Becoming God’s People: Moses and the Burning Bush

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-12

We are spending this fall in the story of Exodus, and as you may remember we began last week, in chapter 1, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, making bricks and working in the fields, and with Pharaoh’s attempts at genocide by commanding that all the Hebrew baby boys be killed.  This is the scene that Moses enters onto, the baby boy who didn’t get thrown in the Nile, but placed there in a basket, only to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter herself, who gives him back to his mother to nurse and then adopts him as her own.

Today we’re going to fast forward twenty years or so.  Presumably Moses has grown up as part of the Egyptian royal family all this time.  He speaks Egyptian, probably as a first language.  He knows Egyptian customs and Egyptian social mores and moves easily in this culture in which he has been brought up.  He has probably learned to worship Egyptian gods.  He has had every privilege granted to an Egyptian prince.

And yet one morning Moses goes for a walk and sees the Israelites, slaving away in the fields and making bricks.

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that anything about the scene is really new to Moses.  The Israelites have been slaving away in those fields for Moses’ whole life.  Surely he has gone for walks before.  Surely he has been well aware of the situation, eaten food the Israelites grew and harvested, lived in houses they built.  Their slavery hasn’t been a secret.  Nor has their brutal treatment.

It’s hard to say what makes this walk different from all other walks, except that sometimes we don’t see things till we see them, right?

On the other hand maybe this wasn’t just any morning stroll.  Maybe there’s a part of Moses, now a young adult, that wants to know more about who he is and where he came from.  Maybe recently he’s found himself singing under his breath the Hebrew lullabies his mother used to sing. Maybe as an adult he has more awareness of being different from the people around him.

Maybe this is a more intentional kind of seeing.

We don’t know how much Moses actually knows or remembers about his own history, but he knows that these are his people.  And that means enough to him, now, that when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, he looks to make sure no one is watching, and he kills him.

The next day he goes out again.  The draw is strong, apparently.  This time he sees two Israelites fighting, and he calls them out on it.  He almost seems to invoke his own newfound sense of identity when he says, “Come on, why are you hitting your fellow Israelite?”  We Israelites have to stick together.  The two guys fighting are not impressed.  “Why?” they say.  “Are you going to kill us too?”

Their words are chilling for two reasons.

The first is, they know what Moses did.

But the second is – they are quite clear that Moses is not one of them.

I have often heard immigrants to this country talk about being in this kind of in-between place, with one foot here and one foot in the place they came from, but never really feeling like they fully belong in either.  Maybe that’s a feeling you know.  I think it is safe to say here that Moses does too.

On that day, he went out to see “his people,” but he comes back realizing he is a person with no people: neither fully Hebrew, nor fully Egyptian.

Even worse, when word gets back around to Pharaoh about this little unpleasantness with the Egyptian taskmaster, he tries to kill Moses.  Apparently Grandpa Pharaoh is doing a little soul-searching of his own these days – if, that is, he ever really accepted Moses as his own at all.

So Moses runs.  The text tells us he is fleeing from Pharaoh, but I don’t think it takes a great leap of imagination to think that he is fleeing from much more than that – that he is fleeing from this place where he’s just learning he doesn’t quite belong.

He ends up in the wilderness of Midian, where he sits down at a well for a drink.  There he meets a group of girls, coming to get water for their father’s sheep, and fends off some shepherds who are acting aggressive toward them.  When the girls get back home they tell their father an Egyptian helped them.  Moses gets an invitation to dinner and then to marriage to one of the daughters.

It is with Moses finally settled in Midian that we hear the news: Pharaoh has died.  But this fact hasn’t helped the Israelites.  They groan under their burden and cry out to God.  And God, we are told, remembered them.

I told you last week that Exodus, besides being the quintessential story of liberation, is also the story of the forming of a new relationship – of God and God’s people getting to know each other.  When you hear that God remembered, you might naturally ask: Had God forgotten them?  That’s in fact precisely the question I have scribbled in the margin of my Bible, and I don’t know the answer.  I don’t happen to believe that God is a God who just forgets when people are suffering.  I also know that it seems sometimes like God does.  But either way, God does not wait forever.  Liberation AND relationship are both set in motion in three short verses here.

And that brings us to today.  Moses, one day, is looking after his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, and comes to a mountain named Horeb, in other places called Sinai.  Out of the corner of his eye he sees something.  A bush, on fire.  And yet as he looks closer he realizes the bush isn’t burning up.  He stops.  Have you ever been stopped in your tracks like that in the middle of a normal day?  Has God ever tried to get your attention like that?

As he stands watching, he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses!”

And, like I guess you do when you hear a burning-but-not-burning-up bush calling your name, he says, “It’s me.”

And he hears: “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.  I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  (Your people, Moses, you are still one of them.)

Moses looks away.

But God goes on.  “I’ve seen the suffering of my people in Egypt,” God says.  “I’ve heard their cries and I’m about to make good on my promises to them.  I’m going to bring them out of Egypt and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

And then God lowers the boom: “And you’re the one who’s going to make it all happen.”

Well, what do you say when God says God has a job for you?

You say NO!  Everyone in the Bible always says no, at least at first.  Everyone always has some reason why they are the wrong person for the job.  They’re too young or too old.  They’re not holy enough.  They’d rather get eaten by a fish.  They’re a virgin, and they know how biology works, thank you very much.  If you’re in the Bible and God says God has a job for you, you say no.

By the way, all those people end up doing the job God has for them.

Moses is no exception.  “Who am I to do all that?” he asks God.

