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Exodus 17.1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!

I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.

Fine, I’ll do it.

Hey Moses! I need a word.

We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!

And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!

Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!

Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…

A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.

So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

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That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:

A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…

Or:

A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…

Or:

Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!

And so it goes.

We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us. 

It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.

It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.

  It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.

And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present. 

Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.

It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.

And we break that one all the time.

We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short. 

They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.

The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.

But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.

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And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.

God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God. 

Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.

When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.

We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.

I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down. 

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The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.

This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.

We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”

But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations. 

The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.

And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.

But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.

At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s not the bucket he notices.

He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.

And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”

And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her. 

Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen. 

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

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Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen. 

I AM WHO I AM

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 our 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 sais 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, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

I have always loved churches. But before I loved the church for the people in the church, I loved churches because of their sanctuaries. Ever since I was a young child I felt a since of awe and wonder and peace whenever I entered a sanctuary. When I got my driver’s license I would drive myself over to the church in the middle of the week just to spend some time in the sanctuary. And it’s not like I would always kneel at the altar and pour out my soul to God, though I did, I just loved the feeling of being in the sanctuary.

When I was in seminary I was part of a church worship band, and I would drive to the church really early every week just to sit in the sanctuary before the rest of the group arrived. On one such occasion, I was sitting in a random pew and looking at a stained glass window when a man ran into the sanctuary screaming for help.

I immediately rushed to him and we met in the middle of the center aisle and before I had a chance to ask what was wrong he mumbled something out about being afraid and needing help and wanting prayer. I took him by the arm and tried to calm him down but the more I soothed the louder he wailed. Finally I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “What’s your name?”

He stopped.

“I’m Marcus,” he said almost as if he was asking a question.

“Well then, Marcus, tell me what’s going on.”

Over the next fifteen minutes I listened to him as he described his fear and shock. His wife was pregnant and they had gone to the doctor that morning and heard the heart-beat for the first time. And instead of it filling him with joy, it terrified him. Not because of the responsibilities that were about to fall into his lap, but a terror about what would happen to his baby if he, as a father, died. He told me about how he had never been in a church before, that he never even wanted to go to church, but that he had been walking through the neighborhood crying, and before he knew it he started running. He told me about how he ran and he ran, and all the sudden he wound up in the sanctuary with me.

I listened as he shared his fears, and then I prayed for him. After the “amen” he hugged me and he left almost as quickly as he arrived.

Two weeks later I was driving near the church when I saw him walking down the road and before I knew what I was doing I pulled over, got out of my car and jogged up to him. “Marcus, Marcus!” I yelled, when he turned around it was like I was looking at a different person. He talked and he told me about how he was feeling better and that he was excited about the baby, and that he didn’t know who that God was I kept talking to that night but he felt like something changed. And then, as we were getting ready to say goodbye, he grabbed me by the arm and said something I’ll never forget: “Thanks for remembering my name.”

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Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when he came upon a burning bush. Moses saw the strange and wonderful sight and chose to turn toward it. And that’s when the Lord declared, “Moses, Moses!”

What follows is perhaps one of the most well known stories from the Bible. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and calls him to help deliver God’s people out of Egypt. But Moses, like almost everyone encountered by God in scripture, feels unsure of the call. “Well, when the Hebrew people ask about you, who should I tell them you are?” And God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

            The Tetragrammaton: I AM WHO I AM. YHWH. Yahweh.

For many Jews, the name of God revealed to Moses is so holy, so precious, that it cannot be uttered by the lips of mere mortals. Instead, there are other names for God like Adonai and Lord. In the Christian tradition, we will call God Yahweh, but the name of God revealed by God is unlike anything else and demands a respect and holiness that is rarely seen.

The passage about Moses in the wilderness with the burning bush is usually interpreted in such a way that it is all about Moses. Moses is walking, Moses is given a command, Moses responds. But there’s more to the story than Moses; it is the revealing of God’s holiness.

We could not have found this name, this Yahweh, by ourselves. Even if we entered into a long and passionate search through prayer or any other spiritual discipline we are not capable of finding out whom God is on our own. God’s name had to be revealed. God alone can tell us who God is.

And what does God say, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The divine name is a non-name in the best sense. Can you imagine Moses returning to the land of Egypt, mixing and mingling with the Hebrew slaves and saying, “Don’t worry, I AM WHO I AM sent me to set us free.”

What’s the purpose of a name? Do we name individuals to distinguish them from others? Do we give names to children in order to stroke our egos in attempts to live forever? Do we give names to people in order to build them up or break them down? What’s in a name?

I’ve been in enough hospitals to hear doctors refer to their patients not by Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but by a room number (or worse: by their disease).

