World Communion Sunday
Sermon: The Veil Exodus 17:1-7
In the 1930s, a unit of the Sinai Camel Corps (which you see in the picture on the screen) stumbled into a seemingly long dried-out wadi bed, (without need of any further explanation, right), a very long, dry stretch of ground. With this picture, you can imagine an overlapping image of the Israelites, with Moses, in a desolate place – most likely, in the same desert, parched with thirst. The soldiers and their camels were also thirsty until a Bedouin, who was attached to this unit, came forward and wielded a spade, shattering the weathered, crusted-over limestone. What followed was beauty – the crack he opened spewed forth a small geyser, to the astonishment of the British. Bystanders cried out, “Look at him! The prophet Moses!”
Where does the beauty lie? Not in the evocative act, but with the Bedouin’s knowledge of the land, and, more strikingly, the beauty of the water, the “small geyser”, that spewed forth in a most unlikely place.
When we read today’s story, we may not always realize it, but we are quite well-trained to see where and on whom we focus to understand the story. Who and what are the active agents in this story? God? The people? Moses? In today’s story, it seems that Moses is the most dynamic agent. He is the mediator – mediating the conflicts between God and the Israelites. The Israelites accuse Moses and God, challenging, “We have followed your leadership, Moses, believed in you, because we believed that God was leading you and us, but now it seems to us that it is doubtful. Maybe the thing you called us out to – the promised land – doesn’t even exist.”
They want proof, (that’s the meaning of the name of the place, Massah), they want a test. Yes, they are thirsty. They are undergoing physical, painful thirst. Yet their deepest thirst may be not the physical one. They want to have an issue resolved. They thirst to know “Is the Lord among us, or not?” Because more dreadful than the temporary, physical thirst, may be not knowing where they are – their direction – faced with the issue of life and death, … in other words, they are questioning the future. Is their future life or death? We can certainly relate to this question. The future matters! The future of the local church, the future of the United Church of Canada, the future of our lives, the future of our children, the future of reconciliation, the future of … You name it. If the future means arrival, as one end of the story, with the other end being departure, we certainly want proof, proof of the future, proof that we have this map, and we will get there – the future as a reachable place, a reachable time, a reachable goal.
The tension intensifies until people see the water gushing out from the rock, from that old, weathered, crusted-over limestone. And there, they learn, the water, as the “deep and hidden thing”, the water has always been flowing, wasand is flowing, and will flow under the ground on which they travel. The water knows no arrival, no departure; it is always present. The wide, wild, dried-out desert ground was only the illusion or the veil that needed to be pierced in order to see past the surface to what is beneath. People are amazed by the “animate, proud and productive waters” flowing under
the ground which quietly and radically sustains and preserves life, even in a desert.
The beauty essential to today’s story is really water, because here water becomes a place where people quench their thirst and begin to understand that the future is not so much about ‘arrival’; it is about imagination, creation, and prophesy, when we are confronted by the issue of life and death, when we are challenged by our call to make a just and sustainable future, toward, “life togetherness.”
I would like to stress here that one powerful leader’s mediation is not enough. Moses, or any single leader, is not the one who makes the future – the future opens when multiple voices – a voice for ecology, a voice for economics, a voice for race, a voice for gender, a voice for sexuality, … your prophetic voice… – all come flooding up like a geyser to wet the heat-scorched, soul-parched place.
Today we celebrate World Communion; we are standing at the water as the prophetic place to witness unveiling, or revealing. Unveiling the real divide between churches, across theology, denominations, political policy. Unveiling the urgent calls for solidarity coming from the churches of the world, especially for those whom justice-seeking and hope are the real life-and-death issues: one example:
When I attended an event at Thunderbird House in 2015, The Rev. Mark MacDonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, reflected on the Veil of Death (Isaiah 25). It was powerful, memorable.
On this mountain God will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food and superb wines,
delicious, rich food and superb, elegant wines.
On this mountain God will destroy
the veil which covers the face of all peoples,
the veil enshrouding all the nations.
God will swallow up death forever.
God will wipe away the tears from every face,
and God will remove from all the earth
the disgrace God’s people suffer. God has spoken.
MacDonald said, “The heart of the problem relating to each other is not just physical death. How we misperceive each other can cause the ‘death’ of the other people, of someone else’s humanity.” The “veil of death” is the way in which people see the humanity in other people – diminished. Crushed. He said we all are mass-hypnotized by ways of thinking of indigenous people – as primitive, at an earlier stage of development – not like us, and “If they are given enough training, education, good stuff, they will become like us.” We become hypnotized into thinking this way. When the indigenous congregation went to a church conference held in Toronto, they were appalled when somebody in leadership came to them and said, “We will have to show you what to do.”
The issue that often, very often, and crucially and destructively what many racialized, black, indigenous, queer people have to deal with routinely even here in Canada is to create, to build a coalition to make a future together where they are no longer to be treated less than human, where their identity is to be perceived just as what it is (they would say, if we say “what truly is” it is limiting, because their identity, their race, their culture is always and inherently a strength, a powerful deep thing.) Stan MacKay was present at Thunderbird House too, and he added,
“Yes, we all need to throw away the veil of death.” when, even in church, even in communion, even though the indigenous sisters, brothers and two-spirits are baptized Christians, the church still see them/us as the Other.
In Second Corinthians, Paul speaks about a “Spiritual battle”, and it is not between the mind and the body. To battle spiritually is to fight our imagination – how we think, what we perceive, why we dream.
World Communion or communion is Massah, Meribah (the names of the place that today’s story records. Massah/Meribah means dispute, test, proof. “Is the Lord in our midst, or not?”) People put things to the test, demand proof, issue disputes. And remember how God responds? God answers, physically, intimately, incarnationally – in a carnal, corporeal, fleshly way – by becoming water. Drink Me! God is the small geyser, the astonishing water gushing from the small opening. Communion is an event to imagine, an event to participate in, an event to see the deep and hidden thing flow, flood in, pour into our heart, coming from the Other, an offering.
Here… and now, let us see each other… Take one minute, in silence, in a carnal, corporeal, fleshly way! Yes! Literally! Look at each other – the person next to you – in the eyes! For one minute! Try to really see that other person – but don’t have a staring contest. We see here, each other, is also the small geyser, also communion, an opening into a miracle below the surface. We need to remove what restricts us from truly encountering the divine in each other – because we can only know the world through a person, and we can only know a person through her/his world. Race is a world. Gender is a world. Sexuality is a world. Class is a world. Poverty is a world. Immigration is a world. The act of seeing the Other past the surface is beauty! Water that quenches the parched, justice seeking, soul-searching world calls you, you who can see the beauty! Because our longing to be known, our longing to be acknowledged, our longing for intimacy is deep and radical, and friends, it is time for worship, it is time for communion.