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Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Oct 01

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-7a


            “Be of one mind,” Paul instructs the church at Philippi. Wouldn’t that be nice, if everyone got along and agreed with each other, living our lives without the tension and stress of disagreements within our families, among our friends and neighbors, in our communities and our nation and our world. We’d be living in perfect harmony. Or maybe not harmony – because, as the choir will attest, harmony requires that people sing different notes. Choral pieces are more interesting when the different parts have different rhythms when people are singing. Does Paul want us singing in unison, with everyone on the same word and the same note at the same time in this song of life?

 On second thought, that would very quickly become very monotonous. If everyone was moving along, exactly in step with each other, nothing changing, where would the growth be? Would the arc still be bending toward justice?

Or, if it appeared on the surface that everyone was getting along and was “of the same mind,” would it be that ideas and hopes and dreams were changing, but expression of that change was not allowed? I think that some dissonances, some differences, some disagreements will always be there, as long as we’re human. Those differences may be suppressed, or they may be expressed. Either way, they are real.

From decade to decade, we seem to cycle between collective calm and collective anxiety. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a calm time. We are living in chaos: natural disasters, economic calamity, political chaos. There has to be a better equilibrium. Some change, but not so fast, and not so painfully! Change comes when someone speaks up, breaks the monotony, and unsettles the equilibrium.

The people of Israel were journeying through the wilderness in stages— that is, between one and two million people divided into four very large groups. This was after they left Egypt, after Moses had demanded that the Pharoah “let my people go!”, after the ten plagues, after the sea parted and after the Hebrew people, the former Egyptian slaves, passed through and into freedom. They got to the wilderness, it says in the 16th chapter of Exodus, and the whole congregation complained. God’s response was to send manna for them to eat. It took a week or so before they learned how to deal with it, how much to harvest, but they all had just enough.

Our reading comes from the 17th chapter, and the congregation is complaining again. They’ve journeyed the distance to Rephidim, and have come about 125 miles by this point. There was no water. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Reading it this time, I wonder if Moses had water himself. Was he even thirsty? Did he have his elders’ leadership group around him, supplying his needs, and he forgot about their needs, until they spoke up? Or was there no water at all? For anyone? And Moses was so busy leading that he hadn’t yet noticed how thirsty he was?

 Either way, the people speak up, Moses isn’t happy, and he brings the issue to God’s attention. Except Moses doesn’t ask God for water, he asks for relief from the complaining people. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”  There are a couple of possibilities here: stop the complaining about the problem, or solve the underlying problem.

 God goes with option two. God sees through Moses’ version to the root of the problem and instructs Moses to go to the rock of Horeb and strike the rock and water would come out of it. So Moses did as God commanded, using the same staff that had dried up the Nile so the people could cross on dry land. This time he used the staff to hit the rock, and the people had water to drink. Actually, Exodus 17 doesn’t say that. The writer just reports that Moses struck the rock and named it “Test” and “Quarrel”.

 I don’t know about you, but I like to think that if I were in that situation, I’d name it something more like “miracle” or “abundant waters.”  But leaders can be stubborn, and what Moses experienced was the complaining, which brings me back to my question about whether Moses had water for himself, and just hadn’t noticed that the masses were without it.

 Allocation of scarce resources is a fundamental central defining characteristic of a community. When you look at the history of the world, there are many different kinds of leadership, societies, political and economic systems, but they are all, in some way or other, about allocating resources. Is each person on their own? Are resources collected and redistributed? Is there a mix of private and public resources? 

 No one said it is easy. How a society treats those in need measures its success and its sustainability. How we decide to allocate these resources, either as leaders, or as a society, defines us as a people. What does our faith tell us about this dilemma? 

 From our Exodus story, we see the importance of the people speaking up. What if they hadn’t said anything? What if Moses and his elders hadn’t noticed? At what point would they have started to die of thirst? How many would have even survived?

 Paul writes from a different perspective, and presumably with adequate water to drink. He writes to the church, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, or any consolation from love, any sharing or compassion or sympathy, then take the last step: be of the same mind.”  How are we are to be in full accord and of one mind?  We are to do three things:  first, do nothing from selfish ambition. Second, don’t look to your own interests, but to the interests of others, and third, think: what would Jesus do?

 I think this is fundamental advice. Ethical decision-making requires multiple perspectives. If we stay in one place, and think only of ourselves, we will miss the point. It’s like the plumb line example. Any architect or builder will tell you that you need to check from multiple angles to determine if something is true.

 Or the Midwestern tornado survival advice: If you see a tornado and it’s not moving, do not stop to take pictures, because it’s coming directly towards you. Instead, race to your left or your right – and then, when you can see that it’s moving, take cover. Getting a different perspective on the storm can literally save your life.