There are plenty of people who are judged simply because of the color of their skin, or their political persuasion, or their sexual orientation without their names ever being mentioned.

Names are important.

They are important in our everyday lives whether it’s learning the names of our neighbors, or our classmates, or our coworkers, or even the people in the pews next to us right now. Learning the name of the other, and actually using it, breaks down the walls and barriers that often lead us to judge rather than listen. Learning the name of the other prevents them from remaining a stranger. Learning the name of the other builds a bridge into something new instead of moving in the opposite direction.

God reveals God’s name to Moses in such a way that it bridges the divide but it also keeps the mystery. And I mean mystery in the most beautiful and theological way possible. We finite creatures cannot understand the infinite wonder that is I AM WHO I AM. There is a mystery to who God is simply because God is completely unlike us, but knowing how God reveals God’s name is important.

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If God is not given a proper name, God becomes a faceless unknown god with no story or history. But our God is a God of the story; our God has a name and is known by connections with other names.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and God also said so much more. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Over and over again we are reminded in scripture that our God knows God’s people by their right names; God calls them and us by such: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Mary, Martha, Peter.

God knows our names, and we should know God’s name as well.

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper this week you’ve seen some of the horrific and awful images coming out of Houston in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While some have taken to the internet to chastise and ridicule those in leadership about their lack of preparation or their delay in response, normal (and not-so-normal) people have done some heroic things so bring safety, life, and hope to the people who feel no hope.

And as I watched videos from Houston this week, as I saw boat after boat traveling up and down streets in attempts to bring people to safety, I was struck by one thing. In every instance of rescue, the rescuer began with the same question, “What’s your name?”

Think about that for a moment. While surrounded by signs of terror and fear, instead of commanding a person to leave their belongings or throw them over the shoulder, every rescuer looked in the eyes of the fearful other and asked the one question that would remove their otherness.

“What’s your name?”

From the burning bush God called Moses by name. Through words and flames Moses was changed through learning the name of God. I AM WHO I AM shows up in our lives at all kinds of strange moments, we could be shepherding, or sitting in a sanctuary, or waiting for rescue in a flooded house when the Lord calls out to us.

And we can trust I AM WHO I AM for the very same reason that Moses could. Because I AM WHO I AM is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Yahweh is the God who made a covenant with out ancestors, who delivered God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, who delivered us out of our captivity to sin and death. I AM WHO I AM is the God who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I AM WHO I AM is the Spirit that lives and moves among us.

I AM WHO I AM is as mysterious as it is intimate. I AM WHO I AM comes to us in the intimacy of a piece of bread, and through the mystery of is being the flesh of Christ. I AM WHO I AM is as close as the person next to us and is as mysterious as the person sitting next to us. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God who calls us by name. Amen.

Eucharist as Exodus

Exodus 12.1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. You lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you make take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Death is inescapable. We know this to be true because we go to the funerals for the people we love. We know this to be true because we sit in church and listen to people like me talk about it. We know this to be true because just a few weeks ago we were walking around with ashes on our foreheads, and the words you are dust and to dust you shall return were stuck in our minds.

I talk about death a lot because it seems like the rest of the world is hell-bent on denying it. Movie stars and pop icons and even politicians do everything that can to ignore the inevitability of their own finitude; they’ll get the Botox, the facelift; they’ll even participate in culturally relevant memes like dabbing now, or planking a few years ago.

Even in church we like to deny death at times. That’s why far more people will be here on Easter than the rest of our Holy Week Services combined. But if Easter is all about new life, then why should we keep talking about death?

Here in the United States, millions of people gathered in churches like this one on Sunday for the Liturgy of the Palms. Christians, like us, lifted up their palm branches and said those all-too familiar words like “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here at St. John’s I tried my best to impart upon all of us the staggering nature of being able to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

Maybe you were here and heard the gospel. Maybe you didn’t.

But by now I’m sure that most of us heard what happened in Egypt on Sunday. While we American-Christians sat comfortably in our khakis and color-coordinated cardigans, while we shook our nursery grown palm branches, two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were bombed. Two men strapped explosives to their bodies, walked up to the respective altars, and detonated.

Dozens of people were murdered.

They died doing the same thing most of us were doing: worshipping the living God who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The only difference between them and us, is that they live in a world far more like Christ’s than we do.

What we’re doing here tonight is not a normal thing; it defies conventional wisdom. We could be anywhere doing anything, but instead we came to this place to share the Lord’s Supper. Being Christian is weird, it is strange, it is different. And in a lot of places, that’s enough to get you killed.

And so it was with the first disciples, who sat in a small room surrounded by their friends long ago. We are here tonight to remember what Jesus said and did in that room. The disciples were there that night to remember what God said and did on the first Passover.

