Sunday, September 25, 2011

Strike the Rock

Exodus 17:1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

               Parents, wouldn't you agree that our offspring are the least loveable when they whine?  I will sound like a Mean Mom to admit this, but when our daughter went through the whining phase as a preschooler, her sing-songy “Mom--my, I’m thir--sty” used to absolutely undo me.  What got to me was the accusatory tone she used to imply I was willfully withholding hydration from her.  I had never refused to meet her needs. Why didn’t she simply ask for what she needed?  I did not like being cast as the cause of our child’s thirst.  

              Most of us eventually stop wailing about our discomfort and instead learn to ask the right person in the right way.  Just listen to the difference it makes: “Mom--my, I’m thir--sty” versus “Mommy, may I have a glass of water, please?”  The child begins to learn to name her need and figures out how to meet that need—which might include asking for help.

               To know what we adults need and to express that need appropriately is an important step in achieving goals and in developing mature relationships.   Hear the difference between “You’re making me angry” versus “I need some time alone before we continue this conversation.”  

               Identifying a problem is at least a start toward the solution, but naming what you need is even harder though more constructive.  The Israelites were in this child-like stage of complaint.   “Mo--ses, we’re thir—sty,” they cried out in their wilderness journeying.   And the implicit accusation was that Moses and God had conspired to make them thirsty.  Never mind that God had been meeting their needs all along but was not acknowledged for all the times when they had NOT been thirsty.  Suddenly, God is heartless and Moses inept.  A people freed from oppressive slavery have forgotten they’ve been in worse situations and God has brought them through. They can only whine.  Worse than whine, they once again accuse Moses and God of deliberately leading them from Egypt to kill them.  When we’re stressed, we fear the worst and can lash out at others.  Clearly, Moses’ band still had a long way to go on a spiritual journey that the first verse of today’s text tells us was made “by stages.”  They have not yet reached the stage when they recognize God’s loving intentions in the world.  They have not yet come to trust in God’s help without adopting a position of helplessness.  They do not yet know the difference between a real injustice to be exposed and an unfortunate circumstance to be deeply grieved and corrected if possible.  They do not yet know the importance of letting go of past bondage and moving forward in freedom and hope.
               But sometimes it’s not really about forgiving someone and instead a matter of not blaming them in the first place.  When another has wronged us, we can acknowledge that hurt and then forgive.  When we’ve erred, we can take responsibility and seek forgiveness.  But sometimes—it’s no one’s fault.  Not even God’s.  That may be the toughest thing of all--to move forward when we cannot assign clear blame for our plight.  Not even to God.

               Sure.  In some theological worlds, God is the direct cause of all events.  This god directs hurricanes to the specific cities that deserve them.  But in my theological world, Risk and Chance are required for Freedom and Life.  My thirstiness is no evidence that God’s love has ceased.

               That this is a complicated matter is evidenced by the fact that there’s a different version of this story in the book of Numbers (Numbers 20).  In that other version, the narrator criticizes Moses’s arrogant response to the people, using it to explain why Moses himself was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.  Never mind that maybe after 40 years in the desert the old guy just gave out.  But for us to feel secure, we need to feel we understand the connection between the causes and effects in our lives, so we create stories to explain, for instance, why this great leader, Moses, had to die before he could enter Canaan.   

               If the version of this story in Exodus focuses on the Israelite’s complaints, I don’t think it intends to minimize the suffering of those people.  At least one way to approach this story is to ask if there’s a better way to express frustrations and basic needs in the ways we commune with God and with others.  Better because it changes me in the process, moving me from whining to reflecting, from pouting to praying.  My prayer life changes when I can move from seeing prayer as a way to manipulate God to an understanding of prayer as centering myself in God and living out of that love.

               And yet . . . and yet the Bible is full of prayers that are as honest as a whine, and just that raw and piercing.  When all we can do is feel, the Psalmist shows us that it’s okay to wail and moan and even yell at God.  Jesus himself quoted the Psalmist on the cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  There was nothing else to say and certainly nothing else for him to do.  

               But most of the time we can thereafter move from prayer to action.  

