In the Exodus passage, we continue with the Israelites retreat from Egypt. We also continue to see them complaining, and complaining against Moses and against God. After everything that has happened, being led out of Egypt, being led through the red sea, being fed Manna in the wilderness, they still do not trust that they will be taken care of. They still experience their journey as hard, too hard to bear and they do not experience or trust God’s presence with them. They complain bitterly, railing against God for everything that has happened. They ask, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” In the Philippians passage we hear, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” And we are called through those words as well to trust in God’s presence working through us.
And then finally we come to the parable from Matthew. And we see our own wishy-washy faithfulness in great contrast to God’s presence with us. How many of us recognize in others or in ourselves the behaviors of the two sons in the parable? With my kids I see this on a regular basis. It is often the case that I will ask a child to do something and receive the promise that they will, only to find that they have forgotten to do so. This happens regularly in our house. Two of my kids are quick to promise and just as quick to forget to do whatever I ask. In contrast, one of my kids is usually quite quick with a “no” to come out of his mouth but he none the less often actually DOES whatever I’ve asked. I have to admit, I would prefer neither of these choices. I would prefer that the kids both SAY yes and DO yes. But both sons in the parable point out to us human folly. We are a rebellious people. We are not faithful, in our decision making, to our relationships, or to our God. We waver and slip and slide, usually in very small ways, but we do not succeed, any of us, in complete faithfulness.
Have any of you found yourselves making promises to God that you end up not completely fulfilling? I’ve been at this church five years now, so I am going to make a confession to you all. I struggle daily to live up to the promises I make to God. For example, I believe it is very important and so I commit regularly to spending a set amount of time daily in intentional prayer. I pray constantly, hourly, but I know that the constant prayers throughout the day in the midst of other activities are not the same as taking an intentional period of time in which I will let nothing come before God, in which I sit in conscious prayer, without interruption. I know the importance of this and so I regularly commit to doing this, but then other things come up and interfere. Another example – I ask God for direction, promising to follow, but there are times when I feel pretty sure I’ve heard from God about what I should be doing and still find I don’t do it. More specifically, I know we are supposed to keep the Sabbath holy, I feel deeply the call to do that, to take a day each week “off” and to spend that time resting and in prayer. I commit constantly to doing this, to having a day that just belongs to my family, and yet inevitably I work on my day off, answering emails, making phone calls, even writing sermons. It is a challenge for me to always match my words of good intentions with my actions. Have any of the rest of you had this trouble?
In contrast to our own actions, we have God’s actions. The Exodus passage from today shows us a grumbling people. These are a people who complain and complain. They’ve been led out of slavery, but they complain that they don’t have enough to eat. They’ve been set free from a life of hardship, but they threaten Moses because they worry they won’t have enough to drink. God responds to these complaints not with anger, not by yelling back that they should just be grateful, not even by showing them the bigger picture. God responds by giving to them what they ask for. First, God gives manna. Then God gives water. God gives them directions and guidelines in the form of the 10 commandments. God gives them leaders and people to support them in their times of fear and discomfort, people like Moses, Aaron, and later, Joshua. God’s actions show us who God is – a God who loves God’s people so very much that God gives again and again to the people, even when they are unfaithful, even when they are whining – God gives them what they need, and often much more than they need. Just as our failure to act as we intend says something about us, God’s actions show us a God of deep love, again and again.
In light of all this, there are two quotes from one of my favorite children’s authors, JK Rowling, that I’d like to share with you. The first, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What we do with our lives, how we act, what we do with the gifts, the talents, the time that God has given us- this is what defines us – for ourselves and for those around us.”
The second quote is, “If you want to know what a person is really like, take a good look at how he or she treats their inferiors, not their equals.” Again, our actions – not those towards people who can report on our behavior or can talk about our behavior or who can affect our lives in a positive or negative way – but our actions towards those who don’t have that power over us – that defines and tells the world what we really value and who we really are.
What do we do with our time? What do we do with our talents? What do our actions say about what we believe about God and about God’s call for our lives?
One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest – a huge woodland was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, “Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.”
And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, “What do you think you are doing?” And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, “I am doing what I can.”
It is our choices that show who and what we truly are, far more than our gifts, our skills, our abilities. What we do with our opportunities, how we act in each moment, what we do with the gifts, talents and time God has given us – this is what defines us – this is what tells us and everyone around us who we really are.
Do we do what we can? We show our own personhood by what we choose to do…we are how we treat each other and what we choose with our time, with our lives, with our relationships. While what we say we will do is a component of these things (what we agree to, how we say the things we say, what we consider as important in the way we speak), our actions speak louder than our words. Our actions tell others who we really are.
So today I want to tell you what I see and who I see when I look at you. Your actions, by being people who are “attending” church this morning, even when we cannot be together, by praying with each other and singing praises to God, your actions by passing the peace of reconciliation to each other, virtually if not in person for this time, by calling each other, reaching out to each other, caring for one another, listening to one another, show you to be faithful people for whom your commitment to God is important. Your actions by supporting Winter’s Nights, Hope Solutions (formerly Contra Costa Interfaith Housing), our adopted family, the Unsheltered Neighbors program, the food pantry, Monument Crisis Center, Glide Memorial, White Pony with your time or your money show you to be people who believe in living out your faith. Your actions, by supporting the children’s center show you to be a people who genuinely care about children. Your actions, by loving and supporting each other through visits, cards, calls, rides, meals, and by supporting those in the larger community through their times of difficulty show you to be a people who say you love your neighbor as yourselves and work hard to do exactly that. You are a people who do not “play” at church but who truly and faithfully live out your faith. Your actions show you to be the people of God. And I am thankful to have your example teaching me how to be more faithful. I pray we can continue to strive to stick to our commitments, to live out our faith, to be the people of God we desire to be. My prayer is that we continue to reflect the light by all that we do, to pass forward love and peace and compassion. Amen.