Sermon: “Quench the Thirst of Your Neighbor”
October 1, 2017
God, may the words on my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, our rock and our redeemer.
Exodus 17:1-7 is an incredibly dramatic story. It comes right at the heels of the Exodus story we all know, the parting of the Red Sea. God claims the Israelites as his own and performs this dramatic act of claiming and salvation, leading the people out of Egypt and away from slavery. Moses sings this dramatic song of praise to the most high Lord:
Terror and dread fell upon them;
By the might of your arm,
They became still as a stone.
Until your people, O Lord, passed by,
Until the people who you acquired passed by.
You brought them in and planted
Them on the mountain of your own possession
The place, O Lord, that you made your abode,
The sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established
The Lord will reign forever and ever.
The Lord will reign forever and ever. Yes, but there is one problem. God led the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness of Sin. And very quickly it’s as though God forgot about the people for they had nothing to eat or drink. The people are depicted as quarreling with the Lord, but think of how desperate the Israelites must have been in order to prefer slavery to their current thirst! God, we are thirsty, parched! We are thirsty for water! God, we are thirsty for your promise that life is good and stable and nourishing! God, respond to us! Don’t neglect us!
And poor Moses—he is truly the messenger that is getting shot. Afraid, Moses retorts back at the people—“why do quarrel with me? And seriously, why the heck are you testing God?” But the people don’t relent, and even more afraid, Moses goes to God, “What do I do? They are about to stone me! Help me!”
This text is a desperate one. It is a story of profound need—the Israelites who were coming from nothing are now languishing in the desert. And Moses, who is just one man, is tasked with leading them to a promise that no one is completely sure exists. They are relying on a promise—a promise of milk and honey, a promise of being claimed and loved by God, a promise of continued salvation. But meanwhile they starve. Meanwhile their thirst cannot be quenched. Their bodily reality overcomes their faith in the goodness of God, and in my opinion, understandably so.
This story in Exodus is unfortunately relatable to today. The question of hungry and thirsty bodies is a real one worldwide. We all know how in recent weeks that Hurricane Maria left the entire nation of Puerto Rico without electricity, without homes, without clean water, without reliable access to food. Droughts in Somalia and Yemen and Nigeria are leaving entire regions without even the water to sustain their plants and animals, and the hunger crisis is dire. All of this is on top of an already impoverished world, in which millions and millions of people suffer from long-term hunger due to unimaginable poverty. Children languish from disease and malnourishment in numbers that would anguish any soul who contemplates it. The world today is full of the suffering, crying out to God in literal hunger and thirst.
We are told, especially on a day like World Communion Sunday that Christ’s sacrifice and love nourishes us all, fills us until we are full, for each and every person on the planet. This is the promise in Christianity. When we take communion, this is the promise we receive. Yet in the context of such mass physical suffering, it’s a difficult promise to celebrate without some tension in our hearts. I know that World Communion Sunday is often about celebrating our unity in Christ across cultures, recognizing and lifting up the Christians around the world and the faith that binds us together. I know that it’s supposed to be a day to feel joy for our global community.
Friends—from a place in my own heart, the celebration is dampened by the real struggles facing us and our fellow sojourners across the world. It’s been a tough year, as I’m sure you have felt as well. Fearsome natural disasters, the threat of nuclear war, domestic tensions at an all-time high, and a political system in upheaval. It’s quite frankly a somber time. Surely the question we have before us on this World Communion Sunday is “how do we be in communion with the world?” How do we feed the world and quench its thirst? How can we make the act of communion, the Eucharist, come alive in ways that have real, physical impacts? How does Christ connect us, not only in spirit, but in body? Let us take a moment to recognize the sobering reality of our world and the people that are most calling out to your heart.
Friends, I am sure that I have no answers for the world’s problems, but I would like to tell a story that happened just recently that spoke to my heart in a new way. Joe and I were on a road trip just two weeks ago, and I was explaining to him that despite my neighborhood growing up being an upper-middle class, quiet, suburban, Midwestern neighborhood, there was a surprising amount of scandal and tragedy within it. One family in particular, just kitty-corner from my family’s house, experienced great tragedy. The couple had two children. Their daughter and eldest child was physically and intellectually disabled, and when I was in my pre-teens or so, she choked on a carrot and died. Now the couple had a son as well, and he entered high school a few years after I left for college. I think their son was a junior in high school when he got in an ATV accident and died. Two children, their only children, both lost to accidents.