               Which is why Dorinda is here today on behalf of our denomination.  Because the world is thirsty.  Quite literally.  World thirst is becoming the new world hunger.  Drinkable water is becoming the thing that separates the haves from the have nots.  The world’s children are not whining but crying for water that is free of cholera, that is near enough that their mothers don’t have to walk all day to find it and haul it back.  After we truly hear their plaintive voices, cries, screams . . . and deathly silences . . . there IS something we can do that is equivalent to Moses striking the rock and releasing a flow of saving water onto a parched people.   The United Church of Christ, for instance, helps us go beyond a sense that the world is tugging on our skirts and looking up at us with baleful eyes ( Our denomination hears those complaints and cries and then requests in clear language a specific way we can meet those needs.  The United Church of Christ, in conjunction with the work of other ecumenical partners and with people around the globe, tells us that our offerings to Our Church’s Wider Mission and our four Special Offerings this year (like the current Neighbors in Need offering ( are ways to “strike the rock.”  “Strike the rock,” Moses was told, and the people will have water.  “Strike the rock,” and we participate in the saving work of God.  “Strike the rock,” and we look to God in faith that our little effort will help.

               “Is the Lord among us or not?” the thirsty Israelite’s wondered.

               Hurting people around the world continue to ask that question.  We in our tough moments wonder the same.  

               Strike the rock.  Do something to produce or share literal water and what Jesus called “living water.”
               Strike the rock.

               We will know that God is among us.

PRAYER:  Living God, let us drink you in.  May we be able to say that you are indeed among us.  May you always go before us.  Amen

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don't Forget to Breathe

As a new congregation coming together from different church backgrounds, we sometimes use churchy words that can mean different things to different ones of us.  Prayer is one word we speak each and every week.  Prayer is something we do together each and every week.  On third Sundays like today we have a whole service dedicated to prayer.  But our prayer service is very different from the Wed. night “prayer meetings” I remember from my Southern Baptist childhood.  Maybe prayer has changed for you over the years, too.

For me, prayer is now more about being than doing, more about listening than talking.  As Richard Rohr says, “To pray is to live consciously inside of God. That's all. . . .  It is the still point of the turning world and creates a different kind of human being whose center is outside of himself or herself.  [This kind of prayer produces] people who are really free because they are free from themselves.”  (Radical Grace, July-September 2002).  How I need to be freer from myself:  my self-imposed need for other people to do what I think they need to do, my self-induced guilt or hyper-responsibility or anxiety.  How I need to—excuse the cliché—let go and let God.

For me, prayer is mainly a practice of paying attention to God, of cultivating compassion that unites me with others and with the unifying Source of love, of trusting something beyond myself.

For me, prayer is about God changing me, not me changing God.  Prayer, in other words, is not a means of manipulating God.  My assumption is that God IS love, that God already intends good for me and for all of creation.  God already is compassionate.  So I don’t need to convince God to be good to me and other creatures.  I simply have to rest in that love.  Where there is love and goodness and wholeness and life—there is God. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t pray very specifically for a friend who is sick and a neighbor who needs a job.  I do so for their benefit and mine—the act of prayer affecting the pray-er as much as the pray-ee.  But I don’t pretend to know all the ways our seemingly separate lives are interconnected in the web of creation.  I don’t pretend to understand how the power of love is manifested in this world.  I think Love’s power is stronger than we realize. 

Unfortunately, I have seen people stuck in an unhealthy model of prayer that makes them feel responsible for their own illnesses and misfortunes.  To believe that if you just pray hard enough or think positively enough, you will be healed is to trap you in a belief that God might not want to heal you or that it’s really all up to you.  Such a conclusion also equates healing with being cured (which is too narrow a meaning for healing).  And it blames the victim.  It says people who are not cured have not prayed enough, have not had faith enough.  I’ve seen people in crisis lose their faith because the magic God they’d prayed to did not come through.  I’ve seen others deny their honest feelings in order to defend the magic God.  I think the healthier response is to give up on the magic God and find a truer and more mysterious God who works in our world through the power of Love.  I have given up on the God who needs to be coaxed into goodness, who can be manipulated by my own strivings, a God I can control.  Prayer, for me, is willingness to relinquish my own reliance on power and control—in order to find peace and freedom in God’s love.

