Bible Study

On Doing Faith Together

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 1:14-20. You can also listen to the audio.]

This is one of those overly-familiar texts. One of those Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.

Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.

This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story to say, “You should follow Jesus like these guys did.”

When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”

As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?

So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.

But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?

If a charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part of the story is why Jesus asked them to follow him in the first place.

I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”

We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him crazy.

So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?

It makes no sense.

And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.

What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will drive us crazy.

Really, this whole disciples thing makes no sense.

Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.

Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.

Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.

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Reflections on 1 Samuel 3

[This post is excerpted from this full sermon.]

The very first sentence of this story tells us that “the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” And this sentence tells us right away how things are supposed to work. Samuel is a boy and Eli is a grown-up. Samuel is serving under Eli.

Which means that it is God who is not following protocol here. God has no business coming directly to Samuel. God’s supposed to go through Eli. Eli is a priest at the temple. His entire purpose in life is to mediate the word of God. Eli exists in the world so that God can speak to the people through him. God is supposed to speak to all of the people through Eli; and God is especially supposed to speak through Eli if God wants the attention of a boy serving under Eli.

But that is not how it happens. The Lord calls directly to Samuel, and this is so out of order, so unexpected, that it takes Eli awhile to figure out what is going on. According to our story, it is not until the third time Samuel comes running in to Eli’s room that Eli “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Because the Lord is not supposed to be calling the boy. The Lord is supposed to be calling the old, blind priest who has served in the temple for decades.

But finally, Eli figures out what is happening. And this is where I think he is at least a little heroic. He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Perhaps by calling Eli “heroic” I am simply defining “hero” as someone who takes a better, more mature course of action than I imagine I would take in a similar situation. Because here is how I imagine it might have gone down if I were in Eli’s position. (You know, in my alternate universe where women served as priests in the temple.)

The fifth or sixth time Sammy came running in saying, “Here I am. You called me”–when I figured out it was actually God calling Samuel—I would have said, “Oh dear. That’s God calling you. God must be terribly confused. Here, let me just put on my robe and I’ll go back to your room with you so I can talk to God and see what’s up.”

Even though Eli, by all rights, is the one God should be talking to, Eli accepts the fact that God is speaking not to him, but to Samuel. And rather than get angry or jealous or bitter, Eli helps Samuel understand that it is the Lord speaking and instructs Samuel about how to best receive the word of God.

Not everyone can do that, you know. Some people are so sure about who God should be talking to and what God should be saying that they can miss the word of God altogether.

There’s a prayer I love by Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann that begins: “We are your people and mostly we don’t mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing . . . trying to make you fit the God we would rather have.”

I love that prayer because, if we are honest, we have to admit that for all of us there is a God we would rather have. We all hold onto the way things should be. The way God should be. Who is and is not worthy to carry the divine message in this world.

It is hard to hear God when the divine voice operates outside the reasonable parameters we have set for it.

We serve a God who does not fit our categories or behave in ways we think a respectable God should behave. And listening for that God, instead of the God we would rather have, is hard. It is maddening. And it is necessary.

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Some thoughts on Jonah (Have I mentioned I love Jonah?)

[This post is excerpted and edited from a sermon I preached a few years ago.]

Jonah is a book of biting satire. You have a prophet who does exactly the opposite of what prophets are supposed to do. He runs away from Yahweh and keeps his mouth closed. The fish’s mouth, of course, is wide open and Jonah just goes right on in. There are not many scenes in the Bible as bizarre as Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish, whining at God. And even when God finally gets Jonah to Nineveh, covered in fish vomit, Jonah only walks part way into the city and says about five words.

Somehow, despite the prophet’s worse than pathetic efforts, the people of Nineveh repent. And they don’t just repent. They really repent. Sackcloth, ashes—even for the cows. Now, just for a minute, picture cows in sackcloth and then tell me this is not a funny story.

One would think Jonah would be happy that his words had been taken to heart. But no. He’s pissed off. “See God. I knew you would pull this. These pathetic people deserve fire and brimstone, but no—la la la—slow to anger—la la la gracious, merciful, forgiving. If I can’t watch these people die a slow painful death, then just kill me now.”

Over the top? Of course. And perhaps Jonah is a little beyond us. But still, most of us have a pretty clear sense of what other people deserve –and what they don’t deserve. Some of our fiercest political debates revolve around such issues.