And the thing is, you can see his point.  There he is in Midian, a fugitive from justice, fallen a long way from his rather privileged upbringing.  He’s a person with no people.  He’s not even sure he’s one of the people God is telling him to liberate, let alone someone with any authority over them; the predecessor of the Pharaoh he’s supposed to confront has already tried to kill him.  Who am I, indeed.  There are so many good reasons why this will never work.

We Christians love this storyline: the unlikely person called by God in spite of everything.  But as it turns out that is only half of the story here.  Because yes, Moses has a point, yes, he’s a fugitive and an outsider, but actually, if you think about it, Moses is exactly the right person for this job.

Who better to go to Egypt on behalf of the Israelites than this person who stands perfectly poised between those two worlds?

Who better to go demand freedom for Israel in fluent Egyptian than this man who once fell asleep to his mother’s Hebrew lullabies?

Who better to approach Pharaoh than this person who was once at home in Pharaoh’s court, but who saw the injustice done to the people who were his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, and who got mad about it?

But when God calls Moses, Moses doesn’t see all that.  Moses only sees his failings. He only sees his limitations. He only sees the ways he doesn’t quite fit in, doesn’t quite measure up.

But God sees more than that.  God sees qualities, abilities, history that God can put to use for all that God wants to do next.

I think that sometimes when we talk about being called by God, the problem is we end up being kind of vague.  What does it mean to be called by God?  What does God call us to, and how do we know?  Not all of us get a literal burning bush or its equivalent.  Yet all of us, I think, have things that get our attention once in a while, whether we’re looking for them or not.  An article in the paper or shared online about some injustice in our world.  A friend or neighbor who’s suffered in a way we feel compelled to respond to.  A flier posted at Starbucks asking for volunteers.  Maybe even a hymn that makes us feel like God is asking us to do something even if we don’t quite know what it is yet.

You can be called to a profession, called to a cause that’s not your 9 to 5 job, or just called to respond to a certain person in a certain way at a certain time – any job that is God’s work in the world, that we sense somehow is our work to do.

And for any of these things, when the job seems too big or too risky or too hard, we may think that God must have made some mistake, that this job would be great for someone else to do, but not for me.  And it’s possible that, like Moses, we might be selling ourselves short.

Like I said, we love the narrative of the person called despite all odds, and while that makes for a good story, it’s possible to take this too far.  I wonder if over the summer some of you heard in the news the story of a white American woman, a Christian, who felt God calling her to start a center for malnourished children in Uganda.  She started out just feeding them, but soon children were showing up with complications from their malnourishment, and they needed medical attention, and she started giving it to them.  Only the thing was, this woman had no medical training whatsoever, nor did anyone on her staff.  Over 100 children died.[1]  I heard this story and I wondered if our narrative had failed her, because when we say “God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called,” maybe we forget to add that God can equip the called with a degree from an accredited med school.  There is an arrogance in thinking that we can do anything, no matter how unqualified, just because we are called.

And yet there’s also this risk that we’ll miss the boat because we can’t see beyond our limitations to the gifts and resources God has already given us.

I’ve told you all before that I started seminary before I knew I was going to be a pastor, though I didn’t really know what other work I planned to do.  What I knew is that I wanted to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth and I wanted to invite people into it.  At the end of my first year of seminary, one of my professors made a comment wondering if the reason I didn’t want to be a pastor was because I didn’t think I could.

I was offended, at first, because of course not everyone is called to be a pastor; people are called to other equally good and valid things, and why would he make it about that?

But in the next year or so I began to wonder if he was right.  Because the truth is I had this image of what a pastor was and I could count all the ways I didn’t really fit.  I didn’t think I could stand up and have something to say to people every week.  I’m shy.  Charisma has never really been my strong suit.  Could I really be a leader?  And yet gradually I realized – you know what I like?  Words.  And maybe I can lead through them.  It’s not that I didn’t have limitations, but it’s also not that I didn’t have any gifts.

Take someone like Greta Thunberg, who has been in the news a lot lately as a leader of a global movement of young people against climate change and the inaction of so many of us in the face of it.  I don’t know that she sees this as a divine call, but I see her as doing God’s work in the world.  She’s been open about the fact that she has Asperger Syndrome, which makes her awkward and means she doesn’t always pick up on social cues.  I imagine there might have been a time when she wondered if she could really do this – as a teenager and one on the autism spectrum at that, but as it turns out, both are part of what makes her a powerful leader. Her age gives her authority to speak about the future.  Her Asperger’s means the comments and insults hurled at her roll off in a way they might not otherwise. She calls being different her “superpower.”[2] And her passion is fighting climate change. You see – she’s the perfect person for the job.

Yes, God may call us to things we never thought we could do, and things we may well need to be further equipped to do.  But God also wants to put to work our gifts, our passions, our experiences, our stories – even our brokenness.  God, most of the time, doesn’t call us despite those things.  God calls us because of those things.

Well, Moses has his arguments at the ready.  He says I’m no one.  God says I’m someone.  Moses says, Who are you? God says I am who I am.  Moses says I’m not a good speaker.  God says I will give you the words.  Moses says Please just send someone else.

As much as Moses protests, God doesn’t let him off the hook.  But God also works with him.  God recognizes his limitations as well as his gifts.  God gives him Aaron, who can speak in a way that Moses can’t.  But Aaron also can’t do this work on his own.  He isn’t Moses.

Because the truth is also that we are all a jumble of gifts and passions and limitations and imperfections and experiences who make us who we are.  And we are all called to do God’s work in this world.  But we are never called to God’s work alone.  We are always called together.

How does God want to use your particular jumble of those things to further God’s story of liberation?

Because that’s where we’re headed.  God’s people are enslaved and they must be made free.

And God knows the perfect person for the job.

 

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/08/09/749005287/american-with-no-medical-training-ran-center-for-malnourished-ugandan-kids-105-d

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/02/greta-thunberg-responds-to-aspergers-critics-its-a-superpower

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Becoming God’s People: Fear God, Not Pharaoh

Scripture: Exodus 1:8-22

If you grew up with the story of Exodus, or even encountered it later in the movies, you probably know it first of all as a story of liberation.  That’s certainly what comes to my mind first: the image of Moses plunging his staff into the Red Sea, dividing the waters for the Israelites to march through as the sound of the Egyptian army grows closer in the distance.  And in fact it’s been the inspiration for countless oppressed groups of people as they, with God’s help, write their own stories of liberation.  Martin Luther King Jr. liked to allude to Exodus a lot.

Exodus is also the story of something else.  It’s the story of a new relationship.  It’s the story of God and God’s people getting to know each other.

Back in Genesis, God made Godself known to one particular family.  God started with Abraham, who God promised would become a great nation, as numerous in the stars in the sky.  Then there was Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob.  But by the time we come to Jacob’s son, Joseph, we already get the sense that that personal connection is fading.  God is at work in the Joseph story, but largely behind the scenes.  And by the time we get to Exodus, it’s not clear how much of a relationship exists at all.  After all, when God enters the story a little later on, the people have lots of questions.

If Genesis is the story of God becoming the God of one particular family, Exodus is the story of God becoming the God of a people.

At the beginning of any new relationship, there’s a kind of awkward period of getting to know each other.  This is the case whether we’re talking a romantic relationship, a friendship, maybe even a professional relationship.  The beginning is full of questions.  Is it too soon to call?  Will they think this joke is funny, or am I going to sound super awkward?  Eventually the questions get a little deeper.  Will they still like me if they know my failings?  Are they only in it for the good times, or will they stick around when the going gets tough?  And on the flip side, is this someone I want in my life for the long haul?  These are the questions we find both God and the Israelites asking as they move through the sea and then the desert together – or at least, questions like them.

Exodus is a story of God and God’s people: testing the waters, learning what it means to be in relationship with each other.  God, for God’s part, needs to figure out if these are really the people God is going to achieve God’s mission in the world with.  And the Israelites, for their part, need to figure out what it means to be God’s people in the world.

And since that’s what we’re here for too, we’re going to spend the next seven or so weeks traveling with the Israelites on their journey – out of slavery, into the wilderness, to the base of Mt. Sinai and all the bumps and bruises along the way, as they figure it all out.

I don’t know about you, but I find the beginning of Exodus, the part we just heard, almost chilling in its timelessness.  Because, like all good stories of liberation, this is a story that begins in fear.

It is NOT the fear of an oppressed people for their oppressors.  Not at first: that comes later. It’s the other way around.  The story of Exodus begins with the Egyptian’s fear of the Israelites.

We’re told that in the generations since Joseph, the Israelites have been “fruitful,” “prolific,” and “strong.”  The land, it says, “was filled with them.”

Perhaps you can imagine how the Egyptians might have begun to feel about them, because they are a minority group gaining presence and power in someone else’s land, and we know how that goes, right?  They’re a drain on the system, the Egyptians might have said.  They’re taking our jobs.  We’re going to lose our culture, others might have said.  Still others: They’re all rapists and drug dealers.  Pharaoh makes it explicit: if we go to war, they will fight against us.

Sound familiar?

On some level it’s hard to say where the fear started: was it organic, swelling up from the bottom up?  Did ordinary people see this growing minority as a threat and demand some sort of action from their leader?  Or was the fear drummed up by Pharaoh, an intentional tactic to consolidate power?  Because nothing makes people fall in line like creating an enemy.

Some of you are probably nodding along right now, drawing some parallels, and of course I’ve alluded to them too.  The kind of fear this story begins with is the kind of fear that leads us to build walls, and set up camps, and carry guns, and call the police on people doing nothing more than existing in a public space.  It’s the fear, even, that makes us do little things like cross to the other side of the street when we see someone coming who looks a certain way. And you might be saying, yes, it’s terrible, how other people let themselves be manipulated by fearmongering politicians, it’s terrible how afraid ignorant people are of people who aren’t just like them.

But this isn’t a sermon about other people. And Pharaoh isn’t just one particular leader, but all the powers that hold sway over us.  This is about fear and the way that so often divides us from one another.

It may seem strange to go there on World Communion Sunday, which is a day to celebrate our diversity, united as the worldwide Body of Christ.  The thing is that while we can and should celebrate the beautiful things that make us different and connect us to each other, sometimes it’s easy to paper over the things we’d rather not talk about.  In the news this week, you may have heard or read about the conviction of Amber Guyger, the white police officer who walked into the wrong apartment, saw a black man eating ice cream on what she mistakenly thought was her sofa, and shot and killed him.  The man’s name was Botham Jean, and what made the news even more than Guyger’s conviction or her relatively light sentence of 10 years in prison was the scene of Botham Jean’s brother Brandt publicly forgiving Guyger and the two of them embracing.  In the day or so after this happened I saw lots of people sharing this image, calling it a powerful example of the radical forgiveness that Christ calls us to.  But then some other people said Yes, but.  When we make this a feel-good story of one individual forgiving another, it’s easy ignore the bigger issues at play, like a seeming epidemic of police violence against black people and the lack of accountability they seem to face.  And this, too, is a story about fear: the fear that made Guyger shoot in the first place, and the fear incidents like this create for those who worry they could be next.

We should celebrate diversity like we should celebrate forgiveness, but let’s not paper over the bigger issues; let’s not paper over the fear that surrounds us in the news and invades our own lives.

The next step is predictable: Pharoah moves from fear to action.  He must find a way to keep this dangerous minority in check.  Let’s put them to work, Pharaoh says.  After all, it’s hard to find the energy to rise up and fight Egypt with their enemies when you’re exhausted and your day to day survival is on the line.  And yet it seems that’s not enough to quell the people’s fears, or maybe Pharaoh needs to drum up some more fear in order to secure the support of his own people.  And so we move from forced labor to genocide: he summons the Hebrew midwives and instructs them to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites.  Where he thinks his labor force is going to come from with all the Hebrew boys dead, I don’t know, but the things we do for political reasons don’t always make logical sense.

But here is where the story turns to hope.

Pharaoh and his people fear the Israelites.  And the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, have every reason to fear Pharaoh right back.  That’s what happens: fear begets fear.  Who knows what will happen if they don’t do exactly what Pharaoh says.  He is Pharaoh, after all.  And yet the story doesn’t tell us that they feared Pharaoh.  What does the story say?  That they feared God.

Not, of course, that they feared God in the exact same way they might have feared Pharoah, or in the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians feared the Israelites.  “Fear” in this sense doesn’t mean to be afraid of, not exactly.  More, it means that at the end of the day you know who you’re accountable to.  And at the end of the day Shiphrah and Puah knew they were accountable to God.  They might not have had known God well, at that point in the story.  But they knew God well enough for that.

Their conversation with Pharaoh is almost comedic.  This most powerful man in the ancient world, when he calls them to account for their disobedience, doesn’t issue an accusation.  He says “Why didn’t you do what I said?”  And they answer, “You see, Pharaoh, it’s not our fault.  The Hebrew women are so vigorous!  They give birth before we can even get there.”  Perhaps they’re playing on a stereotype that Pharaoh already holds.  We have stereotypes like this, sometimes, that certain groups of people are stronger or hardier or feel less pain than others.  They’re “positive,” stereotypes, sometimes, that let us deny our own racism when we believe and repeat them.  But here, Shiphrah and Puah are turning that around on Pharaoh.  And they get away with it.

Pharaoh is a powerful man.  But sometimes when you stand up to powerful people you discover they’re not ultimately so powerful after all.

And the thing is that when Shiphrah and Puah stand up to Pharaoh – when they refuse to fear him more than they fear God – they break the cycle of fear.

Now, I don’t mean that just all was well from there on out.  We’re still at the beginning of the story – and things will get worse before they get better.  When Pharaoh sees he can’t count on the midwives, he enlists all the Egyptian people to throw any Hebrew boys they see into the Nile.  He still says to let the girls live.  Presumably they can be dealt with some other way; they can eventually bear Egyptian babies for Egyptian men.

And yet this is the first action in the story that will open the door for something new.  Because when one person breaks the cycle of fear, it’s easier for the next person to do it too, and the next and the next.  The midwives’ “no” to Pharaoh opens the door for Moses, not thrown into the Nile but placed there in a basket to be rescued. And that opens the door for God to work miracles, to invite a downtrodden people to follow across a desert and a sea, to stand up and not be afraid anymore.

Sometimes I think our temptation, even when we see this fear at work around us in ways both overt and insidious, even when we know it is wrong, is to complain.  We rail about it on social media and we rail about it to our friends and we rail about it to our family – maybe we even preach about it.  And we think that’s enough to make us good people and put us on the right side of history, as long as we hold the right views.  And really what God is waiting for us to do is to stand up and break that cycle of fear.

It’s the same thing Jesus commands when he tells us to walk the extra mile when someone forces us to walk one, to turn the other cheek when someone hits us on one: not simply to bow to the command of someone more powerful than you, but to subvert their power by refusing to be afraid.

In the Exodus story, and in Jesus’ examples, it’s members of the oppressed or marginalized group who do this fear-breaking, but it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t always be. Later in this first chapter of Exodus it is Pharaoh’s daughter herself who does the same thing from her place of privilege.  She’s the one who finds baby Moses in that basket in the Nile.  She rescues him even though her father has commanded his people to do the opposite.  Somehow, she must have refused to believe everything she’d hear about the Israelites – that they were lazy, dangerous, good for nothing.  Was she afraid, blatantly disobeying her father the king?  Did she, who didn’t know the God of the Israelites at all, fear God more than Pharaoh, too?

Do you?  Do we?

Maybe, in a way, that’s what we do as a church when we open our doors during the week, welcoming anyone who wants to come inside for a bite to eat and a place to sit and rest for a while.  Sure, we could listen to the neighbors who sometimes like to tell us we’re only attracting the wrong kind of people, but if we fear God, we know there is no wrong kind of people.

Maybe that’s what the Lutheran church (ELCA) did this summer when they declared themselves to be a “sanctuary denomination” – that in response to the fear drummed up in our country around immigrants, especially those from Central America, they call on their churches to respond to raids, fight mass detention, and offer radical hospitality to immigrants.  Hospitality is always a good antidote to fear.

Maybe that’s what we do when we’re bold enough to recognize the fear, the stereotypes, the prejudice we’ve internalized against people who are “other,” knowing that by God’s grace we can be not only forgiven, but changed.

The story begins in fear.  And before the story is over, there will be plenty more to fear, for both Israelites and Egyptians.  There will be locusts and hail and darkness, all signs of divine wrath.  There will be the invitation to walk through the middle of a churning sea.  There will be hunger and thirst and the fear of abandonment.

But – because a few people decided to fear God more than Pharaoh, because a few people decided to fear God instead of other people – the story also begins in hope and promise.

The Israelites are slaves.  But they won’t be for long.

They are God’s people, and they’re about to find out what that means.

 

 

 

Sabbath: More Than Our Work

Scripture: Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

A few years ago, I went to visit two of my friends in London.  They were unrelated friends – one from high school, one from college – both of whom just happened to be living and working in London at the time: one for a big corporate law firm, the other for a large bank.  In some ways, especially from my outside perspective, they were both living the dream.  They were doing big, important things, for big, important people; living in Europe; making money that made their lifestyles seem fancy and glamorous, at least to me.

They were also both, it turned out, completely miserable.

Their schedules were grueling.  My banker friend routinely got home from work around 2 am, and got up to go again the next morning.  She called her life “unsustainable.”  My lawyer friend described working all the way through her family’s visit for Christmas.  At one point she said to me, “You know, I don’t actually want to die, but sometimes I think that if I just kind of accidentally walked in front of a bus, it would be OK.”

My reaction was, “What??? None of this is OK.”

I was working in Williamsburg at the time, the associate pastor of a large church.  In a lot of ways, my world seemed very distant from theirs.  I was neither working those hours nor making that money.  I was surrounded, in my ministry world, by admonitions to self-care.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how that kind of corporate culture and mentality in which they lived has really seeped over into the rest of our world as well, and how it has quietly set expectations even for those of us who never opted in.

Some of you may know that corporate world and culture well, and others of you, like me, might feel pretty far removed from it.  No matter which applies to you: how many of you know people who humble brag about how busy they are?  How many of you know people who feel the need to be constantly available, even on time that should rightly be theirs – who never turn off that work email notification?  How many of you have been those people?  I know that even in my world that seemed so distant from the one I encountered in London, I found myself surrounded by near constant talk from pastors about how many hours they worked, how they were constantly on call, their struggles with taking a day off.  And I found myself lured into that kind of mindset, too – thinking that if I wasn’t working as much as someone else then I must not be as good a pastor, feeling that gnawing need to check my email on my day off on Friday because someone might expect a response, resisting the temptation to inflate the amount of hours I worked in casual conversation to make myself sound and feel more important and necessary.

It’s experiences like that that have made me passionate and sometimes even a little bit soapbox-y about the idea of Sabbath, because the more I realized how this corporate mentality actually had me in its grips, the stronger I felt the need to resist it.

Last week we began this series on the subject of Sabbath and talked about how our practice of it is modeled on the six days of creation, and how according to some interpretations God even takes a day off on an ongoing basis, and how God invites us to live into that divine rhythm of creation and enjoyment by resting one day a week ourselves.

But Sabbath is such a recurrent theme throughout the Bible, and especially throughout those first five books we call the Torah or the Pentateuch, that we can find lots of different understandings of where it comes from and why it’s important.  Modeling our own weekly rhythm on God’s rhythm is one.  Another is much more mundane – and that is simply the realization of rest as a human need.  We literally can’t just work all the time without a break.  God knows that, and God not just allows for that: God demands we respect that fact about ourselves.

And, in fact, not just about ourselves, but also anyone we may have power or influence over.  In the part of Exodus we heard this morning, which is part of God’s speech to the people from Mount Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, God says this: “Do you work in six days.  But on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and donkey may rest, and even the child of your female slave and the immigrant may be refreshed” (23:12).  The Bible is often written to relatively privileged people, but that’s what makes it all the more important that those with less privilege are remembered.

In our day and age – and perhaps not only in our day and age – the practice of Sabbath is something that may very well require some privilege.  Not everyone can afford – on a survival level – to take time off, especially when payment comes by the hour.  And the Bible indicts those of us responsible for a culture and economy that demands that.  Rest is a human need – and not just a human need, since God includes the animals too.  Rest is a creaturely need, never meant solely for the privileged few.

Remember that this is a law given to a people who have just escaped from slavery in Egypt.  In Egypt, it was the work of the Israelites to make bricks and build things with those bricks.  When Moses goes to Pharaoh and says “Let my people go,” Pharaoh says, “Why are encouraging the people to slack off? They’re just lazy!”  And he demands that from that point on, they will no longer be given straw for the bricks.  They’ll have to gather their own straw.  But they’ll still have to make just as many bricks as before.

But when the Israelites cross the Red Sea into the wilderness and hear from God at Mount Sinai, they are not slaves anymore.   And for these people who are slaves no more, the observance of Sabbath becomes a way they remember their past and commemorate their freedom: As Deuteronomy 5 reminds them, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.….Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

Pharaoh might have demanded a life defined by making more and more bricks: but God does not.  And in fact, God explicitly demands the opposite: that life be honored as more than that.

Clearly, my friends in London were far from slaves.  Again, there are also people in all around us, right in our city and community, who are forced to work multiple minimum-wage jobs just to make a living, if they even do that; there are prisoners who pick up our trash and harvest our food and put out our fires for WAY less than minimum wage without much choice whatsoever in the matter.  My friends were well compensated for the toll their jobs took on their lives.  They were also free to leave, which both have since done.

They weren’t slaves.  But the way I saw it, as long as they bought into this culture where work claimed an ultimate hold over their lives, neither were they completely free.  And as long as we also buy into that culture, neither are we.

It’s been a weekend for celebrating freedom, or at least the highest ideals we hold of freedom, and in that vein, I believe that God has given us the gift of Sabbath because God wants us to be free.  Free from a culture that defines our worth based on our billable hours.  Free from a culture that expects us to chained to our phones and check our email on vacation.  Free from the lie that the busier I am, the more important I am.  Free from a life of making more and more bricks.

I’ve heard a lot of justifications for taking a break along the lines of, “You can be more productive in 40 hours a week than you can in 50.”  There is truth to this; there have been studies.[1]  At some point we’re working more for the show than for the results.  And I can absolutely tell you that on weeks when I’m stressed about a million things to do and tempted to cram all those things into all the available time I have, but instead stop and let my mind lie fallow for a day, those things tend to get done more efficiently and effectively.  That’s true.  It’s just not the point.

The point is, Sabbath is more than just a strategy for doing more and better work.

I liked the way one article I came across put it: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.”[2]

I believe that work is good.  I believe that God has given us work to do.  Maybe it’s the work we get paid for, or maybe our truest and highest calling is separate from the way we put food on the table.  But either way, our work – of contributing to society, providing for our families, volunteering, advocating for justice, caring for children, making food for a sick neighbor, moving the parking sign on a Sunday morning so visitors can see it – all of it is good.  It’s how we use our gifts, it’s how we find purpose, it’s how we play an active role in the Kingdom of God.  But it’s only good when we also know when to stop, to say no, to enjoy what God has already given to us without clamoring for more.  It’s only good when we are free.

Maybe freedom is even the wrong word.  My professor for the class I recently took on Exodus liked to remind us that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, it wasn’t really freedom they were crossing into.  They were no longer subject to Pharaoh.  Instead, they were subject to YHWH.  But of course, that was a much better deal.

As Christians, we understand our ultimate freedom to be found in Christ.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  And yet it is in that freedom from sin, freedom from the pressures of the world around us, and freedom from ourselves, that we find our call to serve – God and each other.

Maybe, when we find ourselves sucked into this culture of overwork and business, this is the question we should be asking ourselves: who are we going to serve?

Will it be God, or Pharaoh?  Christ, or corporate culture?

Do we want to spend our lives making more bricks with less straw?  Or do we want to get about God’s business of building the Kingdom of God on earth, together?

 

[1] https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/crunchmode/econ-hours-productivity.html

[2] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-as-a-reminder-of-creation/

Sabbath: God’s Day Off

Scripture: Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:10-11

A couple years ago I was invited to lead a workshop on self-care for newer pastors in our conference.  It’s a funny thing, realizing that the part of your job you are apparently known for among your colleagues is your ability to not do it sometimes.  I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it, but I do actually care about this topic, so off I went to Richmond to lead this workshop.

Self-care is a pretty big buzzword these days, not just in the ministry world, but also in the secular one, perhaps especially in the world of things targeted at women.  It may conjure up images of bubble baths adorned with candles, getting a pedicure or a massage, or a day spent at a winery with friends.  Nothing wrong with any of those things in moderation, of course, but those things are not what we talked about in this workshop.  Instead, what we talked about was setting boundaries around our time.  Saying no when no needed to be said.  Not checking your email on your day off.  Committing to being at home to eat dinner with your family at least most nights a week.  Leaving the office early to get some exercise when you have to be back in the evening for a meeting.  These are the kinds of things my colleagues were struggling with, and while some of the details may be particular to pastoral ministry, I think the struggles themselves are not.

This sermon series we are beginning today is, likewise, not about whether your nails are done or you’ve had the chance to take a nice bubble bath lately.  But it is about learning to set some boundaries around our time.  And it’s particularly about this one boundary that God seems to explicitly expect of us: this idea that one day a week, we are supposed to just stop our work, say no to all the crucial things that demand our time and energy, and simply rest.  This is the idea we call Sabbath, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to stop.”  The practice of Sabbath is a form of self-care, though it is not the only form, and it may even seem like a strange form, this day that forces us to slow down and get even further behind in our work and lives.

If you were Jewish (depending heavily, of course, on what kind of Jewish you were) you might have a strict set of rules to follow in order to set and keep this boundary in time.  Don’t walk more than a certain distance.  Don’t turn the lights on and off, if you are orthodox.  Set aside your electronic devices, for some Reform Jews.[1]  That’s the funny thing about Sabbath, is that rest can actually end up taking a lot of effort.  It’s not just about doing whatever we want.  It’s fundamentally restrictive, because it rests on this idea that we need to actually be stopped, that we’re not just going to do it on our own.

Often Christians seem to think that when Jesus came he did away with all these silly rules, but that’s not really true.  Jesus certainly pushed back on multiple occasions against a legalistic interpretation of the Sabbath, one that lifted following the rules over and above responding to urgent human need.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he said (Mark 2:27), but we do tend to conveniently ignore the first part of that, the fact that Sabbath is still something God has made for us.  I think we ignore it less because of our Christian theology and more because it’s not our natural inclination to want to stop.  We are more inclined, at least in our culture as I experience it, to push the limits, to squeeze thing in, to produce, produce, produce.  Here in America, we’re good capitalists that way, right?  I mean this for myself, too, despite that fact that I was the one teaching that workshop.  Life simply gives us so much to do; people simply expect so much from us, whether they are our boss or our family or our friends; honestly, sometimes we just expect so much from ourselves.

I don’t assume that anything about this series over the next few weeks is going to make it magically easier for you to set this boundary that God expects us to.  But maybe what it will do is give you some idea of why it might be a good idea to try; why the practice of Sabbath might in fact be not just a rule but a gift.

Historically, we don’t know a lot about the origins of this thing called Sabbath, whether it was a uniquely Jewish practice or one they held in common with other surrounding cultures in the Ancient Near East.  What we know is what we read starting in Genesis, that God created the world in six days.  God created the light and the darkness, the water and the dry land, the sun and the moon, the fish and the birds and the animals and human beings.

And on the seventh day, God rested.  Though the Bible doesn’t say, we might imagine this as a time when God got to sit back and simply enjoy what God had created.  It does say in Genesis that because God rested, God “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

We read throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Bible, that it’s precisely because God did this that we are supposed to do likewise.  The verse we heard earlier from Exodus 20 comes from the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…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 day and consecrated it.”

We can guess that God rested on that seventh day of creation not because God needed a break, but because God knew we would: by resting a consecrating that day, God provides a model for us to imitate.  And in fact the orthodox Jewish understanding of Sabbath, with all its rules about turning lights on and off and transporting an object and threshing and baking, is fundamentally an understanding that forbids acts of creation on the Sabbath.[2]  I’ve found this a useful way to think about what I do or don’t do on the day I call my Sabbath.  My ideal rule of thumb is that I shouldn’t be doing anything productive.  Not checking my work email, not cleaning the house, not checking things off my to-do list, even my personal one.  Now, am I practicing this perfectly?  Far from it, especially now that I have a kid, and I honestly don’t know when else some of this stuff is going to get done.  But thinking about that rule of thumb does at least give me something to check myself against when I feel myself straying too far from it.

But recently I came across another understanding of Sabbath and why it should be part of our lives.  It comes from a story in Exodus, the first place in the Bible that Sabbath is mentioned.  It’s the story of the manna, how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness with nothing to eat, and in response God rains down bread from heaven.

God tells the Israelites to collect the bread each morning for six days, just enough for the day.  But on the sixth day, God says, what they gather will be double.  On that sixth day Moses tells them that the next day is to be a day of rest, and they will not find manna on the ground, because “the seventh day is a holy sabbath to the Lord” (16:23).

Or, depending on how you translate the Hebrew, “the seventh day is a holy sabbath FOR the Lord.”  In other words, it may not just be that God once upon a time created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  It may in fact be that this is actually God’s ongoing rhythm of life: work, create, provide for six days, and rest for one.  Maybe the Sabbath is actually God’s weekly day off.[3]

Maybe that idea makes you a little bit jittery.  In a way, it makes me nervous too.  The idea that God is on call 24-7 is pretty well ingrained in me from childhood, and who knows what is going to happen to us if God takes a break from working and creating and providing manna?  Maybe it’s even an idea that makes you mad.  After all, there’s plenty going on down here on earth we need God to take care of – maybe even that God needs us to be taking care of.

But this idea of God continually resting on the Sabbath is one that shows up in Jewish tradition, not just one person’s obscure translation.  And even if I don’t necessarily take it literally, there is something appealing about it for me.  The thing is that if we think of the Sabbath this way, it’s not just that we’re being expected to imitate a model laid out for us once.  Instead, we’re being invited to live life according to a divine rhythm, one that provides for work and rest and labor and enjoyment.[4]  It’s a rhythm we were made for, since we were created in the image of God.  It’s a rhythm that invites us to trust in God’s abundance even when we’re not out there frantically gathering our manna.

If even God isn’t too important to take a day off, then who are we?  If God spends God’s seventh days doing nothing but enjoying what God has created, then why not us?  What makes us think that we don’t have the time to do that?  What makes us think that every last space on the calendar exists to be filled?  What makes us think that the world will fall apart without us?

I’ve seen a meme going around recently that says, “I knew a pastor who said he never takes a day off, because Satan doesn’t.’  I said to him, ‘I think you need a better role model.’”  And again, it’s a message that’s not just for pastors.

I said before that Sabbath can feel restrictive, just another set of rules to follow, a burden Jesus supposedly freed us from.  But I think maybe we consider ourselves “free” from this burden at our own peril.  The Sabbath is meant to be received as a gift, a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our own labor as well as what God has given us.  That’s why our observant Jewish siblings welcome the Sabbath like a bride and queen, by lighting candles and singing songs.  And in fact, it the day is meant to be experienced as a foretaste of the messianic age, the world as it was created to be, what we Christians might call the Kingdom of God.

And the Kingdom of God isn’t a rat race.  It’s not a to-do list.  No one is measured by output or billable hours or how well they’re keeping up with the Joneses.  The Kingdom of God is trust, and delight, and manna in abundance, and each person valued simply for being God’s good creation.

And maybe we have to stop – physically stop – to remember that.  In Sabbath, that’s what God invites us into: in this burden that is really a gift.

 

 

[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/95907/jewish/The-Shabbat-Laws.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat

[3] David Frankel, “The Priestly Conception of Sabbath in Exodus 16.” Biblische Zeitschrift, vol. 59, no. 2, 2015, pp. 225.

[4] Frankel, p. 229.

In God’s Image

Scripture: Genesis 1:24-27

Last week we celebrated Pentecost, which we sometimes call the birthday of the church: Jesus has just ascended back into heaven and the disciples are huddled, waiting and praying, in this upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem, when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit arrives with the sound of a great wind and the spectacle of tongues of fire.  It’s one of the big holidays of the Christian year, although Hallmark has not quite figured that out yet, and it’s always fun to celebrate the Holy Spirit with bright colors and good music and a chance to talk about how we encounter her in our own lives and how we, like the disciples, are transformed and sent.

But it’s possible that if you’re the kind of person who likes to think a little more deeply about these things, all this Pentecost talk of the Holy Spirit might make you take a step back and say, wait a minute.  Just who, or what, is this Holy Spirit, anyway?