That’s the “what” of prayer—for me.  I appreciate that prayer for you might be very different.  Now here’s the “how” of prayer—which for me is both harder and simpler than I had thought.  Prayer now is harder—because prayer is a way of living that combines self-forgetfulness and self-understanding.  And it’s simpler—because prayer is as natural as breathing.

Did you know the very word for God in the Old Testament, usually translated as LORD, is itself a prayer?  There are other Hebrew words that are generic names for the word “god”—El Shaddai and Adonai--but for the specific God of the Israelites, the early writers of the Hebrew Bible used the word Yahweh.  But it was not a name to be spoken.  Indeed, in the Hebrew it is written without vowels so it is not really pronounceable.  But if you attempt to take those 4 consonants and turn them into a pronounceable word—you breathe life into those letters and the word becomes Yahweh.  Many believe that the Hebrew name for God was an attempt to imitate human breathing.  The first syllable is the intake of breath.  The second is the exhale.[i]  Try it.  Our very breathing is prayer.  We are born to call upon God’s name.  We cannot exist without this prayer.  The Spirit is always within and beyond us and as essential to us as air.

As Richard Rohr explains, the first word we spoke as we came out of our mother’s body is the name of God, and it’s the last word we’ll ever speak.  “Yahweh.”  We simply bring it to consciousness.  Another word in Hebrew that also sounds like what it means is ruah.  It means spirit and, as is the case in other languages, it also is the same word for breath and wind.  Creation began with God breathing human beings into being.  Jesus concluded his ministry after breathing the Spirit into the disciples. (Rohr.) This is how you and I can, as Paul instructed, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  We breathe.  This is the prayer to pray in the wee hours of the morning when troubles are keeping your exhausted mind astir.  This is the prayer that can turn off the brain and connect you to your body.  Let your breath bypass the mind and reconnect you to a larger life beyond your little self.

I’ve known for a long time the etymology of the word YHWH.  But I learned only recently the origin of the word “Allah."  Al in Arabic means what the word “el” means in Hebrew and Spanish: “the”—the definite article.  Adding a second “l” signifies in Arabic something that is the “ONLY” one of its kind.  So Allah is the very special one and only—what?  Following "all" is an apostrophe and just the sound of “h”  --which is the sound of a breath.  The Islamic word for god literally means the only–breath (Rohr).
God is that which literally surrounds us and enlivens us.  But it can’t be controlled or distributed as some religious authorities would like to do (Rohr).  No one controls the air.  No one religious group or authority owns God’s breath.  It is available to all.  It is invisible but essential and accessible to all.  Prayer is recognizing our free access to this divine spirit.  In a way, we can’t help but pray—from birth to death.  But we can become more aware of it, more aware of the holiness of all life.

If prayer is as wordless as breathing, why do we attach words to our prayers here?  Well, for one thing, we pay attention to life through language.  Though language can sometimes confine us, it also has a way of linking us to something beyond self.  And it is through liturgical prayer used by a community of faith that we remember prayer is always about connecting to others, getting outside our little self and joining with God in union with all.  This particular community of faith needs to share one another’s joys and concerns.  This community of faith needs to fashion a prayerful language together that helps us communicate our individual and corporate faith journeys.  This community of faith is centered in a worship life that exists not for the individual but for others because fundamentally prayer is personal but is never really private since it’s about uniting with others and with the Other.  Therefore, we speak to one another and we speak to a Reality that is beyond language but which we language-oriented beings know, in part, through words.  We speak words because speaking, like breathing, is a human thing to do.  

Speak you must.

But don’t forget to breathe.

[i] This section is based on a Oct. 2010 lecture by Richard Rohr at Drew University.  See parts 1 and 2 of this address at these 2 links:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Leaving No One Behind

Numbers 12:1-10, 15
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  And the Lord heard it.  Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.  Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.”  So the three of them came out.  Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward.  And he said, “Hear my words:  When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams.  Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house.  With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord.  Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”  And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.  When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow.  And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. . . . .  So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again.