Does a person who cruelly murders another person deserve to die at the hands of the state?

Do people who have entered this country illegally deserve to be uprooted from their lives here and sent home to dire, possibly dangerous situations?

Do disgraced CEOs deserve multi-million dollar severance packages?

The answers to these questions matter because people should get what they deserve. And people should not get what they don’t deserve.

If you were a fly on my kitchen wall, you might hear the phrase “I have a hard time feeling sorry for . . .” It’s an admission that maybe some sympathy is in order but, really, people got what they deserved. Dishonest bank executives are on my list of people I have a hard time feeling sorry for. And drunk drivers. And—back when I taught college English—students who skip class and plagiarize papers. And my own children when they refuse to wear a hat and gloves and then get cold.

I better stop this list now, before I offend too many people. And before you all decide that you’re never going to share any of your problems with me again. I know it is not very pastoral to have this list. But I think it is human. I know someone who has decided not to have children. I’ve gotten the sense in talking with him that any stress I experience in raising my children is just my own stupid fault for having kids in the first place. I mean, we all have our lists.

The Ninevites are on Jonah’s list. And what Jonah is horrified to discover is that they are not, apparently, on God’s list. In fact, in light of this particular story, we have to wonder if God even has a list. I’m betting not, because if there were a list, even if the Ninevites weren’t on it, Jonah surely would be.

If we continue reading the Bible into the Gospels, any suspicions we have about God’s list will be erased. There is no one for whom God does not have compassion. There is no one God will not forgive. God does care about justice. But God’s not too worried that everybody always get what they deserve.

The final scene of Jonah is painfully ironic, because Jonah somehow takes God’s mercy toward him for granted. At the same time, he reprimands God. In his snottiest, nastiest, most accusatory voice, Jonah cries out: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

It can be spoken with sarcasm, with irritation, with rage or . . .

You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who forgives.”

How can we proclaim this good news about our God with anything but joy?

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Reflections on Mark 1:14-20

[This reflection is an edited excerpt from this sermon on Matthew 4:18-22.]

Think, for a minute, about a time in the past few days that you were at work–your job work or working on some project or responsibility. You are grading papers or standing in front of a class full of kids. You are making lunch for your own kids or cleaning your house. You are making phone calls or painting a wall or weeding the garden or cataloging books. Whatever work you did this past week, imagine yourself doing it. . . .

Now imagine an interruption. The phone rings. A child needs a form signed. Your boss wants to talk to you for a minute. What does your interruption look like? . . . How does it make you feel? . . .

I’ll tell you how interruptions make me feel–grumpy! In fact, I’m trying to discipline myself to not do certain types of work in the evenings because I get so grumpy when I’m interrupted. And, of course, with three kids in the house, I can count on interruptions. If I am typing up a particularly profound blog entry or crafting a spiritually enlightened sermon point, I might snap at the needy child to “wait just a minute, can’t you see I’m trying to share the Good News of Jesus here?”. If my child is bleeding, I might stop typing–but you better believe I hit “save” before I get the bandaid.

One thing I rarely do is willingly abandon my work. Not when I’m right in the middle of something. Not just because someone else wants my attention.

Yet Peter and Andrew, James and John all quit their work to follow Jesus–just because he asks. They don’t dismiss Jesus with an irritated excuse–the way I’m likely to talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Well, I’d love to chat about exactly how many people will get into heaven, but I’m just about to haul in this big load of fish, so I can’t really talk right now. You can leave your pamphlet right there on that rock. I’ll take a look later.”

These guys don’t take a brief time-out to talk to Jesus, all the while glancing back towards the net, the boat, the booth. “O.K. Man. I’ve got like three minutes. What do you need? What’s so important?”

They don’t even say, “Look, Jesus, just let me give my two weeks’ notice and I’ll catch up with you down the road.”

“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Here’s one of my questions: Why did they have to leave their nets? They had to eat on the road, right? Jesus was always hanging out in fishing villages, so they could have taken their nets along, used their skills to catch fish and feed all the disciples. They could even have used the net to haul the lame people to Jesus or to help build a shelter on rainy nights or . . . I don’t know. It just seems like a net could be useful.

Isn’t it enough that Peter and Andrew follow Jesus in the first place? Why do they have to leave their nets?

