Sunday Sermon

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


     One of the first things I noticed about this Exodus lesson was the remarkable fact that God wishes to be known as a God in relationship with human others.  “I am the God of your father Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” That is the answer to the question Who are you?  The answer to the related question What are you? as in animal, vegetable or mineral? is the tetragrammaton, “I am that I am”, also recorded as YHWH.  I learned in metaphysics that God describes self in this passage as that being whose being and becoming are the same.  I have wondered for decades about what that means exactly, but the implication drawn in our text was that God is changeless.  That only makes me wonder some more.  How can an eternally changeless Being have relationships from before and throughout history and not be affected by them? The Bible shows God as angry, wrathful, loving, etc. Some say this is anthropomorphic.  Since we are created in God’s image according to the story, maybe our emotions are theomorphic.  I believe that God is not bound by our concepts or our stories.  Certainly, Jesus showed deep emotion and passionate concern in Luke’s gospel, and he is the clearest example of God’s intentions for us that we have.  

        The fact remains that after Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, God chose to be named as the father of a human line that begins with Abraham.  Abraham followed the call of God to him throughout a lifetime, and in the lesson for today we have the calling of Moses.  The lesson carries forward a theme within a firmly established pattern in the Bible.  God says to Moses, I have heard their cry and know their affliction in Egypt at the hand of their oppressors.  When events are the darkest, the people of God cry out for help and God responds by sending someone to help.  The prophets, and Jesus in his time, were called up for this specific purpose to help save God’s people.  The gospels do not tell a new story or even a familiar story in a new way.  Jesus’ coming, even to this day, is the continuation of God’s commitment to God’s people. Christians have always recognized that the example of Jesus in the Christian tradition must never be superseded, just as the examples of Abraham, Moses and King David are not to be replaced with new examples that vary from theirs.  Humans, in my experience, have difficulty resisting the impulse to use interpretation to build up or explain away certain passages of Scripture.  Making certain human examples key and not to be tampered with, even when we don’t understand the stories told about them, helps to resist our more meddlesome urges.  I remember that my teacher, Werner Kelber, always referred to the act of interpretation as veil-making or a dance of veils that conceals even as it reveals.  I am as big a meddler as anyone, but I have certain set, acknowledged loyalties.  I interpret within a tradition, that of the Episcopal Church because it has provided work and a home for me that I thoroughly appreciate.

     We live and work within patterns of thinking and being in the world, and I think of the Bible as providing corrective patterns that I try to align myself with regularly over time.  Where there are conflicts between human examples, Jesus is the pattern that most truly represents God’s will for us. This was established early in Christian thought. One of the major themes or patterns of Scripture that varies little in multiple examples is the calling theme that is demonstrated in today’s Exodus lesson.  

     Moses is outside working and sees something that draws his attention.  My calling began on a Sunday morning standing in church.  We are going about our business when God acts to draw our attention.  Moses could have kept working, but he turns aside to investigate.  He finds a bush that is burning but is not burning up.  That is the most exquisite image of calling that I have ever found.  Those of us who follow our calling to become acquainted with the living God find ourselves passionately involved while growing in mental and spiritual health.  Our passion is not burning us out; it is making us more alive.  As Moses closes in on this phenomenon, God tells him to take off his shoes. He is on holy ground.  It is completely human for us to wonder when we see something strange, “What is going on?” God answers the question directly.  God is calling and identifies self as the God of his ancestors.  

     After the introduction God gets right to business.  I have heard the cry of my people and have seen their misery in Egypt.  I am sending you to Pharaoh to lead them out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey.  True to the pattern of Scripture, the sign will be given at the end of the journey, after the work of Faith that breaks the hold of slavery has been done.  You and the people will worship me here at this Holy Mountain after you come out of Egypt. Talk about delayed gratification! God sent Abraham to a land that he would show him.  This pattern suggests that asking Jesus for a sign before deciding to follow him is putting the cart before the horse.  

     Moses and God both know that Israel has no reason to follow Moses anywhere, much less risk all their lives in a confrontation with Pharaoh.  Moses presses God.  How will they know that you are sending me?  It is a very good question.  What is your name? The tetragrammaton is a very special name.  “I am that I am.”  It preserves the uniqueness of God in a verbal puzzle.  Naming God never contains God or makes taking a hold over God possible in any way. It is very much a part of ancient rituals to name and control.  YHWH is a name that will not permit control.  I am has sent me to you.  This is the highest, the ultimate God, the one worshipped by your ancestors before slavery claimed you and took away your will.  People in slavery have many gods, and these gods do nothing to free them.  If we think of addiction, the fix is god and it only leads people more deeply into slavery.  Where wealth is our god, we will work ourselves to death for riches we don’t have enough time to enjoy. If fame is our God, the adulation will threaten to wash us away.  What about the need to control or the ever-popular “It’s all about me”? The names of our gods are legion, but they have a character that could be described as “I am that I want”.  These gods are created by our cravings and do not stand outside of our time and place.  Establishing that this God who is ultimate, dwelling outside the place of our slavery, will act to free us from slavery is an important part of the calling story.

