O That You Would Listen Today
A New Yorker cartoon shows a couple of women sipping cocktails by palm trees and a swimming pool. One says, “It’s so nice being on vacation and having different things to complain about.” It seems complaining is part of the human condition. Complaining, in fact, becomes a defining theme of the Exodus journey. Miraculously, God’s people have been set free from slavery. Maybe they thought everything would be a bed of roses here on out. Now they discover that it’s hard being free. The verses that Maureen read from Chapter 17 are the fourth time the people have complained about the travel arrangements since leaving Egypt. In chapter 14, when the Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea and saw the Egyptians in hot pursuit, they complained, “What – there weren’t any graves in Egypt – you brought us to die here? We’d rather be slaves than die in the wilderness.” God parted the sea, and the people crossed in safety. Three days later, the only water they can find is bitter. The people complain and Moses uses a piece of wood to turn the water sweet. A few weeks later, the people are hungry and, once again, complain, “If only we’d died in Egypt, where we had plenty of good food, instead of starving here.” God sends manna and quail for the duration of the journey.
In today’s passage, water is the issue again. There’s no water at all, bitter or otherwise, and the people blame Moses. “Give us water to drink! Why’d you bring us out of Egypt, anyway: to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses fears the people are angry enough this time to kill him. God tells him to go on ahead, taking his magic staff and some of the elders with him. At the right place, Moses is to strike a rock with the staff, and water will pour from it. Moses does exactly that and then names the place Massah, from the Hebrew word meaning “put to the test,” and Meribah, from the Hebrew word meaning “quarrel, strive,” because the people wondered, “Is God among us, or not?”
On the one hand, that seems like a natural question when you’re afraid you might die of thirst. But both the Exodus passage and the psalm, Psalm 95, hint that there’s an amnesia problem going on here. The people keep forgetting God’s powerful intervention.
Psalm 95 is meant to be a startling reminder of that intervention. It begins with praise, sounding like any number of praise psalms about the God who created everything we see and claims us as God’s people. Then in the middle of verse 7 it changes course so quickly you almost get whiplash: “For the Lord is our God, and we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand. O that today you would listen to God’s voice!” What follows is an admonition: Don’t be like your ancestors at Massah and Meribah who hardened their hearts.
Now, this psalm wasn’t written for the folks in the desert. It was written for later generations, and as with the other psalms, it was used in worship. Don’t be like your ancestors, the psalm says. It would be easy to read this as a general warning to trust God and not complain when things get tough – which seems pretty harsh if you’re dying of thirst. But there is something more going on here. “They put me to the test, though they had seen my work,” says God. The “work” the people are forgetting is not that God showed up with food and water at the drop of a hat. All these generations later, the people would understand that those miracles aren’t everyday occurrences but part of a larger, more important story, a more important work. It isn’t the miracle of the water, the manna or even the parting of the Red Sea that the people tend to forget, but that singular “work” that tells them who God is and who God wants us to be.
What is the work? What does God want the people to remember as they gather for worship across the centuries, across millennia, up to and including today – “O that today you would listen to God’s voice”? Biblical scholars suspect this psalm was read along with the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It isn’t the miracles that God wants the people to get in their bones; it’s the freedom. The miracles were just part of making freedom a reality. The core of the entire biblical story is that God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners. When Moses first encounters God, God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”
What Moses learned in the wilderness, what the psalmist knows, is that it’s easier to get the people out of slavery than it is to get slavery out of the people. For so long, for generations, the people had lived in captivity. Pharaoh was cruel and brutal. He kept the people in fear. Spend enough time like that and you begin to grow used to the fear, even dependent on it. Terrified by what’s outside the walls that hold you, you wonder if captivity is the best you can ever hope for. In fact, you get so used to being beaten down and used up, you start to believe that you deserve it all: the chains, the inhumanity, the hopelessness. Slavery begins to feel normal.
We know well what Egypt can do to a soul.
When you’re a slave you forget how much you’re really worth. You forget you’re made of what God is made of. You forget your own goodness. And eventually you give up on the idea of ever being free, until one day you hear, “Today, we’re getting out of here.” Leaving seems like the obvious choice at first. But then you begin to realize that while captivity is terrible, it’s a familiar terrible. It’s not that staying feels right; it’s just that you’re unsure what’s waiting beyond it. For all the oppression and all the restriction, there’s no risk in Egypt. The risk lies in not being sure what you’re moving toward and still moving; not knowing what’s waiting in the wilderness ahead. It is easy to harden your heart. It’s easy to say, “The risk isn’t worth it.”
