It was the first church I ever served, and I had only been there for a year when the hurricane hit us. We were only an hour east of New York City, on the shores of Long Island Sound, not a place that gets many hurricanes. We knew it was coming, of course, and many had taken time to prepare—stocking up food and water, making sure that batteries were on hand in case the power went out. And we watched as they skies grew steadily greyer in the days leading up to landfall.
But nothing prepares you for the relentless intensity of the wind and rain the follows. The windows and doors shake with each renewed gust. The trees bend and shake. The thick rain makes it hard to see down the street. The power went out, quickly—an inevitability in Connecticut where the trees are many and the power lines are poorly maintained.
When the storm at last passed, we were able to go out and survey the damage. Water Street, as the name suggests, was under water. The million-dollar homes along the shore all had generators running to power the massive pumps as they desperately tried to drain their basements. In fact, the sound of generators proved to be the soundtrack of the storm. I got my power back after a day or two, but I was one of the lucky few. Most people were without power for a week. My colleagues and I reached out to older parishioners, navigating fallen trees and closed roads to physically check on the ones who weren’t answering the phone.
I was remembering that experience as I watched, along with everyone else, as the storms hit the Maritime Provinces this past week, and before that as Hurricane Lee struck Florida with devastating strength. Indeed, it has been a terrible few weeks, filled with horrifying natural disasters. It is hard to wrap our minds around the sheer destruction of the towns and cities in Libya, obliterated by flood and washed into the sea, leaving tens of thousands dead or missing.
There is something terribly awesome about such natural disasters, something that reveals and reminds us how small we really are.
It was a feeling, I suspect, with which the Israelites were well familiar. These past few weeks we have been following through the climax of their story as they escaped the oppression of Egypt and fled into the wilderness with Moses. Two weeks ago, you heard the story of the Passover, when God struck down the firstborn children of Egypt in order to get Pharaoh to relent and release the Israelites. Last week, we heard the story of God leading the people by a pillar of fire and smoke, and of the final confrontation with Pharaoh’s army, with the parting of the sea and the utter destruction of the army as they gave chase through the parted waters. And this week, we hear the story of how God provided miraculous food for the people—bread that literally falls from heaven—feeding them, and caring for them, as they started their forty-year journey to the Promised Land.
They are stories of miracles and signs, and not little ones either! These are the big, miraculous stories of the Old Testament, stories that display God’s indisputable power and might so that even the Egyptians could recognize what was going on and who it was that fought against them.
In the face of these grand stories, it is only natural for us to ask, “Why doesn’t God do showy miracles today like back then?” You know, something big, something impressive, something that grabbed out attention and was undeniable? If God would only do something like that, then it would be easy to believe! Then it would be easy to have faith! Then it would be easy to prove all the doubters and naysayers wrong!
Except, that isn’t true. Despite all that they had witnessed, in spite of the great shows of power that God kept demonstrating, God’s people struggled to bring themselves to faith. They constantly doubted God and Moses. And they complained, oh they complained. They had some of the best complaints I have ever heard! Last week, as they were pressed by the Egyptians against the shores of the sea, we heard the gem, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here in the wilderness to die?” This week we hear another of their best lines, “If only God had killed us in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of stew and had our fill of bread, but instead you have brought us here into the wilderness so that we might die of hunger.” I mean, it is proof that we who call ourselves God’s people have always been drama queens!
This summer, among the many other things that have been happening in our world, we watched as a Russian general led an open revolt on Putin, sending an army of mercenaries to march on Moscow. I don’t think anyone was surprised when, some weeks later, the plane carrying the general exploded and crashed into the ground, killing everyone on board. It is the dictator’s dilemma—the more you try and show your strength through force, the weaker you become. Because loyalty becomes replaced with fear, which may look the same at first, but are not the same. Over time, the people begin to align with the biggest strongman who can promise them safety from what they fear—whether it is the dictator or a new challenger—a loyalty that melts away instantly in the face of adversity.
My friends, faith founded on miracles is not faith. It is just following a supernatural strongman. Our loyalty, our faith, only extends to the next miracle, the next obstacle. It melts away in the face in the face of adversity, whether that is hunger in the dessert or something that hits much closer to home. What’s more, it is faith that moves to whatever deity we think will get us through our next crises and benefit us the most, whether that means a golden calf as the Israelites would build while Moses spoke on the holy mountain with God, or the gods of capitalism and free markets to whom we pray and offer our sacrifices in the hope of security against the unforgiving forces of the world.
Let me put it another way. The quickest way to get my dog’s attention and to get him to do what I want is if I am holding a treat in my hand. But it does raise the question, does my dog love me because I feed him and give him treats, or because I love him?
There is another example of faith in these stories. Moses, who stood there all night, with his arms raised, waiting for a path to appear through the sea. Moses, who stood there, day after day, surrounded by God people, who were terrified, complaining, and questioning every move. Moses, who stood there, on many occasions, even when all seemed to be lost, he stood there, trusting and waiting with God.
True faith is founded on trust and abiding relationship. It is faith that can weather all adversity. It is faith in God, not because God is powerful, but because God is trustworthy and God is with us always, come what may. It is a love of God, not because God does stuff for us, not because God performs amazing miracles for us, but because God loves us and God chooses us.
This is the sort of faith that God called the People of God back to time and again. It is the faith that Jesus calls us back to over and over. Even when we rejected him. Even when we killed him.
It is a faith that endures all things, whether it is Pharaoh’s armies or a hurricane’s destruction; that endures painful days and times of loss and grief, that endures quiet days when nothing seems to happen and nothing seems able to change, that endures fearful days, joyful days, and days that are busy and stressful. It is a faith that rejoices to walk with God through it all. This is the faith to which God calls us, this is the relationship that God desires to have with us. It is not a flashy faith, but something much stronger than that—it is the faith upon which the very Kingdom of God is built, a faith that weathers every storm and at the last, leads us home again.
As for my dog, Daniel, it is not like I can ask him why it is that he loves me. But I feed him the same kibble, day in and day out, and he is always just as excited to see me each time I come home.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates