Sunday, February 28, 2016

Life Alert- Sermon for 3 Lent C

I am not one of those people who can ignore the doorbell or a ringing telephone. Somewhere along the line, I have been socialized that, even if I am knee-deep in homework, the sound of those chimes will most likely send me scrambling to answer.

I have been working on this, because there are times when I just don’t have time to listen to strange calls coming out of nowhere. Lately, it’s been the representatives of AARP (which my husband signed me up for against my will) calling to get me to buy a Life Alert system. These calls make me nuts. 

For one thing, I’m not really retired. Nor will I probably ever need Life Alert, since I carry my phone around with me constantly. If I’ve fallen onto the floor, the only reason why I will not get up or call for help is either that 
1)I am flat-out unconscious, OR that 
2) I’ve decided that maybe I can steal a nap in peace, since no one would look for me on the floor under the dining room table.

But some calls shouldn’t be ignored.

In today’s reading from Exodus, we hear the story of God’s call to Moses.  And, listen, when God calls, that’s one you should probably take and respond to. Might be important.

The outline of the story is familiar: Moses wanders up on a holy mountain, experiences a “theophany” or appearance of God in the burning bush, and gets told that God has heard the cry of Israel, and has chosen Moses to be the instrument to free them. Moses is scared enough to hide his face, but not scared enough to not start peppering God with questions --and subtle resistance.

Moses, also known as Charlton Heston, in the scene
with the burning bush in the Ten Commandments.
Because I can't help myself.
Specifically, Moses asks two questions after God speaks to him: “Who am I?” and, just as important, “Who are YOU?” These two questions are intimately related. God has already told Moses that he is the God of Moses’s ancestors. Yet, Moses’s first question shows that it is only when Moses understands who he is and why God has chosen him that God’s declaration will make any sense to him.

So who is Moses? An Israelite brought up as an Egyptian, living in exile. Moses is just a shepherd, a person who’s been lost
and found
and lost
and now found again, apparently.
He’s just trying to make a living, too busy surviving to think much about the deep questions of life. Perhaps that’s why he unknowingly wanders onto the holy mountain of God. It’s no wonder, then, that when God first speaks to Moses, the claim of being “the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” doesn’t really clarify much for Moses. So Moses responds, “Who, exactly, are you again?”

Those two questions—“Who am I?” and “Who are you?” are vital for any communication to take place between any two parties—and they are also the two questions that scripture repeatedly wrestles with. Scripture is about who God is and what God does. But it’s also the story of who WE are, and what we are called to do as God’s people. When Moses asks, “Who am I?” he betrays an uncertainty that many of us share.

It’s a question we may need to ask ourselves, particularly as we try to live lives of discipleship—lives open to the call of God in our own lives. Like Moses, we spend much of our lives engaged in the everyday pursuits of what we call survival—so that sometimes when we DO try to open our hearts to the call of God, we don’t know how to understand or respond.

Like all Biblical stories, this story about Moses is not so much about what God said 5000 years ago, but more about what God says to us today, because the Bible is not only the story of what WAS, but what is, and what can be.  That proof of that is embedded in the answer God gives to Moses when Moses asks God, “Who are you, again?”

God’s answer to Moses’s question is quite interesting. Hebrew scholars suggest a slightly different translation than we just heard—they suggest that God’s name is not just “I am what I am,” but also “I will be what I will be.”

“I will be what I will be.”
No wonder we, including Moses, are still left confused.

God will be? God will be… what, exactly? 

But that’s the point- no matter how much we think we know, God is more. God will be—because God is not finished with us, or creation, yet. We don’t get to decide that we understand once and for all what God will or won’t do, or that he will forgive this person but not that person. God will be.

Throughout scripture, God will be many things: Shepherd. Healer. Even Savior.

God will also be worshiped. Praised, yes. Also betrayed and rebelled against, again and again.

We are given freedom to answer God’s call to each of us, or not. When God calls Moses, Moses isn’t forced to go along with God’s plans. However, God also doesn’t just give up and let Moses go back to those sheep. God ups the ante, so to speak. God increases the pressure to make sure he gets Moses’s attention. God doesn’t give up.

