Numbers 13: 25-33 and Isaiah 40:21-31
A week ago Friday,
I was in Harrisburg with others,
for the first meeting of “Faith in PA,”
the statewide coalition of faith-based, justice organizations
in Philly, Pittsburgh and the Lehigh Valley,
that are now reaching out further across the state,
to build an effective faith coalition
for public education,
and other basic justice issues.
As we got off the train, the organizer, Cecily,
asked me, “Would you open us with a faith reflection?”
I answered, “Sure, but help me —
remind me of some specifics or the overall goal of today’s agenda.”
When she explained
we’d be mostly doing research meetings with
representatives of the Republican leadership
in both the House and the Senate,
I laughed and said,
Well, that’s decided — then, Numbers 13, it is.”
I usually am a bit uneasy about the paradigm of conquest
in the story of the Israelites claiming or wresting their Promised Land
from the Canaanites.
But suddenly that morning, rounding the corner from the station,
the spectre of that ornate, Republican-controlled Capital on the Hill,
up all those imposing, marble steps we needed to climb,
all those unfriendly meetings facing us…
and just 9 of us from this emerging coalition
dedicated to, as its first campaign,
getting a Full, Fair Funding Formula…
well, suddenly the story of Joshua and Caleb was more understandable, even welcome.
We’re an non-partisan coalition, of course.
That means that we don’t side with either party.
We focus on issues, in this case, increased funding for Pennsylvania schools.
It’s just on this issue, that the support and opposition for such a proposition,
is almost exactly along party lines,
except for some moderate Republicans, particularly in the Philly suburbs,
perhaps because they understand that ultimately
the metropolitan region is connected enough
to have to sink or swim together.
But as we heard again and again last Friday,
all but the most moderate Republicans
are completely unwilling to even look for more education funding
or the possibility of additional sources of income,
— “no new taxes” is their common ground
the budget deficit, their excuse!
With a deficit state budget and the pensions crisis looming,
they’re not willing to look for money
so students across this state
could receive their constitutionally-promised education.
Friends, for the 9 of us, standing at the foot of those steep marble stairs,
it would have been easy enough to see our chances,
like the 10 scouts judged the Israelites’ sights on Canaan:
a snowball’s chance where it’s always hot…
grasshoppers compared to giants.
In our first Bible story today,
the Israelites have successfully exodused from Egypt —
remember all those mighty hand of God miracle moments
making a way for the powerless
over against all the authority and power of Pharaoh and his armies.
They’ve found their first freedom in the wilderness,
but it’s more of a transitional ambiguity really.
What they long for is a permanent home.
Remember God had, since Abraham,
spoken of this Promised Land
for the people that would descend from his son Isaac.
So now, from the wilderness, Moses dispatches 12 spies,
— though “scouts” might be a better translation of the Hebrew —
a prince from each of the 12 tribes,
to survey the Land of Canaan for 40 days,
and return to tell of its prospect
for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
You know the history:
10 of the 12 showed little faith in their chances of claiming the land.
But more deeply, they were doubting God and God’s promise.
They did not believe God could help them.
The 10 slandered God profession of care for the people of Israel,
the promises to the children of Israel.
In the fear and defeatism,
admittedly not incomprehensible after a hair’s escape from Egypt
and before the likelihood of a long and difficult conquest of Canaan,
10 scouts found all their trust in God wanting,
let go of God,
in essence, found their faith short of everything God promised and
found themselves willing to sacrifice the future of the children of Israel
The 10 came back with their faithless reports,
and the people were easily persuaded
that God’s promise was not really a realistic possibility.
As a result, the entire generation was left to wander in the desert for 40 years.
Only two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb,
brought back a dissenting word,
a report that squared with the promises of God.
They really believed that God would help God’s people succeed.
They didn’t find the obstacles before them insurmountable,
at least in light of their faith in God’s will for them.
Therefore. Joshua and Caleb became the only two from their generation
permitted to enter the Promised Land
after the 40 years of being lost in the wilderness.
It would have been easier, made more sense really,
to fall into some group think
and to side with the majority,
who chickened out,
who doubted the big vision,
who saw themselves as grasshoppers before Giants.
When almost everyone is saying we can’t possible do this great thing,
it’s easy to believe them before we believe God.
It’s understandable how easy it is to doubt the possibilities,
to discount our own God-given capabilities,
I mean, can we really serve as God intends?
Can our lives live up to these Kingdom promises?
Have we know the victories God says are already ours?
It’s easy, even popular, not to believe these days.
But two faithful stood firm in their faith.
Thank God for faithful remnants.
I was struck 3 days later then, on Monday,
when I re-read the Isaiah passage for this Sunday.
But this time, the metaphor is not comparing us vis a vis our adversaries
or those who threaten us
by apparently having so much advantage and power than we do.
This time the insect metaphor throws us into high relief
over against God who is in control,
over all our pretentions to being self-determining and in charge.
Let me read the passage again, in another translation,
because I think lays bare its meaning a bit more clearly:
“Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
Isn’t it clear that God
created the world?
God is the one who rules
the whole earth,
and we that live here are merely grasshoppers.
God spread out the heavens like a curtain or an open tent.
God brings down rulers
and turns them into nothing.
They are like flowers freshly sprung up
and starting to grow.
But when God blows on them, they wilt and are carried off like straw in a storm.
(Ok, that’s the humility verse for those of us who are about to be installed as leaders in the Church!)
The holy God asks, “Who compares with me?
Is anyone my equal?”
Look at the evening sky!
Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful that none of the stars are ever missing.
You people of Israel, say, “God pays no attention to us!
God doesn’t care if we are treated unjustly.”
But how can you say that?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the eternal God, Creator of the earth.
God never gets weary or tired; God’s wisdom cannot be measured.
The Lord gives strength to those who are weary.
Even young people get tired, then stumble and fall.
But those who trust the Lord will find new strength.
They will be strong like eagles soaring upward on wings;
they will walk and run without getting tired.”
Once again, that capitol on the hill,
and all its disregard for our children and their education…
it’s wasn’t feeling so insurmountable.
And the challenges facing this church,
all that we might feel we are to do in order serve faithfully, creatively, successfully, in our time,
…in ways that show others, brings others to know the love of God,
it was no longer feeling hopeless.
Of course, thinking about the work God’s called to do is a big assignment.
…even just thinking about God can and should threaten
(put what’s called some “fear of God” in us!) .
But if one considers it all some more,
when one really thinks about these things alongside of one’s trust in God,
without questioning or doubting God’s care for us…
our whole outlook begins to change.
We understand what it’s like to feel overwhelmed.
It’s the cry of the exiles in the first part of the Isaiah passage.
Or 9 people trying to get a Republican legislature to fund education.
Or 26 people entrusted with helping this congregation
do and become all God wants of us in this year coming.
But when we remember God mindful of us all.
When we remember deeply that God does attend to our needs.
The despair evaporates.
5 of the 6 may still report:
“God doesn’t care.”
“Or act to save.”
“God doesn’t see our suffering.”
“Is the arm of God able to help us?”
“Our problems mean nothing to God.”
Have we not seen?
Have we not heard?
Taken together these two passages and their lessons
are just the right message for the Sunday
that we install leaders for the new year.
5 out of 6 people,
when they hear what we feel called as church to try to do,
to accomplish in God’s name,
“you’ll never succeed.”
“the odds are against you;
the challenges too great.”
But the faithful will calmly report:
If God wills it, we can do it.
And in that faith,
they will line up and roll up their sleeves;
pitch in and get to work.
5 out of 6 will shake their heads, and laugh, “God?”
“Your counting on God to make the difference?”
And the faithful will remain steady and focused,
their eyes on the prize, and respond,
with what might be described as a distant look,
as if they can already see something that others can not.
Perhaps they have…
For they are the ones who know and remember and live by:
God’s compassion, will to save, God’s intimate care of God’s people…
The faithful, in line, sleeves rolled up, will witness to the difference God makes:
“All of us get tired.
On our own, we run out of steam and mess up..
But trusting in the Lord,
our failures forgiven,
our power and capacities renewed.
We find new strength.
We will walk, we will run, nothing can stop us.
Amen. Faithful ones.
Now, just to be clear.
The pastor is not suggesting that people
who have church leadership positions
are the faithful, and everyone else is the 5/6th!
But I am saying that those with faith can access a power beyond themselves,
that is greater than their own.
And I believe that in so doing,
we can do what most says is impossible,
And because of that, church, we need to put the ones with that kind of faith out front,
and follow until we ourselves can take that lead…
Are we grasshoppers?
Have you not heard?
Have you not seen?
God says so.
But not in the sense of grasshoppers to be stepped on by Giants.
Or grasshoppers that God neither notices nor cares for.
I’m going to date myself here…
and using an absurd image from the 1970s t.v. show —
We are grasshoppers,
exactly as the blind Buddhist master Po
called the the orphaned, mixed race child “Grasshopper.”
Master Po took the boy on not only as a favorite student,
but more like an loving elderly grandfather.
The young boy, in his innocence,
asked how the ancient Master how he functioned without seeing.
The master told the boy to close his eyes, and asked “what do you hear?”
The boy heard water flowing in a nearby fountain and birds in a cage.
Master Po asked,
“Can you not hear your own heartbeat
and the grasshopper at your feet.”
“Old man, how can you hear these things?”
“Young man, how can you not?”
God calls us “Grasshopper” that we might know our own hearts,
and the most vulnerable who otherwise would be below our noticing.
That we might function, see, hear and serve
because we always see God’s ultimate care for the Grasshopper and the Giants,
The Canaanites and the Israelites.
The 5 of the 6 who are lost in the middle of their mess, and the 1 who can trust nonetheless.
But thank you, few,
whoever you are,
for your faith and leadership….