The most troubling aspect of these stories, though, is that James and John don’t just leave their nets –they leave their dad. They leave him sitting there in the boat with the half-mended nets. As you might imagine, a half-mended net is no better than no net at all when it comes to catching fish. The boys leave their dad in the lurch; put the family business in jeopardy. For what? To follow some itinerant rabbi they just met. How’s that for family values?

I mean, I see how all of these guys could think that following Jesus would be a fun adventure–an interesting side trip. Definitely something different. Good stories for the grandkids someday. I get the appeal of taking on something new.

It’s the giving up–the walking away–that strikes me as hard. Really almost unfair.

It’s always hard to know how we would act in certain, hypothetical, situations. So I can’t say for sure. But I think that if Jesus had called me–once I got over my initial irritation at being interrupted; once I finished up the paragraph I was typing and saved the document; once I checked a couple of references to make sure the guy wasn’t a total nut job–I think I would have been willing to follow him. But the nets, the cash, the dad–they would be coming with me.

It’s not just that I would want to take along my stuff. I’m actually a pretty light packer. I wouldn’t need my curling iron or my waffle maker or even, I suppose, my art supplies. But my Facebook account and my saved documents; my cell phone and a paper pad and pencil. My Bible and my family and the church directory.

Peter and Andrew, James and John don’t just leave behind stuff, they leave behind their most comfortable identities–the work and family relationships that give them value in the eyes of society and, probably, in their own eyes as well. They go from fishermen to “fishers of people,”–followers of Jesus–whatever that is!

I tend to skip over the word “immediately” in Mark because it is used so often. Everything happens “immediately” in this Gospel. But perhaps it is worth paying attention in this case: “Immediately they left their nets.” So hard. Really almost unfair.

“Immediately they left their nets.”

Maybe “immediately” is the only way any of us can ever do it.

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The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon I preached on Hebrews 12:18-29. You can find the full text here and the audio here.]

 

 

Generally, I find the section headings in Bibles less than helpful. But the section heading for this week’s scripture stopped me in my tracks: “The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.” “Wow,” I thought, “are we ever living on a mountain of fear.”

Michael Brown has been in the news lately. And we’ve also read about John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner–all unarmed; all black; all killed by police.

And, of course, problems with gun violence aren’t limited to police misconduct. The gun culture in this country is out-of-control. People insist on their “right” to have any and every kind of firearm–and to take those arms, loaded, into any and every public place.

We hear stories of rape and domestic abuse on the news and from our friends.

The mountain of fear. Perhaps it feels like we are there now–skirting around the base or even headed towards tree line where the air is getting thin.

“The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.” I would love to spend less time on the Mountain of Fear and more on the Mountain of Joy.

The actual mountains being compared here are Sinai and Zion. Where Sinai has fire and darkness and gloom and storm, Zion has thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly. Where Sinai represents the old covenant that God made with the Hebrew people, Zion represents the new covenant God has made with all people through Jesus.

Sinai and Zion. The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.

We should note that the writer of Hebrews does not tell us to choose Zion over Sinai. The writer does not offer a path for us to get from Sinai to Zion. This is not an admonition or a how-to manual. This is a statement of reality: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God.” The heavenly Jerusalem with the thousands upon thousands of angels–we’re already there. On the Mountain of Joy. That’s what Hebrews says.

We’re already there. But what does that mean? Does that mean we are always happy? Does it mean our ultimate goal in faith and life is personal fulfillment? I read a great line this week that was critiquing a recent prosperity sermon: “If our message cannot be preached with credibility in Mosul, it should not be preached in Houston.” It is a partial and weak faith that ignores suffering in the world. This selfish version of faith leads us to be, in Vincent Harding’s words, “missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.”

The Mountain of Joy presented here in Hebrews is not a place to pursue our own happiness while we ignore the pain and suffering in the world. On the Mountain of Joy, the cross is central. When we come–as we have come–to the Mountain of Joy, we come, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

We have come the Mountain of Joy. And even here there is blood. And even here there is pain and suffering. Here there is peace with the cross. Here we hear the better word. The word of forgiveness instead of vengeance. The word of faith instead of fear. The word of justice instead of oppression. The word of light instead of darkness.

