever have been. Some of them are fairly anonymous and fairly straightforward — you know, you take some ground beef and some spices and maybe some tomatoes and beans, depending on your disposition, and there’s not much more to it, but of course some of them have personality. Some of them have some distinctiveness, and more often than not you’ll find those recipes flowing from the wisdom of our modern-day wild-eyed culinary prophets, the celebrity chefs. Without looking, I could easily hazard a guess: Bobby Flay, with his chipotle-and-ancho-seared smoked chili with some kind of mango glaze; Paula Dean, with some kind of bacon-infused chili where the meat starts off in a deep fryer; Gordon Ramsay, with a chili so hot that it occasionally bursts into profanity. Which is of course just the tip of the iceberg; the internet is a deep pit and recipes abound. There’s no shortage of prophets. Nor of prophetic visions. After, this is chili. It matters.
The problem, of course, is that the recipe is only as good as the cook who interprets it, and in the case of online recipes, those interpreters show up far too often in the comments section. If you are ever in need of a refresher on the fundamental brokenness of humanity, I would encourage you to find your way to the comments section at FoodNetwork.com or really any recipe website, wherein our culinary prophets are besieged on all sides by bad interpretation. “Well, I didn’t have any mangos so I just used some old cantaloupe, but I thought the whole thing came out terribly.” Or “Yeah, I was out of canned tomatoes so I just used some V8 from the back of the fridge, but this recipe was way too runny and syrupy.” And yes, I’m exaggerating — but not by much. “I didn’t want to run the smoker so I just threw a couple of cigarettes in there, but it didn’t really work. That’s the last Bobby Flay recipe I’m ever trying.” It can’t be comfortable to have the success of your recipes depend, of all things, on other people. The recipe, after all, is only as good as the cook.
Moses gets it. Moses is fed up with the comments section. Our reading this morning is one of those delicious moments from the wilderness narrative when Moses has just about had it up to here with his audience. We’ve been reading through Exodus for a month now and I hope you will recognize the pattern: Moses is the one who speaks to God; Moses and God have their little tete-a-tete and then Moses goes to do his thing: he confronts Pharaoh, or he parts the waters. Even last week, when the people were fondly remembering the daily abundance of their diet back as slaves in Egypt, Moses arranged for the Manna from Heaven and the people could finally eat even in the wilderness. Moses has got the prophet recipe down; whenever he talks to God, God listens, something works, Moses has got the secret sauce. But the comments section will not be satisfied for long. After all, put enough manna in your system and you start to build up a little thirst, and here we go again: “The people quarreled with Moses: “Give us water to drink! Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst!” and Moses has had it up here. Such is the ongoing battle between prophets and their audience: “What shall I do with this people! They are almost ready to stone me!”
Now, you know what happens next. Even if you don’t know this story, you know what happens next: Moses goes and talks to God, and God says Okay, let’s get you all some water — go and strike the big rock with your staff, and water will pour out, and Moses does it, and everybody drinks. You knew that was coming. I know it’s coming. Moses knows it’s coming. The only folks who don’t know it’s coming are the Israelites. And this turns out to be the real problem in this story. The real problem isn’t thirst. I mean, in theory they have just been witness to two of the landmark miracles of the divine story and I don’t think that thirst is really gonna get them but the reason I know that is that every time they get in a corner I get to watch Moses go over and talk to God and figure out the answer. But the Israelites don’t have that luxury. From their perspective, every time, he’s off behind the curtain, every time he’s got his back turned, every time he’s into his secret bag of tricks, and because they can’t see any of it, they can’t learn anything about who this God is that Moses keeps talking about. Moses is an amazing prophet. His chili looks divine. But if you can’t replicate it for yourself, how can you ever really trust it?
And so God has a bit of a radical proposal. This time, Moses, don’t just go and strike the rock with your staff. “Take some of the elders of Israel with you,” God says. And Moses does it. He may have done it begrudgingly — he may have been losing his patience with the elders of Israel just at that moment, and a little alone time may have suited him just fine. But he does it; he brings a few elders along, and the text says that he struck the rock “in the sight of the elders of Israel.” And something changes. Now, we’ve got witnesses. Now, we’ve got God who wants to be known not just by Moses but by the whole congregation. Now, we’ve got a whole congregation. It’s seismic. This moment is actually the beginning of the tradition of appointing elders in the Israelite congregation, it lays the groundwork for the system of judges that will govern Israel up through the rise of King Saul. It’s a fundamental rearrangement of power for God’s people. No longer will it just be one prophet and a bunch of followers. Now, there are prophets everywhere, pulled out of the comments section and put into the kitchen. Moses thought there were too many cooks, but God says the problem is there weren’t nearly enough.