The time had come to break free from the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Egypt and to go to a strange new land. The Hebrew people were enslaved and worked to the death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pharaoh ordered the murder of every first-born male in every Hebrew family. Can you imagine the terror of the powers-that-be coming for your baby boy? But these were their lives, living under the shadow of subjugation.

And the time had come to break free.

God spoke to Moses and gave him explicit instructions on what to gather together, how to cook it, and even how to eat it. With specifics like an overly heavy cookbook, God laid out the plans for their deliverance: Every household shall cook and eat and lamb. Blood from the lamb shall be taken and adorned on the doorposts of the house where they eat it. You shall eat it hurriedly, with your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hands. This will be the Passover, for the Lord will pass over the homes marked with blood and strike down every firstborn in Egypt, including the animals. But the blood shall be a sign, and nothing evil will come to you. You must remember this day every year, tell the story to your children, and your children’s children, for this is the day you will be delivered from slavery.

That’s the story the disciples gathered to remember. It’s a strange one, but they, like the generations before them, were a product of that story and it shaped everything about their lives.

And while they were sitting at the table, Jesus reached for a common loaf of bread; he gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the bread around the table, Jesus said, “I am going to do a new thing, I am giving my body for you.”

And then, before the supper was over, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the cup around the table, Jesus said, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant. I’m pouring out my blood for you, and for the world.”

In the frame of the blood of the lamb from the first Passover, Jesus poured out his blood as the Lamb of God.

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Whenever we share this meal, we like to talk about forgiveness; being forgiven by God for what we’ve done. And this is good, and right, and true. But the first Passover wasn’t about God forgiving the Hebrew people for anything they had done… Passover was about God making a way out of no way; it was about freedom from tyranny and slavery; it was about the journey to a strange new land.

The Hebrew people took blood from the lamb and it was a sign for them to be saved.

Jesus took the cup and told his friends that his blood was to be their freedom from a different form or slavery, far worse than any power in Egypt then, or now. Through the Lamb of God’s blood, we are freed from death.

While sitting at the table with his friends, it’s as if Jesus is telling them that when they see him hanging on the cross, they should see a door with blood. It’s as if Jesus is telling them that his sacrifice, his death, is our exodus.

It might not feel like it at times, like when we gather in the sanctuary for a funeral or when we turn on the news and see what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or any number of places, but death no longer holds any control over us. For centuries the Hebrew people remembered how God delivered them out of Egypt, and for centuries Christians have remembered how Jesus delivered us out of the slavery to sin and death.

            Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

His blood has been spilled in the cup at our table and it covers the doors of our souls.

Tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt will gather in their churches to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends, just like we are. They will remember God delivering God’s people out of Egypt, and God delivering them out of the bondage of death.

And we might wonder: Why stay in Egypt? As Christians, why don’t they just leave and go to a place where they can worship without the threat of death? Why not come to a place like the United States where they can be free to worship how they please?

Perhaps they will stay because they’ve already had their exodus. They’ve already been delivered from the reign of death into a strange new land we call the Kingdom of God. Maybe they’ve been shaped by the knowledge and faith that Jesus is their Passover Lamb.

I don’t know what you’re wrestling with tonight, whether you’re feeling God’s presence or it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything remotely holy. I don’t know what sins you need to confess, or who you need to seek reconciliation with. But what I do know is that this meal is the beginning of our exodus; it is our journey to a strange new land.

So come and see that the Lord is good, let this be a moment of remembrance, and look to the cross as a door covered with blood. Amen.

Devotional – Exodus 24.15

Devotional:

Exodus 24.15

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

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I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.

When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.

When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.

When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.

I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.

Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.

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When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.

Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.

Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.

Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.

Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”

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Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.

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In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.

 

But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…

 

The Strange New World Within The Bible

We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.

We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.

We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.

We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.

We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.

We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.

Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.

Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.

And then it ends and The Bible is finished.

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What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?

These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.

It is not merely a history or a genealogy.

It is neither a myth nor a fable.

What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.

We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.

But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.

Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.

The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?

The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.

The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.

The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!

 

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Transfigured Moments

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they say two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

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On Monday morning, before I departed for my ordination interviews, I came by the church to print off my papers and spend some time in prayer. Full disclosure: I was very anxious. Months of effort and focus had led to up to this week. Many of you have been here throughout this whole ordination process: you have endured sermons that went into my papers and some of you were here when we had to record an entire worship service. A number of you participated in the bible study I wrote on the book of James and offered feedback about what went well and where it could’ve been better.

The sanctuary was nice and quiet when I first entered to pray for God’s will to be done over the following days, but the longer I prayed, the louder the preschoolers were down in the basement. I continued to lift up my concerns to God until I felt that I had fully expressed myself, and then I went downstairs to say “hello” to the kids.

