Sermon Seeds: Spirit-Led Living/Here I Am

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17

Lectionary citations
Exodus 3:1-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c or
Jeremiah 15:15-21 with Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28                     

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Exodus 3:1-15
Additional reflection on Romans 12:9-21

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.

For resources related to Labor Day, please go to Observe Labor Sunday 2014.

Weekly Theme:
Spirit-Led Living/Here I Am

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

Things were not good for the people of God, back in Egypt. Moses had escaped after killing one of their taskmasters, but his people were still trapped in slavery: brought low, pressed down, suffering. From down below, they cried out to God, and, we read, “their cry for help rose up to God” (2:23). Perhaps they wondered if there was anyone there, listening to their cry. But J. Gerald Janzen writes that a biblical faith tells the story with the conviction that “Every cry, with the individual throb of suffering it expresses, is falling, cry for cry, not on deaf ears, but on the heart of God. If God is hidden, God is hidden within the suffering” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). (There’s something that could be examined more closely in our own lives: the idea that “God is hidden within the suffering.”)

And so God heard the cry of the people, and God remembered having made certain promises to them. Something had to be done. We know, from the earlier story about a baby drawn up from the waters, that a plan had, in a sense, already been put in place, even before “God remembered” or “took notice” of God’s people and their suffering. Nonetheless, Walter Brueggemann finds it significant that the slaves, not God, were the ones who provided “the initial impetus for the exodus confrontation.” Their cry is “characteristic,” he says, “of Israel’s powerful tradition of ‘lament'” (An Introduction to the Old Testament). It seems fair to say, then, that the plan that was in place got kicked into motion by a relational, interpersonal move by Israel – crying out from their hearts to a God who, they believed, must be there, listening, a God who must care – and therefore, a God who will respond, a God who will do something about their predicament.

Minding the sheep in Midian

Meanwhile, Moses was minding his own business, or perhaps he was minding someone else’s business, because that’s what his father-in-law’s sheep would have been. He had gone way, way out, beyond the wilderness, to the mountain of God. We remember this mountain as Sinai, also called Horeb, probably a sacred place for the Midianites, his remote cousins with whom he had settled down and gotten married, started up a family, made something of a life for himself. Now he could just do the regular things that ordinary people do: taking care of business – in that situation, tending the flock of sheep. Perhaps Moses thought that he had things in rather good order, for a man on the run, a man wanted by the powers-that-be for murder.

Out there in the Sinai peninsula, past the wilderness, it must have been hot, and the air would have felt thick and shimmery. It would have been easy to see mirages and other apparitions, so when Moses suddenly came upon an angel of the Lord and a bush on fire, he may not have trusted his own eyes. Perhaps that’s why he drew closer to inspect this astonishing thing more carefully. He was brought up short, however, by nothing less than the Voice of God. Here the story somehow pulls together the indescribable, inexpressible, awesome (that over-used word!) presence of God and the most mundane of things: shoes. Janzen observes that speaking of transcendence is so difficult that all we can do is rely on our words, our limited, inadequate words (Exodus, WBC). God, frightening and unapproachable, warned Moses not only to keep his distance, but also to take off his shoes. Yes, it was holy ground, high up on that mountain, far beyond the wilderness, far away from home. But it was also someplace where God could talk to Moses in such a way that his life, and the life of his people, would never be the same.

Where hospitality and reverence intersect

Taking our shoes off on sacred ground is a familiar idea, but so is “kicking off our shoes” and getting comfortable. In those days, inviting someone to take off their sandals was a sign of hospitality, Janzen says, and “Moses finds himself in a presence that is unfathomably sacred, a presence that invites him to be at home at the same time that it claims his profound respect.” Moses, who “has felt himself ‘an alien residing in a foreign land’ (2:22) now finds himself a guest of God.” But Janzen takes it one step “deeper,” in a way making Moses seem more alert and open, and vulnerable to the call of God. Reflecting on the purpose of wearing shoes, he observes, “Footwear protects us from the ground, and it renders us insensitive to what our soles (and our souls!) might feel there.” Perhaps God wanted to make Moses comfortable enough that he would listen and take the message to heart (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).