We have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God. And when it feels like we are on that other mountain; when the darkness and gloom and storm–when the fear–threaten to overwhelm us, we must listen for the better word. For the good word, the Good News, spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

– – – – – –

And here is the call to worship that accompanied this scripture:

Let us give thanks
for the faithful who have come before us;
for the One who is always faithful.
Let us offer to God
all of our confidence, faith, and hope
along with our questions, doubts, and despair.
Because we do not approach a god of darkness, gloom, and storm;
We come to the living, loving God
through the new covenant offered by Jesus Christ.
So let us worship God acceptably
with reverence
and awe.

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On Being Church

Photo Credit: Doug Koch

Photo Credit: Doug Koch

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20 that  I preached about three years ago. (Funny how the lectionary works like that!)

– – – – –

The Greek word that gets translated as “church”–ekklesia–shows up on only two occasions in the Gospels. Both in Matthew. The first is: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The second and final use of ekklesia is in this morning’s Gospel reading. Again, Jesus is speaking. This time, rather than focusing on the strength and power of the church, Jesus anticipates church conflict.

“If a brother or sister sins against you . . .” “If.”

If somebody in the church says something that offends you; if he does something that you believe harms you in body or spirit; if she presents a barrier between you and God in some way. These things happen within the church; Jesus knew they would.

The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; but conflicting theologies, combative personalities, different aesthetic sensibilities–these things can do a lot of damage to Christian communities.

Jesus knew there would be conflict within the church, likely because he was living with the conflicts among his followers every day. We can imagine some of the squabbles that broke out as they walked along the road together.

“Peter took my walking stick.”

“It’s my turn to walk next to Jesus.”

“But we had bread and fish for lunch yesterday.”

“Forgive us our sins.” “Debts.” “Sins.” “Debts.”

“Cessarea is this way.” “No, it’s this way.” “Well, if somebody would have just stopped to ask directions . . . ”

Anticipating conflicts to come, Jesus gives his followers some pretty clear instructions: You speak to the offending person one-on-one. You speak to the person with a few witnesses. If the offending party still does not listen, only then do you take the conflict before the church body. The church community hears both sides of the conflict in light of Christ’s teachings; the church presents its collective wisdom in an attempt to reconcile all people to the body.

Only after these faithful attempts at reconciliation does the church let someone go. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is a point at which fellowship is broken.

This point of separation, however, is not a point we come to quickly or easily. And it seems to me there is some irony here: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” On the surface, for a first-century Jewish audience, this would mean to treat them as outsiders. Yet in the context of Jesus’ ministry, and considering that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may well have been a tax collector himself, we have to wonder what Jesus really has in mind here.

There may be times when a person chooses to leave the church community. There may even be times–in extreme situations of abuse–when a church community needs to ask someone to leave. Yet even to the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the door is never shut. The grace of God can extend.

So that’s Jesus little Conflict Management 101 lecture for the disciples. And we know that the followers of Christ in every century will need this lesson. The church will face conflict after conflict after conflict. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the church is worth all of that effort. This church that is stronger than Hell yet somehow so vulnerable to the egos of those of us who make it up.

It is the church community–all of us together trying to follow Jesus–that makes the journey frustrating and painful and hard. And it is the community that makes the journey worthwhile and joyful and possible.

We, together, are the church. We are prone to sin, mistakes, messiness. Conflict is inevitable.

We, together, are the church. Because where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us. And nothing, nothing, shall prevail against us.

Thanks be to God.

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Reflections on Matthew 16:21-28

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

The other day as I was clicking around online, I came across a blog written by a fellow Mennonite pastor. I liked what she had to say in her most recent entry, so clicked on the little button near the top of my screen that said “Follow this Blog.”

I follow several blogs and some Twitter accounts. There are news stories that I follow. Some of you follow specific TV shows or sports teams or the stock market.

It strikes me that we use the verb “follow” in a pretty passive way these days. Maybe it’s the passiveness of “following” in our culture that allows us to talk about “following Jesus” without batting an eye. Without making sure we have good sturdy walking shoes and an updated will. We just click the little “Follow Jesus” button at the top of the screen and plan to check in with Jesus once a week or so–probably on Sunday mornings.

If we think about it, though, we know that following Jesus is nothing like following a blog or a team. Before we are even allowed to sign on as followers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The “deny myself” button, the “take up my cross” button–these I do not click so readily.

