A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 28, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Exodus 17:1-7
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I began the sermon by reading the poem “Fracking Exodus,” by Maren Tirabassi.  This poem has been posted, with her permission, on my blog at http://wp.me/pBRG6-cp

I think most of you know that I was in New York City last Sunday and participated in the People’s Climate March.  About 400,000 of us were there:  Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, faith communities, celebrities and commoners, people still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, scientists, activists, artists, youth groups and elementary school classes – it was truly a cross-section of the United States, plus a few people from around the globe.

400,000 people.  If we got the entire population of Fremont to take to the streets twice, we’d have only slightly more people.

Before the march began, we gathered along Central Park West, 30 blocks of people.  I was at 81st Street.  The March started on time at 11:30.  There were so many people there that it was around 2:00 when we up at 81st started moving and at least another half-hour before we crossed the starting line at 59th.  There were so many people there that we stretched out over 4 miles along Manhattan’s streets and avenues.  There were so many people there, and because I had a ticket to the interfaith service, I was unable to complete the March.  I had to leave at 5:00 to get uptown to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

400,000 people taking to the streets to make a statement about the importance of political leaders acting on climate change.  The good news is that some leaders heard us.  President Obama said on Tuesday, addressing the United Nations, “The alarm bells keep ringing.  Our citizens keep marching.  We cannot pretend we do not hear them.”[1]

The only question left is, “Will these leaders take real action to insure that 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves remain underground?”  This is necessary if global temperatures are not going to increase more than two degrees Celsius (and we’ve already increased almost one degree Celsius).  That two degree red line is important because more than that will cause significant climate change.  The warmer the shift the greater the climate change and at some point the changes will be so drastic we won’t be able to grow the grain necessary to sustain civilization as we’ve known it.

I went to New York because I like to eat and I want my niece and nephew to be able to eat, and they won’t be able to eat in their old age if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because 50 % of the world’s species are threatened with extinction this century if we don’t act now.[2]  I went to New York because there are still two million people homeless after the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan,[3] and they are but a foretaste of the homelessness that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York because of California’s drought and wildfires, and they are but a foretaste of the droughts and fires that climate change will cause if we don’t act now.  I went to New York as an act of loving my neighbor as myself.

I came back from New York and looked at my brown lawn and thought about the desert and today’s scripture readings.  The story of the Exodus is one of liberation and transformation – and of hardship.  The Hebrews had lived as slaves for generations in Egypt.  Then God called a leader, a man with a stutter named Moses, to speak truth to power, to confront the political leadership of his day.  Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.  And after arguing and what today we might call civil disobedience, thought classically it’s called plagues, Pharaoh relented.  And God led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea into the desert and freedom.

Freedom!  Except there isn’t much food to eat and water to drink in the desert.  In chapter 16, just before today’s reading, we read about how God gifted the hungry Hebrews with manna and quail.  In today’s reading, the issue is water.  That’s what made me think about the drought.

We aren’t the only area suffering from drought.  This week I read on the NBC News website, “After a season of record-breaking drought across China, groundwater levels have hit historic lows this year in northeast and central parts of China where hundreds of millions of people live.  Reservoirs grew so dry in agricultural Henan province that the city of Pingdingshan closed car washes and extracted water from puddles.  But this is no one-time emergency.  Farmers and water-hungry industries have been wrestling with a long-term water crisis that has dried up more than half the country’s 50,000 significant rivers and left hundreds of cities facing what the government classifies as a ‘serious scarcity’ of water.”[4]

And I read on a British newspaper’s website, “South America’s largest city is nine months into an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight.  The water shortage is already squeezing businesses in Sao Paulo and threatens to further undermine the stalled economy in Brazil, until recently one of the world’s fastest-growing.  The drought is also pushing up pollution levels and raising serious concerns about how Brazil will function in changing climate conditions.  Residents … have been on rationed water for months – although, with an election just weeks away, city officials refuse to use that term.”[5]

The Hebrews are not the only ones crying out to their leaders, “Give us water to drink.”

Our scripture reading is from beginning of the larger Exodus wanderings story.  The Hebrews are going to spend 40 years in the wilderness, two or three generations.  A colleague notes, “The slaves thought their liberation from Egypt would immediately plop them down in the Promised Land.  But God’s first freedom act was deliverance into the severe and harsh wilderness.  Perhaps only in the land of hopelessness could God hope to see a people let Pharaoh go and embrace the God of life.  Wilderness provides the necessary time to rid oneself of having someone other than God name and define you.”[6]

God is working transformation in the wilderness.  Watching God divide the Red Sea wasn’t enough to change these people.  Harvesting God’s gift of manna wasn’t enough to change these people.  When faced with a lack of water, they saw their own annihilation.  Was this a sign that they had been abandoned by God?

