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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b, Jeremiah 15:15-21 AND Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:23-28

Human beings seem to be creatures who try to make sense of things. Christians (and others) sometimes speak of aligning our lives with God’s purposes or with the Spirit of the Cosmos. Traditionally we have spoken of a sense of “call.”

Such a perspective may get distorted in a couple of ways. First, I suspect that there may be a variety of options before us as we move through life and that each may contain God-given possibilities. Life and call are not so much about finding a single “right” course as they are about being attentive to the “God-possibilities” wherever we are in life’s journey. Second, even if our personal mission is more narrowly defined than I think, I suspect that finding it is not a guarantee of ease and fulfillment. God’s call, I believe, often involves challenges, leading us to moments of frustration, even crying out in desperation as Jeremiah and Job and Moses and Paul and even Jesus himself can attest.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday can shed light on what it is that God wants, the purposes in which God wants us to be involved.

The reading from Exodus defines (or refuses to define) God in ways that continue on through both testaments. The story begins with Moses taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness. (Exodus 3:1) Last time we saw Moses, he was being raised as Pharaoh’s grandson. When he reached adulthood, he noticed that his kinsmen, the enslaved Hebrews, were being mistreated. In a fit of anger, he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. (Exodus 2:11-14) This didn’t sit well with Pharaoh, so Moses fled for his life, settling in the land of Midian. (Exodus 2:15) There he met Rueul, also known as Jethro, and married his daughter, Zipporah. (Exodus 2:16-22)

We won’t waste words here on the different story-telling traditions that use different names for people and places (not only Rueul and Jethro, but Horeb (as in Exodus 3:1 and elsewhere) and Sinai, as other story-tellers name the mountain). We’ll just start with Moses in the wilderness noticing a bush that is burning without being “consumed.” (vss. 2-3) Various attempts to give a “scientific” explanation have some merit, but it is not a scientific story. The flame is an angel after all. (vs. 2) It is a story about sacredness, holiness, mystery. Moses is having a “God-moment.” He hears God speaking out of the bush and is told to take off his sandals because he is “standing on holy ground.” (vss. 4-5)

This story begins and ends with a God who is mystery, who cannot be contained, yet somehow connects with us, draws us into divine purposes. We all need “holy ground moments,” times when we are overwhelmed with the mystery of life, with the sense that there is something at work that just keeps on giving, doesn’t run out, strips us of all pretense so that we stand there barefooted and gaping. That’s part of the definition (or non-definition) of God.

And what does God have to say? God says, “I’m on your side, on the side of all who are down-trodden, all who suffer. I’ve come to deliver your people from the Egyptians.” (vss. 6-9) I’m not sure what Moses thought of God before that, what Moses might have expected to hear. I suspect what he heard came as something of a surprise. He already feared for his life, and it says that “he was afraid to look at God.” (vs. 6)

The big surprise is that that’s not the end of it. God has a place for Moses in his purposes. Moses is to be the liberator. (vs. 10) What God wants is people who will join the divine liberation movement. Like Moses, we’re often not sure this is what we’re ready to sign on for. (vs. 11) Then comes the final moment in this God-defining story. Moses says, “Well, if I’m going to do this thing, at least I need to know your name so that I can tell them who sent me.” (vs. 13) God says “I AM WHO I AM . . . Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” We have grown up with the name “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (YHWH). Some have suggested it might better be translated as “I will be who I will be.” It is a “name” that denies limits. I will move wherever I need to move to right the wrongs of this world, to restore and uphold human dignity where it is being denied. The “I AM” appears again and again in human religion and human history. Even early Christians heard it being echoed in the descriptions of Jesus as “I AM . . .” this and that (light, the way, resurrection, life). Even now are we seeing a new breath that cannot be contained sweeping the African continent?

The verses selected from Psalm 105 celebrate this God of liberation and the people God used to bring liberation about. (vss. 1-5) It traces their journey to Egypt and his sending of Moses and Aaron in their time of need. (Psalm 105:6, 23-26)

Jeremiah and Psalm 26 bring another dimension to the question, “What does God want anyway?” The tone is, “I’ve been good. I’ve done everything I thought you wanted me to do. Why am I then suffering? Why am I being persecuted?” “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers . . . Why is my pain unceasing . . .?” (Jeremiah 15:17-18) “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity . . . I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence . . .” (Psalm 26:1, 4-6) The texts are a bit more complicated than that, but the question of why the righteous suffer is an eternal one. These particular verses seem to have a self-righteous tone, avoiding any contact with those who are not seen as God’s elect. While God certainly calls us again and again to do the right thing, the model of love we see in Jesus is one which sits beside sinners and those deemed “worthless.” Those are exactly the people that God wants us to love. We do it not to escape suffering but because of the love God has implanted in our souls.

The reading from Romans spells out what it is that God wants in terms of everyday actions and relationships. It defines love in terms of behavior, including blessing those who persecute us, weeping with those who weep, living in harmony, not being haughty, associating with the lowly. (Romans 12:14-16) It turns the question of Jeremiah 15 and Psalm 26 upside down. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (vs. 17) “If your enemies are hungry feed them . . . Do not overcome evil, but overcome evil with good.” (vss. 20-21)

And tucked away in there is a verse we all need to hear in our families and churches, in our national and international politics, everywhere in all ages: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (vs. 18) It is one of the most muted calls to peace we can find. It’s not idealistic, recognizing that peace may not always be possible—“if it is possible.” It realizes that it takes more than one to make peace. All we can be responsible for is our own behavior—“as far as it depends on you.” The idealism comes when it makes no distinction between friends and enemies—“live peaceably with all.” Any questions about what God wants?

The Gospel lesson gets us back into the question of suffering. When Jesus tells his disciples that he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed . . .,” Peter is outraged. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:21-22) The “Messiah” must not suffer. It was an idea that was offensive to ever right-thinking Jew. It went way beyond a good person suffering. Divinity itself was involved here. They must have misheard Jesus.

The heart of the reading, and the final answer to what God wants is in what follows. What God wants is our lives. It is not that we are being called to martyrdom, or to deliberate exposure to suffering. Giving our lives is a matter of being committed to serving others rather than seeking our own selfish gain. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (vss. 24-26)

When we ask, “What does God want anyway?”, we must be ready to open every corner, every activity of our lives. God wants us to realize that the meaning and purpose of our lives is an all-encompassing self-giving love. That’s more than enough for me, certainly beyond anything I can completely comprehend. So I guess I just have to keep on asking, “What does God want anyway?” I invite you to do the same.


Ron said...

Thanks for this. I've certainly felt called more recently to do things I didn't want to do. I thought they would be difficult and prone to failure. As it turned out, despite that they involved some risk, I think I made the right call in most and things are easier than I feared.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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