Although some might disagree, the genius of the stories of holy scripture is that they make clear that God did not make us only to order us around, or to chastise and punish us, but to draw us into relationship with God and each other.

God always works harder at this than we do ourselves.

When we get off track, God doesn’t respond with smiting, but with another call—a call for repentance, so that we can be restored to right relationship with God and each other. God’s love for us includes a huge heaping helping of patience, mercy, and grace. God asks us to listen, and God listens back. And God is going to be with Moses and the people of Israel all along the way.

That journey is not always smooth. 

One of my favorite cartoons is one that’s been around for years—you’ve probably seen a version of it. It shows God talking with a person with tear-stained cheeks, looking back on the person’s life as if their journey through life has left behind a series of impressions in the sand.

God looks back at an early part of the person’s life journey and points: “My beloved child—I am always with you. See those two sets of footprints? That’s where you and I walked side-by-side.”

“Yes, God,” says the human, “but what about over there, where there’s only one set of footprints?”

God answers, “My child, there’s only one set of footprints there, because that’s where I carried you.” And the human in the cartoon visibly brightens. Nice, right? But some of you may not have seen the third panel of the cartoon.

In the third panel, God continues, “And that deep pair of grooves over there? THAT’s where I dragged you, my child, kicking and screaming.” 

We are hearing this reading today because Lent is often the part of the year where we are encouraged to examine the “kicking and screaming” part of our lives with God, where we are reminded that sometimes we’ve fallen, and we can’t get up.

If we’re honest, many of us are have also struggled to recognize God’s voice and respond to God’s call.
Sometimes we let God walk beside us.
Sometimes God has to carry us.
Sometimes God drags us back from sin and foolishness.

The story of Moses we hear today is the story of a call, and as Christians we are called too- called to own our heritage of being made in the image of God—of being children of God.

Yes- children of God, all of us, even when we do wrong.

Children of God-- and I say that without my fingers crossed behind my back-- called to embody God’s essential goodness in the world-- to embody the love of God
as has been
and is being
revealed in Christ Jesus.
And when we fall short, we are called to own our sins, to repent, to turn and try again.

In our gospel today, Jesus makes it clear that, when we fail to live up to our call as children of God, we can receive God’s mercy and grace rather than God’s judgment, so that we can respond to the call to repent—to make an adjustment, maybe a big one or maybe just a small one—but often, just a small change is enough. Anyone who has ever tried to sink a long putt in golf will know what I mean. Sometimes avoiding one bent blade of grass that we could have stepped on, or the repair of one divot that we’ve inflicted, can make all the difference. And it’s the same way in our own lives.

In our own wanderings through the wilderness, we need deliverance from outside forces, but also forgiveness for our sins—known and unknown, things done by us and done on our behalf.

In his commentary on the Book of Exodus, Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim notes that exiled Israel faced two issues: of being “first, captive to outside forces and second, suffering under just judgment because of its disloyalty to God.” Fretheim sums up the specific lesson of the Book of Exodus that also applies to our own situation today: “The community of faith stands in need of both deliverance and forgiveness.”  

Once again, the Biblical story illuminates a truth in our own lives, and provides another part of the answer to that question of “Who am I?” We too are people in need of both deliverance and forgiveness—that’s why both of those words are part of the Lord’s Prayer. We are called to ask for both deliverance, but also for forgiveness.

Who among us hasn’t felt as if we too are captive to outside forces beyond our control? 
Who here hasn’t felt or wondered if we aren’t being punished by God for something that we have done? 

But Jesus’s response in our gospel corrects this idea. It’s not the case that any time troubles or even tragedies befall us, it is a punishment from God. Again and again, the Bible witnesses to God NOT giving to people the judgment they so richly deserve—and that’s Jesus’s point, too. Just like the Israelites, just like the people Jesus encountered in his earthly ministry, we can be stung by feelings of powerlessness and dread of punishment that in turn then creates a climate of fear. We’re called to something better- to labor alongside God in the work of redemption.

God is calling us. God is calling us to anchor our lives in Christ. God is calling us to repentance and newness of life.

That’s a call we shouldn’t ignore.

(Preached on February 28, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Town and Country, MO.)

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