God Doesn't Delight In Our Suffering, but In Our Willingness to Go, Help, Serve (like Jesus)

God Doesn't Delight In Our Suffering, but In Our Willingness to Go, Help, Serve (like Jesus)

Psalm 107: 1-3; 17-22 and Numbers21:4-9

This morning we begin taking up a special collection for One Great Hour of Sharing. Envelopes are in your pews. There’s more information on an insert in your order of service.

You might say it’s a 2nd mile offering — after your basic giving to Old First’s Ministry, 10% of which already includes our OCWM support– the acronym is for “Our Church’s Wider Mission… our resources dedicated to the ministries of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference and the national setting of the United Church of Christ.

We are a generous congregation, individually and corporately. Because we are a thankful people. And, as I said with the children, joyous. We have good reason to be.

But there come along during the year other opportunities to share. Because not everyone is as lucky as us. Or privileged, might be a better description.

There are other opportunities to share because there are needs that otherwise might go unmet. When there are natural disasters, either in the U.S. or abroad, the church creates a special disaster relief collection in which 100% of your gifts go to the disaster relief (we’ve already paid for all the administrative costs with our OCWM!)

The UCC also offers 4 special mission offerings as well as its basic Our Church’s Wider Mission:

The Christmas Fund supports pastors in economic hardship: usually when they’ve worked their whole careers and don’t have enough to live on comfortably in retirement.

Strengthen the Church funds congregational revitalization efforts and new church starts. Some of those moneys have supported the Covenant Ministry program that Old First has been in for these last almost 3 years.

Neighbors in Needs provides resources to justice work of our national Justice and Witness ministries. We are UCC, there wouldn’t be faithfulness without justice, because we know to peace without justice is neither, nor faithful…

And finally, today’s One Great Hour of Sharing. It’s common to a whole host of denominations– so your Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist friends, in their congregations, are probably taking up this collection this morning too.

In the UCC, One Great Hour of Sharing monies are spent in 128 different countries, including the U.S,, on ministries that fund development projects, feed victims of hunger and famine, provide refugee service and respond to natural disasters. These tasks are the responsibilities of one of our denomination’s mission arms, “Wider Church Ministries.”

Our Affirmation of Faith this morning comes last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s UCC in Jeffersonville, IN. Their pastor, the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutson, was preaching understanding God in light of the tornados that caused destruction in their community last week. OGHS funds are already at work helping people out there cope and recover. We will keep them in our prayers today. Maybe our offering will be a little bigger, because we mean to make sure they have the help — prayerful, moral support right alongside the dollars and cents — they need to rebuild.

Alongside of the disaster relief our One Great Hour of Sharing dollars effect, I want you to think with me for a minute about another situation in which this special offering of the UCC is at work.

Our Hebrew Scripture passage has the Israelites in the wilderness. They’ve been brought out of the slavery of Egypt. And now they’re trying to plot their path forward. But some of them are starting to get worried — how are they going to keep all these people alive in the wilderness. The food’s not plentiful and certainly not what they are used to. And sometimes there’s no promise of water to sustain them.

Sometimes it’s too easy to look down on the Israelites as being ingrates. Sure God, led them out of slavery, but as we’re saying in this month’s suggested devotional sharing question for the beginning of church gatherings, “can you imagine, after crossing the Red Sea on dry land… can you imagine how great their expectations must have become?” Maybe its not so hard to understand their let-down when they realized, at least immediately, all God was offering them was the wilderness.

Think how disappointed we get when we run out of hot water, or have to settle for our less than favorite leftovers?

Do you know that over a billion people a day face a challenge finding safe water. How many of us have ever had to go fetch or even really walk a piece to get water? Usually we just turn on the tap, at one of the multiple faucets in the convenience of our homes, and out it comes. Clear, clean, fresh.

These days, many of us even have extra appliances– water heaters or coolers, water filters of this or that sort that take our water to a quality beyond tap.

But a little over 14% of our neighbors in the global population can’t count on finding clean water. Often a good source is far away, and people need to spend hours daily fetching water. In many places, this is girls’ work, and the daily chore is one more reason young women don’t go to school and get an education.

We’re going to try something here. I have two containers with 1 gallon of water each. A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds.

An average, rural African uses approximately 5 gallons of water a day. That means that someone walking a distance to get water, would have to return carrying 40 pounds just for her personal needs. More if he or she were responsible for getting water for the whole family.

In fact, a whole lot more– multiply that 40 pounds times the number of people in the family…

By contrast, the average North American uses between 50 and 200 gallons of water each day. Perhaps because all we have to do is turn it on…

So now we’re going to try something to show how complicated the search for water over some distance can be. It’s not even close to a real example. But the lifting and passing and twisting and interruption might help us to recognize how different our lives would be if we needed to spend more time, well, organizing the resources we need to survive.

