Rocks, Water, Tigers, and Mice



A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
On Sunday, March 23, 2014

Moses Strikes Water

We have just heard a reading from Exodus 17.  It’s a beloved story, near the middle of the entire Exodus chronicle, in which the children of Israel are wandering in the wilderness, and they begin complaining because they are thirsty.  That’s understandable, I suppose.  If you were wandering in a desert and with you were women, children, old people, and a lot of baggage, of course you would get thirsty.  So Moses strikes the rock at Horeb with his staff, and out comes water.  The people are saved once again.

This story works on a number of levels.  It works as a basic narrative in that you’ve got a really strong bad guy, the antagonist in the person of the pharaoh, with his people and the army chasing the Israelites.  And you’ve got a really good guy in that Moses is powerful.  He’s got great connections.  But he’s also flawed.  It’s a compelling saga that holds your attention and your interest in what happens to the people.

The epic also works beyond basic narrative at the magical level.  Supernatural, mysterious things are going on.  Moses’ staff will be used to save the people from poisonous snakes, and he used it to free the people from Egypt.  You might envision Charlton Heston in his flowing robes holding the staff, or you might picture Gandolph and the way he’s constantly saving the Fellowship with his staff.

Go Deeper, to the Archetype

But I would ask you this morning to go down yet one more layer to the archetypal level.  There’s some deep symbolism going on here, the opposites of desert wilderness and water.  There’s an old expression of being caught between a rock and a hard place.  Well, a desert is a hard place full of rocks.  It’s both.  It’s hard, it’s dry, it’s unforgiving, and it can be deadly.  Traveling through the desert can be dangerous and burdensome.  Water is crucially important.  It symbolizes the opposite – softness, life, refreshment, coolness, growth – all made possible by water in an unforgiving environment such as a desert.

Coming into this archetypal setting, travelers encounter the opposites of the danger of the dry desert and the need for water to stay alive as they pass through it.  In the context of this story and as multiplied by others, we get a take-home message not only from this vignette but also from the whole story of the Exodus:  It is that God sees, God hears their complaints and prayers, and God cares.  God can solve any problem.

If you’re a bunch of slaves, unarmed, burdened with baggage, cattle, old people, children, and you’re fleeing an army on horseback and in chariots, you’re in quite a pickle.  Yet God saw, heard, cared, and delivered them.  Saved them by parting the Red Sea, or the Sea of Reeds.  Now you are in the desert, and you’re in trouble again.  God sees, hears, cares, and delivers the Israelites yet again.  Moses, hit that rock with your staff!  And out comes water, miraculously.

The take-home message?  If God can solve those two dilemmas, God can solve any problem.

Can You Really Take That Message Home?

Hold on just a minute.  Is the take-home message really true?  Is it believable?  Are you convinced?  Are you persuaded so far that God solves such problems?

Let me give you four contrary examples:

1.  What about a 48-year-old middle manager who lost his job in 2008, right at the beginning of the economic downturn, and has been chronically unemployed or underemployed ever since?  About two years after he lost his job, the marriage started to fall apart.  They had to sell their car and get a cheaper one.  They had to sell their house and move into a less-expensive place.  They had two kids, who continued to grow up.

Eventually the marriage dissolved.  He still can’t find work, and – this is probably the part that hurts the most – his two kids view him as a loser.  Several years have passed, and he’s now in his mid-fifties, that stressful time of trying to find a career-level job.  So he gets by on a McJob and his heart is broken.  He loved his wife, and he loves his children, all of whom don’t think very much about him.

2.  Or what about the parents of a teenager who seems hell-bent on trouble.  We’ve all known this kind of teenager.  Some kids are like that, rebellious and anti-authority to their very core.  Much more interested in drugs, sex, or alcohol, completely at the expense of school and studying.  Totally opposed to a job, making some money, saving for college.  Wholly against any delayed gratification.  The parents are worried, really worried.  Deep inside, they’re not sure that this kid is going to be okay, that he’ll end up someplace bad.  And they worry.

3.  Or fathers of preschool children.  Think of a single parent who lost his wife, their mother, to breast cancer while she was in her thirties.  I’ve known three of these fathers in my time, all with similar stories.  And for all three there is a hardness, a bitterness in their hearts.

4.   Finally, consider a case of the second wife.  A man marries young, and it’s not a good marriage.  It lasts only a few years.  Then, after the divorce, he’s single for a time until he meets a new person who is much better-suited for him, a much better marriage.  They end up being married for nearly thirty-five years when he has a very sudden heart attack and is gone before anybody knew what had happened.  Next, after the funeral when the second wife starts dealing with all the affairs of having lost a husband, she discovers that he never changed his will.