“Follow me,” says Jesus. Not once a week. Not if I seem to be headed in the same direction you’re going anyway. Stay behind me and follow. Step by step. Every day.

Hard words for those who have already given up so much to be with Jesus. Hard words for us in our hesitations to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses.

Here’s what I’ve realized about myself when it comes to taking up my crosses–I don’t like to do it. I want to be a follower of Jesus. And I’m sometimes even willing to take definitive, dare I say self-denying–steps along the path of Christ. But when the crosses show up, I don’t want to deal with them.

I will follow Christ’s call to be a pastor, but do I really have to deal with theological controversy or talk about land easements or re-schedule that meeting again? I will follow Christ’s call to be a mother, but if I could just sleep through the night, watch a grown-up movie, have a few moments of quiet. I will take a stand for my beliefs about including sexual minorities in the church, but how long will I have to listen and be gracious . . . and be patient?

It is true that there are often consequences to following the path of Christ. And it is true that some of those consequences seem difficult to bear.

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow.

We tend to hear these words in a minor key. We see them in shadows; dark colors and jagged edges–the dark side of following Jesus. We don’t like it, but we listen. We don’t want to be like Peter–denying the reality of Jesus’ humanity and suffering.

Here’s what I wonder about Peter, though. Did he listen to everything Jesus’ said? Peter surely heard Jesus say that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. Peter heard this and he said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Peter’s response makes me wonder if he also heard Jesus say: “On the third day, be raised.” If Peter had heard that part, why would he have said, “God forbid it!”?

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow. And on the third day . . .

In 1961, a group of students in Nashville, TN, decided to participate in a Freedom Ride–a racially integrated ride into places of deep segregation and racial violence. These students knew that previous freedom riders had faced bombing and beatings. And so each young person, the night before they left for the ride, signed their last will and testament.

They were willing to deny themselves and take up their crosses in order to follow the way of Jesus.

Bull Connor–a driving, violent force for racial segregation in the city of Birmingham Alabama and beyond–was heard complaining about these students. Regarding these students who were risking their very lives for the cause of justice, Bull Connor was heard to say, “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”

- – – – – -

The above reflection is excerpted from this sermon.

You might also be interested in this call to worship and prayer of confession.

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Reflections on Exodus 3

Moses has a thousand reasons to stay right there with the sheep, not the least of which is the fact that, as far as he knows, Pharaoh still wants him dead. But with or without a warrant hanging over our heads, speaking truth to power is hard. It’s not something most people do readily. It’s particularly not something people generally do when they are comfortable. Comfortable with their job, with their community. Comfortable with the fact that the real horrors are miles away, worlds away. None of our concern.

And so, in an attempt to get out of “going” anywhere, our hero asks, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Now, those of you who teach probably tell your students that there are no wrong questions. And if you’ve been teaching for very long, you’ve probably heard a few questions that made you re-think your position. I definitely think that questions can be wrong. And this one is. “Who am I?”

But we still ask it over and over again. Who am I that I should lead in worship? Who am I that I should help the homeless? Who am I that I should speak out for peace? Who am I that I should speak up against the enslaving powers of our day?

And, truth be told, we probably want to hear what, just maybe, our hero Moses wanted to hear: “Why, you’re Moses. You’re Joanna. You’re Fred. You’re Sally. You are beautiful and talented and–just between you and me–a lot smarter than most of the rest of them down there.”

But alas, what we want to hear and what we do hear are two different things. God says, “I will be with you.” Notice how this doesn’t answer the question. Who is Moses? God will be with him. It is the presence of God that is important. Not the limitations of the person God calls.

“I am with you,” says God. But our hero Moses seems to need a little more convincing. He says to God, “Suppose the Israelites ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ What should I tell them?”

I suppose Moses’ question is a fair one. God knows his name, after all. So God obliges, sort of. God utters the divine name: I am/shall be what/who I am/shall be.

Grueling hours have been spent in the ensuing centuries trying to figure out what this Hebrew term means. But I think Bernard Robinson’s observation is key: that God’s response to Moses “may well have puzzled early readers as much as it does present day ones.” I will give you a name, God says, but not a name by which you can control or even comprehend me.

Moses, you tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you.”

Our hero is, after all, part of the equation. He is called by God to participate in the saving work God plans to do among God’s people. And our hero will succeed. Despite his hot-headedness. Despite his reluctance. Despite any public speaking phobia or speech impediment he may have.