It takes only a sentence for God to reassure Moses that this is no mirage, that this is the God of his own ancestors, the God who makes promises and keeps them. Right away, Moses covers his face, afraid to look. God then explains the situation, using lots of verbs in describing what God has done so far: observed, heard, know, come down, deliver, bring, seen, and, of course, send. That last verb – “send” – is the one that makes all the difference in the world to Moses. This could have been a lovely story or a reassuring moment in the faith life of Moses (surely he would have found it good news that God had heard his people’s cry and was going to respond), but no, there’s much more in it for Moses – this is the story of his call from God. And Moses was just the sort of person who would have understood God’s motivation, James Newsome writes, because he, too, “knew what it meant to protect and defend others…[and] knew that caring for others was expensive and hurtful” (Texts for Preaching Year A). Or, as Brent Strawn describes Moses, he “has deliverer in his blood” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Moses would have understood God’s determination to rescue the Hebrew people, to “pry them loose from the grip of Egypt,” as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message.

Arguing with God

There are several things that draw our attention in this one piece of the long conversation between God and Moses that begins here and continues through the first five books of the Bible, a conversation that is sometimes surprisingly contentious. Moses may be awe-struck, but even here, the first time that God talks to him, Moses talks back. His reservations are expressed in questions that could be boiled down to “Who am I (to do such a great thing as deliver my people)?” and “Who are you (or at least who can I say sent me to do this bold thing)?” And so naming is important. Janzen argues that Moses needs to know how he (simple sheepherder that he is) will be able to convince an entire nation of people that they should follow him in overthrowing the grip of the mightiest empire on earth, how he is “to persuade them that such a name should inspire them with hope.” In the mystery of God’s name is freedom and power to deal with every situation and to enable and empower the people, beginning with Moses, to do the same. The name that God provides, Janzen writes, “identifies God as that ultimate mystery who is free to be whoever and whatever God chooses to be, in whatever situation or circumstance” (Exodus, WBC).

The two “who” questions come together in God’s response to Moses: the simple words, “I will be with you.” Moses doesn’t need to worry about who he is (and isn’t), or to fret about his inadequacies, the formidable task ahead, or the obstacles in his way. After all, Brent Strawn writes, “ultimately, this call really isn’t about who Moses is. It is about Who is with Moses.” Many commentators make the point – a key one, of course – that the all-powerful, too-awesome-to-behold God still works through the small, intimidated humans God loves. We recall all of those verbs describing God’s actions, until we get to the key word, “send,” which means Moses will, after all, have to do some of the work. Still, it’s God who plays the most important role; it’s God who’s at the center of the story and the key person in it: Strawn says that the presence and power of God will make all of Moses’ work possible: “Moses will never have to deliver alone again” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).    

Hearing our call in community

While the great drama of the Exodus is initiated up on that mountaintop, this is also a very personal story of call (not that the personal and the communal natures of call can be severed). Moses was doing his chores, wandering with the sheep, perhaps fittingly going too far (beyond the wilderness – most of us are afraid even to go into the wilderness, let alone beyond it), and encountering God, who gave him, Brueggemann writes, “a larger purpose for his life that refused everything conventional.” It’s this “larger purpose,” Brueggemann says, that changes everything in Moses’ life, and in our lives as well. We may have experienced this already, he says, or perhaps we’re still waiting for it to happen, still hoping to hear the call that will transform our life, that will “break it open.” Our lives today are lived far away from the mountaintop beyond the wilderness, and yet we must feel lost at times even in the everyday, regular lives we live. Deep down, we hunger for the holiness of God and a larger purpose for our lives, to discover our lives, like Moses, “saturated with the reality of God.” The questions that Moses asked out loud might have been about “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” but inside, Brueggemann wonders if he wasn’t asking, “What could be different about the purpose of my life because of the reality of this God?” (The Threat of Life).