            When last we left our biblical heroine, Miriam was dancing and singing and celebrating her people’s freedom.  I would like to end the story of Prophet Miriam in celebration, not disgrace, but there is one more episode to tell, a confusing and troubling one, found in Numbers, chapter 12.  Unfortunately, Miriam’s celebration and her honor were short-lived.  Egyptian captivity was over but finding a new home was forty years and many miles away.  Her worshiping community had many more challenges yet to face—including interpersonal challenges.  Finding the next home for our congregation has also had its challenges—and we hope in the exciting process of moving to another location, that we, too, will leave no one behind.
            Today’s story picks up as Miriam and Aaron criticize their brother Moses for marrying one of the Cushites.  Miriam and Aaron felt justified to speak against Moses because they understood that God has forbidden intermarriage and God had authorized them to speak prophetically.  Although there are other scriptures supporting Aaron and Miriam’s point about intermarriage, this story says that God took Moses’ side in this sibling squabble. 
            Imagine on this long journey that Daddy God has heard the fussing and fighting coming from the backseat.  “Don’t make me have to pull over and settle this myself,” he calls over his shoulder. But the children keep at it.  Instead of continuing their journey to a new home, God has to “pull over” and summon the three siblings to a family meeting.  Daddy God’s displeasure rises up like a cloud, maybe like a cloud of dust not yet settling from a car’s swift path on a dirt road.  He reprimands Aaron and Miriam for speaking against brother Moses.  Instantly, Miriam is afflicted with a skin condition that made her as white as snow.  God might just as well have sewn a scarlet T on her robe—for Tattle Tale—she was that clearly branded the Bad Girl.  Aaron, for some reason, was not so punished.  Moses, the winner of the dispute, suddenly feels sorry for Miriam and cries to God to heal his sister, though perhaps he objects because her punishment means the whole family will be affected by Miriam’s disgrace.  Daddy God explains that Miriam is grounded—but for seven days only.  She will be shut out of the happy circle of a dancing, singing family.  But after seven days she may return. In the meantime, everyone else stays put until Miriam can rejoin them once more.  They will not leave without her.
            What do we make of this final tale about Miriam?  Since Miriam and Aaron complained about their brother’s marriage outside their ethnic and religious community, is this a story that condemns prejudice? We oppose such prejudice, but does this text?   Perhaps, but as I just mentioned, the Bible in other places condemns intermarriage and therefore could seem to side with Miriam in this regard.  Well, maybe this story cautions against sibling rivalry or rivalry among leaders.  Perhaps, but why wasn’t Aaron, who also blamed Moses, punished as well?  The old double standard?  Maybe this story upholds religious hierarchy as it elevates some prophets over others.  Maybe it condemns uppity women.  Textual evidence shows later editing of earlier stories wanted to make that very point by lowering our opinion of the powerful Miriam lest her reputation eclipse that of Moses.[i]
            There are other possible interpretations.  Miriam may be seen as guilty of—or the victim of—a family problem, a social problem, or a leadership problem.  But today I want to read her story as a reminder that religious leaders can fail, lay leaders can disrupt the fellowship, pastors can make mistakes, people in the pews are imperfect. Yet here is a word of hope in this troubling part of Miriam’s story: the people did not march on ahead without Miriam until she could rejoin them.  Miriam was soon healed and incorporated back into the community.  No one was left behind after this period of conflict. A worshiping community will inevitably have interpersonal conflicts.  There may be moments when some folks—even leaders—need a “time out.”  But reconciliation is always our ultimate aim.  As our congregation makes decisions along our own wilderness journey toward an eventual church home, there will inevitably be times when some of us read a situation differently than others, when some of us read God’s direction differently than others. Certainly there are times when some will choose to leave Open Table, over small matters or large.  We want to be able to bless those people for their service with us to that point—and bless them in their future life elsewhere.  But our fundamental response and aim is reconciliation and a unity overarching our diversity.
