Sunday, March 24, 2019

Wholly Beloved, Holy Calling: Sermon for 3 Lent C

One of my favorite cartoons is one that’s been around for years—you’ve probably seen a version of it. It’s an extension of the idea in that inspirational poem, “Footprints.” 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.”

Today’s reading from our Hebrew scriptures jumps us from Genesis last week to Exodus—and specifically, to God’s call to Moses from the burning bush. 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, like in those Life Alert commercials. However, in our Christian Lenten understanding, we don’t depend on Life Alert but—thank be to God—on God’s grace, on God never ever giving up on us.

Just like in that cartoon, Moses doesn’t respond with cooperation when God calls to him. There’s more than a little of the “kicking and screaming” resistance, but Moses is no dummy. Rather than outright refusal to heed God’s call, Moses engages in a debate with God, first requiring God to establish God’s bona fides. That’s when God gives Moses God’s actual name—which is a sign of relationship. As we hear repeatedly in scripture, to be called by name is to be known.

This bears repeating, because it seems so obvious: being able to know and use someone’s name implies a relationship. This same situation will later be cited in Isaiah 52:6: “Therefore my people will know my name;
 therefore in that day they will know
 that it is I who foretold it.
 Yes, it is I.” Psalm 91, which we read a few weeks ago also states: “Those who love me, I will deliver;
 I will protect those who know my name.” Naming implies intimacy and the ability to call on someone for help.

Although there have been several names used for God, up to this point in the Torah, the answer Moses receives is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” which is translated as “I am who I am” as well as “I will be who I will be”—in other words, God exists outside the realm of time and human experience, and past, present, and future are all the same to God. And yet God is hearing the groans of the Israelites and is responding to them. That can be comforting—God has remained faithful to God’s people, even as they have forgotten all about God, lowering their sights from heaven to the brutal task of survival. God has been, and will be, with God’s people always.

God also refers to Godself as “YHVH” which was translated as “The LORD” in the Torah, since the name of God was so holy that it was not to be uttered, in case it was misused. That’s why sometimes, when you see God written about by Jews to this day, you sometimes see it written “G-d” which omits the vowels (as Hebrew does). In Hebrew, God’s name is so holy that the term Hashem is often used in its place. Hashem means, simply, “The Name.” Names are considered to be that powerful. Thus the LORD is the name of God to be used forever.

Notice that God calls Moses by name from the very first. Then, once God establishes a relationship with Moses by giving Moses God’s very name, the story we hear today ends. I think that’s unfortunate, because what we don’t hear is Moses’s resistance to God’s call shifting from asking God's name to stating that he is not cut out for the job—that he lacks the appropriate gifts. But I want to invite you into that part of the story, too.

In the 4th chapter of Exodus, Moses has tried to evade God’s call with a number of objections, and very reasonable ones, too, centering around the idea of “Nobody is going to believe that God has talked to me,” which I think we can all relate to, as well. God then shows Moses a series of miraculous signs that will come in useful later when Moses is talking with Pharaoh. But then Moses pulls out his trump card: “Hey God,” he says, “you know I am not an eloquent speaker and this gig you are outlining requires a LOT of talking. So please send someone else.” And at this point, God gets exasperated at Moses’s shilly-shallying and ducking and weaving, and overcomes that objection too, by promises that Moses’s brother Aaron will help out with the talking thing.

Responding to God’s call is one of the hardest things for us to do, and yet one thing we know is that God has pursued relationship with creation from the very beginning, and it has been done through God calling over and over again. The great Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman organized his commentary on Genesis around the idea of four vital calls: God calls creation into being, and creation responds in a variety of ways. Next, God calls Abram, as we heard last week, and Abram and Sarai embrace the call of God and enters into covenant, faithful to God’s promises that Abram's descendants will become a great family. God calls Jacob, but that call causes conflict in Jacob’s family, as the younger son is privileged over the elder. Then in the story of Joseph, we are reminded that the purposes of God’s call are often hidden and elusive at first.(1) Now in Exodus, the descendants of Jacob have grown from being a family to being a community—a nation.(2) Yet they are a nation under oppression, and it can only be that in freedom that Israel can answer God’s call affirmatively and freely, rather than under duress. That’s the part that Moses will play. 