And this “what” is key to our call. Brent Strawn observes that the story isn’t trying to explain “why” Moses is called: “The text does not answer why; it is not really interested in that theoretical question. The text is very interested, however, in the what of calling” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). We look around us today, in a wilderness of our own, and listen and wonder about God’s call in our lives. Brueggemann links this story of impending liberation with Paul’s lyrical description in Romans 8 of the liberation that all of creation longs for, groans for, a liberation from decay, and today, a liberation from the greed and violence to which we have subjected it: “Imagine the whole of creation destined for an Exodus liberation!” (The Threat of Life). In the stark and haunting beauty of the wilderness, if we draw away and listen for God’s voice, and seek God’s presence, we might find ourselves drawn into a project much larger than we could ever imagine: the healing of creation. Like Moses, we might consider ourselves inadequate. We might waste time debating “why” we were called, instead of getting to work on the “what” of the larger purpose our lives have been given. “Perhaps,” Strawn writes, “more deliverances would happen if the called were more concerned with the what of, not to mention the fact of, their calling instead of debating the why.”

Pursued by holiness

We might also consider the terrible alternative: living a life that is not called. We could refuse to listen, refuse to go up on the mountaintop, close ourselves off from the holiness that pursues us and calls out our name. Life is certainly simpler that way, and we are certainly free to say “no.” In his commentary on Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Brueggemann describes the uncalled life as “an autonomous existence in which there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy.” Our culture tells us that we’re independent (and so are those “other” people who don’t seem to know how to look after themselves) and self-sufficient. We just have to make it on our own. But Brueggemann thinks we are only fooling ourselves: “The life of Moses in this narrative, as the lives of all people who live in this narrative of faith, is not autonomous. There is the One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned.”

In the end, the question, then, is whether we’ll have the courage to listen and respond, trusting that wherever we go, to Egypt, to Pharaoh, to the ends of the earth, we will never be alone. Ted Loder has written a beautiful prayer, “The downsweep of your wing,” that expresses our hesitation before the call of the God of “forbidding holiness as well as exciting horizons.” When, he prays to God, “I don’t have enough inspiration, wisdom, imagination, will, or faith to do what seems to lay its claim on me, or to work the change that seems required, have mercy on me and cover me with grace…find a way to me, bestow some gift I cannot name…” (Wrestling the Light). One pictures Moses, coming down from that mountain, soaked in grace, never alone, and never again the same.

For further reflection:

Parker J. Palmer, 21st century
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.”

Mother Theodore Guerin, 19th century
“We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only that which we can do.”

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 20th century
Cordelia: “I hope I’ve got a vocation.” Charles: “I don’t know what that means.” Cordelia: “It means you can be a nun. If you haven’t a vocation it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I’m here to be me, which is taking a great deal longer than I had hoped.”

Phillips Brooks, 19th c., Trinity Church, Boston
“Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

Additional reflection on Romans 12:9-21:

Paul’s soaring theology of grace might spark criticism that he didn’t have an ethical dimension to his teaching, but his Letter to the Romans responds masterfully to this question with a “therefore” that describes the proper response to God’s grace, and what it looks like to be transformed by God. Written to the “new church start” at Rome, the letter is full of advice, as Paul offers guidance in the early days of the church to a young community, a little like a newly-married couple (this is a wonderful wedding message text). The congregation in Rome is already experiencing some problems, some conflict and challenges, as they fashion a new life together, rooted in love: not a warm, fuzzy, soft-focus love, but a clear, community, interdependent kind of love. In our efforts today to be loving communities of hospitality and grace, we have much in common with our earliest ancestors, and much to learn from their teacher.

Our reading this week is a long list of instructions from Paul about how to live the Christian life (the exhortations seem to flow, one upon another, as if Paul has so many things he wants to say to them, like the parents of the bride and groom at a wedding: “Oh, and just one more thing I forgot to tell you…”), but it’s clear that this life together is also a witness to the world. Even a tiny community of committed and faithful people can understand themselves as mustard seeds of a goodness that surprises everyone and maybe even transforms everything around them. More than earnest efforts to convert others to our way of thinking and believing, the lives of Christians following this ethic – everyday saints living in everyday holiness – would be both powerful and transforming in a world shaped by self-interest, self-righteousness, and “nice guys finishing last.” So this Christian ethic isn’t just about focusing inward on the life of the church (although caring about one another in the church is very important) but also about turning our attention and our love on the world that God loves, too.

