Following the Staff
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 21:23-27, Secrets of Heaven #8554 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/t6kmSOzFu9w
There is nothing easy about extended trips with lots of people! How many of us have hurled this command towards the back seat of a car: “you stop fighting or I’m stopping this car right now!” We might well resonate with Moses’ frustrated cry: What am I to do with these people! Traveling can bring us face to face with our flaws, as we are challenged to be resilient, flexible, patient, and resourceful. This is one reason why these wilderness stories can speak to us so deeply about traveling on the path of life. All the ways in which the children of Israel were challenged, we find in them a picture of how we are challenged, for we are all human, are we not?
This week, the Israelites are still traveling from place to place. They reach a place called Rephidim and find there is no water to drink. They start sniping at Moses, and again wonder why they were on the journey at all, if they are just going to die of thirst. The Lord answers them of course, and bids Moses strike a rock with his staff, so that it might flow with water for the Israelites to drink.
And like last week, this story is a picture of a kind of temptation we might experience during our life, from time to time. Let’s first contrast it with last week’s story. Swedenborg tells us that the story of the manna in the wilderness speaks of a challenge in which we cannot see or find or feel any goodness. In terms of our experience with the pandemic, for example, this might be like the tension and sadness and regret and disappointment we feel around not being able to do the things that we used to be able to do, see the people we used to be able to see; the fact that our normal ways of giving and receiving love and goodness are disrupted, and we might despair and worry about how are to experience our life now, how we will enjoy life, how we will survive the isolation, how we might have to adapt and let go of our expectations, or how we might have to reach out in new ways. And the question for that story becomes, do we believe that the Lord is working to bring into being goodness and love for a us in new ways, and to bring goodness and love and growth out of our challenge. If we can believe that, we will see the manna available to us.
This week, we get a picture of a different kind of temptation. Bread represents goodness; water represents truth.(1) The Israelites were thirsty, desperately thirsty. And this is a picture of a challenge in which we cannot see or find or feel any truth, a temptation in which we are thirsting for truth, wanting to know what is real and right and true, but for whatever reason, it feels obscure to us. (AC8568) To use a similar example as before with the pandemic, this might be a picture of how frustrating and anxiety-producing it is to not know what the right thing to do is, how to handle our everyday life in the absence of helpful information, or in the presence of conflicting information. During the last six months, we have all been learning about the virus a piece at a time, as science finds out more about how it works. But that means that we don’t always know what the best thing to do is, and that can, at the very least, throw us off balance. We have had and will continue to have, many questions: Do we need to disinfect our groceries? How many people are okay to be together if we are outside? How well will a vaccine work when we get one? How do we care for people’s emotional needs if we can’t gather together? When will life return to normal? Will it ever return to normal? There are so many things that we don’t know, or don’t know fully, or find that the knowledge is developing and not ready yet.
And those everyday questions we have are ultimately connected to much larger philosophical questions: what is our responsibility to each other? how much can or should we be expected to sacrifice? how can God let this happen? where is God in all this?
This is the final central question in many of our spiritual temptations. The Israelites were wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?” As we read the story, that doubt might seem incredible given the miracles that the Lord had already, visibly wrought for them. But I think it is a doubt that we can all recognize, right? Is this not the secret heart, the secret cry, of many of our own temptations? We look at the world right now, with all its challenges, and we wonder Where is God, is God among us or not? How does God engage with the world? What is God calling *me* to do?
And so we resonate with the exhausted, traumatized, thirsty Israelites wondering “Is the Lord among us or not?” but turning that vulnerable wondering into a concrete complaint: how can Moses (and by extension God) let us camp here without water?” Moses is exasperated. So God engages in a little religious theatre. He asks Moses to take his staff, the very staff that convinced Moses of God’s power, the very staff that was used to convince Pharaoh of God’s power, and in front of the elders, (which were the leadership of the Israelites), Moses reminds the people once again, God listens, God cares, God will provide and God has the power to do so. As water gushes forth from the rock, and we look at that water through the eyes of correspondences, we are likewise invited to ask: What gives truth its power? Swedenborgian doctrine is unequivocal: goodness and service gives any truth its power, and connecting with this goodness this is how the Lord is among us.
I would argue that you won’t find a more foundational doctrine in Swedenborgianism than the assertion that truth takes its life, takes its soul, from goodness. For truth to actually be true, it must forward, perpetuate and advocate for goodness, love and service. If some principle is devoid of goodness, then it can never be spiritually true, no matter if it *sounds* true to our brains, to our egos, to our emotions. No matter if it calms our fears and makes us feel better, or gets us what we want. Falsity can do that just as well as truth, maybe even more so.
We see this demonstrated in our other lectionary reading for today, from the gospel of Matthew. In it, the chief priests are asked a question, but they resist answering truthfully for self-centered reasons. They chose to answer in a way that would avoid any accountability, that would simply calm the crowds and get them out of a jam. Their thinking was not based in truth but in expedience. This is the irony of that story, that they were challenging Jesus authority yet abdicated their own because they did not value truthfulness.
They answered “We don’t know.” And that is not a bad answer, per se. There is definitely a lot we don’t know, all the time, and we should be willing to admit to that. But there is a difference between humility and avoidance. Because in the story of striking the rock with the staff, we are reminded of the basic things we *do* know. As we look for truth, as we endeavor to quench our thirst, we know that the power of truth lies in goodness. We may not know the answer to everything yet, now or ever, but we know that much. And that foundational knowledge can go a long long way.
Last week, the Israelites asked “What is it?” and we were reminded that, when we look to God for sustenance, that it might come to us in ways that we don’t immediately recognize. This week, we are looking less for sustenance and more for guidance. The question is more, what do we do? How do we orient our life and our behavior? And the answer is to follow the staff to the rock and watch it make the water flow. The answer is to look for truth that finds its power in love, service, sacrifice and dignity. This is the power that quenches our thirst, and keeps us on the journey. This is how the Lord is among us.
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?” 3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Secrets of Heaven #8554
The previous chapter dealt in the internal sense with a third temptation - a stage when good was lacking. The present chapter deals in the internal sense with the stage that came after the people had been given that good - a fourth temptation, in which truth was lacking. This temptation is meant by the grumbling of the children of Israel because they had no water; so they were given the truth of faith by the Lord, which is meant by the water from the rock of Horeb.
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