Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is There More to Life than This? (Exodus 3:1-15)

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Moses said, “I’m here.”

Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.


Today we are beginning a summer sermon series, a three-week series called, “Reaching for the Promise.”  For this series, we’re going old school – Old Testament, Hebrew scriptures, if you want to be precise – as we retrace the Exodus story, starting with slavery in Egypt, to wandering in the wilderness, to looking into the promised land.  It’s an opportunity to be reminded that God is always calling us into a preferred future, that there is some vision, some hope, some promise out there from God, one toward which we are called to stretch and grow in order to reach.


The Exodus is the central story of God’s deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures.  To this day, when our Jewish friends celebrate Passover, they are remembering and commemorating God’s deliverance of them as a people – from slavery to freedom.


And the story begins with Moses.  Moses, the Hebrew child left in a basket in the river, picked up by the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a prince in the palace.  When he killed an Egyptian slave-driver who was particularly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, he fears being discovered and punished, so he flees to Midian, where he marries and takes care of his father-in-law’s sheep.


He led the flock out to the edge of the wilderness, somewhere out beyond Stokesdale, probably, somewhere, well, we don’t know exactly where it was, but it was someplace Moses knew quite well.  But there, he saw a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed, and as he approached, God called out from the bush, “Moses!  Moses!”  And when Moses responded, God told him not to come any closer until he removed his sandals, for the ground on which he was standing was holy ground.


You ever stood on holy ground?  Not sacred ground, but holy ground.  What’s the difference?  Simply put, we define what’s sacred.  God defines what’s holy.  I spend a lot of time in and out of churches, and I can tell pretty quickly if it’s a sacred place or a holy one.  Sacred places have lots of rules that protect the interests of those who are already there but can be inhospitable toward newcomers, often a lot of signs that say, “Don’t:” Don’t turn around here, don’t park there, don’t sit there, don’t run, don’t open, don’t smile, don’t have any fun – be so self-conscious about every little thing you do there’s no possible way you can really connect with God here.  We don’t need any more sacred places in the world; we already have too many!  What we do need, however, are more holy places, places where the presence of God is so palpable there is no mistaking where we are.


When God beckons us toward the holy, maybe we take off our shoes as a sign of respect, maybe as a way to connect with God all the way down to our toes.  Last week at Annual Conference, at the ordination service on Saturday night, one of our friends went across stage and knelt in front of the bishop in order for him to lay hands on her and ordain her, and she was barefoot, because she was on holy ground.  I have friends who kick their shoes off before they preach, a reminder that when they step behind the pulpit they are standing on holy ground.


As Moses talks with God in the burning bush, he asks two foundational questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”  They are two questions we all ask when we come into the holy presence of God.


Though Moses questions what qualifies him for a conversation with and calling from God, the whole thing has to do with something of Moses’ heart.  Remember, Moses killed an Egyptian slave-driver because he couldn’t stand to see him brutally oppressing the Hebrew slaves.  He saw injustice and oppression, and something burned within him as if to say, “There must be more to life than this, because this just isn’t right.”  And God felt the same way.  God saw within Moses something that reflected God’s heart on the matter.


Moses had thought and prayed a lot about the atrocities he had seen.  He was deeply concerned about them.  And so, when God said, “I have seen the oppression of my people, and I have heard their cries,” Moses was thinking, “Finally!  God is going to do something!” but then God says, “Now get going,” and Moses realizes God’s not in this thing alone; Moses is part of the plan.


You’ve got to be careful what you pray for.  God just might answer.  God hears, but then God calls, God sends.  Moses tries to find any plausible excuse as to why God must be speaking to someone else – someone without his past, someone with more time, someone with more skill.  Things are finally going well in his life – he’s just made a move, new wife, new job – he’s comfortable, and now God wants him to leave all that?


Who is Moses?  That’s what he was asking.  Simply put: Moses is the one God called.  No other requirement is needed.  And when God calls, the things that break God’s heart will also break yours, and that holy discontent that burns inside you is nothing other than God’s call to do something on behalf of those who suffer injustice and oppression, because God is the ultimate liberator; it’s who God is.