I have to admit that I find this hard to believe. I have to admit in light of the week just passed that I grow weary of prophets. Once again we come here in grief. Once again we come here in anger. The events of last Sunday evening in Las Vegas spurred yet another round of collective trauma and national hand-wringing. We all know this drama so well, we all know the words already, we’ve memorized the lines. I, for one, am tired of this show, I’m weary in my grief, and weary especially of the prophets that come out of the wallpaper to explain it all away. You know the ones, the celebrity prophets of the time, on cable news or Twitter or sitting in the Op-Ed Section of your Sunday paper, and there was a time when I could be fed by them, nourished by this rich stew of ideas and dialogue, and then after a while of course like so many of us I had to start cutting back my diet — let’s just read the folks we agree with — but this week I find myself without any kind of appetite at all. I find myself less and less convinced that one perfectly-written Op-Ed or one perfectly-performed late night monologue will somehow magically redeem this week’s tragedy or last week’s tragedy or next week’s tragedy. I don’t want to hear any more prophets. I just want to hear God.
But that’s not the Gospel. The Gospel of this text is that God works through as many prophets as possible. God doesn’t just want to speak through Moses. God doesn’t just want to speak through Aaron. God doesn’t just want to speak through Miriam. God wants to speak through the entire house of the Israelites. God doesn’t want one prophet, or two prophets, or a handful of prophets. God wants an entire prophetic community, all the elders of Israel, each of them witnesses to the water flowing miraculously from the rock. It’s a story that comes back again in our Christian tradition, of course, on Pentecost morning, when the prophetic work of Jesus Christ and the resurrection power of Jesus Christ are breathed into the whole community of the early church, which inherits as its collective mantle the ongoing work of God’s ministry. All of which is to say that the call of this week isn’t to listen to one or two more prophets. The call of this week isn’t to read a few Op-Eds that you disagree with or try to find a few contrarian cable news pundits. We don’t need more other prophets. We need to be prophetic community. The spirit of God is on each of us. The spirit of God needs each of us.
Now, there are lots of ways that we respond to God’s call together and a lot of them aren’t that surprising. Our church works precisely because so many of you respond to the gift of the spirit of God laid upon you. If you didn’t, the bills wouldn’t get paid and the choir wouldn’t have music and the potluck lunch wouldn’t come together. This place works because so many of you already sense the call God has on this place, and the call God has on each of you — because you already sense the ways in which God calls us into prophetic community. But of course this isn’t always simple or easy. It can be a complicated recipe. It calls for the humility to recognize that God doesn’t always speak in the places we most expect. It calls for the patience to recognize that God may speak only in fragments that cannot cohere until we share them with one another. It calls for the wisdom to live not as Moses and the people, and not even as Jesus and the people, and certainly not as Matt, John, Krystal and the people, but rather as a community which can together speak the truth of the power of the grace of God within these walls, throughout Austin, and to the far corners of creation.
It is no small task. It is no small charge. But it comes with this good news: if the work of prophecy is truly the work of the entire community, then it follows that God has something to say to each of you. God has something to say to each of you. Here, on Sunday morning. Here, in these walls, in Sunday school classes and service projects and committee meetings. Here, in these walls, in ways and places you may have not yet discovered, in roles and opportunities you may have only imagined, God has something to say to each of you – in these walls, and beyond, in the frenzy of ordinary life, in the frantic moments, and even in the quiet ones, in the dark ones, in the dead places of the night, in weeks like the one just passed, in weeks like the ones surely to come, God has something to say to each of you. God is still speaking to each of you. God is still speaking through each of you. Just as the Word was made flesh for each of you, so too the Word is made truth through each of you. You have something of God’s to say. You have something of the Gospel to share. Share the Gospel together and the whole world will hear it.
In my former church there was a bulletin board in the fellowship hall permanently curated by the teachers of our in-house preschool. Since the parents only rarely came into the fellowship hall, and since the preschoolers almost by definition couldn’t read much of what was on it, I operated under the assumption that the contents of the billboard were mostly to entertain the teachers and, occasionally, the congregation. A couple of years ago, in the run-up to Thanksgiving, I noticed that the new subject of the billboard was “How to Cook a Turkey,” the content of which was recipes submitted by our crop of 2, 3, and 4-year-olds, and transcribed by the teachers. Now, some of them were more helpful than others, though none were exhaustive. Some got right to the point: “Put it in the oven.” Full stop. Some were a bit more conventional: “You put spices on it then you bake it.” And of course some were a bit off the beaten path. My personal favorite: “First you tear the turkey to pieces then you put sugar and flour then you cook it.” Which is not the most conventional approach. I can just see the Food Network special now.
But, hey, you know, maybe? I’ve read crazier recipes. And of course if the perfect Turkey recipe is out there it may very well come from the most unexpected place. So, each of you: keep cooking. There’s room in this kitchen for everyone. And each of you: keep tasting. The day is long and the work has just begun. Your job is to try everything. Your job is to cook fearlessly. Your job is to leave comments. Your job is read the recipes of preschoolers with imagination and wonder. Your job is to taste all the options. Your job is to see all the possibilities. Your job is to taste and see all the ways that Lord is good. That is our task today. That is our task every day, on the good days, and on the other ones, in the good weeks, and in the other ones, every day, every day until that day when we gather around the table of the Kingdom itself, where the meal is finally made perfect in Jesus Christ, where the feast is finally ready, where all is finally prepared, where a place is set for each and every one of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.