 This is one of those old-fashioned families, in which the house was completely in the man’s name.  Both cars the same.  The investment accounts, the retirement accounts, yes, all in his name.  A phone call is made, and the original wife from thirty-five years ago is finally found and informed that she has just inherited quite a bit.  I’ve known two of these second wives to whom this has happened.  They experienced sadness and bitterness and anger – serious anger that has settled into the hearts and minds and souls of those two women.

Now think about these four examples:  a 48-year-old middle manager whose kids think he’s a loser, the parents of a hell-bent teenager, the fathers of preschool children who are suddenly motherless, and two bereaved and bereft second wives.  Do you tell these people the story about Moses striking the rock in the wilderness and out comes water?  Do you tell them that God can solve any problem?  Would you tell them that?  Would you look them in the eyes and say, God sees, hears, and cares?  God can solve any problem?  What would be their response to you?

Now I’ve Painted Myself into a Corner

Which is it?  God sees, hears, and cares, can solve any problem?  Or is there really an inherent sadness, bitterness, anger in our world?  Is there any resolution between these two poles?

Relevant to  this predicament, I would like to read you a story.  It’s very simple, Zen in nature.  For years I have enjoyed reading yarns from two different religious traditions, Hasidic and Zen.  Even though I relish them, I’m often disappointed.  Sometimes they purport to be deep and meaningful, but I just don’t get it.  They may seem rather silly or shallow instead.  However, I enjoy reading them, and I came across one that is in my opinion one of the deepest stories I’ve ever come across.  It didn’t appear that way to me at first, and it probably won’t seem that way to you at first, either.  But once I started looking into the tale, I began to get it.  It’s called The Parable of the Strawberry:

A man was wandering in the wilderness when a tiger appeared and began to chase him.  Panicked, the man fled and came to the edge of a cliff, with this ferocious tiger on his heels.  Spotting a thorny vine rooted on a rock, he swung himself down over the chasm.  Above, the tiger roared and pawed at the rock.  And then, looking down, he saw the gaping jaws of a second tiger, pacing below him.  Apparently these two worked as a team, and he didn’t know it.

Looking up at the first tiger, looking down at the second, the man noticed suddenly a white mouse and a black mouse that had appeared and had begun to gnaw away at the vine.  But the man did not care.  He no longer paid attention to the two tigers or the two mice for he had found a plump red strawberry growing on the face of the cliff.  Holding onto the vine with one hand, he plucked the fruit with the other and popped it into his dry mouth.  Oh, how sweet it was.

That’s the end of the story.  I came across it in a Zen children’s book, and believe it or not, it’s also a pop-up book.  As you open and close the page, you can see the man on the vine with the tiger below jumping up and the tiger above trying to reach down to get him.  I’m not sure how advisable this book really is for small children, to be honest with you.  Anyway, there it is.  An ancient story, well over two millennia old.

Here’s an Interpretation of the Parable

The tigers.  The first tiger that began to chase the man represents the problems of your youth, of your childhood, if you remember those times.  For example, when you had a crush on one of the other students in class your heart was broken for the first time in your life.  Or if you were at all like me, I was a mouthy kid and got myself in trouble.  And I got myself beat up or sent to detention multiple times in my school career.  Or dealing with your parents, those “stupid” parents every kid has.

The tiger below, into whose jaws the man will fall, represents the problems of your old age.  Feebleness, failing memory, all sorts of ways in which your body begins to let you down.  Being in the hospital, needing surgery, falling and breaking a hip.  Then you can’t remember things, and it seems as though sometimes the only correspondence you get is information about some old friend who has died.  Not always golden years for some elderly people.

Then the two mice, one white and one black.  There is something typically Zen about the story in that the white mouse represents the good things, but  the “good” things that happen to us, according to Zen tradition, aren’t always so good.  For example, a man gets a promotion and a raise, and now he is further entrapped by a job that’s not so good for him.  But now that he’s got a promotion and a raise, it’s all the more difficult to leave the job and make a change in his life.

The black mouse represents the bad things that can happen in our lives.  But again, in the Zen tradition, “bad” might not necessarily be so bad.  Like the famous story of the young man who fell off a horse and broke his leg.  That would be bad, except that two days later the army came through conscripting all the young men to go away to war, but they didn’t take him because he had a broken leg.  So what’s bad and what’s good isn’t always so clear, and that’s why both mice are gnawing away at the man’s vine.