We tend to think that God is at work “out there” somewhere – God is speaking and doing things somewhere strange and exotic, far away, among people whose names we cannot pronounce.


People have made pilgrimages to such places – to visit shrines and kneel before altars in places where God has shown up, and I have been among those pilgrims, from time to time.  In a few weeks, I will take several of you to England to visit some of Methodism’s holy sites as we re-introduce ourselves to John and Charles Wesley and walk upon their holy ground.  In February, I will take some of you to Israel as we walk in the places where Jesus walked, and if you want to go, let me know!  I have touched the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born, placed my hand in the notch in the rock where the cross was placed, and it was truly holy ground.


Like many of you, I have been on mission trips to do God’s work in far away places, arrogantly  thinking I was taking God somewhere only to discover that God was already alive and well and hard at work long before this typically ego-centric American showed up on the scene, and indeed, the faith of the people there was far more robust than my own, and I know I walked upon holy ground there, too.


I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.  I will continue to take spiritual pilgrimage and lead others on them my entire life, as we seek out holy ground, but I can never let such experiences blind me to the reality that God is not only “there;” God is also “here.”


We simply miss it.  Full calendars, busy lives, boredom, familiarity, our own comfort – all reasons we miss God at work right under our noses, walking past holy ground and turning aside from burning bushes, failing to hear God speak our names or dream, for even a moment, that God is doing anything out of the ordinary here or through us.


Greg Jones tells a story from his days as a pastor of dropping by the home of a family who had visited his church that morning.  He rang the bell, and their young son came to the open screen door, looked at Greg for a minute, and turned back into the house, yelling, “Mom!  God’s here!”


Would it be that we could just as assuredly say, “God’s here.”  God shows up in the places God is expected.  Church, it’s time for us to have the same expectation about God showing up “here,” and realize that God is already calling our names, that every bush around us is already burning with the invitation to respond and be about God’s mission, to leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into something new and unfamiliar, not for our sake but for God’s, not because we want to but because God wants us to, because all around us are people who are oppressed and bound by forces they cannot control, forces that control them, people who are alienated and isolated and alone and wondering if anyone is even listening, if anyone even cares, and it turns out that yes, God has heard their cries, and has called and sent us to do something about it. What if we are the answer to someone else’s prayer?  What if we are following God so closely that when people see us coming they turn back into the house and yell, “God’s here!”?


You don’t have to go far to get to work in God’s name.  You can, and from time to time, you should.  But, you don’t have to go across the world to love God and love your neighbor.  Usually, you can just go across the street.  God hears their cries too, you know, and the bush that’s burning might very well be in their backyard or yours.  You may be closer to holy ground than you’d ever realized.


You don’t have to go far away to find those who are being crushed and oppressed, whose spirits are bent and breaking, who are wondering, “Is there more to life that this?” and if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that you are the one God is calling to answer, “Yes, yes there is more to life than this.  There is so much more to life than this!  You have been heard, you are loved, you matter – to God and to me – now, how about we go and follow God, together?”


Moses encountered God as he was tending the flock of his father-in-law – something he had done countless times.  He knew these rocks and hills, every streambed, the lay of the land.  The bush was likely one he has passed hundreds or thousands of times without giving it a second thought – it was a bush like any other in the landscape.  Not a sacred bush, not a magic bush – just a regular, ordinary, bush.


Yet how like God to encounter us in something we see every day as we go about work we always do in a place we already know.  How like God to call us to the holy through something ordinary.  How like God to use ordinary people for holy work.


Is there more to life than the ordinary?  More than oppression and isolation and loneliness?  More than working to make a living, more than working for the weekend, more than what we see and know?  Absolutely, when God shows up.


Let’s expect God to show up, here and now, in the familiar and what is close at hand – and let’s just see if God meets our expectation.  Let’s expect God to show up.


When we put the expectation on God to show up for us, don’t be surprised if God asks us to show up for God.  We hear our name called, and then we are sent.  Better to be off about God’s business than stuck in place.  If you stand on holy ground for too long, your feet might get burned, so get moving.  There’s work to do.  God’s people are crying out.


Who is God?  Who are we?  Is there more to life than this?


We’ll never really know, until we go.

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