2023-03-12 Lent 3
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever noticed that in life, it is easy to be generous and giving when people are appreciative? If people are thankful, you’re more encouraged to give and provide support. If people are obviously blessed by your generosity, you are inclined to give more. Oppositely, if you give to someone who is a jerk about it, or feels entitled to your kindness, you automatically feel off put. You naturally want to stop what you are doing and cut them off. Like you buy a kid an ice cream cone and they don’t say thank you but instead give you a dirty look. You don’t want to buy them any more ice cream because they have shunned your nice gesture. It is intensely difficult to continue being kind, compassionate and giving when all you get are unappreciative, hostile attitudes in return.
When I was in Edmonton for school, St. Peter’s Lutheran church had a breakfast program. The Rock, as it was called, a hat tip to St. Peter and his rock solid confession of Christ would feed hundreds of people every morning, from homeless people to single parents struggling to make ends meet and everyone in between. Most of the time people were very appreciative at this Christ-like outpouring of help. But every once in a while, you’d have someone come through the lineup and they’d complain about this or that. “Oatmeal again?! No fresh cream, all you have is coffee whitener!? I don’t want sausage, I want bacon!” Immediately I was off-put. You felt ripping into people like that. Often in my sinful mind, I wanted to blurt out: “If you don’t like the (((free meal))), then go waddle down to McDonald’s and pay for your own breakfast!" Of course I never did say this, but I still thought it. I let other people’s bad attitudes affect me and impact my serving the Lord with His generosity. It made me want to filter the people to whom I showed kindness. I wanted to help the “deserving” people. But thankfully, God doesn’t operate in this same way.
When we look at our Old Testament reading for today we see the prime example of how God’s ways aren’t our ways. Moses is trucking around the wilderness with all the Israelites. It’s only been a month and a half, roughly, since God led them out of Egypt with a mighty hand. So, about the same time as the season of Lent. Then, the people of Israel started to grumble against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. “And the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger”(Ex 16:3). What a wicked switch! The people went from top of the world triumphant Passover victory to wishing they were back in the cesspool of iniquity of their Egyptian slavery and oppression! They’d rather have a vat of meat and bread rather than freedom! It’s craziness! And so they grumble, less than appreciative of all that God had done for them.
And their grumbling didn’t stop with bread and meat – gifts that God also graciously provided to them in the form of manna bread and quail. But they also complained about water. “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3). If Moses was God, he would have struck down the people with a plague or lighting bolts or at the very least a bad case of mange. That’s the typical, sinful response to whining, grumbling and complaining when people’s attitudes should be oozing with thanksgiving and contentment. But thankfully, Moses was not God. We notice especially how God responds, not in wrath or violence but in divine compassion for His people.
And certainly God’s response was nothing short of miraculous. He tells Moses to go and strike a rock with his staff, the same staff with which the Nile river was struck. Yet again, God works mightily for His people. The rock miraculously begins to spring forth water so that everyone could have water to drink. It’s just another example of how God defies the expected. In the middle of a desert, water miraculously springs forth that life may flourish. In the face of a bunch of disingenuous whiners and complainers, God is compassionate. When people don’t deserve kindness, God is extra kind and charitable.
There are two real take away points to this story from Exodus. The first is the idea of God’s sacramental provision for His people. He takes ordinary things and does extraordinary stuff for us. Rocks don’t ordinarily gush forth water. It’s not in their nature to do so. Yet God makes it happen. The same can be said about Holy Communion. Bread and wine by nature are not the Body and Blood of Jesus. Yet, by God’s Word, they are. Our Lord promises to be present for our forgiveness, life and salvation in, with and under ordinary bread and wine. These things become vessels of God’s grace and mercy for us, assuring us that our sins are forgiven and that Lord is truly present with us, just as He was standing with His people at Horeb.
And secondly, God’s compassion never fails. He continues to give and give and give, regardless of the attitudes of His people. Some would call God a fool for operating like that, an absolute dunce for getting walked on! But those people don’t understand kindness and mercy. The only way to overcome evil is with good. Likewise, the only way to win over unthankfulness is through wild, God-like giving. This ties into the Lenten theme of almsgiving perfectly. It’s not always just about money as we normally think about giving. It’s about growing and giving this divine spirit of charity and kindness that we see in our Savior Jesus. By His grace, we become the rock that springs forth extra kindness, compassion and monetary giving in this Lenten season and hopefully always.
One night, back in the old country, a bunch of young village punks came into a Saint’s farm yard. They began to rip into one of his fences to steal a sheep. But as they were wickedly sinning, suddenly they found that their hands were held fast by invisible bonds, stuck in the fence. They were stuck there until daybreak when Saint Spyridon came to let the sheep out to graze. He asked them what they were doing, and they confessed their sins to him. With a word, they were released from their divine bonds. And lest they have nothing to show for their nocturnal labours, the Saint said “Take one of the rams for yourselves, lads, so that you will not have come for nothing … but you would have done better to get it by request rather than theft. Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History 10.5, St. Spyridon.
The Saint’s response is what truly wins people over. Such grace in the midst of sin is nothing short of miraculous. Mercy in the face of transgression. Our world prefers Hollywood movie style revenge though, as does our own sinful nature. Go out and find the thieving village punks with a handy and oh so swingable sawed off shotgun! A belly full of lead, right in the head! That’s how Hollywood would have re-wrote our Saintly story. But the world doesn’t need any more violence. What is needed is abundant giving to the needs of others - even when attitudes aren’t hospitable or appreciative. This is what the Lenten theme of almsgiving is really all about. When we consider how awesome God is to us in providing for us and abundantly blessing us time and time again, it ought to humble us and encourage us to do likewise. His amazing love for us spurs us on to bless all of those around us, and those abroad in our world. Whether it be Riverside Mission right here at home or some cause half a world away, I think of Christ’s own words: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (MT 25:40). The result of almsgiving will be to see Christ everywhere, always and in all. Thanks be to God for His amazing grace. Amen.