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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 26 - Proper 21 - Year A
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
"Drying Up"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

Ordinary 26 - Proper 21 - Year A
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
"Drying Up"

    From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites
    journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.  They camped at Rephidim, 
    but there was no water for the people to drink.  The people quarreled 
    with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink."  Moses said to them, 
    "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?"  But the 
    people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against
    Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and 
    our children and livestock with thirst?"

As you start to get old, your nose may drip and your eyes tear in the cold, 
but the membranes are actually drying out, drying up. So are your scalp 
and skin. While the young battle oily acne and clammy hands, the old lady
creams her face at night and extends a dry hand to her lover. The old man
watches his body hair and cuticles growing crisper and rarely works up a 
sweat.

The journey is from moist to dry. We do not grow drippy, sappy and green. 
We grow stiff, brittle and rigid. It's why the old, they used to say, need 
steam baths, tender meats from moist animals, as well as stews, custards 
and soups; because growing old is about desiccation. Drying up and becoming
little. How we seem to shrivel with age. The older body's very littleness,
together with its daily burden of aches and dysfunctions, attests to the 
shrinking importance of the body. When you are young, you would find some 
of the physical challenges of old age unbearable; and yet the very old 
often dismiss them with a shrug. This devaluing of the body in the 
consideration of lasting things - could it be less of a paradox than a 
paradigm?

Why do we dry up?  Why is it our destiny to become juiceless mummies with 
parchment skin?  Is it just an inevitable process imposed upon us by nature? 
Is old-age crustiness just another impairment on the road to death?  Or is 
drying up imposed on us by the force of character as well?  Is something 
deep pointing us in the direction of something far more valuable?  For 
Heraclitus, for instance, the soul of a person was not a misty, cloudy 
notion or flow of feeling.  It was something fiery that needed to ascend. 
It was wisest and best, he said, to hold to the dry end.  For

	"Dry souls are wisest and best."

The word he used for "best" was aristos, the root of our aristocrat.  What 
he meant was that the older we get the more refined we get, more subtle, 
lighter and drier.

Like my grandfather's humour. It is one of the most treasured memories I 
have of him.  That dry, airy, flash of wit that would seem to spark out of
nowhere, suddenly illuminating a situation we had all been talking about, 
sending it "up", setting the moment "on fire" with a wisdom only his 
wizening could accomplish.  He was our teacher, as the old are meant to be,
because he had learned how to see into the dark.  He carried fire within 
him, became our lightkeeper because, by the force of his character, he had 
learned how to be dry.

                                    +

Israel was drying up, but not enjoying it.

The itinerary Moses chose to follow after having left the Red Sea was one 
you would never find in a travel brochure.  For one thing, it wasn't a 
straight route from here to there.  It has left biblical commentators 
scratching their heads ever since.  God seemed to be in no hurry to get 
Israel out of the wilderness.  They made no beeline for the milk and honey. 
To make matters worse, we don't know which way they went.

Theories abound, of course.  Some maps even pretend to know.  About all that 
is certain is that a wadi called Rephidim seems to have been the last stop 
before Sinai, which, of course, is out in the middle of nowhere.  They didn't 
know where they were.  All they knew was that they were doing their best to 
follow the Lord's leading.  He had led them this far out of slavery.  Surely 
he knew where he wanted to lead them.  Well, maybe.  You can't read any of 
these stories about Israel's wandering in the desert without catching a real 
sense of doubt being expressed about whether God knew what he was doing. 
Let alone, Moses.  Moses hadn't a clue either, other than that "The Promised 
Land" was out there somewhere.  And Moses was a pretty convenient target 
when things got tense, which they did, rather often.

That and dry.  I mean, what with the wind and the oceans of sand, it wasn't 
long before they were parched with thirst.  These were not seasoned 
Bedouins, remember, people who know how to crack a crusted-over piece of 
limestone to uncover a spring of fresh, clear water.  These were city folk
accustomed to the usual, albeit sparse accoutrements of slavery. There may 
have been back-breaking labour back in Egypt; but at least their had been 
water and ground you could grow something in.

Suddenly, they were in this barren, dusty, god-forsaken wilderness where 
somedays it was all you could to see past the nose on your face for the 
grit.  Blazing hot enough to burn your sandals during the day.  Cold enough 
to freeze you to shivering by morning.  It had been the Lord's idea of 
freedom.  It was their idea of hell and my guess is that the worst of it, 
the part that they never really understood while they were suffering it was 
the dryness.  Not just the physical dryness, but the spiritual dryness that 
is implicit in a text such as this story's.

"Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock 
with thirst?"

At first, Moses tries to deflect their complaint by using a good offense.

    "Why do you test the Lord?"

It is a favourite trick of religious leaders when they don't know what else 
to say!

