“The Obligation of Abundance”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 1, 2017: World Communion Sunday
Exodus 17:1-7 & Philippians 2:1-11
The most important geographical feature of the land of Egypt is the Nile River. The Nile River is surrounded to the east and west by desert, and in a mostly barren landscape, the Nile draws a wide brush-stroke of fertility at least a mile wide on each side. The centerpiece of this life-giving band of water is a delta that spans about 90 miles and fans out to drain into the Mediterranean Sea. This area is some of the most fertile territory on earth. Annual flooding replenishes the soil and it made Egypt the breadbasket of the ancient world.
The book of Exodus is set in this land and it is chocked full of images of water. Water is where Moses was placed in a basket, soon to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. The plagues that God used to convince Pharaoh to set the Israelites free began as Pharaoh was taking his daily bath. In fact, some of the plagues themselves had their origins in water, such as when all the water in Egypt turned to blood and became infested with frogs. The climax of water imagery in the book of Exodus comes when God leads the people out of Egypt and uses Moses and his staff to push the Red Sea apart so the Israelites can cross on dry ground. Safely on the other side, the Israelites turn and watch as God unleashes the watery chaos onto the army of the ancient world’s greatest superpower. The Israelites sing and dance on the other side of the Red Sea; they have been delivered through the water and the Promised Land is almost within their reach.
But as we have seen over the past several Sundays, life on the other side of the Red Sea is awful. There is no food. More importantly, there is no water. The Israelites complain and complain and complain to Moses about how it would have been better to stay in Egypt. Sure, they were slaves in Egypt, but at least they had food. Their complaints reach God’s ears and out of shear divine goodness and mercy, God rains down manna from heaven and sends quail so numerous that they cover the ground. However, this lasted the Israelites only so long.
There is still the problem of no water. And in the desert that is a huge problem. The people are now completely exasperated with Moses. And with God. They ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses tells the Lord that the people aren’t simply talking about food and water now—he is afraid they make take him out before anything else happens. It is not entirely clear why the people are being tested again when they were just tested with the manna and quail. What else are they supposed to do? What would you do in a similar situation? People will die without water, it is reasonable that the people complain and nag and claw until God answers.
Finally, God answers. God tells Moses to go ahead of the people, to Horeb, where he will find a rock. God tells Moses to take his staff—the same staff Moses used to part the Red Sea—and strike the rock he finds there. Moses does as he is told, and as soon as he strikes the rock with his staff, water comes gushing out. The parched Israelites drink and drink and drink until they are thirsty no more.
We could stop here today—this is yet another lesson in the love of God that is not dependent on human beings. God provides. God provides and God is generous, even though most of the time we whine and complain and ask for things we want instead of for things we need. God gives us what we need; God is gracious and it is amazing! We could stop here today. But there is more.
You see, the Israelites continue to journey through the wilderness. Shortly after drinking from the rock they come to a place at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They set up camp and while they go about life as usual, Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and has a lengthy visit with God. In that visit, Moses receives the first laws from God. These laws, in ten statements, lay out the Israelites’ religious and ethical obligations to God and neighbor. After Moses comes down, God gives more laws, things like, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien…they shall be to you as a citizen among you.” God also says to the Israelites, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great,” and, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”
One law in Leviticus stands out. God says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyards bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” This is the obligation of abundance. God is deeply concerned with the poor and people who are foreign in the land. To ease the unfair and unjust burden these people experience, God commands the people to share from their abundance. When the Israelites reap a field, they should be thankful that there is a harvest at all, and they should show this gratitude by leaving an outer ring of the field unharvested. The same is true in their vineyards. These thin bands of crops will help to satisfy the hungry and displaced. And why? Why should the Israelites cut their bottom line and not get every grape and head of wheat? Because God said so, and because it will begin to forge a more just, peaceful, and holy world.