Yet there is something faithful in the people’s complaints.  Yes, they question if God is with them, but they never question the existence of God.  “In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann says that when the people complain, they’re hoping to ‘mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self.  These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.’  In a sense, then, even complaining to God in frustration and fear expresses some kind of faith, a kind of hope grounded in what one trusts to be true about God.”[7]

And in another commentary, Brueggemann constructs a powerful analogy between these stories in the Bible and the way our television commercials typically work.  “In the biblical narrative of faith, there’s a problem presented, a need voiced, and then God provides a happy resolution.  ‘The derivative TV use of this structure falsely substitutes for God “the product.”  The problem may be loneliness, stress, or bad odor.  When the “product” is used, life is powerfully transformed to one of companionship, calmness, popularity, peace, joy, and well-being.’  The trouble is that it just isn’t true …  Whatever the products deliver, they can’t provide what a faithful God provides, our lives ‘moved from hunger to fullness, from thirst to water, from blindness to sight, from leprosy to cleanness, from poverty to well-being, and in the end, from death to life.’  We can turn only to God, Brueggemann says:  ‘There are no other miracle workers.’”[8]

There are plenty of things happening around the globe and right here in our homes that raise our anxiety levels.  Here at home, you or a loved one may be facing a crisis of one sort or another.  I can look around the sanctuary and name mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, who are facing health crises.  I can look around this sanctuary and name families who are facing financial crises.  Heck, just raising kids and launching them into the world can be anxiety producing.  Perhaps there are times when you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

And if you’re not facing a personal crisis, all you need to do it turn on the news.  The Ebola epidemic continues to threaten people in Western Africa, perhaps as many as a million in some of the worst-case scenarios.[9]  ISIL has managed to draw the world into war and politicians are certainly raising anxieties about it in an effort to garner votes.  And, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and yours truly, more threatening than either of them is the climate crisis.[10]  Perhaps when you think about any of these threats you wonder, “Is God among us or not?”

The Hebrews, facing the threat of not having access to water, cried out and demanded that their leaders do something.  Moses, led by God, took some of the elders and found a solution to the threat.  It took his acting faithfully, trusting that God was, in fact, with him and a solution was found.

The climate crisis may make us feel like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Yet, I believe we can solve the climate crisis.  I won’t be easy, but it’s not too late.  If we act faithfully on real solutions, God will be with us and we will discover that we’ve been between a rock and a wet place all along.


[1] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the U.N. Climate Change Summit,” The Whitehouse, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-un-climate-change-summit (posted 23 September 2014; accessed 24 September 2014).

[2] Vice President Al Gore said this at the Interfaith Service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 21 September 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Drought Worsens China’s Long-Term Water Crisis,” NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/drought-worsens-chinas-long-term-water-crisis-n210736 (posted 24 September 2014, accessed 25 September 2014).

[5] Stephanie Nolen, “Unprecedented drought puts Sao Paulo water supply at risk,” The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/unprecedented-drought-puts-sao-paulo-water-supply-at-risk/article20798270/ (posted and accessed 26 September 2014).

[6] Nancy Hasting Sehested, “True Freedom,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-freedom (accessed 25 September 2014).  Nancy was pastor of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, when her article was first published in Sojourners.

[7] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-28-2014.html (accessed 25 September 2014).

[8] Ibid, quoting Brueggemann’s commentary of Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible.

[9] I heard this number spoken on a program that aired on KQED-FM on Friday or Saturday; I don’t remember which program or which date.

[10] “Mr. Kerry said he intended to keep a focus on climate change throughout the week, despite the pressure of other crises, including the insurgent terrorists in Iraq and The Ebola outbreak in Africa. ‘The grave threat that climate change poses warrants a prominent position on that list,’ he told reporters. ‘Those are immediate. But this has even greater, longer-term consequences that can cost hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, and lives, and the security of the world.’”  Lisa W. Foderaro, “Taking a Call for Climate Change to the Streets,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/nyregion/new-york-city-climate-change-march.html (posted 21 September 2014; accessed 22 September 2014).