            It’s significant that the confusing story of Miriam’s ostracism has many points of view.  It’s hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong.  Moses may have transmitted the Ten Commandments, but Miriam is the moralist here.  She was trying to uphold one of God’s laws as she understood it.  And Miriam was emboldened to use her own prophetic voice.  Shouldn’t God have sided with her?  After all, at the end of the story even Moses, the recipient of her moral indictment, took her part.  This story, like most, is more complicated that one person’s version.  Maybe Moses was wrong (in that culture) to marry outside his religion, but maybe Miriam was “wrong-er” to blame her brother.
            If we contrast this story of Miriam’s disgrace with last week’s story of Miriam’s acclaim, we get a clearer sense of at least one moral issue here. The primary difference that I see between Exodus 15 and Numbers 12 is that Miriam was proclaiming God’s greatness in the earlier event, and criticizing a brother in the later event.  Perhaps Miriam needed to focus on pointing to the things of God rather than pointing the finger of blame at her brother. I’ve found that whenever I’ve moved from speaking on behalf of goodness to speaking against a person—I’ve come to regret it.
            I wonder: is there a way that the prophetic Miriam, who truly believed Moses had seriously erred, could have maintained her moral position without attacking her brother?  As you and I witness injustice in this world, are there ways we can stand for justice without naming others as enemies?  Some social justice-oriented individuals and churches can let righteous indignation send them charging into situations that might be more morally complex than first assumed.  Father Richard Rohr’s call to nondualistic thinking rings true for me here.  We can work for justice without vilifying those with whom we vehemently disagree. 
            I love the passion that fuels our congregational discussions about our calling in this world.  May God continue to make each of us a prophet who attests to that which is good and just and decries all that diminishes the full humanity of any other person.  Let’s not be tepid in our convictions.  But Miriam’s story tells us that even when we as a congregation might own the moral high ground, it’s still important to be in right relationship with others.
            Let me confess now, new church, that the responsibility of pastoral leadership weighs heavily upon me at times—as well it should.  When I consider the responsibility we all bear in ministering to folks who’ve been disillusioned and even harmed by other churches, claiming as we do that our expression of church will be welcoming and affirming of all--I tremble with awareness that despite our best intentions, great harm can still be done to God’s children by God’s church.  It doesn’t take much to reopen old wounds.  God help us.  What makes us think we can dabble with such potentially explosive spiritual chemistry?  How dare we, like Miriam, presume to know the mind of God?  Can we lead out with conviction and commitment—but tempered by compassion?  Who do we think we are?
            We are church.  We are human.  We will inevitably make mistakes.  Of course, there are some missteps that clergy can make from which they cannot and should not come back.  But for the most part here at Open Table, you and I can express our sincere regrets, learn from our errors, and reconnect with that singing and dancing and forgiving circle of fellowship that always opens up for us. We don’t have to walk on eggshells, but we do want to bear in  mind what a fine line we walk when we speak for God’s justice and try to love ALL God’s children. 
            Miriam was a dynamic spiritual leader--and as flawed as the rest of us.  When in error, she humbly accepted the forgiveness of God and the people of God.  But before she ever imagined gaining her voice to lead worship or challenge Moses’s authority, she was just a quiet presence caring for her baby brother, a girl who was told to wait and watch and not really do or say anything.