Like most of you, they were also aware of the interviews I would have this week. Yet, even knowing this, I was not prepared for what happened when I entered the first classroom. The teacher quickly motioned to the kids and while I was trying to kneel to speak with one of them they promptly surrounded me in a circle, grasped hands, and started to sing: “Thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, right where are. Amen.

The Transfiguration is an important moment in the life of Christ, and it really bears witness to the identity of the Messiah. Up to this point in scripture, Jesus has performed lots of miracles; he has healed the unwell, embraced the outcasts, preached in the synagogues, and started a revolutionary movement. But all of these particular moments were a crescendo to the brilliance on the mountaintop.

Jesus took with the inner circle of disciples up to the peak to pray. And while Jesus was in the depth of his prayers his face began to change and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, the disciples saw two men standing on either side of Jesus, one of them was Elijah, and the other was Moses. The disciples listened intently as the three shining men talked about Jesus’ departure that would soon take place in Jerusalem.

After they had discussed this for some time, and the two men started to depart from Jesus, Peter interrupted and begged Jesus to let them build three dwellings for this holy moment. He wanted to establish a degree of permanence in this brilliantly shining experience. But he, as scripture tells us, had no idea what he was talking about.

Then a cloud came and overshadowed all of them on the mountain and they were utterly terrified. But a voice cried out from the cloud saying, “This is my Son; my chosen. Listen to him!” When the voice finished, the disciples noticed that they were alone with Jesus, and they did not speak about this moment for a long time.

Shortly before this passage in scripture Peter was able to confess Jesus as the Christ; he understood that Jesus was the Messiah that the Hebrew people had heard about for centuries. Yet, this story of the Transfiguration is a reminder that even those disciples in the inner circle had gaps in their understanding. Professing deep and true faith requires something more than just knowing the stories from the past and connecting the dots. Professing deep and true faith requires transfigured moments that change everything.

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While the preschoolers sang their prayer around me, I felt like I was up on the mountaintop of Transfiguration. In their tiny voices and clasped hands I experienced the profound power of prayer in their willingness to lift me up in a holy moment. And like Peter, I didn’t want to the moment to end. Like Peter, I thought about setting up a dwelling place in that space to stay happy and comfortable.

When the kids finally shouted “Amen!” to conclude the prayer they immediately sprinted into the middle of the circle and started hugging me to the point that I fell over on the floor. It was a transfigured moment while I collapsed to the ground under the weight of laughing preschoolers, but I knew that I would have to eventually leave the mountaintop and make my way down to the valley of ordination interviews.

The next 24 hours were a blur. I made it to Blackstone, I spent the night, I woke up and interviewed all morning, and before I knew it I was back in my car heading west toward Staunton. The entire car ride was filled with more anxiety than before the interviews because now all I could do was wait. I spent far too much time rehashing questions in my mind and coming up with better answers than the ones I offered. But now the only thing I could do was pray patiently.

By the time our youth meeting rolled around on Wednesday evening, I had spent most of the day checking my phone every 5 minutes waiting for the call about whether I had been approved or not. I tried to be as present for the youth at the Circle but I know that my thoughts were elsewhere. With every minute that passed it felt like my heart rhythm was increasing one beat per minute. But still the call did not come.

I eventually brought the youth into the social hall and had them sit by the fireplace. I got a fire going and handed each of them a palm branch from our last Palm Sunday service and I explained our activity.

I said, “Every year churches take their used and dried-out palm branches and burn them. We do this in order to collect the ashes and use them for Ash Wednesday. Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, is a time to reflect on ways we could be better. It is a whole season for us to confront the mistakes we’ve made and start living like disciples of Jesus. I want each of you to take a couple minutes to think about one mistake you made in the past year, a moment you wish you could take back. I want you to imagine that failure as you throw your palm branch into the fire. And while you watch it burn, I want to you to remember that God can take our mistakes and make them into something holy. These palm branches will become the ashes that mark our foreheads next week. We will walk around with ashes signifying for everyone to see that we are broken people in need of grace. These ashes are a reminder that even though we mess up, God still loves us.

One by one we each took a turn throwing our palms into the fire and we watched them burn. We took our mistakes and watched them become ashes. We concluded by praying for God to make things new in our lives, to use the season of Lent to transfigure us into better disciples of his Son. When we said the final “Amen” I looked up and saw our District Superintendent standing in the room with a giant smile across his face and he told me that I passed my interviews.

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The Transfiguration is such a powerful moment because it is about transformation. Yes Jesus is changed into a glowing figure in dazzling white clothes, yes the appearance of Moses and Elijah reshaped the narrative of Jesus’ journey toward the cross, but when the disciples had to walk back down from the mountain their lives were forever changed.

