The God who will be God

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

I have to be honest. Before I had a child of my own, I never changed a diaper. It’s not that I actively avoided it; it’s just that if the opportunity ever presented itself, there were always people around who were far more eager to take advantage. Of course, that changed when a baby moved into my house full time. I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the process. To my mind, changing a diaper was a little like changing my own oil: I knew that it was a fairly straightforward process and that people do it every day, but I couldn’t imagine being one of those people. Naturally, I eventually overcame these misgivings and have changed many diapers more or less successfully. Nevertheless, though all it really required was a willingness to get a little dirty from time to time, those initial feelings of trepidation and anxiety were very, very real.

In our reading from Exodus this morning, we hear of a similar trepidation from Moses when he encounters God at Mount Horeb, though his was arguably more justified. The Exodus is the defining story of the Hebrew Bible. Its narrative of liberation and redemption shaped the way Israel understood itself and its relationship with God. The prophets recall the Exodus both to offer comfort to their people in exile and to challenge those who mistreat the downtrodden. The New Testament uses the imagery of the Exodus to describe our liberation from the bondage of sin. The Exodus, in other words, is a potent reminder that God offers freedom to those who are oppressed. There is, however, another reason that this story exists at the very heart of our faith, a reason that is beautifully illustrated by Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb.

In many ways, Moses was an unlikely candidate to be the agent of God’s liberation. Though he was a Hebrew by birth, he grew up in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. He lived a comfortable existence until one day, in a fit of righteous anger, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. Moses fled into the land of Midian, leaving his cares behind and embracing a new life in a foreign land. He tried to forget everything he knew: the family he abandoned, the misery of his people in Egypt, and his own violent anger. He sequestered himself from society and tried to outrun his human frailty. It was in the midst of this self-imposed exile that Moses came upon the burning bush.

Moses_&_Bush_Icon_Sinai_c12th_centuryThis encounter is more than an a call story. Sure, it is the commencement of the greatest prophetic career in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it is the ultimate illustration of that oft-quoted truism that God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. God commissions Moses in spite of his inadequacies. Yet this story is less about Moses than it is about God. Moses, deeply aware of his failings, responds predictably to God’s commission: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses couldn’t imagine being the kind of person who could lead his people out of bondage. God’s call forces Moses to confront the human frailty he had so desperately tried to forget. Yet, God doesn’t dispute Moses’ human frailty. God doesn’t encourage Moses or tell him that liberating the oppressed isn’t all that hard. Instead, God responds with a powerful articulation of who God is: “I AM WHO I AM.” Another way to translate this is “I will be who I will be.” God is the one who will be God; God is is not hamstrung by expectations or beholden to the powers of the world. Moses has it exactly right when he questions his ability to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not Moses, but God who will liberate God’s people. Moses acknowledges this on the far side of the Red Sea when he sings, “I will sing to the LORD, for the LORD has triumphed gloriously…The LORD is my strength and my might and has become my salvation.” The encounter between Moses and God at Mount Horeb is the ultimate expression of a truth at the very heart of our faith: we are to locate our trust, not in our own strength, not in our own power, but in the very being of God.

On this third Sunday in Lent, we are well into this season of penitence and renewal. We often think of Lent as a time of spiritual accomplishment. We heroically forego chocolate or doughnuts or strong drink for 40 days and 40 nights, proving our mettle and our worthiness of God’s favor. This perspective, however, misses the point of this holy season. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature and and our utter inability to save ourselves, and then we are invited to put our trust in the grace and love. The disciplines and deprivations of this season remind us that we are dependent not on ourselves, but on the salvation that comes from God alone. The journey of Lent is about standing with Moses on that holy ground and recognizing our inadequacy, acknowledging that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, and then turning and locating our trust with the God who will be God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who is the source of our life and salvation. The message of Lent is simple: we are frail, but God is God. In this political season, it is easy to pin all of our hopes for the future on individual candidates, frail human beings all. Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb, however, reveals that no candidate, no policy, no campaign promise can save us: only the God who will be God can bring us into the fullness of life and joy.

Shortly after my daughter was born was born, my wife had a brief illness that landed her in the hospital overnight. Because I wanted to remain with her and we both wanted to have as much time with our newborn as possible, the baby stayed in the hospital room with us. As it turns out, hospital rooms are not an ideal place for a 10 day old to rest. Indeed, she refused to sleep for the duration of the night. At one point, my daughter was inconsolable and my wife was in excruciating pain. As I rocked the baby and patted my wife’s shoulder, I wept, because I realized there was nothing I could do. My love for these two people far outstripped my capacity to bring them comfort. I was utterly inadequate to the task. Though both eventually fell asleep, this moment was a potent and painful reminder that I have no power in myself to save myself or those closest to me. All I could do in that moment was put my trust in God. 

There are moments in our lives that we are confronted with our incapacity to save ourselves. It is in these moments that we are called to put our trust in the one who keeps us, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; to surrender ourselves to the one who liberates us from anxiety by offering a peace which surpasses all understanding; to remember the God who will be God.

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The Tenacity of Love

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.

imagesPaul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.

It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.

The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.

imagesIn just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.