            Let’s return to that theme we sounded two weeks ago with a closing story.  Because a major role we play for one another is to BE with those who have been wounded and to listen to their stories.  No need to judge the moral high ground.  Just standing beside another is enough. 
            In a short story by Kathleen Hill, the narrator is a 7th grade girl in awe of her wise and compassionate music teacher, Miss Hughes.  This young narrator has also, during that year, befriended Norman, the school loner, an odd new boy in town who lived with his reclusive father.  When the narrator and the rest of her class return to school after the Thanksgiving break, they learn that Norman’s father had committed suicide during the holiday.  The students enter their classroom the next Monday to see Norman already sitting in his usual place in the back row, staring straight ahead.  Miss Hughes for a time tries to conduct the music class as usual.  But soon her gaze rests upon Norman’s lowered head.  So she decides not to move on with the class without attending to him.  “Is there anything we can DO for you, Norman?” she asks at last.
            There is silence.  The snow begins falling outside the classroom window and the narrator imagines the snow beginning to cover the grave of Norman’s father. 
            Miss Hughes continues.  “Because we would like you to know that you are sitting in the company of friends.” 
            Miss Hughes then turns her eyes from Norman to the others.  For long moments she broods over the class as before she had brooded over Norman.  Then she speaks: “We cannot see into the mysteries of another person’s life, dear boys and girls.  We have no way of knowing what deaths a soul has sustained before the final one.  It is for this reason that we must never presume to judge or to speak in careless ways about lives of which we understand nothing.  I tell you this so that you may not forget it.  We may honor many things in life.  But for someone else’s sorrow, we must reserve our deepest bow.” 
            The music teacher then plays a recording of Mozart’s Requiem.  When the record spins to its end, when there is nothing more to listen for, the class files out of the room in silence.  But as the narrator leaves, she looks back to see Miss Hughes still standing at attention before the phonograph, her hands clasped together in front of her.  Norman has not moved; his face is hidden in his arms.  Already shadows are falling, over Miss Hughes’ face; over Norman bowed at his desk.  The story ends with this image:  of Miss Hughes simply standing watch over a hurting child.[ii]
            In our ministries, you and I are sometimes called simply to bow to the grief of another, to stand watch as God’s sentry among a people with regrets or wounds, to refuse to leave another behind in their aloneness and hurt.  Sometimes we offer up a spiritual kind of music that might express hurts—hurts of an entire nation nursing again 10-year-old wounds with no adequate words for what happened then and what continues to unfold on this violent planet.  So we gather “in the company of friends” as Miss Hughes put it.  We bow to the sorrows of others.  We keep the circle open for reconciliation—between individuals, between nations.  We stand for God’s justice.  But mainly in our daily life we stand alongside those who need a sister or a friend more than they need a prophet.  The Good News of God’s reconciling work in the world is that this is a ministry for all of us—to all of us.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Bellis, Alice Ogden.  Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisvile: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.  See “The Women in Exodus and Numbers,” 101-106, for various interpretations of Miriam’s role and especially for evidences of patriarchal editing of the Miriam tradition into a diminished role.
[ii] You may read the entire version of Kathleen Hill’s “The Anointed” at  My summary of the conclusion does no justice to one of the Best Short Stories of 2000.  Thanks to friend and former colleague Annette Sisson for sharing this beautiful work of fiction with me some years ago.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Shall We Dance?"