But the people are too smart to buy the evasion and keep Moses' feet to the 
fire, until eventually, Moses figures out a way to find water for them and 
that particular crisis is resolved.  But that wasn't the end of it.  The 
problem remained for another forty years or so.  This physical hunger and 
thirst that was symptomatic of a much deeper need, one that kept coming to 
the surface as they went from one dry place to another.  The closing verse 
of this week's passage

    "Is the Lord among us or not?"

reinforces this recurring theme.  Israel kept asking that question right up 
until the border of the Promised Land.  Kept getting thirsty and kept 
wondering, not about why they were putting the Lord to the test, but why God 
was doing it to them.

Too often, we commentators and preachers focus on the miracle of the water, 
the miracle of God saving them from the dryness.  But what if we are missing 
the obvious?  What if God was also saving them as a result of the dryness? 
What if providence also has to do with that necessary discipline of the soul
called drying out and drying up? 

                                    +

James Hillman points out that the ancient alchemists were workers in metaphor 
like good psychoanalysts, painters and poets.  One of the main alchemical
operations was evaporation.  Boiling off the excess wetness so that a dry
remainder could be used for further concoctions.  Too much liquid putrefies. 
You feel yourself swamped, flooded, dissolved in grief, messy, sticky 
situations.  Evaporation lets off the steam, boils away the excess that 
sticks.  Things that are no longer glued are free of old allegiances.  Once 
the emotion is taken out of a memory, you can view it with some objectivity, 
some wisdom.

It is what Israel learned in the desert.  They learned from not having the
luxuries, from having to survive with only the bare necessities, from not 
being certain as to where the road was taking them, from having to cope with
heartache and loss and wondering whether the Lord was with them or not.  
Which meant that by the time they reached their destination, they were able 
to look  back on that sticky situation in Egypt with some detachment and 
hopefully some smarts.  It would never have happened without having endured 
many of those salty and bitterly true insights they gained from having been 
tested in the wilderness.  A wisdom that came as a result of the dryness as 
much as it did anything else.

Which means - drying up is not just inevitable.  It is providential. 
Grace-filled.  No longer feeling pressured to engage everything, we can be 
at peace without comment.  Having to hold things out in front of you farther 
and farther in order to see them clearly, but also seeing them in a much 
larger perspective.  The body's own version of Buddhist detachment.  The
resilience and stamina that comes only to the long distance runner.  The dry 
eye that is less vulnerable to subjective affections.  We become astringent 
- yes, like the finest wine, by letting our bodies teach us this necessary
discipline of the soul.  Drying up.

                               --------- 

Exodus 17:1-7 - The wilderness stories of Israel (and this week's 
is a classic example) are increasingly about a people stuck between 
promise and fulfillment.  It is not just a place but a state of mind. 
What happens to Israel is not specific to that tiny nation.  It is a 
typology for the life of faith.  We do not know where God is leading us. 
It is always through dark passages where our very survival hangs in the 
balance.  We murmur and complain and question and doubt because there is 
nothing else we can do and be honest.  This week's sermon attempts to 
cast a very different focus on such a paradigm than the usual 
interpretations, suggesting that God's providence is to be found as much 
in the struggle as in the redemption from it, that the force of character
can only be gained through the process of refinement and drying.

   1.	Notice that the question contained in the very last verse of 
   the passage is one that no one ever says?  Why does the author do 
   this?
   2.	Why is such a question often the last thing anyone every wants 
   to express in church?
   3.	Where are you in the process of "drying up" and how could 
   God's providence be using this to bring out that which is "wisest 
   and best" in you?


Philippians 2:1-13 - This classic Pauline text, that we also 
hear during Lent, is addressed, not to a fledgling church, but one 
that has come of age long enough to confront the two perennial threats
of congregational life: internal dissent and external threat.  Paul is 
concerned about the former in this passage and appeals to his 
listeners for unity and solidarity.  However, this kind of harmony 
only happens when everyone acts from a single, fundamental 
perspective: considering the other person better than oneself, 
thinking of the interest of others ahead of one's own.  Paul 
buttresses this example with his well-known hymn to Christ.  This is 
the perspective from which flows the life of faith.

   1.	Is internal dissent more of a problem in younger or older 
   congregations? Why?
   2.	In your own words, describe how Paul believes the capacity 
   to respond in faith and love works.
   3.	In what way is this evident in your own experience of 
   congregational life?


Matthew 21:23-32 - There are about 3 versions in the extant texts 
of Jesus' story about the two sons, each of them different, which means 
that it is hard to know which Jesus may have told.  What is important is 
how Matthew understands and uses the story in this context.  He frames 
it in between the Jewish leaders' rejection of Jesus' authority and a
discussion about outcasts who are accepted in God's domain.  We should 
not single out the Jewish leaders as the intended targets of the parable 
but rather all those who do not do what God intends.

   1.	Why would a normal Galilean family have been scandalized by 
   the actions of both sons in Jesus' story?
   2.	If there is no "right" answer to Jesus' question, contrary to 
   Matthew's interpretation, how might Jesus' listeners have understood 
   the parable?
   3.	Why is it always a dilemma when discussions take place within 
   the church about who is "right" and who is "wrong"?


HYMN  641  Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song  (Voices United)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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