When the Israelites heard this law I can all but guarantee their minds flipped back to what happened at the rock at Horeb a few months before. Their minds went back because the rock was their field overflowing with grain. Their minds went back because the rock was their vines heavy with fruit. Their minds went back because at the rock they had more than they knew what do with. It is a moment when the abundance of God was theirs, and God asked them to do one thing when there is an abundance: consider how it might benefit more than just the person receiving it. God claimed the Israelites as people from and for all nations: they are to live not just for themselves, but for all people. The obligation of abundance, whether it is an abundance of water or quail or manna or wheat or grapes, turned the Israelites outward to share that abundance. And not just share it either, but to work for fair and just policies and systems and structures so that each and every person, one day, has an abundance of their own. Call it a fantasy, call it a pipe dream, call it what you will, but that is God’s will. This is what it means to be an Israelite; this is what it means to be people of God; this is what one does when one is delivered from chains in Egypt and given the Promised Land.
My friends, on this World Communion Sunday, the parallels between you and me and the Israelites drinking at the rock in Horeb are almost too many to name. We’re living in our own particular desert at this moment; we’re not the first and we won’t be the last. But this is our desert and its hot and dry. Whether it is the mind-numbing bickering on social media, or the constant drone of political spin, or the incessant need to be heard and right and prioritized, I’m dry—maybe you are, too. I’m dry and I need a tall drink of water. I need to drink in something that is authentic, something that goes way deeper and way broader than 140 characters or a status update. I’m dry and I need to drink in something that is totally not about me, something that does not depend on my intellect or my stamina or my ability to put up a good fight. I’m dry and I need to drink in something that will keep me satisfied, that will satisfy my longing for grace, for mercy, for justice, and for peace. I’m dry and I need to drink in something that is not about power or strength or brute force, but about humility and gentleness and kindness. I’m dry and I need to drink. And I need to eat.
Maybe that’s where you are today, too. If you are, there is exceedingly good news. Out of God’s shear goodness and mercy, just as God did for the thirsty and hungry Israelites, God has brought us to a rock today. Well, not really a rock. Its actually a table. And even though I won’t hit the table with a staff, I will stand behind it shortly and break open a loaf of bread and pour out of a cup of grape juice. I’ll tell you that on the night before Christ did, he ate the same meal with his disciples and told them the bread was his body and the juice his blood. I’ll hold those two things up in front of you and I’ll say, “These are the gifts of God, for you, the people of God.” Then I’ll invite you to come forward to take as much of the bread and drink as much of the cup as you need to be satisfied that God loves you without any conditions. And one by one, we’ll come forward in a procession and eat and drink from the rock that is Jesus Christ and we’ll be satisfied. This is incredibly good news. We’ll be satisfied because Christ lived and died and rose again to set us free from sin. We’ll be satisfied because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. We’ll be satisfied because we can come to Christ just as we are, without pretense and without carrying a membership card, and he will take us in and feed us. We’ll be satisfied because in this taste of God’s coming kingdom, you and me and everyone who comes will never go away hungry or thirsty again.
But when we go away, it won’t be things as usual; we won’t and we can’t go from Christ’s table and expect every thing to be the same. We’ll go away with an obligation—an obligation to share and work for and live for the abundance we experience in here to be mirrored everywhere out there. And this is how we’ll do it: just as Christ shared his broken body with us, we will break ourselves open to each other in love and compassion; just as Christ poured out his blood for us, we will pour ourselves out in selfless acts of generosity and humility; just as Christ provides for all who come to this table, we will provide for all who come to us seeking anything: food, shelter, clothing, acceptance, mercy; just as Christ put up no barriers at this meal, we will take down the barriers we have built up around our hearts and our minds and our churches and our homes; just as Christ did not stay at the meal table forever, but got up and gave it all up for a world out of control, we won’t stay here forever. There is work to be done—there are hungry hearts and minds and bellies; there are children to be educated and nurtured; there are elders to be cared for and loved; there are strangers to welcome in; there are victims to be cared for and nursed back to health; there are sinners who need to hear the good news of the Gospel and there are kings and queens that need to be humbled by the same good news from the same Gospel. There is work to be done, and the by the abundance of this table, by the abundance of God’s love that rains down on us today, we are obligated to do it. God is depending on each one of us to do our part as God forges a more just, a more peaceful, and more holy world all around us.
So come, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Come to this rock, this table today; eat, drink, and be satisfied. Then go. Go out into the world and share what you have seen and heard here. Share and work and live until no person hungers or thirst every again. God is with us! Amen.