So What’s It All Mean, Man?

Here’s a deeper explication of the story:  Hanging on that vine is the predicament of every human being.  And for every single one of us, in front of our face is a strawberry.  There is no interpretation for the strawberry because what it means is what it means to you.  The strawberry represents the desire of your heart, the longing of your soul, and it’s different for every one of us.  You have to decide what the strawberry means to you.

All of us can be distracted by our perils.  Those four examples – the 48-year-old middle manager, the parents of the teenager, the father of the preschool kids, the second wives – those four were very much distracted by the tiger above and the tiger below and the two mice chewing on the vine.  They were so distracted that they probably never saw the strawberry in front of their faces.

And the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness?  Yes.  They were definitely distracted by the tigers and the mice, complaining as they went and not seeing the strawberries along the path.  All of us can be distracted by our perils.  The two tigers and the two mice are the common lot of all humanity.  But so is the strawberry.




A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
Preached on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014


Instant Karma Will Get You Back

The sermon is a little unusual this morning in that it is both for the children and also for the adults, so wish me luck.  I was ill last week, and one of the consequences of being under the weather is that I spent a bit too much time surfing the net.  I came across a website that was tears-in-your-eyes funny, having to do with what’s called instant Karma.

Do you know what Karma is?  It’s a notion that, if you send out something bad, bad comes back to you.  So if you put out a bad word, a bad thought, or especially a bad action, bad sort of finds its way back to you.  Not always instantly, but like oatmeal, sometimes there’s instant Karma.  Other times it takes a while, but it always comes back.  The same thing happens with good.  Good words, good comes back to you.  Good actions, good comes back to you.

So this website was about instant Karma.  The story involves an unsuspecting girl standing in a gym class facing the bleachers, which had been pushed back against the wall to make more space on the floor.  She’s minding her own business when another kid, a little bigger than she, begins sneaking up behind her holding one of those pink balls that you find in gym classes.  He’s getting ready to hurl the ball at the back of her head.  A perfect target, facing the other way and completely unaware.

Now is that a nice thing to do?  No.  Okay, it’s funny.  I’ve done it before, I admit.  But it’s still not nice to sneak up behind somebody and throw a ball at the back of their head.

Nevertheless, that’s what he’s fixing to do.  But just at the very moment he cocks his arm to fire the missile, his target suddenly stoops down to pick up something off the floor.  He lets go with a fastball.  It just grazed the top of her hair so she noticed it but was not hit by it.

Instead, the ball hit the bleacher hard, rebounded straight from a board on the bleacher, whizzed right over the girl’s head back to the thrower, and smacked him right in the face.

That’s instant Karma.

An Angry Driver Stars on Camera

Another story on this website was also reported on the news about a woman who was driving in Florida.  She’s minding her own business driving along, when she sees behind her a pickup truck whose driver is really mad trying to get past her.  Flashing his lights, honking his horn, trying to get around.  She’s going the speed limit so she’s not really motivated to go a lot faster for this guy.  It’s like, deal with it.  However, he’s evidently so angry that she whips out her cell phone, which has a camera, and within moments she is videoing him.

With her left hand, she aims the camera over her right shoulder through the rear window while steering with her right hand, looking in the rearview mirror, watching the truck, staying on the road, and driving normally.  All the time she’s videoing this guy.

Well, the next thing you know, her single lane widens into two lanes.  The woman stays in the left lane.  The pickup truck swoops into the right lane before she can move over, and instead of just passing, he pulls up beside her and makes an obscene gesture.  It was a negative thing, a very mean gesture.  By this time, though, she’s filming the guy through her passenger window and catches it all on camera.

Suddenly, in a steaming fit of self-righteous rage, the guy tromps on the gas pedal, zooms leftward in front of her, and cuts so hard that he loses control and goes spinning down onto the median between the roads.

The woman slows down and continues videoing as the guy goes off the road.  She got his license number.  She got his face when his hand wasn’t in the way.  She filmed the whole thing and sent it to the police.

That’s instant Karma.

Two Birds Hang Up and Crack Up

This one made me remember a case of instant Karma that I saw myself.  I was walking toward Bon-Ton’s in the mall, about ten feet behind a pair of girls.  They were together on one phone call, leaning close to each other so as to share the phone while talking to a third person on the other end and paying no attention to their surroundings.  We’re getting close to Bon-Ton’s entrance.

