The Moment of Encounter, part 1: The Burning Bush

Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2017 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15

I wonder what would have happened if Moses had ignored the burning bush. Would he have simply led his sheep down from the mountain and lived out the rest of his days in placid comfort in his father-in-law’s house? Or would God have thought up another way to catch his attention? Our faith tells me the latter is more plausible: God would have shown up again in another manner, and perhaps then Moses would be ready for the encounter. And if not then, a third time. And a fourth. And so on. Continue reading “The Moment of Encounter, part 1: The Burning Bush”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

A Resounding Yes

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15

 

aresoundingyesI’ll tell you all the truth: I’ve been struggling lately. The day the twins were born, about a month ago now, life took a dramatic turn. I knew this tectonic shift in life was going to happen, but I sure wasn’t prepared for it. At times over the past month, I have felt helpless. I have felt frantic. I have felt desperately inadequate. The learning curve for new parenthood is steep, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations about how fast I catch on. I’ve always been a quick study, but in this particular case, there’s no substitute for the exhausting daily grind of caring for the twins. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I knew it was going to be hard, but my definition of “hard” has never reached the superlative level of caring for multiple newborns.

Of course, there is joy, too. And love – so much love that it leaks from my tear ducts when I gaze upon their sleeping faces. But both joy and love often get buried under the weight of bone-wearying exhaustion, and at the end of the day or at the end of the night – and with newborns they are pretty much the same thing – all you can say is, “We survived.” And you’re too tired most of the time to appreciate that survival, in itself, is a pretty astounding gift.

In light of the last month, I read our passage from the Hebrew Scriptures this week with new eyes. I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush hundreds of times, but this time around new words shimmered for me. My feeling of desperate inadequacy led me to see the same feeling in Moses. Today’s story takes place on Mount Horeb, but let’s back up and see how Moses got there.

After growing up the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was caught between two worlds, the life of privilege of the king’s house and the life of slavery of Moses’s family of origin. One day Moses visits the work camps and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. While the book of Exodus skips Moses’s upbringing, we can easily conjure a scenario where he had no firsthand knowledge of the plight of his people before this. Sure he heard rumors, but they were easily dismissed by his Egyptian family. Then he sees for himself the rumors are true, and his sense of betrayal mingles with his sense of justice. Moses secretly kills the offending Egyptian. But such an act cannot stay secret for long, and when Pharaoh finds out, Moses flees.

Settling in the land of Midian, Moses meets his wife at a well (which is where everyone meets his spouse in the Hebrew Scriptures). Zipporah brings Moses home to her father, who takes him in and teaches him to be a shepherd. A long time passes, and Moses finds himself with the flock beyond the wilderness on the mountain. God calls to him from the burning bush and gives Moses the task of delivering God’s people from the hands of the Egyptians. And this is where Moses’s feeling of desperate inadequacy rises to the surface. He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

You can see where Moses is coming from. He’s been gone so long. Who would remember him? He wasn’t even raised among his own people. Who would accept him? Later, he mentions he’s not a very persuasive talker. Who would listen to him? All of these worries and fears boil under the surface of Moses’s question. But God stops Moses in his tracks.

And here we must pause for a moment for an aside. Whenever you read the Bible, I want you to pay especially close attention to how questions are answered. More often than not questions are not answered directly in scripture. When God in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in the Gospel answer questions, they often answer the one they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that was asked. So – Bible study tip – pay special attention to how questions are answered.

So let’s turn this special attention to Moses’s question. Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” His feeling of deep inadequacy weighs the question down. But God lifts him back up with the answer. “I will be with you.”

This doesn’t answer the question Moses asked. “Who am I?” he pleads. And the response. “I will be with you.” The question God answered, the question God wished Moses had asked, was: “Will you be with me?” And the answer: a resounding “Yes.”

God’s answer to this question reverberates throughout the Bible. God shows Abraham the way through the desert to a new home. God comes to Elijah not in the storm but in the sound of sheer silence. God descends into the den of lions with Daniel. God gives Jesus a second name, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

And so when I read the story of Moses and the burning bush in the light of my own desperate inadequacy this past month, I realize I have been asking the wrong question. Like Moses, I have been asking, “Who am I? Who am I that I should be able to accomplish the task of helping to care for these two precious lives?” But that’s not the question God is answering right now.

Instead, God has prompted me to ask the question God yearned for me to ask all along: not “Who am I” but “Will you be with me?” And God has answered that question with the same resounding “Yes” which God promised Moses. Yes, I am with you in the helping hands and loving hearts of the friends and family who have given countless hours of their time. Yes, I am with you when you breathe deeply in moments of serenity and when your patience stretches past the breaking point when the crying won’t stop. Yes, I am with you in the peace that comes from a few hours of treasured sleep. Yes, I am with…always.

The feeling of desperate inadequacy can paralyze us. Perhaps a challenge seems too big for us to even begin to grasp. Perhaps we’ve been down a certain road before and failed. Perhaps we’re facing something new and the fear of the unknown cripples us. Whatever the case, we can begin to move past our inadequacy or whatever else is holding us back by changing the question we ask of God. Rather than asking, “Who am I to take care of my aging parents”; or “Who am I to be able to find friends at my new school”; or “Who am I to make the slightest difference in a world full of pain”; rather than asking, “Who am I” ask the question God yearns for you to ask.

