The God behind you is greater than the problem in front of you

This is a strange day. I’ve never preached to a congregation where the vast majority of the folks who will hear the sermon are not in the room. I’m used to being able to read your faces. I’m used to being able to elicit a chuckle. Even, at Holy Communion, the rare “Amen.” Most Episcopalians behave as the frozen chosen, they don’t respond much, but preaching to a camera like this, it’s a new experience.

I am grateful to my sisters and brother, my siblings of the clergy and the music staff who came today to help lead this service. Thank you for putting up with these strange times, for standing and sitting a few feet apart. These are odd times. These are strange days.

Our long bible readings today tell us, God’s people have known strange days before. Today we meet Moses and God’s people in the wilderness of Sin. One of our members tried to be helpful when we posted the bulletin. He pointed out that this should be the “Sinai desert.” It was a typo. It’s not a typo, that’s just the name of the desert. In Hebrew, it’s less of a pun. The interesting name in the original is Massah and Meribah. It means, “the place of grumble grumbling.”

The story of God’s people in the wilderness is a rough one. Again and again they grumble. They are hungry. God provides food. The people don’t like the bread from heaven. Again they grumble. God sends them meat. Here, the people are thirsty, and they catastrophize.

That’s a new word. And it’s one of my favorite. Catastrophize. Listen to what the people say. They don’t just say, “we’re thirsty. I hope God provides. I hope we find water.” They say, “we’re going to die. Our children are going to die. Our cattle are going to die. We should have stayed in Egypt, with our slave-masters.” People go to the worst possible outcome, even God’s people. Even the folk who know that God is their with them, on their side. They catastrophize.

We are living in days that are difficult. We are living in days that are trying. I really don’t want to be preaching to an empty church. I don’t. I got into this work because I love being with people. I love spending time with people. I love checking in on people. I like the personal parts of my work.

Can we take a note today, from God’s people of the past? Can we hold back from catastrophizing? Can we breathe a little. Slow down a little. And just give ourselves, and the doctors, and the scientists, and our state and local leaders a little time? Could we take a step back from catastrophizing in order to prevent a catastrophe?

Taking a little time could make all the difference.


I know many of you have seen the pictures of that graph that is going around, it shows to curves, two images of what may be coming. The first shows a tall peak, representing a huge number of people becoming infected, developing serious symptoms all at once. The peak is scary because it overwhelms our healthcare system, overwhelms our doctors and hospitals. The second curve is unfortunately longer, but it is also shorter. If we wash our hands, if we take some space, some time, if we “socially distance” we can keep the total number of folks who get sick down. We can keep a whole bunch of folks from getting sick at the same time. We could avert a catastrophe.

The numbers that matter:

Those graphs, those numbers they matter. It’s a hard time because folks are focused on the wrong numbers. It was a hard decision this week to decide not to worship in person, but I had to say, right now, our “Average Sunday Attendance” number, it doesn’t matter. Some artificially deflated picture, because we don’t have enough tests, that supposed number of infections, it doesn’t matter. And honestly friends, as they jump up and down, the Dow and the S&P500 right now, we have to let them not matter for a moment. We need to let our leaders know, those numbers don’t matter.

The numbers that matter at this point aren’t poll numbers. The numbers that matter right now are the numbers of people we can keep from getting sick. The numbers that matter are the number of infections we can prevent from happening all at once. The numbers that matter are the numbers of tests we can make available rapidly, to get our arms around what is actually going on in our community. The numbers that matter are the phone numbers of the people we will call and check in on, and ask how they are doing. Those are the numbers matter right now.

Folks have asked me this week, why is God letting this happen? Why is God letting folks suffer? Why did God let this disease start ravaging communities? I’m afraid those questions are above my pay grade. I promise to bring them to God, when I met her face to face.

What I do know about God is this, in the story about the people grumbling with thirst, God provides water from the rock. God was there with them through the desert. God was there with them through the suffering. God was with them. And in the end, God’s grace saw them through.

Yesterday we lost one of the great heroes of the Episcopal Church. The Right Rev. Barbara Harris wasn’t just the first African American woman ordained a bishop in the Anglican communion. She was the first woman ever made a bishop in our church. She was five foot nothing, but she was a giant. Bishop Barbara Harris used to say:

“Remember, the God behind you is bigger than the problem in front of you.” -Barbara Harris?

The God behind you is bigger than the problem in front of you.

Do you believe that? Then you don’t have to catastrophize. You don’t have to be small like the problem. You can lean on God, lean on the greatness.

Can I tell you something else about water?

We sang a hymn earlier, it’s one of my favorites. “There is a balm in Gilead,” it says, “to make the wounded whole.” I thought of it this week, because one of the verses says, “if you cannot preach like Peter. If you cannot preach like Paul.” I’m preaching in a way I never have before. It may be terrible. I feel a little like I don’t know what I’m doing. These are strange days. But the song has a solution. If you cannot preach like those guysu just tell the love of Jesus.”

Let me say something about water, that living water that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman. So if I can say one thing to you today, let it be this. God’s love behind you is greater than the problem in front of you. God’s love for your neighbor is greater than what we are facing together as well. God’s love for you isn’t just water in the desert. God’s love for you is “living water” as Jesus says to the woman from Samaria. God’s love for you is dynamic, is changing, is with you from moment to moment.

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is so long, and complex, and the social dynamics could take up a whole sermon in themselves. Suffice it to say, Jesus gives her the courage. This woman, who was alone at the well, socially distant, finds courage. What she encounters in Jesus, something about the love she experiences, something about that living water, it changes her. And she has to go out and tell others. She has to go out and show the love she has been shown. Living water doesn’t just slake our thirst. God’s love doesn’t just hydrate me. God’s love empowers us, to transform our world, to go out and love others.

And that’s how I know God’s love, that living water is with us, even in the midst of this problem. Because I see so many people making the tough choices. I see so many doctors ready to sign up for extra shifts. I see God’s love when neighbors checking in on neighbors. I see so many folks who are volunteering to deliver meals, to deliver groceries. I see God’s love where people are wiling to seek, and to serve, and to check in. I’ve seen it in co-workers pooling sick days to make sure that everyone has enough to cover the absences, to take care of a loved one. I see that loving, living water of God, empowering folks to take care of one another. God’s love is in every one of those decisions. The living water of God doesn’t just hydrate the thirst. God’s love empowers us to love others.

Keep loving. Keep leaning on God’s everlasting arms. In the days ahead I know I’m going to grumble. This isn’t how I like to preach. This isn’t how I like to work. Help me remember to pause. Help me remember not to catastrophize. Remember that the love God behind us, is bigger than the problem in front of us. Amen.


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “The God behind you is greater than the problem in front of you

  1. I’m in semi-darkness and selecting the right keys is not easy. This is a place for people with serious sickness or need for long term care. I’m not sure I fit, but it’s a long story. And a bit irrelevant. We are in semi-isolation, in bedrooms for one or two people, with meals delivered rather than produced in our usual larger dining rooms. A few people do have movies probably given to them by their families. My room mate has one and fortunately for me, my community did not think of it.. I don’t like movies. Especially old ones selected for entertainment. I’d rather read.

    But isolation is not good for anyone,let alone some with mental problems to begin with. I’ve been trying to think of ways to deal with it. Because the people in charge are also concerned and will be open to new ideas if i can come up with any. We have an opportunity, and I am fairly sure I’m not the only one trying to find ways to deal with it.

    I’m also reasonably sure we are not alone in this. You have a wide audience and opportunity to encourage similar thinking. Please know that each of us can draw on the same source as we try to function and help. Having a priest encouraging such action could be very fruitful.

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