Exodus 15: 19-23
When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.  Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Shall We Dance?

           Last Sunday we discovered young Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, waiting silently among the river reeds, a compassionate presence.  Today we meet the adult Miriam on the other side of the Reed Sea, a very vocal leader among the liberated people.  All those chapters and years later, Miriam’s ministry of presence has morphed into a ministry of prophecy.  Her infant brother has grown into the hero of the Hebrew people, has famously parted the Red/Reed Sea to lead his people safely across as Pharaoh’s chariots pursued.  But it is Miriam’s song that punctuates the celebration after their dramatic exodus.  Moses led the escape; Miriam led the worship that followed. 
            Because Miriam is called “the prophet Miriam” in this passage, the text assumes she had been prophesying for some time when this episode occurs and thus had already been known by this title.  Remember that biblical prophets were not fortune tellers but pronouncers of truth, indictors of injustice, guides to paths of righteousness and liberation.  Perhaps while Moses negotiated with Pharaoh, Miriam was preparing the people for the journey they would be making toward freedom.  Perhaps as Moses was herding the Israelites out of town, Miriam had been voicing encouragement.  Interestingly, she apparently danced and sang this particular sermon—and maybe all sermons would survive for thousands of years if they were as brief and poetic.
            According to today’s story, Miriam found her voice.  But according to some biblical scholars, her voice was later muted and nearly extinguished by biblical redactors.  However, scholars believe her story was too beloved to be completely eradicated by patriarchy.  Miriam’s brief song is one of the oldest passages of the Hebrew Bible and so verses 20-21 are thought to be the original core of this episode.  You’ll notice that the first part of chapter 15 attributes these same words to Moses.  Then in verse 20, Miriam and the women seem to repeat Moses’s words. Likely the later writers attributed her words to Moses to minimize the women’s role and to elevate the figure of Moses.  But a vestige of the Miriam cult remains in this story. Why does this history of the Bible’s construction matter?  It matters when biblical literalists offer unexamined details to silence some people and elevate others.  It matters. 
            As we look at this particular sermon sung and danced by Miriam, let’s not appropriate one snippet of poetry as a blueprint for our worship life all these centuries later.  But perhaps this ancient verse can springboard us into our own reflections on the life of this worshiping community.  I’ll share some of my thoughts now and invite yours during Sermon Talk Back.  The worship wars of the last few decades prove there are very fiercely held opinions on the features and purposes of Christian worship.  Much of what we prefer in worship is obviously rooted in our personal histories and psychologies.  We’ll move into this topic with openness, gentleness, and a hope that Open Table, with its beautiful diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, can always maintain what W. Paul Jones calls “internal ecumenism” (32).[i]
            Through Miriam we can explore worship as a response to God’s activity through an embodied and artful spirituality.  Miriam’s dance just may teach us about the choreography of our own worship life.
            One function of worship is to name the Spirit’s past and present activity in the world. We come together to point to that which is of God (That Which Is Loving and Life-giving).  Miriam sings because her people have been saved from slavery and death.  Imagine the emotions surging through a people who narrowly escaped the pursuing charioteers, emotions rushing through them like the rushing waters of the Sea!  Imagine how Miriam quickly took advantage of that surge of feeling to point the people to the work of God in their midst.  Imagine how she channeled those powerful emotions into a ritual of worship and led the other women in dance!  Imagine all that astonishment and relief and thanksgiving flowing out in song and movement.  Imagine Miriam taking up her tambourine to proclaim: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!”
            As worshipers, you and I must sing and dance--at least figuratively.  Even if we are tone deaf and graceless, well, we praise if not with music, then in our hearts.  Worship allows us to match our liturgical movement to God’s movement in something like a dance.  Be assured, you won’t catch me dancing out any sermon.  But there’s a rhythm or pattern to worship that is dance-like:  the liturgical year, with its major movements in the advent/Christmas and lent/Easter cycle, repeat Christian themes predictably, so that all may participate.  There’s a dance in the pattern of our worship elements that we repeat each week as we move from a call to worship through songs and prayers and sermons to the benediction.  Like music and dance, worship requires a predictability so there’s a familiar, repeatable pattern, and yet a certain variety or unpredictability so there’s interest and expressiveness and freshness. 
            Like the women Miriam led in song, you have come together today and perhaps you feel your own troubles chasing you like menacing charioteers to the very edge of this sanctuary. You have come here perhaps to find some respite from all that is pursuing you.  It is in worship that we give authentic expression to our thanksgiving—and to our pain.  Here we can recall the ways we ourselves have likewise escaped perils, large and small.
            But I hope we are a little troubled by this particular song of Miriam.  I hope we would feel free to refuse to join the chorus when she gloats over so many deaths. I hope we would be grateful for our lives without rejoicing over others’ deaths, even the deaths of the oppressors.
            And I’ll go further to express some reservations about imitating her unthinkingly. And here I may step on some toes during my own sermonic dance.
