It so happened that I preached last weekend at my church, All Saints Episcopal in Sacramento. I don’t typically re-use sermon ideas as blog posts (You’re welcome! There are plenty of sermonish things already accessible on the internet.), but something about the week’s lectionary readings struck a chord that I would like to share here.
The Old Testament reading for the week featured a story of Moses. He is (sort of) leading the Israelites through the desert after they escaped from slavery but before they found their new home, and it is by all accounts a pretty miserable time for all. In the previous week’s reading, the people don’t have enough food, so they (quite understandably) complain that they are starving. Moses is upset that they complain, but asks God who provides manna. In last Sunday’s reading, the people and animals are dying of thirst, and again complain to Moses, who again becomes angry that they are complaining. There is something of a pattern here.
In my Evangelical past, I was taught to Judge The People. They just needed to Be Obedient and Stop Complaining!
Now I wonder how I could ever have thought that. If my children and grandchild and beloved dog were all dying of hunger or thirst, you had better believe I would be screaming for help from anyone. And I wouldn’t see it as an act of disobedience, either, but rather as an act of faithfulness to the family entrusted to me. I can see why the people have grave doubts about Moses’s leadership when he seems to have led them to a setting where they repeatedly almost die.
This reading is paired with a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, where the religious leaders of the day challenge Jesus by asking him “By whose authority are you doing these things?” Instead of answering, Jesus does what he often does, and returns a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
And in my preparation for preaching, that final bit kept racketing around inside my head and heart. What is from heaven, and what is from human origin?
This question is one way to frame what the Israelites are asking of Moses: Is this journey we are taking from heaven, or of human origin? Are we out here in the middle of the wilderness because God called us, or have you, Moses, brought us out of Egypt to “kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
And if the answer is that their situation is only from Moses, is of human origin, they are in DEEP SHIT. But at the same time, if the situation IS straight from heaven, why is it causing so much suffering?
The reason this question got its hooks into me is because I find myself regularly asking a version of it: Is this situation I am in, whatever it is, from heaven, or is it of human origin? Have I, or some other person, or lots of people, made such catastrophic mistakes that I/we are now caught in this time that feels like death? Or is this all from heaven, and thus is God somehow responsible?
In the abstract, in the theoretical, this question is never answered, by Jesus or by Moses or by the priests and elders—or by God.
And yet, in other ways, the question IS answered. Jesus gives us a parable about two sons, one who says “no” to his father’s request and then changes his mind and does what his father wants, and one who says “yes” but then sits around and does nothing. This is one sort of answer to the question. And Moses offers a specific, physical, and embodied answer—he does what God tells him to and goes to a certain rock to strike it with his staff, and the water flows to save the lives of the people and animals.
The obedient son’s response is of human origin—he says “no,” AND of heaven—he DOES what his father asks. Moses’s response is of the earth—he uses the elements around him to satisfy the physical needs of the people—AND of heaven—he miraculously brings water where there was no water.
So maybe the question, “Is this of heaven or of human origin” is sometimes a nonsense question. Maybe the real question, the question we should be asking, is something different.
Maybe a better question is: Where does earth meet heaven? Where is the site where heaven reaches down and touches the earth? And what is happening in that space?
And: can I somehow be a part of this?
I know that sometimes in my own life, especially when things aren’t going so well, I am inclined to ask the original question: is this situation, or this event, from heaven, or is it of human origin? Has God somehow caused this, whatever it is, to happen? Or am I or some other human being at fault? But maybe those are nonsense questions, too. Maybe trying to ask a yes/no, either/or question in those times—in THESE times—is the wrong question. Maybe what I really want to know is: Where does earth meet heaven in this time, this circumstance?
One of the themes I return to again and again might be called Radical Hope. What does it mean to find hope even in desperately difficult and tragic times? Where can we look, what can we do, not just to remember but to participate in hope even when things around us look dark? The pursuit of the place where heaven touches earth is also a pursuit of radical hope.
In my own life experience, I have, again and again, had to find ways of living into radical hope, of learning to settle into the place where heaven and earth meet.
I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but became a Christian convert when I was in my teens. Like many young people, I thought I was very mature and responsible and ready to make adult decisions, so I got married when I was far too young, and sadly chose the wrong person. I remained married for many years, trying to work on the marriage to make it better, but it was abusive, and so finally I realized the best choice for me and my children was to get divorced, which left me in my late 30’s as a single mom with three boys. Those were hard years.
And NOW, I have three adult children who are all thriving in their lives, my oldest with a wife and child of his own. I was able to continue in my education, getting a Ph.D. and, very recently, an M.Div. I had a successful career as a college professor, and now am beginning to live into a second career as clergy. If I had to go through the bad things again to get to where we all are now, I would do it without question.
So was my bad marriage from heaven, or of human origin? Again, the question doesn’t really make sense. The marriage was painful and difficult and didn’t end well, and my children and I all bear emotional scars, and yet such wonderful things have come of it. So a better question is—where did earth meet heaven in that marriage? Where did I have to learn to live into radical hope in order to move through the dark times and into the light?
And back to that example of my thirty-year career as a college professor. Twenty-five of those years I was a member of the faculty and an administrator at a small Christian university. About ten years ago, the place took on new leadership, and it soon became clear to me that the school was heading down a path I was unwilling to follow.
The next few years were miserable for me. I was on the outs with the leadership, often saying the things they didn’t want to hear, and refusing to step into line as a yes-person. That sort of behavior is not usually rewarded, and my case was no different. I looked for other jobs, but academic positions are few, far between, and very competitive. I finally faced the hard truth that I was going to have to leave the world of higher education, and find a different setting.
Those were hard years. And yet, after a dark time, I was gifted with the delightful surprise of discovering that my calling was toward ordination and work in the Episcopal Church. I am at the very beginning of learning how to live into this new life, this new site of radical hope.
So was the trouble in my work life from heaven, or of human origin? Wrong question. Instead—where did heaven meet earth in that situation? Where did I have to live into radical hope to come through into a new and wonderful life?
We all go through times when it seems like earth and heaven CAN’T meet, when no matter how thin we stretch there just isn’t enough material to allow them to come together. The gap is too large. And in those times, sometimes the best choice we can make is to wait, and not lose heart.
And then, when the moment comes that earth and heaven meet, and all is well, we experience all of the good things—joy and peace and grace. In those moments, hope becomes a lived reality. This is the moment when Moses’s staff touches the rock, and the water gushes forth to save the lives of the people, the moment when the son’s heart is transformed and he goes forth to do what his father wants.
I think the times we are in are indeed life-threatening—pandemic and political unrest and wildfires and smoke. It feels as though we are wandering in the wilderness, dying of thirst. At best, this is a time of waiting. Is this from heaven, or is it of human origin? Neither; both. The question doesn’t really apply.
Instead: Even in this difficult time, where is heaven reaching down through the clouds to touch earth? What do I need to do to find that place? And how can I help others to find that place as well?
I’m finding my own way to answer these questions. I hope that you all are too.