If this story from our Exodus reading feels like déjà vu, it’s because there are a lot of things similar to last week. Remember, last week we heard about the Israelites complaining about how hungry they were, how there was nothing to eat in the desert, and how it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt where there was plenty of bread and fleshpots for food. This time, however, the people are thirsty.
They are thirsty and the conversation seems to go the same way. There is murmuring. Then they call out Moses, insisting that he brought them out to die in the desert, and that it would’ve been better if they had stayed in Egypt. But this complaining has a bit more urgency to it. See, with the food, we know that the human body can survive about three weeks without food. But water—without water you are done for in three days. If there isn’t any water in the camp, it’s not just a matter of low blood sugar. It’s a matter of life and death.
But Moses took their complaining a little too personally. He compared their complaining against him—the grumbling about no water—as an insult to God. Instead of answering the very real problem they had, Moses preferred to berate them for complaining. He then looked to God to take his side on the matter—these people were being unreasonable, ready to stone him to death because they didn’t have water! And then God did what God will do. God turned to Moses and instructed him: walk right by those people who are threatening to stone you, and use what you have in your hand to give them what they need.
Moses has a staff. Moses has the elders. And Moses has God’s presence. The people were thirsty, and God was going to give them what they needed. No need to silence their complaints.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. I debated this passage with God for a while this week, because I felt like I’d already preached this exact same sermon last week. I’ve already told y’all that God will provide. I’ve already said that your fears and complaining are legitimate, that the pains and heartaches of this pandemic are close to God’s heart, and that God listens. God doesn’t ask us to silence our complaints, but instead gives us quails in the evening and manna in the morning. This sermon was already preached. What more can I say this week that I have not already said?
When God does something, we are called to imitate it. That’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Philippians: “have this same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” God listens to our complaints, our pains, our worries. God hears the cries of our brokenness and the ways that the world beats us down. And in the same way, we are called to listen when our neighbors complain and grumble—and like Moses, we are called to take what we have and let God answer that need through us.
This summer we were not just wracked with the pains of a global pandemic, but also the ugly, stark reality of racism in our country. Now, I know, we hear “racism” and we immediately go on the defensive, but I implore you, as your pastor who loves you, hear me. Our sisters and brothers of color have been trying to get us to listen for decades to their very real lived experiences. We need to imitate God and listen to their complaint and answer their need.
Because doctors are less likely to take complaints of pain seriously in Black patients, and studies have shown treatment in everything from cardiovascular disease to diabetes is worse for Black patients even after accounting for socioeconomic disparities compared to White patients. Combine this with worse access to healthcare in the Black community in general, and it’s no wonder that their life expectancy is up to five years shorter.
Because more than half of all Black households rent their home, but more than 70% of White households own—and credit scores go down whether you’re late on your mortgage or your rent, but they do not go up if you pay your rent on time, even though they do if you pay your mortgage on time. Our Black brothers and sisters are caught in a trap where getting good enough credit to invest in a home is nearly insurmountable.
Because our Black neighbors are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of Whites, despite nothing in a person’s racial makeup making them predisposed to crime. What’s more, overwhelmingly White crimes like wage theft and gambling toxic mortgages are not considered criminal offenses, while being accused of stealing a backpack can land you in Rikers Island for three years without a trial.
Because you are 36% more likely to get a call for an interview if your name is John or Kate instead of Tyrone or Lakesha even if everything else on your resume is exactly the same.
Because Black children are consistently assumed to be on average four and a half years older than they actually are, and correspondingly less likely to be treated and cared for like children.
Because we have been acting like Moses for far too long. We have met the complaint of thirst that is killing our sisters and brothers of color and demanded silence, that whatever means they use to name their reality is not the right way of talking about it—whether public protests, or mass rallies, or silently kneeling at a football game. We have not listened, despite how God listens to us.
But let this same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus. Have the same mind, and look to the needs of others. In humility, consider others as better than yourselves. Jesus knew full well his divinity—he knew he was the Son of God—but he didn’t take his godhood to be something to wield over others. He didn’t use his tremendous power to silence his neighbors. He didn’t exploit his suffering to silence the complaints of suffering from others. Instead, he emptied himself, and loved others, and listened. He cared entirely for the other.
And that can be scary. When we open ourselves up to truly pouring everything we have into caring for our neighbor, to listen to our Black brothers and sisters when they name their reality without trying to impose our own rules on the conversation, we inevitably feel the fear that comes with self-emptying: “what about me?” What if, in truly listening, we find we are called to take the staff in our hand and strike the rock of racism so that the clear water of justice pours out? What if, like Moses, we fear we will be stoned when we try? Who will care for us if we’re using all our resources to care for the other?
In ancient Greece, there was a military unit called a phalanx. It was composed of rows of heavily armored soldiers called hoplites, who were armed with a spear and had a large round shield they carried on the left arm. But this shield wasn’t meant to protect them. Instead, the shield protected the man to their left. The whole phalanx needed every man to trust the man on their right to use their shield to protect them, or else the entire unit would fall apart.
Trust your fellow Christians to have that shield for you. Trust that when you give up yourself to care for your neighbor, when you are vulnerable in listening to the cries and complaints of your sisters and brothers of color, when you respond to their needs and confront the reality of racism, the body of Christ stands together like a phalanx to protect and empower each other in the work we are called to do.
So don’t be afraid to listen when your neighbors tell their truth about racism. Don’t give into the temptation to silence any and all complaining as if the lived experience of people of color is an invention and any means they use to speak it is illegitimate. Resist the urge to equivocate your lived experience of economic hardship with their lived experience of navigating racist structures as if the one cancels out the other. Open yourself up to seeing the ways your sisters and brothers have already laid the groundwork for how we are called to respond to racism and dismantle its structures around us. And in humility, listen.
After all, God listens to your griefs, and responds to your complaint with provision. In the same way, you are freed to listen to your neighbor’s experience of racism, and respond to your neighbor’s complaint with justice. That’s what it means to have the same mind as Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.