Is the Lord Among Us? (A Sermon for Proper 21A)

Proper 21 / September 28, 2014 / Year A

Exodus 17:1-7 , Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Preached: September 28, 2014, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

As most of us probably know, last week in New York there was a climate march. Most estimates say well over 300,000 people, from all over the world and from all over the country showed up for this march–the largest climate march in history. This march, which hosted all different sorts of groups, all different religions, all kinds of political affiliations, was in anticipation of a UN meeting this week about the climate. About rising overall temperatures due to the way we use up resources, here in the US and in developing countries.

We, the people of this world, need to figure out how to curb our carbon emissions so that the climate stops changing. I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before. But we need to do it so that the earth as we know it does not cease to be a habitable home for all of us. This is why so many people came to the climate march; as a bodily reminder to our world leaders that the EARTH needs to be considered, protected, and cared for.

The Israelites knew about the climate, and how we humans can feel like we are at the whim of it. They knew what it was like to go without food, and they definitely knew what it was like–wandering in the desert–to go without water. They roamed, led by Moses, in very dry lands. They were parched. You can imagine how, in the story, their thirst mingles with their not knowing where they are going, with the feeling of isolation from their homes. You can imagine how the rocks and sand taunt them, how nothing about the climate feels like home.

The Israelites complain. They bicker with each other. They are thirsty. The Israelites are unsure about where they’re going. The land feels like an enemy to them. Moses, their leader, does not know what to do.

There are two questions posed this morning in the story of the wandering Israelites. The Israelites have two questions: Is the Lord among us? And what do we do? What do we do about this climate?

I think we may ask the same questions today. Is the lord among us? And What do we DO? What do we do about this climate?

The first question is about the lord. Is the lord among us? I think most of us here today came to All Saints seeking something like God–seeking to feel like the Lord is in our midst, striving to figure out what that means or what that feels like. I want to talk a little bit about what the word LORD means and how we use it.

In the Old Testament, the word LORD most often appears in all caps. It’s not every time God is mentioned, but it’s a lot of times when God is mentioned in the Old Testament that the word The LORD is used, and the word is set apart in the typeset, maybe you have noticed this.

There’s a reason the word LORD looks like that, it’s because the actual word in Hebrew is a different word entirely. It’s an unpronounceable word–it is the name of God. The letters are YHWH, and sometimes people say Yahweh, though most observant Jews wouldn’t pronounce the name, out of respect for the magnitude and mystery of God. When the scripture, which was oral tradition for many years, was spoken, Jews would use the word ADONAI, which means MY LORD. Instead of saying the name of God, those letters YHWH, the people would say MY LORD.

I had a professor in seminary–incidentally she was from East Germany so she had a very thick accent–who thought that the English translation in all of our bibles, that capital LORD, the lord, was very problematic. She would say to us, “we have to get rid of this word!” It is misunderstood, it allows domination of people, it glorifies lordship, oppression of others, ownership, slavehood. She would remind us, the word is MY LORD. This subtle grammatical point tells us that we are willingly entering into a radical new hierarchy when we follow God, our Lord. This is that willingness that brings us together this morning.

Are those holy letters, unpronounceable letters YHWH among us? Is our LORD among us? As Christians, we have yet another name for God; we have among us, within us, in the midst of us, Jesus Christ, our lord, whose LORDship, I believe, can only be understood through this context of being ours. Not THE Lord, a Lord who is the master of slaves, who oppresses his people. But our LORD, a disruption of the authority of any other LORD over us.

So that was a little biblical lesson for all of us, and I hope it didn’t bore you to death, but it fits right into the next question, What do we do? What do we do about all of the injustices we face each day, and specifically today, what do we do about the climate?

I think the answer is that we need to think about things differently. This word The LORD is just one little example. We say it over and over again in a single church service. Don’t do it right now, but later today, count how many LORDs there are in the bulletin. While you’re at it, count how many fathers, how many “He”s.

Now, believe me, I’m not saying that these are empty ways to talk about God, or that we should get rid of them. But I am saying that we need to think about them differently. We need to see what the roots are–the common root to so much of this, which is finding words to talk about something as gigantic and untameable as God. What we come up with will always be imperfect. Sometimes, when we take a second to switch it up, to change a pronoun, to pray in front of a tree instead of a stained glass window and think maybe that tree is part of the body of Christ, we can be knocked out of our complacency. We can be surprised at all the ways our Lord is among us, ways we had never realized.

And what do we DO about what this climate?

I have to stop here and make a little confession. I’m not a very outdoors-y person. I don’t love communing with nature; I don’t love getting sand in my shoes or dirt on my clothes. I hate bugs. Here’s a really bad one to confess: I don’t really love any animals. I’m kind of scared of them, especially cats. I’ve grown to think some dogs are cute, but I don’t think they really like me. Sometimes I think they can smell on me that I’m not a dog person.

All of this has conspired my whole life to make me feel like I’m not really an eco-green-type person. That’s just not MY THING. I know all this stuff about carbon emissions and recycling and planting trees, but it’s just not who I am, it’s not part of my identity.

I hope most of you out there are better about this than I am. I hope you all take short showers and recycle your take-out containers, motivated by your natural love and care for the earth and all its creatures. Because sometimes I don’t, sometimes I get bogged down in the minutia of those things, those little details, and lose sight of the bigger point. I get caught up in making things easy for myself.

I think, actually, that we all can get bogged down in the little things–just like the Israelites, quarrelling and complaining, testing each other. We can forget to look for God’s face in the rock, God’s face over every place where we find water, God’s face in every part of creation. Even gross bugs, even dirt and sand.

So here’s what we DO–at least in part. We do those things we know we should, those little things–use less paper, use less water, be a better steward of our resources as best we can in a country of enormous privilege, in a culture which values ease and commerce over responsible waste. We can’t forget to do those things. But we also go bigger. Together, we change the ways we talk about God, and therefore ways we see God in ourselves. Not as dominators and oppressors, not as grand rulers of all creation who are here to reap all of what the earth can give us and leave it behind.

No, today we see God’s face in the rock, we see our Lord’s face where we least expect it. We feel, with our Lord among us, a way out of our surrounding culture’s insistence on consumerism, on creating waste, on not caring for God’s creation. We know, though we may feel lost, we may grieve, we may quarrel, we may be angry with God, we know that our Lord–bigger than any of our words–is among us and gives us the water–the life–we need to do the work we must do to tend our wilderness. AMEN.

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