Whereas they might’ve understood their friend to be a powerful speaker and leader, they were now confronted with the fact that he really was divine. Whereas they might’ve believed he was special, they were now confronted with the fact that he had real power. Whereas they might’ve believed he was capable of great things, they were now confronted with the fact that he was the Son of God. Jesus’ transfiguration transfigured their lives.

Standing by the fire on Wednesday night, as I let the knowledge that I will be ordained sink into my soul, and the youth started to jump around and yelp in celebration, I was reminded of how powerful those transfigured moments in life can be. I thought about how blessed we are to have a God who is so merciful and forgiving of our mistakes. I thought about how blessed we are to be surrounded by people in this church who pray for us and care about us. That moment by the fire reshaped my understanding of ministry and the church. In that transfigured moment I felt God’s love moving in this church through all of the connections we have made.

Transfigured moments always remind us how dependent we are on one another and the divine. When we encounter the true glory of the Lord it leaves us staggering in comparison. But God did not abandon the disciples on that mountaintop, and God has not abandoned us here and now. Instead God spoke through the cloud, and speaks to us today: “Jesus is the Son of God, listen to him!”

So what does it mean for us to listen to God’s Son here at St. John’s?

Do you feel loved? In your daily lives do you experience moments of joy that you can only equate with feeling loved? Do you have friends and family that care about who you are and what you’re experiencing? Are you connected with individuals you make you laugh and thankful for the gift of life?

This week, for me, has been an experience of love. Love of God and neighbor through all of you in this church.

In this church we have listened to Jesus speak to us, and we have responded to his command: “Love one another.” We have covenanted through baptism to love and support all those around us in the pews. We have gathered together to mourn during funerals and reach out to remind individuals of their worth. We have met here at God’s table to partake in the bread and the cup as a reminder that God’s love knows no bounds. We have opened our eyes and ears to the great witness of scripture that points toward God’s unfailing love for people like us.

So hear this from Jesus, and embrace it in your lives: “You are loved.”

No matter what you are currently experiencing, no matter how far you feel divided from the people around you, no matter how afraid you might be, you are loved. God has gathered all of us here in this place to build a new community of love.

When we lift up our hymnals to sing our faith we do so as a complete community in harmony with our relationship and our voices.

When we pray from our pews we do so as a new family who can faithfully say God is OUR Father.

When we are invited to this table to receive the bread and the cup we are invited as a community to a feast. There is a spot for us at God’s table where we can grow closer to the people in church next to us while growing closer with the Lord.

This is the place of transfigured moments that cut through the monotony of life. This is the place where we encounter the revealed Lord. This is the place where we hear Jesus saying to us, “You are loved.” Amen.

God’s Top 10 – Sermon on Exodus 20.1-17

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or what is on the earth  beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six says shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien residents in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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As a kid, I always preferred worship to Sunday School. Sunday School meant we had to wake up earlier in order to make it on time, it rushed us as a family to get things ready, and the classrooms were filled with all of those strangely adult renditions of biblical stories. The lesson might’ve been on David fighting Goliath, but all I could ever remember was how buff and old David appeared in the pictures rather than the young and innocent version from the story. The lesson might have been focused on the importance of sacrifice, but the imagery of Abraham preparing to kill his son left most of us utterly terrified of God, rather than ready to give our lives to him. The lesson might have been about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept calling Mary a “lady of the night” which made her sound more like a vampire than a prostitute.

On the other side, worship was awesome. I loved sitting near the front and watching all sorts of different people come together for this one thing. It amazed me that old men and women would take the time to talk to me and ask me questions about my life. Oh the joy that I remember experiencing when I was invited to the front for the children’s message; we were the special ones, all the adults had to sit in their pews but we, the kids, got to go all the way to the front and get closer to God.

My adolescent faith and love for church was like a roller-coaster. I looked forward to the hymns, the bread and cup, the communal act of praying together, but I dreaded the Sunday School classroom, the 25 year old cut-out flannel-graphs, and the seemingly endless amount of Old Testament arts and crafts.

But, if I’m honest, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher who took attendance, put us in assigned seats, gave out homework, and even proctored pop-quizzes. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an importance to the education that comes in Sunday School, but the way that it was done for me resulted in my desire to read the bible not for its knowledge, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I was the first person who could turn to the book of Isaiah.

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I could go on and on about the things I experienced in those Sunday School classrooms, but the one that stands out the most was the day we were quizzed on the 10 Commandments. At the time I knew they were a thing, but I certainly had no idea what they were. Up to that point in my life I could not remember ever hearing them preached about in church, I had no idea where they were in the bible, but I knew you could find them in framed cross-stitch patterns at older people’s homes.

