The Opening       

Numbers 20:2-13

September 20, 2020    

Rev. Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church

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The image of seeds germinating, just having burst open, captures our hope this Sunday. A release from that which binds us to the past, an inbreaking and indwelling of God, an infusion of the Spirit. What must break open in us in order to create new life and new possibility? That’s the question that we are wrestling with today. If we are the seeds that God has planted, what needs to break open in us in order for God’s love to spill out and grow.

In today’s reading from Numbers, God’s people have been traveling in the wilderness for some time.  There was no food for them to eat and no water for them to drink.  Some of them were getting quite irritated – and I think that we could accurately use a modern term for what they were feeling.  They were hungry and maybe that caused them to be a little angry.  We could say they were getting “Hangry.”  They were complaining to Moses and Aaron about this. It seemed that Moses and Aaron were trying their best to keep it together, but they needed a breather, so Moses and Aaron went away from the group for a break from the complaining. At that time they heard God’s voice giving them reassurance that God was with them. They just needed to take a step back to give themselves the space to be open to God’s voice. God said to them – just strike that rock over there and water will come pouring forth for the people to drink. 

They were reminded that the wilderness itself was not a desolate place, but was filled with gifts from God that need to be discovered. The wilderness becomes a challenge for those who live in it, but there is water coursing through its rock formations. There is living water provided by God in the midst of apparent desolate places in the wilderness.

While Moses’ response centers on the conflict and the complaints of the people, God’s reaction delivers compassion.

God cared for thirsty people, giving them water straight out of the rock. God chooses to bring water, and the life it symbolizes, out of something that appears to be lifeless.  This compassionate God met their basic needs even in the wilderness.

It is in these times of testing in the wilderness that God’s people found that God provided nourishment by way of the manna and in this story – life-giving water, so quenching their thirst.

This story reminds us that in the wilderness times in our lives, when we are experiencing deprivation of some sort, we are assured of God’s constant presence providing us with what we need. Sometimes God will surprise us and make life flow in unexpected ways – in this case, water from a rock.

We can be reassured that God will be our travel partner in our life’s journey, which is particularly meaningful in those times when we find ourselves in the wilderness – whether that wilderness be in the midst of the isolation of a global pandemic, or through a difficult diagnosis, or when recovering from surgery, or when struggling with a mental health crisis, or living through an unexpected job loss, or experiencing a broken relationship, or grieving the death of a loved one – or just when we are feeling alone.  We are not alone – God is with us. 

God will find ways to make life flow in unexpected ways. But it will require a certain amount of trust from the people, a willingness to put faith in a God who seems not to do things in the typical way. An openness to the unexpected.

Life-giving water coming from an apparent lifeless rock can be compared with the image for this series – of a lifeless, dead looking seed – bursting open to reveal new life in the sprout that emerges.

I was reading an article written by Dr. Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.  In the article he says that in many languages the words for love have a connection to the word for seed.  In Arabic and Persian, a word for love, which is “hubb,” comes from “a seed that is planted in the ground.”  In these ancient languages love and seed share the same root. 

We have many stories of our tradition that depict faithful moments where God’s people, instead of breaking apart, they break open so that the seed that God has planted in them can sprout.  These moments where the seed that God has planted – instead of being crushed, opens up so new things that we didn’t even know were possible are suddenly possible.

This made me think about what kind of seeds get planted in us. How are the seeds of God’s love sewn in us, and how are they breaking open these days? 

I saw a quote from the author and motivational speaker, Cynthia Occelli.  She said “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

I invite you to think about your own life. Think about your own life like a seed.  Maybe like one of the seeds you planted last week.  There’s a little crack forming.  Can the sprout move out or are you holding on so tightly to your beliefs about the world, to your beliefs about yourself, to the false narratives you have spun for yourself, holding on so tightly to those things that the sprout is trapped?  What is holding you back from letting that sprout go?  What kind of breaking needs to happen in your life so that you might be broken open in love rather than broken apart.  Is there something that you need to let go of to allow God’s love in and burst out through that crack?

I wondered what those things might look like for us as individuals, but I also started thinking about those things for us as a church.  I was thinking about the things we practice as a church. Things that open us up instead of breaking us apart.  One of the things that I thought about was worship that is not predictable in all ways but yet has pillars that we look forward to every week. This builds resiliency to be open to the surprise that may exist every week.  But it also allowed many of you to transition smoothly to worshipping online with us throughout this pandemic.  There are things about the worship that we are doing online, like today, that are comfortable and bring the familiarity of our sanctuary to the comfort of your home.

Another thing that came to mind was the way that we welcome people who might be different from us personally. Different lives, different beliefs, background, history… yet as a church we practice this radical hospitality, the ability to hold space for people very different from ourselves.  Another example of breaking open instead of breaking down. 

This practice opens us up for God’s love to sprout in ways we can’t even fathom. 

I experienced a profound example of this last Sunday at our Zoom coffee time.  When we started Zoom coffee back in March, I thought oh it will be nice to see each other, but it won’t be like coffee hour is in person.  But week in and week out at Zoom coffee, I am surprised.  Once again last week, I experienced this breaking open and God’s love sprouted and burst forth in many ways. 

This online video platform, that from the outside seems so impersonal – perhaps lifeless, like a rock or a dried up seed – compared to in-person communication, has become just the opposite.  Each week at Zoom coffee, I am humbled by the deep connections and the genuine community that has formed in a place I was not expecting it.  People who may not say more than a quick hello to each other after church in person are now providing support and compassion and encouragement to one another via video.  Others who might normally keep to small talk are having deeper conversations with one another.  People are sharing with a deep honesty that is sometimes wholeheartedly joyful and sometimes intensely painful. There has been a depth of community that has formed, and I don’t think I am alone in saying this has been a transformative place where community has deepened and flourished, in this time when we cannot gather as a community in person. To me, this has been a wonderful yet surprising place where we have allowed that crack to burst open and experienced God’s love sprouting from an unexpected place. 

So throughout the next days and weeks, I invite you to think about these things.  What lifeless seed might you be holding on to so tightly that nothing can sprout?  Are there places where you might be not broken down but broken open so that whatever it is that God has planted in you can grow and grow and grow.  Are there unexpected places for you during this pandemic where you have seen new life or living water come from a lifeless place?

How might we be opened both as individual people, but also as the church, as the body of Christ.  For it was Jesus who said this is my body which is broken for you.  And it was in that breaking that brought resurrection and new life. 

Just as God’s people were provided life-giving water from a lifeless rock in their time of great need, we know that God journeys with us, planting seeds and encouraging even those lifeless seeds to crack open and burst with new life, in unexpected and profound ways. 

God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God.