Ask, “Will you be with me?” And believe in the deepest core of your being that the answer to that question is always and will always be, “Yes.” When you hear that “Yes” resound in your core, you will begin to see with new eyes and reach out with less burdened arms and discover all the ways God is already using you to shine God’s light in this darkened world, no matter the inadequacy you feel.

I still feel inadequate when the twins start crying. I’m still exhausted most of the time. But we’re doing it. One day becomes the next, and that in itself is a gift, as is God prompting me to change the question I was asking, so that God could answer with a resounding “Yes.”

The Dragon’s Skin

(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)

Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?

Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.

On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?

Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.

And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.

What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.

The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.

The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.

There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.

And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.

And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’

The desperate Eustace lay down and

The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.

When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.

And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.

Be-ing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s 1000 words on theology, using three phrases from the Nicene Creed as a framework.

nicaea…of all that is, seen and unseen

What I’m about to write ignores the fact that the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and then translated into Latin and then translated into English. Don’t panic – the following is about the current English grammatical structure of the phrase, which is influenced by, but not chained to, the original language.

Do you see that little comma between the words “is” and “seen”? Yes? Good. Now, think back to all the times you’ve ever heard the Creed recited during church and ask yourself if anyone has ever acknowledged that comma. No? Didn’t think so. The sentence usually sounds like this: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that-is-seen-and-unseen.” But the sentence actually reads: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, [slight pause] seen and unseen.” I imagine you are now rolling your eyes at my disconcerting attention to inane details.

This detail may seem inane at first, but I assure you, it’s not. For now, let’s ignore the phrase “seen and unseen” because it gets entirely too much attention when Creed-speakers unwittingly barrel through the defenseless little comma. With what are we left? “Maker…of all that is.”

Maker…of all that is. This “is” is the most important linking verb in the history of linking verbs, and probably other verbs, as well. We believe that God made all that is. Put another way, we believe that God is the very ground of our “is-ness” – or, to use a not made-up word, our “being.” [Disclaimer: The rest of this section assumes the reader knows the unwieldy conjugation of the verb “to be.”] In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.” This awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God’s divine name, which is the verb “to be” (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds with something like, “I have being and I bestow being and that’s all you need to know.” Look at the word “being.” Now add a hyphen: be-ing. The noun “being” is disguised as a present participle verb, a verb of continuing action. This points to the eternal continuity and abiding presence of God, who is the very ground of be-ing.

All grammatical gymnastics aside, the point is this: God created all that is, and creation’s existence depends on God’s continuing presence. As small bits of that creation, we receive our be-ing, our identity, our life from the foundation of that be-ing, the Holy One we call God.

Through him all things were made

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… Through him all things were made.” Okay, since I failed to return to the original Greek in the last section, I feel I must make up for it. John begins his Gospel account with this poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

You’ll notice that word be-ing from the last section crops up several times in just these few sentences. We said that God is the foundation for be-ing, and now we discover that the “Word” is responsible for translating that be-ing into life. Here’s the Greek bit.

The “Word” is the translation of the Greek word logos, from which dozens of English words take their root. Every time you see –ology at the end of a word (zoology, biology, epidemiology), that ending comes from the Greek logos. “Logic” also springs from this root. When something is “logical” it is ordered, it makes good sense. This is a good entrance into one understanding of logos. John says that the Word was in the beginning with God and through the Word all things were made. This “Word” is the “logic” behind creation, the “organizing principle” through which creation has come into being. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”). God uses words to organize creation, and John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ.

So, the “Word” is creation’s logic or organizing principle. Creation, therefore, is not haphazard or accidental. You might be tempted to ask a question about “Creationism vs. Evolution.” But the unhappy dichotomy between these two positions breaks down when we see creation as both organized and continuous. My college chaplain was fond of saying: “If God stopped speaking, the world would stop turning.” The implication is this: the “Word,” the logic of creation continues to underpin and give life to all that is.

…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man

As I said above, John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Incarnate” means “become flesh” (the –carn in the word is the same root as in the word carnivore, “meat-eater”). John’s use of “Word” connects to a strain of thought coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “word of God” appears whenever a prophet is granted a new prophecy (The word of God came to so-and-so…). The Hebrew word for “word” (davar) means much more than the stuffy English equivalent. We think of “word” as something on a piece of paper or something spoken aloud. In Hebrew, however, the “word” is something that happens to people. It is an event, an action that calls for further action. When John uses the Greek form of “word” (logos), he purposefully links it back to this Hebrew understanding. The “Word” becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the ultimate example of the “Word” happening.

Here’s the thing to remember: the “Word,” through which God speaks creation into be-ing, is life-giving. Without the “Word,” life would not exist. When the “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of seeing how life is meant to be organized, meant to be lived. This means that the words Jesus speaks provide for us the means by which to organize our lives in order to be in deeper touch with God. The “Word” became flesh and lived among us. And now the “Word” continues to speak life into the world, disclosing the glory that is full of grace and truth.