It was a very energetic conversation.  I couldn’t hear the words, but the two were extremely upset about something and were intent upon their conversation.  Finally, as they neared the door, the girl holding the phone hangs up abruptly, turns to her friend, and explodes with some very profane words.

She had called the party on the other end a string of very bad names and was heatedly recounting them to her companion at the very moment the two of them strode obliviously into the plate glass doors of Bon-Ton’s.

That’s instant Karma.

 Karma in a Four-in-Hand or on a Donkey?

I have just given you three cases of negative Karma.  It is equally positive, though, and I want to give you an extraordinary example of putting good Karma out into the world and good coming back.

First let me set the scene for you.  The first three pictures show modern armies marching.   For comparison, the fourth image represents the ancient army of the Roman legions.

The Chinese Army Marching

Revising Expectations 2

The North Korean Army Marching


The United States Army Marching in Iraq

The Roman Legions Entering Rome (from the Movie “Gladiator”)

The three preceding modern armies are all modeling themselves after the Roman legions pictured above.

You may not recognize it right away.  Have you ever seen the movie “Gladiator”?  Okay, many have seen that movie; it was very popular.  This is an early scene showing the triumphal entry of the Roman legions into Rome after it had battled to an overwhelming victory against the Germanic tribes in northern Europe.  They were completely routed by the Roman legions.

Those legions then returned to Rome.  They celebrated their military victory by staging a parade as they entered the city upon their return.  In the front of the picture are the Senators, and in the background is the Colosseum.  On the sides are the soldiers, all in battle array in a massive display of force and power and armament.  In the back, on the other side of the pillars, is the crowd.

The conquering general is in the middle of the picture, standing in a chariot drawn by four horses.  He is receiving tribute for their victory and will soon make his way amid thunderous cheering up to the Emperor, who is there with the Senators to receive the glory and accolades deserved for the triumph.

Modern Armies Model Roman Practice

Armies to this very day emulate this ancient practice that goes back many ages to the rise of the Roman empire.

Now I want you to think for a moment.  Compare the next two pictures.  The first one shows the Emperor Titus in a bas-relief carved into his sarcophagus.  It’s over 2,000 years old so there’s a lot of damage, but you can see the chariot and the four horses.

The Sarcophagus of the Emperor Titus

Marcus Aurelius with an Angel on His Shoulder

The immediately preceding picture is a relief depicting Marcus Aurelius, who happened to be the Emperor portrayed in the movie “Gladiator.”  Here he is seen entering the city of Rome as the conquering general and emperor, with four horses and a chariot.

The reason I wanted to show you this particular picture is that there’s an angel perched on Aurelius’ shoulder.  In Roman times that angel, who is depicted as giving the general divine advice for victory, was named Genius, from which we derive the modern word.

What Was Jesus’ Message About the Donkey?

Now compare all of these Roman and military scenes to the following picture from a Sunday-school book about Palm Sunday.

Jesus Entering Jerusalem on a Donkey

The question I would like you to ponder is why Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey.  Everybody knew the proper way to enter a city to reap the glory of victorious battle.  Why did he do it this way?  There are no armaments at all.  Nobody is in Rome, following their rank.  There are women and children and old people and young people.

Why did Jesus enter on a donkey rather than in a chariot drawn by four warhorses?  What was he trying to get across?

I would like to answer this question for you, but I really shouldn’t.  It would be like telling the punch line to a joke.  It’s more appropriate for you to answer the question yourself when you compare the Roman way of entering a city with Jesus’ way of entering Jerusalem.  What is in your heart is what’s right for you at this time.  I can give you a Biblical answer; I can give you a theological answer.  But it would only be my answer.  You have your own thoughts about why Jesus entered his city in his own special way.

A Renaissance Woodcut of Jesus Entering Jerusalem on a Donkey

This picture shows the same kind of thing as the one before it – the donkey, average people, a chaotic crowd.  It’s not orderly, there are no armaments, no chariots, no spears, no tanks.  Once again, why did Jesus do it this way?  What was his message?

Now I want you to hang on to the answer you have developed about why he did this.  Just put it in your short-term memory for a moment while I tell you two more stories.  Then I’m going to ask you to think about three things – the answer you have formulated in your mind as to why Jesus entered Jerusalem in a special way and the following two stories.  I’ll ask you to put the three together.  It’s not going to be easy, but I want you to try.

