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Hidden Glory: Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

“[Moses] called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'” “Massah,” it’s said, means ‘testing.’ And “Meribah,” likewise means ‘contention.’ Good descriptions of what’s going on out in the desert.

Last week there was a suggestion of some homework: to try to notice and keep track of our complaining (hoping that we’d at least make it till 11:15). But, as I said then, not to guilt or shame ourselves; but simply to become aware of our human tendency to complain. And to see if, instead of spreading our complaints unhealthily, if we might do something productive with them. (Like working toward change, or turning our complaints into a prayer. If you follow it up with an “amen,” then it’s become a prayer; an honest communication to God.)

Here in the Book of Exodus we haven’t missed much since last week. The story talks a bit more about the miracle of this heavenly bread (manna) that they discover every morning, saving them from hunger and starvation. There’s even a double portion of manna on Fridays, so that they can collect extra for their day of rest on the Sabbath. (Kind of remarkable, when you think of it, that they’re out in the desert with nothing but sand in every direction, stuck there for 40 years, and yet they still know when it’s the weekend.)

This bread-like substance, we learn, “was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” They are also into canning, like lots of people are this time of year. They preserve some of this bread for future generations to see. “The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”

How amazing it is, that God brings them out of slavery in Egypt, and feeds them each day, with this heavenly food. But back to our homework assignment, it would seem that just as soon as they get used to the bread, the complaints start up: “WE’RE THIRSTY!” And the anxiety leads to finger-pointing: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

The third cycle of complaints is relegated to the status of rabbinical legend, and has not been preserved in the canon of holy scripture. But it’s said that after the manna, and after the water, the crowds complained again: “WHAT’S FOR DESSERT?! What, there’s no cheesecake out here? Are you trying to kill us?!”

The stubbornness of the crowds is remarkable. But it’s also understandable. Yes, they’re scared, in a harsh climate. And much more simply, most people can go a fairly long time without food, and still be fine. But you can’t go long without water. Or think of how not long after having something like popcorn, or granola, you end up coughing on little pieces, if you don’t wash it down with a drink.

And, like last week, the perhaps hidden presence of God is revealed, along with God’s forbearance and generosity. In some sort of ritualized action involving the elders of Israel — for rituals are important for forming and comforting individuals and communities — and they’re given water from the rock.

Then thousands of years later, testing and contention (and the elders of Israel) are at play in the gospel reading. If we were to place this reading through the lens of our church calendar, this is a Holy Week reading. Jesus is not far from the cross… where we’ll see the possible results of threatened, anxious, complaining crowds. Right before this story, Jesus has had his (what we’d call) Palm Sunday triumphal entry into the city. He’s led a demonstration in the Temple. He’s healed the sick, and people have responded; specifically, we read, children praise him. Then there’s the curious story of the cursing of the fig tree; finding no fruit on it, he condemns it, and it withers.

And that’s where the testing and contention picks up: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things [parading in, criticising our practices, healing people, receiving adoration, working wonders], and who gave you this authority?'” And that’s an ongoing and sometimes important sort of question in our own day, in different contexts: where was someone trained? who made them an expert? what institution do they represent, or what one stands by their claims? who can we trust?

I read this week — and feel free to double check at your leisure — that someone once estimated that Jesus asked 307 questions, was asked 183 questions by other people, and gave direct answers to only three of them.* Often these questions have an edge; they’re critiques, meant to cut him down. We hear it elsewhere: ‘isn’t this the carpenter’s son? We know his mother, and his siblings…’

The underlying question here seems, to me, to be ‘what does holiness look like? How will we recognize righteousness? (Good, godly living.) The chief priests and elders felt confident that through their heritage and way of life, they were on the side of holiness, and righteousness. And when one is so secure in their own rightness and righteousness, there’s a tendency to become a sort of bouncer for the Kingdom of God; letting some people in, and some people out, based on their behaviour, or reputation, or status. These are the older siblings, says Jesus, by way of story. They look good, and stand proud. But their pride gets in the way of them actually doing the work. Of actually bearing fruit. And holiness, or righteousness, being something that’s sometimes a hidden, inner quality, there’s the second sibling. Who doesn’t look like much at first glance. They don’t impress. They don’t step forward to volunteer to do the work. But, somehow, by the end of the day, it’s that more wayward kid who actually does accomplish something good, and meaningful for the family. And likewise in Jesus’s day, and in ours, there are these undervalued, maybe imperfect and difficult-to-deal-with children, who in some way have a special connection to God’s heart, and God’s ways. In his own situation Jesus points to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The people the elders had written off. But in some way they are closer to holiness and righteousness. If even because they are more honest at looking at their situation, and realizing that things are amiss. This honesty and humility that the elders lack is the doorway to recognizing people like John the Baptist and Jesus, who are inviting people to a life that’s more attuned to the ways of God, and the sometimes veiled but very real presence of God.

“‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory.’ Not all who saw Jesus saw the glory, but only those with faith to discern it. From the rest it was hidden.”** To that question, again: what does holiness look like? The answer, for us, is that it looks like Jesus. Including, the love that goes so far that, rather than lash out, it goes to the cross. That is one of the main messages of Paul. And today we heard him quoting what was probably an early creed, or poem, or hymn from the Christian tradition. Older than the written gospels and older than his letters.

If we are wondering how we should relate to one another, start by emulating Jesus,
“who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.”

It’s this hidden glory, hidden holiness, hidden righteousness that the comfortable, proud elders were not able to make sense of. This promised messiah who seems to check some of the expected boxes, but who also doesn’t quite fit. This is the mystery that has been commended to us: that the God who brought people from slavery into freedom through amazing signs and wonders, is there, bringing people to freedom in the life, death, and transformed life of Jesus. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we have beheld his glory.” Many, especially these days, are not able to recognize that glory. But that insight, that experience of holiness is what has been passed down and commended to us. Through baptism and eucharist that holiness comes to us in ways that we can see and feel. And in both baptism and in our practice of sharing communion, we commit to recognizing and serving Christ in our neighbour.

So our homework this week is not to be attentive to our complaints, as it was last week. But to be attentive to others, and to the world around us. To recognize the glory and the presence of God in the world around us. And let that be the source of your thanksgivings next weekend.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Marshall Jolly, via
** Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 84.