     All other gods offer some form of slavery. The God of Creation has seen our misery and is calling us to leave our enslavement.  St. Paul addresses the problem directly, naming the forms of idolatry that Israel struggled with in the Wilderness after coming out of Egypt.  Among those used as examples are sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and complaining.  Putting God to the test and complaining are both dodges.  We don’t want to deal with whatever has us enslaved, so we put our energy into testing and complaining, as if God could be fooled by our delaying tactics.  When Jesus is continually asked for signs, it is a dodge designed to skirt the issue between them.  We walk by Faith with Jesus guiding us and then we see the signs of health that so many have seen in his lifetime and afterwards.  The sign is always given in Scripture at the end of the journey because Faith is required to break away from slavery.

     Moses will give them signs like the ten plagues and the incredible morphing staff, but they will have to learn to walk by Faith.  None of the signs convince anyone to let go, and especially not Pharaoh.  He eventually is hurt enough by them to capitulate, but he is in no way a believer.  Once he has got his breath back, he goes after those slaves again.  Escaping slavery is hard work that the Bible sets down in the Wilderness experience in Exodus. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the difficulty of the journey out of slavery.  They must not falter.  The temptations are severe, but God in Jesus is standing by to help.  

     We have two odd bits of sayings material in the gospel lesson.  In the first Jesus disconnects natural disasters from God’s judgment.  Do you believe that these persons who died so tragically were worse sinners than you?  If you don’t repent you will suffer a worse fate than they did.  Slaves must willingly walk away from slavery. Any kind of delaying tactic that goes on for too long may seal their fate.  Addicts are taking a chance every time they take their drug of choice.  Only refusing to take it will cure them.  Sinners have the same problem.  Only refusing the sin, repentance will save us.

     The next image of Jesus, the gardener digging in the soil, loosening and fertilizing is my favorite in the gospels.  My work is so simple when understood this way.  As a teacher I loosen the soil by speaking for the stories of our tradition in such a way that their application to our lives may be seen.  I fertilize by giving my best effort to caring for those of you who want it, bringing the sacraments and every other rich fertilizer that I know to bear in our journey together.  Scripture and particularly the gospels warn us those gifts are often dodged or rejected.  Nevertheless.  For the sake of all those who wish to leave their slavery or disease, we labor on.  I like stories that help me to do my job, and this is one of them.   

     Any one of you has struggled with some form of slavery.  Your ability to help others lies in your struggle.  Being truthful with yourselves, you may speak truth to others.  I know about addiction to pain and sorrow. I often have thought that is why God keeps calling me back to serve in West Virginia.  It is hard to believe in goodness when what we know is loss and more loss.  My parents were addicted to obtaining and maintaining the good life.  When I saw them, they were tired, frustrated and short-tempered.  Unfortunately, they struck out with their hands and their tempers.  The idea was to shut me up because they couldn’t deal with another problem, and I know that now.  I felt lonely and rejected by my parents.  Breaking out of that place took decades of work.  I know about slavery to overeating; in my case it is a problem of self-soothing.  I know the misery these habits both bring.  The lessons today show us that God has seen our misery, is sending and has sent us help throughout time.  

     We will accept that help by faith.  There are signs that the help offered and the persons offering it are legit.  They have given up or are giving up the need to control others and their environments.  They are conscious of slavery and addiction, acting to free themselves and others from it.  What they know they give freely in acknowledgement of our freedom to act, to free ourselves or to dodge the problem.  Those who leave you free to choose, time and again, no matter how often you challenge them, are those whom God is sending to you.  St. Paul has given you a set of positive signs as well, the spiritual gifts and fruits.  Added together there are plenty of signs, but whether we will find those signs compelling is another matter entirely.  Jesus himself was not able to convince those who repeatedly asked for signs.  He knew it was a dodge like complaining in the Wilderness.  The true sign, the one from God, always comes at the end of the journey from slavery.  You will worship together at God’s Holy Mountain.  Here I am again to worship with you.

Sermon for 3 Lent by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin