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Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7 AND Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 OR Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 AND Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Many of us have experienced the apprehension of coming upon a temporary highway sign that says, “Men at Work.” I’m not sure what form makes the sign non-gender specific, because the workers out there now may be women as well as men. Perhaps that’s covered by the signs that say, “Work Crew Ahead.” We wonder how long we’re going to be delayed, although often as not we see idle equipment and workers leaning on shovels.

We don’t see many printed signs that say, “God at Work.” Maybe it’s because we don’t quite know where to put them. Identifying God at work usually involves a bit of confusion or mystery. Or is it that we just can’t see or read the signs?

The Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness weren’t sure where God was. Since they measured God’s presence in terms of miracles and divine provision for their every need, it’s no wonder. When they had unattended needs, they felt like God wasn’t doing God’s job. They were passing a construction site where God was leaning on a shovel.

This week’s reading from Exodus is nearly a repeat of last week’s. The people get thirsty. (Exodus 17:1) “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (vs. 3) It’s a question many fleeing refugees must ask. In the biblical story, God intervenes with a miracle, water flowing from a rock. (vss.4-6) Since I brought up today’s refugees, I feel a need to ask who is going to be Moses for them, seeing that needed water makes an appearance when the situation seems hopeless. “Miracles” are not likely to just happen; God uses our hands and feet and presence to bring them about. Where is “God at Work”? Where we step up and make something happen. What “miracles” will be accomplished, what hope brought, by our own Larra Salyers, who has now arrived in Uganda?

It is the end of the story, however, which shows the difficulty we humans have reading the signs. Even after water came from the rock and their thirst was quenched, we read that Moses called the place Massah or Meribah, “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (vs. 7) If we only see God when “miracles” occur and our every need is met, that question will occur again and again.

Psalm 78, looking back, sees “the wonders he has done . . . He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly . . . He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.” As time passed, they celebrated the Lord’s presence with them in the wilderness, but while they were there things were far less clear. Sometimes it is only when we look back that we see, as the poem “Footprints” puts it, “when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” Even that poem moves from a profound question which arises repeatedly in human experience, “I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

The questioning in the reading from Ezekiel involves the human struggle with unfairness. The context in Ezekiel is related to our need to assign blame. Blame raises its ugly head day after day in current political debates. While God is in the forgiving and reconciling business, blame is too often the priority in human affairs.

Ezekiel 18 begins with God commenting on a familiar saying of the day: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (vs. 2) You eat something sour, you’re mouth puckers up. The Hebrew people knew, however, that the consequences of their behavior affected their children as well. It’s true today. What we do to the environment affects future generations. Children who grow up in families where there is addiction or abuse or dysfunction are left with a sour taste in their mouths.

This scripture, however, tries to move past the blame game. God says, “This proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (vs. 3) It is a watershed moment in biblical history. We are each accountable for our own behavior. (vs. 4) We can’t go around blaming someone else. “It’s because I had a lousy Dad.” “I’m just doing what everyone else does.” “The devil made me do it.” In Jesus’ day people were still trying to figure out who to blame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) If our minds are filled with the effort to assign blame, we are likely to miss the signs that say, “God at Work.”

The conversation in Ezekiel takes place because there is a cry that “The way of the Lord is unfair.” (vss. 25-29) It is unfair if the children suffer because of the sins of the parents, but these people seem to feel that the alternative is unfair as well. If we are always trying to escape responsibility for our behavior, any consequences will be viewed as “unfair”.

A similar passage in Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 31:29-34) makes it clear that the people are being pointed toward a deeper and more profound meaning of God’s covenant with God’s people. It is not about assigning blame. It is, as both Jeremiah and Ezekiel tell us, about getting “a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezekiel 18:31) If we happen to see a sign which says, “God at Work,” rather than looking for a new surface on the highway, we need to be paying attention to the possibilities of transformation in human lives!

The reading from Philippians continues that theme and goes a step further. Just as the driver’s license manual has pages of pictures of the various highway signs, Paul offers us a picture of “God at Work.” The picture is Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself . . . he humbled himself . . .” (Philippians 2:6-8) In these verses, which were a great hymn of the early church, we are told to have that same mind in us. (vss. 2 & 5) “Do nothing for selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (vss. 3-4) When we see humble service being performed, when we perform such service ourselves, someone could erect a sign saying, “God at Work.” Paul ends, in fact, by saying that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (vs. 13)

Psalm 25 includes a prayer for God to lead us in that way of humility. “Make me to know your says, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me . . . Good and upright is the Lord; . . . he leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Psalm 25:4-5 & 8-9)

The Gospel lesson, too, can be taken as addressing the question, “How do we know God is at work?” It starts with people asking Jesus what authority is behind the work he is doing. (Matthew 21:23) The “chief priests and the elders of the people” are probably not so much interested in the substance of the answer as in its political significance. They’d like to catch him saying that God gives him the authority he needs. Jesus, as always, sees the trap and asks a question in return. What was John, the baptizer’s, authority? Was it from heaven (i.e., God) or “of human origin”? (vss. 24-25) This puts them on the spot. They’re in trouble whichever way they answer, so they say, “We do not know.” (vss. 25-27)

Jesus then tells a parable about a man who instructs his two sons to go the vineyard and do some work. One says he won’t go but later does. The other says he will go, but later doesn’t. (vss. 28-30) Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? The answer seems obvious—the first. The proof of God’s work is in the doing. The sign along the road, “Men at Work” doesn’t prove anything. An active work crew doing the constructing that needs to be done is all the sign we need.

In this case, we are the work crew. God is at work in us enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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