 Another example: I’ve said before that the best advice I received when we began our parenting journey twenty years ago was to be sure to stop to think about things from the kid’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes.

 Those moments when we gain a new perspective on a topic, a new understanding, a new way of looking at the world are precious moments. Sometimes confusing, sometimes refreshing, sometimes life-changing, but in the end deeply valued.

 I came across a TED talk recently (1), offered by a mathematician in Oslo, whose claim was that increasing our understanding requires the ability to change our perspective. And mathematics, he suggests, is a way to train our brains to learn how to change our perspective. Math, he says, is about finding patterns, connections, structure, rules, and about representing those patterns with language so that we can make assumptions and then, as he says, do more cool stuff.

  • Take for example, the concept of twelve. You can think of it as 10 plus 2 more, or three sets of four, or an egg carton: with two columns of six. The more perspectives, the more easily we can understand about twelve, a dozen.

  • Another example: if I tell you that I’m thinking of a number, and ask you to tell me what it is, you’re not likely to guess it. But if I start to tell you some things about it: that it’s an odd number, and that it’s between 15 and 18, then you’ll have enough information to guess that my number is 17.

  • Or, if I were an algebra teacher I could tell you that if I doubled my number and added five, that would be the same as if I subtracted four and then tripled it. Once I give you two perspectives on it, you can usually discover, or uncover, the number.

Although Roger Antonsen in Oslo is a mathematician, this isn’t just about math, or as the British say, maths. It’s about life.

 I’ve talked before about my love of genealogy, and about my forty-year exploration of my family history. Most recently, I’ve been intrigued by my immigrant ancestors – more than 150 of which were English immigrants who came to Massachusetts in the 1620s, 30s and 40s. I had dinner last week with six people from Dartmouth, Devon, one of the harbors where in 1620 the Mayflower and the Speedwell stopped for repairs before they finally set sail for what they called the New World. They are a part of the leadership of Mayflower 400 UK (2), a group that is planning year-long events along the coast in Holland and England, leading up to the 2020 commemoration on both sides of the Atlantic.

 There’s a lot to take in here: Who were these 17th century people? What made this trip different from so many others over the decades before it? What about the Wampanoag, and the smallpox epidemic that had killed the majority of the coastal people? Why did they end up here?

 My perspective shifted a few years ago when Nancy Taylor, the minister at Old South Church in Boston, pointed out that they had to come ashore in Massachusetts rather than continuing to the northern part of Virginia, at the mouth of the Hudson River, because they ran out of beer – and the people were at risk for dying of thirst, or from disease caused by impure water. I would bet that the leaders were thinking of Moses!

 In order to dig deeper into my past, last winter my dad and I did our ancestry DNA. It turns out that I am his daughter – no big surprise there – but it turns out that my genetic makeup is not as English/Scottish/Irish as I thought, despite having 31 out of 32 family lines that were born and bred there. I can only connect one of my 32 great great great grandparents to a heritage other than English, Scottish, or Irish – that’s my Amish Mennonite ancestor Reuben Shoaff from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. All of the other 31 are from the UK, going back at least a dozen generations -

 So when my DNA came back as 40% Irish, 31% English/Scottish, and 29% other, I was at first surprised. It turns out that my genes are 13% western European, 8% Scandinavian, 3% Italian and Greek, 2% Spanish/Portuguese, 2% Caucasian (Turkey, Syria, Iraq), and 1% Eastern European. My dad is 95% Great Britain, so the variation for me must come from my mom’s side. So my mother and I don’t come from the English and Scottish and Irish who were long-rooted in those lands, but we come from the immigrants to the British Isles, many hundreds of years ago. Were they travelers?  Migrants?  Merchants?

 I just read a fascinating article on Smithsonian.com by Michael Guasco. He wrote about the danger of naming 1619 as the date that African slaves arrived in America.

"Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European." (3)

 He goes on to say that “Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that blacks are not from these parts.”

 We have a lot of work to do. Issues of race, gender, and class threaten our existence and our sanity.  Some days, I don’t know what makes the difference between giving up in despair and digging in to pursue change. I have to come back to two things. First, God gave them water. Second, Paul advises us to do nothing from selfish ambition, not to look to our own interests, but to the interest of others, and to have the same mind as Christ.

 May we all find the courage to risk stepping to the side, to risk walking in another’s shoes, to risk watching with another’s eyes – so that we can move closer to the true justice that God desires for us all. Amen.

 1) Roger Antonsen, “Math is the Hidden Secret to Understanding the World”, TED Talks, Oslo, Norway January 2015

2)  http://www.mayflower400uk.org/ 

3)  Michael Guasco, The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History, on Smithsonian.com, 13 September 2017

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