While I finish the sermon, I want to ask you on this side of the church, and you on the other side, to simply pass the water from person to person until it is given to Dan in the doorway, where’s he’s stationed as today’s usher. He will hand it back to that person, and the jug will again make it’s way through every person until it gets back to me.

But here’s the trick. I’m going to keep preaching. So on top of paying attention to where the jug is and who you have to pass it too, I hope you’ll continue to listen to what I have to say.

Oh, and one more thing. To make this illustration really effective– it shouldn’t be a gallon jug, but at least one of those big plastic, 5 gallon containers, like drywall mud comes in.

Oh, and I’m taking the tops off the jugs. Be careful you don’t spill any precious water. If someone spills a whole gallon in the sanctuary, you’re going to get me in trouble. Or if you spill it on someone else, you’ll get yourself in trouble. But the real reminder is that for many people in the world today, each drop of clean water is just too precious to waste or to lose.

One more thing, beloved, we don’t want this water carrying chore to take up all day, so let’s see if I can finish preaching before you all get the gallon jug passed to the back and then back up to the front?

Beloved, our text has God growing uncharacteristically short-tempered at the Israelites lack of faith in the wilderness. There’s this punitive response from God– poisonous serpents who bite and kill many people.

If God’s reaction to the people’s carping seems harsher than we usually expect, it has to be said that it was effective. Snake bites and death gets the people’s attention. There comes a bit of accountability from the people– they realize, and name their wrong-doing– that they didn’t trust God.

So Moses, as often happens, approaches God to plead their case.

And, let me be honest, I’m glad my sermon is really about people today who are in short supply of water. Because, our text, well, I can’t explain to much about it. In fact, it’s always seems more or less inexplicable to me.

God offers the people this liturgical symbol. That’s not hard to swallow. I know and trust in the power of symbols. But, in the larger picture, it seems God’s giving the people a graven image. Oh, not a golden calf, but a golden snake up there on top of a staff.

And, it gets even weirder. The snakes aren’t called off. But keep coming. And biting. God never says, “Ok, Moses, you’ve convinced me again. The venomous snakes… I probably went a bit too far on that one. Maybe I’ll scale it back, and replace them with a nuisance insect, say the mosquito, so every time a you get a mosquito bite, you might remember to stop complaining so much… ”

Nope the snakes keep biting, but, God arranges things so that if people turn quick and look to the golden serpent a top of the pole, well, then, by the power of this, let’s name it, graven image, the snakes’ bites lose their sting.

I really don’t know what to make of the whole thing. I guess I’m glad the Gospel of John sort of redeems the whole image by revisioning it to point towards Christ on the cross taking away the sting of death. But still…

Let me simply say, I worry when we are so quick to attribute all kinds of suffering as acts of God. I wonder if such thinking or, really, blaming God isn’t our modern, privileged “complaining in our wilderness.” Even weather, those tornadoes that struck our sisters and brothers in faith in Jeffersonville last week, there might be more of human causation and less of God’s will in those and other potentially climate-change-created or strengthened weather patterns. We can’t just blame it all on God.

Even cancer — I wonder sometimes if there might not have be more ties to environmental degradation that humans have caused. And issues of our lifestyle. Or even that we now live so much longer. But can we just say all the cancer is God’s will?

And a full 1/7th of our neighbors on this planet not waking up to the assurance of safe water. Is that inevitable? Is that how God organized human life on this planet? How the one who first planted us in Eden meant for things to be?

Or is it about poverty and wealth distribution? And about human disobedience? Going where we weren’t supposed to go and taking what we weren’t supposed to take? Arrogance, really.

Isn’t the scarcity of living water about pollution and lack of education and lack of infrastructure for the places where humans live together? Isn’t it, at least in part, about those of us who count on clean water, even take it for granted, choosing to either share or hold on to the surplus that we wish to claim, but is really God’s anyway?

One Great Hour of Sharing enables us to become partners in responding to disasters that are occurring on average every 2 and 1/2 days. And it makes up partners in refugee ministries and community development efforts 365 days a year. You see the church is this international organization by which we are enable to do things and help places that we could never do on our own as individuals or even a mission-oriented congregation.

Maybe this special offering, maybe it’s sort of like that snake on a pole… if we turn towards it quickly and often, than some of the bite will be taken out of the serpent’s sting?

I’ll leave you to think about that, because I want to finish before you get those water jugs passed back down to me here. So let me finish with a few other questions for you to consider:

How would our lives be different is we had to go for and carry water every day?

Could you carry 5 or 50 or 200 pounds far from a source a few miles from your home, say the Delaware or the Schukyll? If you had to, would those two rivers offer water that was clean and safe?

And what would your family have to forego if you needed to commit to the time and effort of gathering the basic resources for life, materials we so take for granted, we can hardly imagine being without them?

How would our lives change is the basic needs of life were less reliable, or even just inaccessible?

And finally, this might be most important for those of us this privileges, how can we act so others might live more assured, abundant, watered lives?

(Michael finished the sermon just before the left side got the water jug passed back down to the front; the right side lagged behind!)