The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday September 27, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

After several month of lectionary readings that skipped over large sections of story,  not much has changed for the Israelites since last week’s reading.  They are still travelling in the wilderness, and they are still very concerned about resource scarcity.

At almost any other time in my life I would have had little sympathy, little understanding, for the Israelites’ consistent inability to believe that God is trustworthy, despite all the ways that God continues to show the people just how trustworthy God actually is.

But for the past few years I’ve been doing some intentional work on trying to understand colonialism and racism and I have come to see just how ingrained these kinds of worldviews can be.

I am a nice person, but I am also racist, and I have been deeply formed by colonialism.  It will take me a long time to dismantle those things in my own life.  Last week someone pointed out to me that I had said something ableist, another thing I am trying to learn not to be, and I was a breath away from saying, “I’m sorry I’ve been so blind to that.”

It took me a lifetime to create these habits and I still live in a world that largely reinforces them so they are not going to change overnight. It’s slow work, it’s hard work, but it’s work worth doing.

And the Israelites still carry the mindset and the generational trauma from their time in Egypt.  They have left Egypt, but they are not entirely free.

And one of the ways this manifests, is in persistent anxiety about resource scarcity.

Which, again, at any other time in my life I would likely have rolled my eyes at thinking, “God has given you more than you even need, why are you still so worried?”

And then I remember the great toilet paper crisis of March 2020.

Remember that? Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime ago?

As I understand it, our need for toilet paper did not actually increase in March, and the overall amount of toilet paper being produced didn’t change either. But something changed in our world, that change made us anxious, and many, many, many people coped with that change by buying way more toilet paper than they needed which created unnecessary panic and anxiety and a situation where some people had stockpiles of toilet paper, and some people were down to their last roll and couldn’t find any in the stores.

And if you didn’t buy large amounts of toilet paper,  you probably bought some other resource to help ease your own anxiety and give yourself a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

This may tell you all you need to know about me – I didn’t buy toilet paper; I  bought a three months’ supply of coffee and dog food.

Today’s reading is one in a series of stories that theologians sometimes call the complaint narratives. They all follow a similar pattern:  There is a threat to the safety and security of the Israelites – they need food, or water and they complain to Moses about it.  Interestingly, they always complain to Moses, not God. Moses then brings that complaint to God and God saves the people. God liberates the people from slavery, provides quail, and manna, and water.

This happens over and over again.

Before we look at the issue of drinking water from today’s story, I want to point out a detail that I think illustrates just how deeply ingrained the Israelites sense of resource scarcity was.

In today’s story they are concerned about water, but oftentimes they are concerned about food, and specifically meat. More than once they complain to Moses, “If only you had left us alone in Egypt where we had fleshpots – where we had meat.”

It’s a weird complaint because their lives as enslaved people in Egypt were horrible, but also, do you remember what happened when they left Egypt?

Exodus 12 tells us that:

During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go” …The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” (12:21-38)

Large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Those animals, they’re meat. They’re food. Unless all these animals have somehow already been used up or died mysteriously, the people have no actual reason to miss the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Maybe they are saving them for a special occasion. Maybe they are afraid to start eating those animals because it is comforting to see them. Maybe it helps ease their anxiety to say, if we need to, we can always eat those animals.

But whatever is happening, it seems to me that their felt sense of food scarcity and their actual stockpiles of food aren’t lining up.

Now water is a different thing.  Animals can travel with you and are something of a renewable resource.  Water is different. As they travel, the Israelites would need to continually find new sources of not just water, but water that was clean enough to drink. And not just for the people, the animals need it too.

It’s the next level of trust. In theory, the people should have been able to look around as they walked, seen the animals – their food safety net – and been able to remind themselves that they’re OK, they have enough food.  But water? As soon as they find a place with clean drinking water they leave it so, if they keep turning their head to look behind them as they walk, they can see that water, that source of life, slowly getting further and further away, and if they look ahead, they see only dry, dusty wilderness.

But, even if they do have those animals with them and even if they could see their next source of water on the horizon, God has been working hard to get them to slowly abandon that scarcity mentality and the urge to feel secure by hoarding supplies because, as you may recall from last week, storing up manna for another day doesn’t really go very well. With the exception of the day before the Sabbath, anytime the Israelites try to store more manna than they need for a single day, they fail. The stored manna becomes filled with worms. It becomes inedible.

Little by little, experience by experience, God is calling the people to trust God’s ability to provide, and not their ability to stockpile.

But it’s going to be a long process.

So in today’s reading, the people make camp in a place where there is no water and we are told, “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 these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (1-5)

The difficulty of being a leader in a time of great change and anxiety is a whole other sermon, but for today, I’ll just point out that while it is good for us to hold our leaders to account and to offer them constructive feedback, we should also remember that they are human beings experiencing the same stressful world events that we are and we should take particular care with how we voice our concerns.

No one does their best work when they think they could be stoned at any moment. I was thinking about this when Dr Roussin, who looked so tired and defeated, gave his press conference on Friday and some of the comments on the CBC coverage I was watching were just vicious.

Moses is tired, he’s frustrated, he’s feeling defeated and like the people are ready to kill him, but God doesn’t seem to be frustrated at all – not at the people, and not at Moses.

And God has a plan.

Moses is to gather some of the elders and go ahead of the people to the rock of Horeb.  When they get there, Moses is to take his staff, strike the rock, and then drinkable water will come out of the rock. Enough water for all the people.  And Moses does exactly what God tells him to do, and it works. (5-6)

God does not tell Moses to go ahead on his own, he is to take the elders with him, presumably to act as witnesses and to be able to tell the people what they have seen. God also instruct Moses to use his staff to strike the rock – the same staff that Aaron and Moses used to turn the Egyptians drinking water into blood. (Exodus 7)

These are both practical and symbolic actions, designed to help form this group of formerly enslaved people into a people who trust God.

Moses names this place Massah – which means “test” – and Meribah – which means “contention” or “quarrel” – because this was a place where “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (7). It’s interesting that he doesn’t name this place “We finally trusted.” And equally interesting that God seems to be OK with these names.

God understands that after generations of being deformed through enslavement, the people need to be re-formed. God understands that this will take time. Once trust has been broken, it takes an incredible amount of work to re-build. You need to show you are trustworthy again and again and again.  God know that part of building trust is being able to test, to push the boundaries and see how the other person responds.  God is not threatened by this process.

God also knows that having reminders and rituals are so very important.  That’s why we gather every week. That why we tell and re-tell stories. That’s why symbols are so very powerful. That why God doesn’t tell Moses to use just any old stick to hit the rock and bring forth water,  God says, use the staff that has been a symbol of my power since the first plague.

We all received some tough news on Friday.  Case are rising, new measures are being put in place and this creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

It’s hard. So very hard.

One thing that helps me, is to have tangible reminders of times in my past when I have experienced hardship and God was with me in those hardships.  It helps me to try and lean into trusting God instead of trusting myself.

It stops me from running to the store to buy all the toilet paper and coffee and dog food.

And so I want to encourage you this week to think back on your life. Can you remember times when things were tough and God was present? Can you remember times when you were sure there would not be enough, but God provided?

Be ever so gentle with yourself if those sorts of memories are hard to find.

When they come – write them down, or find something that can remind you of them. Pull out that encouragement card someone wrote you, or the rock from that trip you took, put it somewhere where you can see it.  Re-read the stories.

Re-read these Exodus stories, stories of God’s consistent and faithful and abundant provision for an exhausted and anxious people facing an unknown future. Reading these stories in our present circumstances can remind us of God’s consistent, faithful, and abundant provision.

May these things give you some comfort and the courage to keep going.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.












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