God calls Moses to be God’s prophet and spokesman, God’s human agent in the work of liberation. Moses goes from being shepherd for his father-in-law to being called to be the shepherd for his people in their flight from bondage and oppression. And now we hear the story of God’s call to Moses, and I want to be completely honest with you. It is Moses’s last response that I find the most relatable in this story. Burning bushes I have never seen. But feelings of doubt and unworthiness when being called by God? Oh yes—that one I know, six different ways from Sunday. 

During the years when I resisted the full surrender to God’s call in my life, the biggest reason why was my own feelings of unworthiness to fulfill that call. Even after finally giving in and making the leap to retire from teaching and attend seminary, I was buffeted often by feelings of being in over my head, and strong case of “imposter syndrome.”

Then, as I was preparing to go before the several committees who had to approve my ordination, I was specifically, and frustratingly, warned AWAY from using call language, which then makes it awfully hard to answer the question of why anyone would actually want to take on the ordained life. And the reason why I was told that I should NOT insist that I was called by God to be a priest was that the committee members might feel like their opinion then didn’t matter.

But the call of Moses makes exactly that point in a way, doesn’t it? God calls who God calls, and in a way, what we think about it is NOT the point. Just like Moses, many of us have had a hard time recognizing the voice in our life calling us to discipleship as being God’s voice. And then, once we do, we have a hard time believing that we are up to the task, or that the task is even achievable. If we’re honest, many of us are have also struggled to recognize God’s voice and respond to God’s call. 

But just like in that cartoon,
Sometimes we let God walk beside us.
Sometimes God has to carry us.
Sometimes God drags us back kicking and screaming from sin and foolishness into discipleship.

But one thing we should never doubt is that we are worthy of God’s love and regard, and that we are worthy to try to be not just fans of God but children of God, disciples of God. God doesn’t call the perfect, the saying goes—God helps perfect the called.

What’s the big picture? God will call whomever God pleases, even if that choice seems to make no sense. God’s great prophet Moses had no qualifications to speak for God, and didn’t really want to give himself over to God—a very understandable reaction! God can be so… disruptive!

-- and yet, God has chosen, and won’t be talked out of it.

Moses has never been at home anywhere, so who better to argue for a dispossessed people? He has been an adopted son of a princess, and now he’s a scruffy shepherd. It is exactly those experiences that make him the perfect intermediary in this case. God has also revealed the name of God, which shows that God is committed to the people, and continuously opens the door for us to not just approach God but to depend upon God to care for us.

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

As our gospel today reminds us, 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.

That’s why Lent is such a beautiful thing. It should never be seen as a time to beat ourselves up, or dwell on our own unworthiness, which then can become a convenient excuse for not trying in the first place. Rather, Lent calls us to acknowledge our sins and resistances to living out our calling, to own them and examine them, and then to turn anew, to hear the call of God for us to turn aside, to remember that the ground on which we stand is holy ground.

Our lives are the holy ground in which we meet God. And if we stop our scurrying around and our constant need for distraction, we just might hear God calling us, as God’s beloveds, to help make God’s presence in the world just a little more visible in what we say and what we do.

Listen! The beauty of Lent is that it reminds us of grace and calls us to slow down and listen. To hear that God is calling. Because make no mistake. God IS calling each and every one of us, and all of us as a community of faith, to embody the same grace that upholds us out into the darkness of the world. Let’s turn, and see that light flaring where we don’t expect it.

Let’s turn aside, listen, and say yes. Yes, because we ARE worthy. Yes, because we are upheld by grace. Yes, because we are empowered by that grace to act in the world in the name of liberation and salvation. Walking side by side with our Savior and Redeemer.


Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

1) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis:Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pp. 1-5
2) Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Covenant and Conversation 2), pp. 1-6

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