Moses will succeed because God–the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah–the God who is who God is and who will be who God will be–that holy, immanent, transcendent, confounding God–will be with him.

Who am I that I should free the oppressed people of our world? Who are you to confront the Pharaohs of our day?

We’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t ask “Who am I?”. We simply need to realize that the One who goes with us is the great I AM.

– – – – – – – –

The above reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Exodus 3:1-17.

You might also be interested in this benediction.

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Pharoah’s Fear and the Courage of Women

Reflection on Exodus 2:1-10

{This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon that I preached on June 22, 2014}

{You might also be interested in this reflection I wrote for Practicing Families today–connecting the story of Moses with racial violence and oppression in our own time.}

In Sunday School, this story of the endangered baby in a basket was always presented as a story about Moses. It was part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.

But Moses, of course, is not actually the hero in this story. Moses is a helpless infant in this story, and it is the women who are the true heroes. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.

The story really begins the fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions. He insists that Shiphra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women. But they won’t do it. So Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile.

Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a baby boy. Somehow she manages to hide him for three months. When she can no longer hide him, Jochebed decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put her baby in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket once she had set it in the river, except that she had to.

Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. She is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water. That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.

Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.

Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!

The women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.

We still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.

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On the Trinity

There is a story about the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo. One day after he had been writing about the Trinity for awhile, he decided to take a break and go walk along the beach. He came across a boy who had a bucket.  He would fill up the bucket, run up the hill, and dump the water into the sand. He did this over and over until finally Augustine stopped the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”.  The boy said, “I am draining the sea into the sand.”  Augustine pointed out the futility of the task, and the boy replied, “Yes, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

Folks, I hate to tell you that if Augustine couldn’t figure it out, we’re not going to figure it out either.

The Three are one.  The One is three.  It doesn’t make any sense. It is not clear.  It is not easy.  It is not comfortable.  But relating to God as Trinity is a profound experience for me, an experience that gets me as close to the Truth of God as I dare to go.

The point of the Trinity is not to separate out and define the parts: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Trinitarian theology merely opens up to us one way—the primary way—that Christians have worked to understand the vastness of God.

Yes.  God is the Almighty Creator who spoke the world into being.
Yes. God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth who fully embodied the extent of divine love for the world.
Yes.  God is present with us today as Holy Spirit who guides and comforts and enlivens us.

It is important that we understand the breadth of the activity and personality of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity should keep us from narrowing our vision of who God is and what God does; and this should broaden our understanding about who God loves, and what the work of God looks like in the world.

I don’t often show off with fancy Greek words.  But some of them are worth learning.  And there is one you need to know if we are going to continue this futile task of trying to understand the Trinity. This particular Greek term was introduced by the Cappodocian monks in the fourth century. It describes the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.  The term is: perichoresis.

Creator, Christ, and Spirit relate by means of perichoresis.  Like a lot of Greek words, this one is somewhat difficult to explain.  There is no English word to use as a direct translation. It suggests the mutual indwelling of the three parts of the Holy Trinity.  The idea is that all three parts are equal and their identities are based in each other.

But perichoresis is not a static concept. It has the same root as choreography.  There is both inward and outward movement involved in the Divine Trinitarian relationship.  Theologian Molly Marshall calls it “the dance that characterizes Divine life.”

To think of the Trinity in terms of perichoresis means that relationship is at the heart of the Divine identity. Relationships are not just something that God forms with creation as God sees fit, but relationship is who God is.

And if God is relationship, that means that we, too, are drawn into the Divine choreography.  And our neighbors are drawn in.  And all those who love us.  And all those who hate us.  And the stars.  And the soil. And the squirrels that jump from tree to tree and eat from our bird feeders.

The perichoresis of the Trinity means that our God exists in and for relationship.  And we, my friends, are made in God’s image.  Made to be connected to the people and the world around us.

Ultimately, the Trinity is not a doctrine to be argued and recited.  It is not even a concept to be understood. It is a mystery into which we are invited.  A dance for all to join.


This post is excerpted from a longer sermon.

You might also be interested in:
Call to Worship for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Call to Worship adapted from Seekers’ ChurchThis Prayer of Confession

Categories: Bible Study, Ponderings, Preaching | Tags: | Leave a comment

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