My sheet of paper remained blank for a long time. However, the teacher took pity on me and tried to help encourage some answers: “What are the ten things God wants us to do?” My mind raced through different sermons and scriptures; I tried to remember what the pastor always said about God… I think God wants us to love Him, I’m pretty sure we are supposed to do unto others as we would have them do unto us… What else? God calls us to lift up our crosses. Oh, and God wants us to give Him our money!

I don’t remember what I eventually wrote down for the quiz, but I do remember that I failed, and I did not receive a piece of candy.

Can you recite the Ten Commandments from memory? What do you imagine when you hear about the Ten Commandments? Do you think about how the law was established to protect and bind us together? Or do you just picture Charlton Heston from the movie version of the Ten Commandments?

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Sadly, in our modern world we are more likely to hear about the Ten Commandments as they relate to controversies surrounding public displays than how they were written to help shape, guide, and mold our lives. Even as a child I was implicitly taught that it was more important to memorize God’s Top 10, than it was to understand them, and live accordingly.

The beginning of the commandments sets up an individual address, but the concern is not just about our private lives and welfare. The focus and thrust of the list is on protecting the health of the community in which the individual plays a pivotal role.

God graciously provided these guidelines as a way to open up our lives rather than limit them. It might not appear that way at first, but upon closer inspection they describe the outer limits of conduct rather than focusing on countless specific behaviors for every situation. At the foundation of the Ten Commandments is God’s desire for us to be protected from behaviors that have the potential to destroy.

In addition, the Ten Commandments are not a once-and-for-all declaration about the limitations of the Law. Throughout the history of Israel and the New Testament, faithful people struggled with these guidelines and amended them to be as fruitful as possible. This gives the people of God, in every age, the right and warrant to expand upon the laws.

If we can begin to see and imagine the commands as opportunities for fruitful living and malleable for our time, then they will no longer remain the stagnant list from our Sunday School memories.

I am the Lord your God, and you shall have other gods before me. You shall not create idols, nor shall your worship them

In our lives there are countless other gods fighting for our allegiances. From political parties to celebrities to businesses, it is next to impossible to be in the world without outside influences calling for us to worship them. When we find ourselves bowing to the powers in life, we neglect to honor the first two commandments. Honoring them encourages us to keep perspective about who is really in charge and the kinds of things that should be important in our lives. If we continue to worship what the media tells us, we will forget our call to love our enemies. If we spend more time catching up on all our favorite television programs, we will no longer catch up on what God is doing in our lives.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain

This is less about using curse words than it is about not claiming that we are doing something in the “name of the Lord” when we are really doing it in the name of ourselves. Perhaps some of us give time to serve the poor and homeless in Staunton, but if we do it to feel good about ourselves than we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. This command pushes us to commend and praise God for all the blessing of our lives, particularly when we can bless others.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

Honoring the sabbath allows us to be our fullest. God rested on the sabbath, and we need rest in our lives. If we spend our days rushing through the familiar patterns of life, if we work without rest, then we will no longer be living. Or, as Ferris Bueller puts it, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Enjoying life and resting was not some external thing handed down for us to abide by, but a way in which we can be the truest form that God hopes for.

Honor your mother and father

Having parents is a gift. More and more children grow up without the vitally important guidance of parents and have to learn to live according to the tests and trials that are thrown at them. Our parents, whether biological or situational, made the choice to love us in spite of us. They gave and provided when we could not do so for ourselves. Loving our parents encourages us to be people of gratitude, instead of imagining that we are the source of all good things in our lives.

You shall not murder

Instead we should protect the innocence of life. We are called to value every single life whether belonging to someone famous, or someone nearly invisible in Staunton living on the streets. Every life has value, and God wants us to cherish the beauty in all people.

You shall not commit adultery

Instead we should love and embrace our commitments. When we covenant to be in relationship with those whom we love, we are asking for God (and others) to hold us accountable to that promise. Fighting against the temptations of adultery results in us valuing the needs and wants of the other, more than ourselves.

You shall not steal

No one should have to steal to live in our world. Instead of stealing we are called to give with glad and generous hearts. Whether through the offering in church, or to any charitable organizations, when we give we help to prevent the need for people to steal to survive. God will provide, it just might not be the way we are anticipating.

You shall not bear false witness

Instead we should speak well of our brothers and sisters. Gossip and deception only serve to destroy our community. Just imagine how we might start loving and treating and trusting each other if we believed that no one would speak falsely about anyone else. Think about how beautiful a town and a church such as ours could be if people took this commandment seriously and worked hard for it to become manifest. When we begin to speak well of others at all times, we start seeing the world through God’s perspective and not just our own.

You shall not covet

Instead we should be grateful. It is too easy to look around at all the sources of blessings in other people’s lives and begin desiring to take them for ourselves. How quickly do we begin to resent our coworkers when they are given a raise, how quickly do we begin to ignore our classmates when they receive a better grade, how quickly do we avoid our fellow church folk when everything starts going well in their lives as ours fall apart? God has given all of us gifts, large and small, seen and unseen, they are there we only need a change in perspective to realize them in our midst. God will provide in ways that are miraculous and beautiful. We need not covet what our neighbors have when we remember that God has chosen to be with all of us.

The Ten Commandments are a gift, they open up life for us rather than restrict, they call us to do more rather than simply obey, and they help to build and foster our community rather than destroy it. God’s Top 10 are part of the basics of faith, from them we learn how to grow as disciples and serve others. If we can move them from a memorized list to a practiced way of life, everything will begin to change for the better.

Amen.

Barefoot Basics – Sermon on Exodus 3.1-6

Exodus 3.1-6

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, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

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I love churches. I’m not sure when my affection for worship spaces began, but for as long as I can remember I have always loved Christian buildings. Whenever I travel somewhere new, and have an opportunity to explore a local church – I do so.

The first time I went to Guatemala, while all my friends were bargaining with the local artisans for a blanket, or a sweater, or a bowl, I found myself walking around the village peaking in on the churches. When I was younger I would arrive early for youth band at my home church just so I could walk around the building, sit in the different pews, and even stand up in the pulpit to pretend I was the preacher. In fact, when I came to St. John’s for the first time, Good Friday evening of 2013, I was introduced to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and when they inquired if there was anything I needed to know about the church, I asked to see the sanctuary.

When I enter a church for the first time, I have made it a habit to walk to the front near the altar, kneel on the floor, and pray. Sometimes the prayers have been about the safety of the mission trip, or for God to bless the people and preacher who call this space home, or even for God to bless me with a church of such beauty in the future.

One summer, when I was provided the opportunity to lead a group of college students to Taize, France, I found myself walking with my friends and exploring the local town. Between the three daily worship services with 5,000 other twenty-somethings, we had the freedom to do as we pleased, so we hiked around Burgundy, France.

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When we entered the small chapel, I was overcome by its opulence. The stained glass was filled with such vibrant colors, letting in just the right amount of light through the scenes of scripture. The crucifix at the front had a triumphant Christ hanging on the cross above the altar. The pews were made of well-worn wood that conveyed a deep sense of time and care. While my friends examined the fine details of the space I walked to the front, fell to my knees, and I prayed.

I must have been there for some time, because when I opened my eyes it took them a moment to readjust to the light. Below my knees, I noticed some writing on the marble stones that made up the floor. While my eyes began to focus on the crude letters, I was gripped with a sense of fear and awe – the floor was made of old gravestones.

With all the beauty surrounding me on the walls, and ceiling, with an altar worthy of a king, and a pulpit raised high in the air, I neglected to notice the most sacred and holy element of the church. The floor and foundation of the worship space was made possible through the saints that have gone on before us, a constant and beautiful reminder that this was holy ground.

Burning bush 1

Just like every other day, Moses was tending to the flock. The morning was typical, calm, and cool with the dew hanging on the leaves while Moses walked along the path. Perhaps while walking in the still silence, Moses thought back upon his life, and what had led him here. He had grown up around the inner circle of Pharaoh’s cohort, raised by the princess as her own, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew he could not contain his rage and committed murder. Moses fled from the comfort, power, and prestige of Egypt because he was afraid. He eventually settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the priest.

Moses was tending the flock that belonged to his father-in-law when he led them beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb (“wasteland”), the mountain of God. Walking along the path, filled with thoughts form the past, Moses discovered a bush on fire, and even though it was blazing, it was not consumed. Rather than continue on his journey, Moses turned aside to look at the great sight, to see why the bush was not being burned up. Then God called out from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he replied, “Here I am.” The Lord commanded Moses to stay put, and remove the sandals from his feet, for the place where he was standing was holy ground. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

It was just an ordinary, everyday journey for Moses. A normal routine with no “religious” intentions. He was not going out to seek the perfect modern preacher or guru to learn about what God was calling him to do with his life, he was not sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem, he was just doing his job.

God chose the mountain in the wilderness as the place of revelation and change for Moses’ life. The encounter took place far and away from the sights and sounds of the religious community, this holy moment takes place in the least likely of situations and locations.

A burning bush appeared in the wasteland, but the fire did not consume it. Moses was not frightened away from the bush, nor was he repelled by the sight of something strange, but instead he was drawn toward it. His curiosity propelled him forward, not for religious reasons, but because it was unknown.

God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, loves to make use of human curiosity for his own purposes. Curiosity often leads to discovery, new life, and new vision.

Moses was the one who ran away from familiarity into the unknown. He had left behind his family and calling in Egypt because he feared for his life. He escaped to the place of Midian, found a wife, and a new calling and was settled. It happened in the ordinary and mundane moment of routined life that Moses was jolted into a new reality.

God is the one with the initiative in the situation. Moses was not begging on his knees for God to enter his life, instead it is God who confronts Moses and calls him to a task.

We gather in this space for worship with expectations. We come to church to sing, to pray, to live, to love, and to encounter the living God. It is our hope and belief that in so doing we will come into contact with the divine in such a way that we can be filled and transformed for the coming week. However, if the story of Moses and the burning bush is to come alive for us today, then we must prepare ourselves to be encountered by the living God when we least suspect it.

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Years ago, Zig Volskis was preparing to preside over a wedding for a beautiful couple. He had done the necessary pre-marital counseling, he had met with the families to discuss the needs of the wedding ceremony, frankly- he had taken care of everything he needed to for the wedding to be perfect. Like with all weddings he stood at the front with the wonderful couple and began to speak about the holy covenant of marriage, of Christ’s role in bringing two people together as one, and the responsibility to live into this new identity with faithfulness.

Zig had done a lot of weddings. He knew that at some point the bride would start crying, and if he really worked it, the the groom would cry as well. He knew that some of the people in the congregation no longer believed in marriage, but believed in the young people enough to show up. He had done enough weddings to know the routine. But this was to be no ordinary wedding…

I can’t do this,” the bride blurted without warning. Zig, the great pastor that he was, immediately took over the situation, escorting the young woman out the congregation to have a serious conversation. Thinking that it might just be wedding jitters and nervousness, he invited the young woman to speak. “I can’t do this,” she said, “I’ve had my doubts, of course. But it just hit me right before we walked in. We were waiting for my grandmother to arrive and she was running late. The longer we waited, the more angry my fiancee became. When she finally made it he began yelling at her for ruining this moment, for making us wait on her. The entire time I walked down the aisle and saw him standing at the front, I realized for the first time, that I was making a terrible mistake.” So Zig re-entered the sanctuary, and as calmly as possible, informed everyone that the wedding would no longer take place.

God shows up in the most unexpected times and places. In the midst of a beautiful wedding ceremony the Spirit moved in such a way to give a dose of reality to a young bride about the mistake she was about to make. In the midst of a cold December evening when I was sixteen, God brought me down to my knees and propelled me on a path toward church ministry. In the midst of a leading a flock God appeared in the burning bush to call Moses into something difficult and holy.

I knew a pastor who, every Sunday morning, would kick off his shoes at the back of the sanctuary before entering during the opening hymn. When I finally asked him about this strange practice he casually replied, “this is holy ground.” I think he was right; this space, the inside of our sanctuary, this room where we gather to meet the living God is holy ground. But I also think he was wrong; the ground is only holy because of God’s appearance, not because we say it is.

I love worship, and I love churches. I have had some incredible moments in my life where I have heard a preacher proclaim words from a pulpit as if he or she was speaking to me, and to me alone. I have been in the middle of singing a hymn only to realize that tears were flowing down my face because of the depth and beauty of a God who could love me in spite of my sinfulness. I have prayed at the altar after receiving communion and experienced even just a foretaste of what God’s kingdom is all about. But some of the most transformative and life-giving moments of my life have taken place when I least suspected them, in places far removed from the religious center of the church.

Being called by God into a new life is not something that applies only to clergy, nor is it something that happens exclusively in worship. We are all called in one way or another to live faithful lives for God’s kingdom, whether we are clergy or lay, teachers or students, engineers or musicians, writers or mathematicians. We are given incredible opportunities to respond to God’s calling in manifold ways in our daily lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by asking the hard questions that other people are afraid to mutter, by looking at the world through Christ’s perspective.

We are not abandoned and left alone. We see how God is really gracious toward us in the fact that God confronts us in his incredible holiness. The fact that God does not permit his people, the righteous, or the church to perish, means that He refuses to let us go our own way when we act and behave as if we were people who do not need to hear the Good News.

We stand on holy ground, here at church and out in the world, confronted by the Holy One, who searches deep into our souls and knows what we think, what we feel, and what we believe. God cannot allow us to wander off and be left to our own perspectives, but meets us in the ordinary, when we least expect it, and calls us by name: Moses, Moses; Taylor, Taylor, etc.

When God confronts you in the midst of life, how will you respond? Will you continue your journey and ignore the unexpected call? Or will you say, “Here I am”?

Amen.

Divine Irony – Sermon on Exodus 2.1-10

Exodus 2.1-10

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happened to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him. Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009