“For the Lord is our God, and we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand. O that today you would listen to God’s voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,” when your ancestors longed for the safety, the certainty, the familiarity of Egypt, when they claimed they’d rather be slaves than face the risks of the wilderness even though they knew that God is the one who brought them out of the land of slavery, out of the house of bondage.
God still wants us to listen. Today. God wants us to hear the core of the biblical story: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners. If you believe it, you will live one way. If you don’t, you’ll live another way.
If you believe it, the next question is, “Who are the Hebrew slaves of today’s world?” Who, today, is being exploited and crying out for help? Who does the backbreaking work for which others reap rewards? Who is dehumanized because of differences? And in what kinds of slavery might we – yes, those of us here in this room – actually still be stuck? Might we be slaves to tradition, to what’s familiar? Might we be slaves to an economic system that demands higher consumption, more growth and rising productivity, but that’s suicidal to the Earth and its inhabitants? Might we be slaves to a system that encourages domination, power over others, rather than power with others, and power for others? Might we be slaves to our own privilege – to what we perceive to be race, or to wealth; to status or religion or to any other marker that convinces us we’re superior and more deserving than the rest of God’s creatures? Might we be slaves to thinking about God in a way that perpetuates all these forms of slavery, rather than listening to the God of love and freedom?
We know what Egypt can do to the soul. That’s why we gather here. Going forward into the wilderness, into the unknown, into uncertainty, may be difficult. But going back to slavery is a disaster. We will often be tempted to return to our old lives, but together, not only do we discover unexplainable sustenance, like manna, and unexplainable refreshment, like springs in the desert, but we also point it out to each other. Lift it up for each other. .. We share our stories and learn from each other. We encourage each other to take the risks of freedom. It reminds me of an old African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
Every month for the past couple of years, I’ve met with a small group of Marin rabbis and Presbyterian pastors. When we began meeting, it felt like a risk; it felt like walking into the wilderness. I didn’t know what to expect, especially given the Presbyterian Church’s strong ethical statements about the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government. As so often happens, we’ve discovered we have more in common than we’d guess. We share our differences and our similarities and most importantly, we practice being compassionate with each other around both. When we met this past week, we learned that both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in the Marin schools, both public and private, have increased dramatically since January. Right here in Marin County. So because of the relationships we’ve nurtured, this core group of pastors and rabbis decided to work together on an initiative that we think we’ll call something like “Love Lives Here,” or “Love Lives in Marin.” This movement would seek to create a positive atmosphere for challenging hate, particularly in the schools but in the broader community as well. It may not sound like a big risk or a giant step into the wilderness, but when there is so much need, when there are so many problems to address, and it’s so easy to feel guilty and overwhelmed, our goal in listening to God is to handle what we can and what we’re called to. As part of my commitment to this Love Lives Here (or whatever we call it), next Saturday evening I’m going to an event called “Meet Your Muslim Neighbors,” a potluck at Vallecito Elementary School in Terra Linda. We didn’t have time to get this into the bulletin but there are flyers in the narthex – the lobby.
And here’s the thing about this event: It is a walk into the wilderness because even though I have the privilege of showing up at a potluck without a thought to being afraid, our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters no not. I go to stand for freedom in solidarity with our neighbors who are putting themselves out there to build bridges with people they aren’t sure they can trust.
We know what Egypt can do to the soul. And so today, we listen once again to God’s voice, calling us out of slavery, even into the wilderness. Brian McLaren shares this prayer led by a young rabbi at an interfaith gathering:
God Who Creates, God Who Redeems,
God of shalom – of peace, God of sh’leimut – of wholeness,
We remember standing at the shore of the sea, afraid,
Our enslavers in hot pursuit, ready to take us back to captivity.
We remember the tumultuous sea before us that showed no signs of parting.
And we remember you told us: v’yisa’u – go forward.
We stepped forth. The waters parted.
We moved our bodies from slavery to freedom.
You moved our souls from oppression to redemption.
God who Creates, God who Redeems,
If it can happen once, it can happen over and over and over.
Let us cross the sea with all who are enslaved, with captors on their heels.
And together, let us make those waters part!
The sea showed no signs of parting. So maybe “[t]he call to move forward, to get moving, comes not after the way is clear and all obstacles have been removed, everything is figured out and made certain, but before, when chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil prevail. When the sea shows no sign of parting.” When hunger and thirst still threaten. “Only in that impossible, uncertain, disruptive place – only in that impossible agonizing place does a new depth of naked, essential faith in God mysteriously become possible. … The word of God comes to us: Get going! Go farther! Go forward!”
O, that we would listen. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.
 Barbara Smaller, The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.
 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 306.
 McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 44.
 McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 39.
 McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 202.
 McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, 203.