August 30, 2020, The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 30, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:  Exodus: 3:1-5; Psalm 105:1-6,23-26,45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

From the Book of Exodus, (God said to Moses) “Remove the sandals from your feet.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     The Rev. Dr. Dennis Maynard was once asked, “Why does God use imperfect people to accomplish God’s purposes on earth?” Without hesitation, Dr. Maynard replied, “Because there’s no other type of person available.” (Those Episkopols, Dionysus Publications, 2011, p 80)

     I thought about that reply when studying this week’s scripture lessons. See, as much as I want the Moses described in Exodus to be muscular and tall with a commanding voice – you know like Charlton Heston in the classic film The Ten Commandments - scripture suggests Moses was anything but a Charlton Heston. He was probably more like Barney Fife and one of the most unlikeliest of people to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the edge of the Promised the Land. See, Moses was like you and me, everyday seekers of God who because we perceive ourselves as imperfect or unworthy, are often reluctant to fully step forward into God’s call to us, God’s call to ministry, even though we do desire to always walk in God’s ways.

     In our reading from Exodus, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames and it is through this extraordinary apparition, that Moses has an incredible sense of God’s presence. Now, I understand that there is a shrub in the Middle East that, depending upon the angle of Sun, will appear to be in flames when it really isn’t. Some have suggested that the existence of this shrub proves Moses’ experience isn’t true. But such people miss the whole point of this story. Whether the bush was really on fire is not important. God used this particular shrub simply to get Moses’ attention. Then God said, now that I have your attention, Moses, let me tell you what you are going to do. But first, remove your shoes. That may seem like a rather quaint request and yet it is a powerful image and statement. In fact, it is upon removing the shoes that everything else in this story unfolds. See, in ancient Hebrew culture, the onlypeople to wear shoes were either masters or free persons. Slaves and servants were barefoot. Moses, remove your shoes – set what you think of yourself aside Moses– feel the holiness of the ground beneath your feet, feel the holiness of this moment. Now you are ready to hear and be called.

     That is when the most intriguing part of this story unfolds. God tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people … I have heard their cry …. and I have come down to deliver them.” I picture Moses salivating as he waits to hear that God is about to perform some unexpected, stupendous act to free the people of Israel. Well, God does the unexpected all right. God says, “Here is what I am going to do, Moses … I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” Say what? I thought you were going to do something God.  “I am - through you.” As the Psalmist affirms, God sent Moses, God sent Aaron. God enlists everyday things and everyday people, imperfect people, to do the extraordinary work of God in this world. And what was true for Moses and Aaron is true for all who are called as Christ’s own, called as people of God, still today. As we affirm at our baptism, each of us is called to mission and ministry, called to service, to be reconcilers, to proclaim in our words and more importantly, by how we choose to live, the good news of God in Christ.

     In our reading from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to die and rise again from the dead because that is God’s purpose. What follows is a marvelous exchange between Peter and Jesus about thinking and planning our lives based upon human standards rather than the divine. I wish we had more time this morning to explore their incredible dialogue, but Jesus’ real focus here is on what it means to be called as a disciple, what it means to be called by God today, called as Christ’s own.

     Jesus says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it and those who seek to save their life will lose it.” Hmmm? You know, Lord, I think I’d rather go back to that burning bush story. At least God was clear in that setting. I mean, come on, Lord, have you seen what the Covid-19 virus is doing to people throughout the world, and here at home? Have you seen how afraid people are to be in public even if they do wear a mask, let alone attend school? And then there’s all the political strife and protests in our communities. It’s all I can do to hang onto what little faith and hope I have. I am struggling as it is to live a Christian life, Jesus - and you want me to lose my life? No, that’s not what Jesus is saying.

     When we think of ourselves as the center of the universe, that we are all that matters, when our own goals and dreams and desires are the sole focus of our lives, we tend to think that our self-interests are what life is really about. Jesus says that is the human standard and it is misguided. God’s call, the divine standard, is to not only embrace God’s vision for how we were created to live in this world but, commit to do it. We lose out on life when we focus solely upon ourselves and only for meeting our needs. But, to lose our lives for the sake of Christ, means we take off our shoes, we look for those burning bush moments in our lives, we set our minds and hearts on the things of God. It means we look for the presence of God all around us and in us, and we grasp that wherever we stand, wherever we go, wherever we live, is holy ground. When we lose or set aside that life of self-interest, then we are set free from all that binds us, and we become a part of a greater whole – God’s kingdom. We become free to forgive, to reconcile, free to live life in all its fullness as God intended: in unity with God and our neighbor. We are free to embrace the divine in every aspect of our lives and watch it re-order, transform, and change us as it calls us into new life.

     St. Paul – another imperfect leader – probed Jesus’ words that much more deeply. In today’s reading from his Letter to the Romans, Paul says that when we set our own interests, our own selves, aside and choose to embrace the divine, our very lives become a living sacrifice unto God. This isn’t a call to martyrdom, but rather, it is seeking and living lives marked by love, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It means embracing God, God’s ways, God’s values, God’s justice and mercy so fully that we jump at the opportunity to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, give drink to the thirsty even when that person in need is our enemy.

     I am sure some of you are thinking, “Well, that all sounds good, but maybe if I had a burning bush experience I’d be more inclined to listen and buy into what you’re saying.”  

I think if we are honest with ourselves, we might realize that each of us at some point in life, has had that experience: something caught our attention long enough for us to stop what we were doing or where we were heading and seek, to listen for, a glimpse of the presence of God, and then hear God call us to service. For me, it was when the twin towers fell in New York City on September 11 (2001). For others, it was the devastation of a hurricane. For some, it was participating in a peaceful protest when they suddenly became aware that seeking justice is a struggle far greater than themselves. For some it was at the birth of their first child or grandchild. Still for others it was an offer to embark upon a new career, a new opportunity. Something happened that caused us to realize, “God is here” and in that moment we had a sense that God was calling us, calling us to make a difference in this world. But that was then. What about today?

    These are troublesome times. It seems that chaos is all around us and, frankly, it can be both frightening and bewildering – just like Moses experienced when he saw that burning bush long ago. I wonder if, in light of all that chaos, today’s scripture lessons are God’s invitation for each of us to recognize a new burning bush that stands before us; to once again, stop, look, and listen to what new thing, new adventure God might be calling us to embrace.

     You know, Jesus said. “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”  And we can. But like Moses, we need to remember to take off our shoes! - those shoes that bind and blind our hearts and minds to God’s presence, those shoes that  cause us to live just for ourselves – remove them and then, as Jesus and St. Paul urged us to do, offer ourselves as living sacrifices in the service of God.

     Beloved, God might call the occasional Charlton Heston, but more often than not, God calls simple, imperfect, folk like me and you to accomplish God’s ongoing purposes in this world. God calls anyone with ears and hearts willing to see and hear: willing to see the burning bush in our lives, willing to remove our shoes and anything else that binds and blinds us; willing to hear God’s invitation to recognize the holiness of God’s lifegiving presence every day, and then carry that lifegiving, transforming, and renewing presence of God into the lives of everyone we meet.

     God said to Moses, “Remove your sandals” – remove your shoes - for you are standing on holy ground right now. May God grant us the grace so to do. Amen.