Responding to injury and insult with a blessing

While Charles Cousar cautions preachers not to “domesticate” this text “by appealing to a vague and sentimentalized form of love” (Texts for Preaching Year A), the love Paul describes here is anything but vague or sentimentalized. We might even call it “tough love,” for what is tougher for human beings than to turn away evil with good – to respond to injury or insult with a blessing? After all, doesn’t it feel good to give food, for example, to people who, we feel (and judge), are deserving of our help? Yes, but many folks find it galling to give to someone who, they have determined, “don’t deserve it.” Even harder is to give, to share, to bless someone who has actually wronged us, or threatened to do so. Wasn’t the world taken aback several years ago by the grace of the Amish families in Pennsylvania who forgave the man who had shot ten of their daughters, little schoolgirls in their classroom? The wholehearted commitment of their community to the ethic described here by Paul, ironically, sparked debate and questioning even among fellow Christians. And yet, as Hank Langknecht puts is so well, “Christians are not allowed the indulgence of having enemies or permission to assume that we are right” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Do we doubt that the world would be transformed if millions of Christians refused to have enemies, or to assume that we are right?

Note: partway through writing this reflection, I went home for the day and picked up the then-current issue of Newsweek from the mail. It contained the story of a man who witnessed the brutal murders of his parents and the rape of his sister when he was a teenager. His life, and his sister’s, were marked by this nightmare for many years, and I remembered this text as I read his story. We are also taken aback with horror at the recent execution, filmed and posted on the Internet, of a journalist overseas by militants claiming to be religious; our hearts break for his family and friends. The preacher/pastor’s task, in the face of this kind of horror, is daunting. How easy it is to say that we need to forgive, as the Amish people did in Pennsylvania, without sounding insensitive in cases like these. And yet, here is the text before us.   

Last week’s reading from Romans (12:1-8) spoke of the need (might “imperative” be a better word?) to live a life transformed by the power of the gospel, and this week’s reading describes such a Spirit-led life. One short exhortation after another describes the content of Paul’s “better way” (I Corinthians 12), all of it in the spirit of the Jewish wisdom tradition and Jesus’ own teaching (Jesus, of course, was, among many other things, a wisdom teacher in his tradition).

Love at unexpected moments

Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message gives a remarkably accessible path to the challenge Paul lays out: “Love from the center of who you are…discover beauty in everyone.” Perhaps those two lines are at the heart of the list of instructions, because loving from the center of who we are, and finding beauty in every single one of God’s children, would lead us to be generous and hospitable, forgiving and peaceful, humble and kind. Once again, Paul’s “better way” contrasts with the world (“the empire”) that surrounds him and his readers, most dramatically right there in Rome, the seat of the Empire. Another translation that makes the meaning of the text perfectly clear is the New Living Translation: “Don’t just pretend that you love others. Really love them.” It’s troubling that many Christians seems to measure faithfulness and even Christian identity itself in terms of sexual morality or a specific way of interpreting the Bible rather than focusing on these clear instructions from the earliest author of the New Testament. But what if things were different?

Today, we are surrounded by a world that puts its faith more in striking back than in discovering beauty in every single one of God’s children. In Rome long ago and in the world today, the sweet irony of loving our enemy, of giving our hungry enemy food instead of bombing them, of giving our thirsty enemy a drink instead of striking them down, might confuse and confound them. However, it might also lead to their transformation, to a change of heart within them, as God works through us, the disciples of Jesus. Alas, we seem to be more conformed to the ways of this world than to the ways of the gospel, and often we’re unwilling to short-circuit evil with good. Instead, we strike back (and often feel quite self-righteous as we do), and we call that “justice,” even as children starve and arms manufacturers thrive. We actually fuel the evil rather than doing the entirely unexpected thing of responding with love. It is the effect of sin marring the essential goodness of our creation in the image of God.