            The very words praise and worship are troubling to some folks.  And I get that.  I, too, am wary of God Talk when it is glib. I am a little uncomfortable when folks spout “Praise the Lord!” as if it means “God has bent the universe in MY direction!” or as if they think the Source of Life and Love really demands our admiration or approval.  I agree with the Prophet Isaiah who understands God as spurning the fawning devotion of temple worshipers and commends instead those who “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).  Although deserving of our love and gratitude, God is surely not a power-hungry potentate who wants obeisance.  So much of praise music is theologically problematic for me and others who can’t think of God as a king demanding veneration, who can’t celebrate Jesus’ death as if God demanded a bloody sacrifice.  The favorite hymns of some are deeply troubling for others.  To those for whom worship connotes a posture of groveling, to those for whom praise words ring phony, I say that I have been able to find my own posture in the presence of the Sacred.  I think you can, too.  Maybe thankfulness, a cousin to praise,  is closer to what you hold in your heart as you walk this earth.  Maybe love.  Maybe dumbstruck awe at all the beauty and terror.  Maybe we as a congregation can find a different word for worship.  Call it what you will.
            But worship we must.  Because at its root meaning, worship is the practice of evaluating what is worthy of our lives.  To worship is to recognize what has worth in your life.  To worship, in its deepest sense, is to respond to “the Eternal Reality” (Evelyn Underhill)—and what human creature does not need to worship in that sense?     
            Finally, Miriam helps us explore the question of worship styles.  With her artistic and emotive praise, Prophet Miriam reminds us that worship is not simply an intellectual evaluation of what is important in our lives.  Worship is an integrated experience of body, mind, spirit rooted in an embodied spirituality.  Worship includes but goes beyond the intellect.  That is why the weekly feast at the Open Table is so important to us.  It allows us to experience the Sacred through bodily participation in Holy Communion, just as Miriam’s congregation experienced the Holy through physical song and dance.  Our bodies and spirits are often "understand" before our heads are engaged.  I love the way Miriam found expression for her joy!  This is a place where we can give authentic expression to our feelings.  Here are a people with whom you can share your heart.  We are not afraid to laugh and to cry together.  We are fully human here.
            And yet we must be cautious about sheer emotionalism that passes for religion.  There’s too much of that kind of religion.  It smacks of manipulation and superficiality and phoniness and frenzy that borders on abuse.  We will not prey upon fragile souls.  Even as we value the expression of our joy or anguish or repentance or grief—we should be careful never to manufacture emotion. 
            Here’s a cautionary tale that I share with my husband’s permission.  When George was in 5th grade, he was a French horn player in his middle school band.  He remembers the band performing for a school assembly at the end of the school year.  At the assembly’s close, the charismatic band director invited the rising fifth graders to come forward if interested in band for the next year—as the band played its final song.  So the band kept playing.  And from the bleachers of the gym, 4th graders began streaming down to the gym floor, eager to sign up for band.
            To appreciate what happened next you need to know that George grew up as a Baptist preacher’s kid, and he had probably attended more than his share of revivals by then—and heard more than his share of altar calls or “invitation hymns.”   Maybe George detected a familiar tremulous quality in the band director’s ardent invitation to “come forward.”  Maybe the music was particularly moving.  Maybe there was an unusual earnestness about the way his cohorts began moving toward the front.  But George admits that as he watched those peers walking forward, emotions began welling up in him—and he started to cry—so happy was he that they were making this decision.
            I’m sure he checked that tear just as quickly as he could.  Probably no one noticed.  But HE had.  And even as 5th grader, George knew that his Pavlovian response did not match the situation.  George recognized in that moment that he had been somewhat programmed by similar stimuli in church to respond emotionally—even when there was no worshipful context or content.  He would, thereafter, be wary of group emotionalism.
            Too many times people’s emotions have been manipulated by religious leaders as a substitute for sound theology.  Too easily something like mass hysteria can overcome a group.  We always want to engage our heads and hearts in worship.   The Good News is Good News—and no prompting but that of the Spirit is needed to express that Good News.  Certainly Miriam’s response was genuine.
            I recommend we focus on a sound theology of worship and not a particular worship style.  Stylistic questions are secondary to theological ones.  There is no single style of music or preaching that is best; there is no one pattern of worship that honors God.  Drawing an analogy from my former life as a writing teacher, I observe that good writers start with the question of WHAT to say and then decide HOW to say it—not the other way around. 
            Of course, worship is a communal experience we create collaboratively, and so it requires give and take.  Worship must be at the heart of our life together, and as a new church we need some time for experimentation and conversation about this central piece of our communal life.  What I can promise you is this:  I will welcome your thoughts and suggestions about our worship life.  I will strive for variety in our worship experiences.  And I will try to make our worship language and practices expansive enough to include and nourish a theologically diverse congregation while still maintaining my own theological integrity.  We are just beginning our worship dance together.  We’ll need some time to practice our steps, to synchronize our rhythms, to move together with grace and beauty.  I’m so thankful for dance partners like you.

Ever present God, may we recall your saving work in our lives.  Let us, like Miriam, attribute that mercy to you.  May our gratitude be genuine.  May our dance together be full of grace.  We pray in the name of Jesus, with whom we try to match our movements.  Amen

[i] Jones, W. Paul.  Worlds With a Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.