Don’t Drop It, Tom; It’s Very Very Heavy

This story is much different, an extraordinarily rare photographic image.  Back in January, it was published in all sorts of scientific journals.  It is the very first image ever seen of another planet outside our solar system.  They’re called exoplanets.  We’ve got pictures of Jupiter, Mars, and others, but they’re all in our solar system, all nearby.  Here is a planet orbiting a star that is nevertheless very close to us in terms of the cosmos.  Our nearest star, the sun, is four light-years away.  This one is 63 light-years away. 

Photo of an Exoplanet Taken at a Distance of 63 Light-Years from Earth

This exoplanet’s sun is the big dot in the middle of the photo, but the blue area that’s all around it in the center, where all the brightness of the star should be, is blocked out by software.  The planet is the little white dot at the bottom right.  It’s about 32-60-some pixels wide, and that’s as big as it is.

By the way, here is a picture of the team of astrophysicists rejoicing at the existence of this photograph.   They say this exoplanet is 63 percent larger than Jupiter and is obviously very close to its sun.

Revising Expectations 10

Astrophysicists up in the Air at Success of Photo Taken at Incredible Distance

Here’s a planet that should be extremely volcanic due to its proximity to that sun.  The gravitational forces of a huge planet so close to a giant star would have to be incredibly strong.  This planet is therefore being squeezed and pulled, and squeezed and pulled as it orbits around this sun.  The two bodies are very close to each other, and both are enormous.  For comparison, Jupiter is our biggest planet, and the newly pictured planet is 63 percent bigger than that.  So we’re talking about a very volatile place, larger than Jupiter and 63 light-years away.

I pulled out my calculator.  Taking a photograph of that planet would be like making a photograph of your face except that your face would be two-thirds of the way to the moon.  It is the equivalent of taking a photograph of a grain of sand except that the grain of sand is in Los Angeles.  Also, I want you to appreciate the technology and science that were necessary to take this photograph.

Now please turn around and face the rear of the sanctuary.  There’s Tom, one of our deacons, standing in the back of the sanctuary.  When he went out to ring the bell this morning, I asked him to bring in a single grain of sand, and he’s holding it up for you to see.  You can’t see it?  Okay, he’s holding the grain of sand; you can guess how big it is.  “All right, Tom, it represents a huge planet.  Just don’t drop it.”

Now if I were to whip out the little camera on my phone and take a picture of the single grain of sand,  would you be able to see it?  No, not even close, and it’s only a few yards away.  So imagine the special camera, the science and technology that enabled the astrophysicists to take a picture that ended up giving us a view of a grain of sand, except the grain of sand is in Los Angeles.

That’s what this photograph is like, and it’s the first time it has happened in the history of humanity.  It should be in a church, if you ask me.

Female Quail Sacrifices Self to Brood

One more story to tell you.  Does anybody know what this picture shows?  It’s a quail, a male quail on the right, and the female on the left.  You’ll notice that the male is better looking – one of those universal things in nature.  (Um-m-m.  Uh-h-h.  Ha!)

Female Quail at Left; Male Quail at Right

Quail Chicks

This story happened last summer.  There was a heat wave out West, and in northern California there was a big forest fire.  After the fire had burned through and was put out, some rangers were cleaning up debris where the fire had gone through.

Up against a tree one of the rangers spotted a quail.  It was completely black.  It had been burned but was still standing right up against that tree with all its feathers completely charred.  The whole bird was thoroughly blackened.  The ranger went over and touched the quail, but it didn’t move.  It just toppled over, and out from underneath the hen waddled three little chicks.

What the mother hen had probably done was to make a terrifying choice between fleeing the fire and abandoning her covey or choosing to stay to try to protect the flightless brood.  Her choice was a primal one.  She opened her wings, the little ones climbed underneath, and all four stood by the tree awaiting the fire.

The fire came roaring down over them.  The mother quail died.  Her chicks lived.

What I want you to do now is to put these three images together.  Try to imagine the kind of love the mother quail had for her little ones, and combine that thought with the kind of tenacity, the kind of technology, the kind of human force that we can put behind a project to achieve something important to us.  And to succeed at accomplishing a significant undertaking such as a photograph of a planet 63 light-years away.

Then I want you to meld those two ideas and join them with the concept of humility, of nonviolence, of a desire to change the value system of a violent society.  To upend the way in which people routinely do business, to know that the prince of peace rides in on a donkey, not being drawn in a chariot by four stallions.

If we would take that message and combine it with unconditional love and the fortitude of which human beings are capable, that, my friends, is what Palm Sunday is about.