Learning to love from God

On the other hand, our good creation by God is the reason we might consider our “natural tendencies” often to be good and beautiful. (Years ago, Matthew Fox wrote a book entitled Original Blessing, rather than Original Sin.)  Our truest nature (the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln put it) lies buried beneath the distortions of sin and self-centeredness, of fear and a failure to trust. And yet we are transformed by God’s hand inexorably at work in our lives and in our hearts, and the actions we choose can have a hand in shaping us not in the form and image of a broken world, but in the shape of God’s own dream for us, good and lovely, gracious and giving and kind. Perhaps there have been moments that you can remember and name, when you, or others in your life, in your church, have loved from the center of who they are, times when you have discovered beauty in everyone. It may be difficult to do this, but that’s the point of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit: S.D. Giere observes that the kind of love we’re talking about isn’t just something we decide to feel or to show; it’s agape, and “agape is God’s love and not to be mistaken for any other.” While, he says, “human love is imperfect – expecting, using, manipulating” (New Proclamation Year A 2011), we know that God’s love is extravagant and relentless, or, as Robert Jewett says, “both spontaneous and indiscriminately generous” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

When has the Still-speaking God spoken to your congregation and to the United Church of Christ, calling us to follow a “better way,” in spite of what the world around us would say? Your church may be more like a newly married couple (a young church), or a long-married one (established long-ago). How, then, does this text from so long ago speak to the life of your congregation? For example, in what ways does your church “contribute to the needs of the saints” and “extend hospitality to strangers”? Notice that it says “strangers,” not “familiar friends and family.” Members of churches often say, “We’re a friendly church,” warmly welcoming one another, friends and family, while failing to notice the new visitor in their midst, who quietly walks by, unnoticed. I think that visitors are the only ones who can tell us whether we’re a friendly church, or not. How well do we welcome those we do not know? The word Paul uses here, philoxenia, or the love of the stranger, is one that S.D. Giere claims “defies attaching adjectives like ‘illegal’ to those from outside.” And despite the claims and efforts of many churches to be friendly at least to one another, Giere observes that many of us prefer “to blend into an anonymous participation” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). Like friendship, church membership requires energy, attention, time, and involvement with others’ lives. How else will we come to know and love deeply the people God has given us to love?

Hear God’s Word in the midst of the noise around us

Karl Barth famously said that we should read the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other. It’s difficult to read this text without the television, the Internet, the radio, the newspaper and even Facebook feeding us a constant stream of updates on the political squabbles of our day. Perhaps “squabbles” isn’t a strong enough term, as they sometimes appear to be a fight to the death, if only figuratively. No matter what our political beliefs are, we have a growing sense that the greater good is not being served by the tone and spirit of this public debate and the struggles beneath it. Most if not all of the combatants loudly claim to be Christians, too, and while we do observe the separation of church and state, can we be blamed for wishing all parties involved might read, and agree on, the words in this passage as guidance for the life of our larger community? Robert Jewett is especially helpful when he writes: “To be ‘of the same mind toward one another’ does not imply agreeing on particulars or achieving a consensus on general points that overcomes disagreements. It implies rather the admission of mental equality that enables people to work with each other. If love is to be genuine, it must abandon any claim of possessing superior insight or status” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

Let me be the first to confess that I find Paul’s words hard to live by, but then that was the point about grace, wasn’t it? If we opened ourselves up to the Spirit of God at work in the world, through us, loving one another, listening to one another, hoping and sharing and forgiving and not being so proud and self-righteous, welcoming one another (and their perspectives), returning gentleness and kindness for every wrong, well, Jewett is right that it would be “a new kind of triumph over evil: by civility and hospitality rather than by force” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles). Of course, it would also be a whole new way of doings things, wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing to behold?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For further reflection:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

Walt Whitman, 19th century
“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people…go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families….”

William Pickens, in a speech to a meeting of Congregationalists, Oak Park, Illinois, November 2, 1932
“Living together is an art.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez, 20th century
“The children of the world do not need more missiles.”  

G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

Margaret Mead, 20th century
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed [people] can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Lectionary texts

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generation