As I told Joe this, he asked, “Well, did the neighborhood comfort them and bring them meals?” I said, “Hm, I don’t know. At least my family didn’t, but I don’t think others did either.” And Joe, surprised exclaimed, “Why not?? In the South, that would never happen! If someone goes through something like that, the whole neighborhood would come over to help!”
And in that moment, I realized something. I—and my family—had failed our neighbors. They experienced one of the worst things people can ever go through—the death of a child. And my family and I failed to comfort them in moments of terrible grief. In fact, I realized I’m not sure I even know the names of the couple. They have been my neighbors for 23 years, and I don’t even know their names. I see myself as someone who is decently worldly. I read the news, I’m college educated, I’ve traveled to countries outside of the US, and I fret in my heart when tragedy strikes across the globe. But I failed to comfort my neighbors, literally feed my neighbors, or even know their names in their time of profound grief. And I ask, how can I be a global citizen if I can’t even be a caring neighbor?
So, what does it mean on World Communion Sunday to be in communion with the world? Surely there is no one answer, but today I’d like to suggest the paradoxical idea that we commune with the world by caring for our neighbors nearby. It is easy to love humanity in the abstract, and yet hard to love the person next door. It is easy to feel concerned for people starving across the globe and yet so easy to feel disdain for the people begging on the streets of our own city. Truly, our world gets better by each of us reaching out to the people around us, offering support, kindness, generosity, and yes, even food.
Jesus said I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing. Jesus wasn’t talking in the abstract. Christian love, according to Jesus, is performed in the tangible actions we can make right now—by caring for others in need. To be a good neighbor is to share the promise of Christ.
Think globally, act locally has become a little bit of a cliché, but one I think Jesus could get down with. Especially in an ever-connected world, we ought to keep our eye on all the people of the world. We ought to celebrate our diversity, to care for our global neighbors, and to welcome those who are different than us into our homes and hearts. But we must never become so focused on the world that we forget the people within arm’s reach who still need our attention and love. To feed each other, to quench each other’s thirst, to be in community, requires our physical presence and our real-time action. It requires being face-to-face and lending our hands and our feet to the caring of others. It requires that we act locally.
An emphasis on acting locally is not to distract from the gravity of what’s happening in the world. Yes, read the news and know what’s happening. Yes, educate yourself about cultures around the world. Yes, work to change the systems that oppress people in the first place. Yes, vote for politicians that have responsible and compassionate foreign policy. Yes, pray for people around the world who are suffering. Yes, donate to worthy causes, and please consider helping the people of Puerto Rico. Do all of these things. And while you are doing those things, don’t forget your neighbor, who may also be in need. You and I do not have the power to solve world hunger, but we do have the power to feed our neighbors.
World Communion Sunday is a day to celebrate our unity in Christ with our global neighbors. But it’s not merely a day to bask in the wonder of that unity. World Communion Sunday should be a call to action--because it’s our unity in Christ that calls us to be as Christ would have us, as servants to our neighbors. To be like Christ is to feed the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless, and to comfort the afflicted. You can make the difference in others’ lives today, right here in this community. And in doing so, truly you are communion with this world, by showing your investment in it and your care for it.
Fortunately, we are part of a congregation in which many of us take this call seriously. Think of the times we have had meals for families living in temporary housing. Think of the CROP walk coming up. Think of organizations like Can-Do, to which our church has close connections. There is an abundance of ways to get involved right here through our church. What a blessing that is!
When you take communion today, remember our fellow Christians around the world and all the people who are not Christians but are still loved and saved by God. And when you take communion, remember the promise Christ made for you—that you will be made full with his abundance. Even more than all of that, friends, when you take communion, receive it as a call to action, to take care of your neighbors and your community, because as more and more of us take up this call, slowly our world will become a better place. Amen.