Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Exodus 17:1-7

The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield

In my early adulthood, after college, and a brief taste of cubical life, I set out to start a small livestock farm. I apprenticed with a shepherd I knew and then leased some land on which I eventually had pigs and chickens, sheep and cattle. Though I enjoyed all of the animals in varying degrees, the pigs were my favorites–a British breed with pink skin and black spots whose huge ears would flop in the wind as they ran to greet me.

After learning that a handful of pigs can dig a tractor sized pit in a short time, I had to confine them to the forested areas of the land where the ground wasn’t so pliable, which suited them just fine and kept my tractor repair bills to a minimum. In order to keep the pigs where I wanted them, I would string a single line of electric fencing around the border and attach it to a solar paneled charger. If touched, the line would emit a small shock, not hard, but enough to not want to touch it again. The pigs seemed to have a sense of the electricity in the line and, being intelligent animals and quick learners, they often discovered the fences boundaries without having to experience a shock.

There were several patches of forest on the land I leased and I would rotate the pigs through these, letting them remain in one area for a week or two until they had found all of the acorns to be had and browsed on what forage they wanted. I would then lead them to a new paddock of forest, taking down the fence and luring them along with corn.

Most of them were more than happy to follow me to the fresh ground, excited by what they might find and glad for the sweet taste of corn they received along the way. There was one sow, however, who would often lag behind the others, pacing back and forth along the edge of the old paddock. She would always stop where the electric line had been. Blocked from moving on, not by any physical barrier but by a caution that kept her from the freedom I was offering. She had developed a kind of captive mind.

The people of Israel, following Moses, following God, seem to have had this kind of mind. They had been in Egypt for many generations, and slowly they had become slaves, forced into a deadly reality. But within that boundary, they had been fed and clothed, they had water. The people of Israel had come to believe that their basic needs were better met by the stable, albeit totalitarian, life they had in Egypt than by the God who had led them into the risky grace of freedom.

In the passage just before our reading today, the people had complained of no food to eat and in response God had given them manna. Now they arrive at a new place in their journey and their reaction, before any prayer, any trust that God will provide, is to panic about the dry deserts all around. And instead of remembering the work God has done for them already, the drying up of the red/reed sea, the manna delivered every morning with the dew, the bitter water made sweet–they remembered instead the safe feeling of comfortable captivity in Egypt. And instead of taking responsibility for their freedom, their happy exit from Egypt, they turn on Moses, blaming him for leading them into the wilderness where they had readily followed him.

Moses, at least, turns to God, and God ready to answer the test Israel has given, instructs Moses to use the staff with which he dried up the waters of the sea to now make a dry stone burst forth with water. Moses names this particular place Testing and Quarreling, and we are told that the test is Israel’s question of God: Is the Lord among us or not?

I would like to say that my mind is not captive like the people of Israel’s was, that I know that God is here among us and I revel in the reality that comes from a life with God. I would like to say that I live in the trust of God against any other person or power or provision. But the reality is that I am more often with the quareling and testing people of Israel, than with Moses, waiting for water to come from dry rock. 

When it seems like there is no water in the wilderness, I panic before living into the trust that God will provide. I run to the security of shoping carts and savings accounts and the Economy, stretching forth its Invisible hand. I admit, that in my heart I am not ready for the freedom that God wants to give me because that freedom might mean an end, at the very least, to the comfortable realities of my life.

Jesus made the risk of following God into freedom even clearer than Moses did–take up your cross and follow me. The promise of freedom isn’t comfort, but a cross–a cross that leads to overflowing life and water that will never leave us thirsty again. But still a cross that is painful, a cross that means the hard death of our sin enslaved selves.

How do I even begin to journey on that path? How do I shed the captive mind that has been ingrained in me through easy troughs of corn and the pain of small shocks that keep me behind the fence, the fear of death that keeps me on the side of safe bets.

The answer for me is to take up the practice offered in the portion of Psalm 78 we read this morning. This psalm is a long one in its entirety, 72 verses in all. It contains, what I think are some of the best lines of the whole psalter and as we glimpse in our reading today, the task of this Psalm is to remember. To remember the many moments of God’s mercy, the constant provisions God has given. It is also a psalm that recalls the moments of Israel’s unfaithfulness, the captivity that remains even in their quest for freedom like these lines that follow a description of God’s provision of manna:

“So they ate and were well filled,

for he gave them what they craved.

But they did not stop their craving,

though the food was still in their mouths.” (29-30)

“They did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.” That is a line that rings all too true for me. This is a Psalm that gets at the heart of God’s work in the world and the addictions that lead us toward slavery to the forces of Death.

It is by remembering both God’s gifts and our failure to be satisfied in them that we can begin to unbind our minds and find the courage to step beyond the border of the dismantled fence and into the lush pasture of God’s provision.

We should ask with Israel, “Is the Lord among us or not?” And in answer we should look over our lives and see the many moments of God’s grace breaking through the seeming absences, our doubts that were answered, our lives that have been constantly renewed in our returning to the free ranges of God’s reign.

Eventually, with practice, my sow learned that she could follow me safely to new pasture. One spring she gave birth to a litter of piglets. When they grew older, they learned from the adults about the boundaries of the fence. But like teenagers of all species, they tested those boundaries and learned that if they ran quickly under the electric line the shock wasn’t so bad. Every day, I’d find them joyously roaming, eating acorns and fallen pears, digging where they pleased. Their minds were not captive like their mother’s had been. They had learned how to enter the porcine promise land.

Against the barriers of addiction and slavery all around us, those young pigs are a good example. When we recognize that the sting of the cross is small compared to the freedom ahead of us, we will learn to run across the fences of our captive minds and break into a run toward the promised places of our freedom.


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