Does the Holy Spirit show up for the first time on Pentecost, or has she always been there, maybe just taking a backseat to Jesus for a while?  Is she in the Old Testament too?  What does she do?  Is she part of God?  Or one way that God shows up?  Or somehow related-to, but separate-from God altogether?

And maybe eventually if you’re that same kind of person who thinks about these things, you might go a step further and say, OK, so then where does Jesus fit in to all this?  How do these three divine entities we talk about in church go together?  What is their relationship to each other?

By this time you’ve gotten into some serious theology and it’s likely that you have decided you need a strong cup of coffee before trying to sort all of this out.

These questions, of course, all lead us to a central Christian belief in what we call the Trinity: a God who is both three and one, for which we sometimes use the word triune; that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each of whom are fully God in themselves, and yet these three make up one God.

Again, this kind of theology is not for the undercaffeinated.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the Sunday after Pentecost in the Christian liturgical calendar is Trinity Sunday, a day set aside for us all to delve into the mystery of what it means to worship a triune God.  Trinity Sunday isn’t one of those days I tend to observe every year, because honestly I feel like there’s only so much I – or anyone – can say with any authority on the topic, but I do feel like it’s useful to come back to every once in a while.  After all, this idea of a three-in-one God is fundamental to who we are as Christians, something that unites us with other Christians of all denominations around the world and makes us distinct from other religious groups who don’t profess the same, from Jews and Muslims to Unitarians and Mormons.  And so we should probably have a working knowledge of what it means.

When I was in fifth grade, I had a good friend who was Jewish. For Jews, as for Muslims, a belief in one God is fundamental to their belief, and the Christian belief in a three-in-one God tends to not quite do it for them.  I remember that I was talking to my friend one day at recess and she asked me, “How can you say you believe in one God, when you believe in three?” I think we were on the swings at the time.  These are the conversations I had at recess.

What would you have said to that?  How would you answer that question if someone asked you now?

I actually have no recollection of what I said to her at the time.  What I do remember is that after that, I did what I thought I was supposed to do as someone who loved Jesus, and that is I prayed every night for a while that God would help my friend understand.  It’s only looking back that I realize how silly that prayer actually was: well-meaning, of course (and I was only eleven) but still, how could I pray for her to understand a part of my religion that I couldn’t even claim to understand myself?

It’s possible, especially if we’ve grown up in church, that along the way we’ve learned or absorbed certain images and metaphors to help us understand or explain the Trinity.  The Trinity is like an apple: skin, flesh, and seeds.  Or the Trinity is like water, which can be liquid, ice, or vapor.  These metaphors can be helpful, but only if we don’t take them too seriously.  At some point, they all break down into one sort of classical trinitarian heresy or another, because the Father, Son and Holy Spirits are not just three parts of one whole; nor are they simply three different modes in which God might exist at any given time.  (Come to Bible study today to learn more about heresy!)

Anyway, nowhere in the Bible is it spelled out what you are supposed to say to your Jewish friend when she asks how you can possibly believe this.  That’s because the Trinity, as a fully formulated doctrine (or even a word) isn’t in the Bible explicitly at all.  Instead it’s like we have these clues we have to put together.  At the very beginning of Genesis we read about the spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation, and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn of God’s Spirit entering people and endowing them with certain skills, powers, or prophetic insight.  In the Gospels we read of Jesus, the Son of God, who claimed oneness with the Father, and who promised the presence of a Comforter or Advocate who would remain with his disciples even in his own absence.  In Acts we read of the Holy Spirit resting like a tongue of fire on each believer.  Paul maybe gets the closest to putting it all together when he writes in 2 Corinthians “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14).

But never does anyone write, OK, this is exactly how the Father relates to the Son and the Son relates to the Spirit and the Spirit relates to the Father and they all relate to each other, and this is how they can be both one and three. Instead we are left to read the testimony that is there, of God at work in us and around us known in three entities yet of a God who is still somehow one – and we get to work it all out for ourselves.  Or at least try.

These are the kinds of things the early church fought about, and in fact it is out of that conflict that some of our earliest creeds come from.  Are you familiar with the Nicene Creed?  It’s not one we say a lot here, but if you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass, it’s likely you’ve encountered it there.  It goes like this (excerpted):

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father. …

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Nicene Creed was the result of a little church meeting called the Council of Nicaea, back in 325 CE, called by Emperor Constantine to resolve an ongoing controversy about how exactly Jesus was related to God the Father, determining that he was begotten, not created, and of the same substance as the Father.   Later the Athanasian Creed delved even deeper into the three-in-one question.  The catholic faith, it said, is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.

Somehow as a church we’ve moved from fighting over things like this to fighting over more mundane matters, like who can get married in the church sanctuary.  It does seem to me that today we’re mostly happy to live and let live as far as all this deep theological stuff is concerned.  What concerns us is how we agree to live our lives together.

I’m certainly not suggesting we revive age-old disputes about trinitarian orthodoxy and heresy.   But I do believe that the theology we profess shapes our lives individually and together.  And I do believe that how we understand this mystery we call the Trinity makes a difference.

So I want to go back to Genesis, where we first encountered the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation.  The pattern of these first verses are undoubtedly familiar to many of us: God creates the earth, sky, and birds and fish all in the course of five days, and then on the sixth day, God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26).  And so, the Scripture reads, “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them, male and female God created them” (1:27).

Again, I don’t think the idea of being created in the image of God is new to most of us.  What does that mean to you, to be created in the image of God?

To me it means, the way I usually think about, that God has called each one of us good, in all of our quirks and particularities: not that we are a physical reflection of God such that we imagine God with two arms and two legs and a large and small intestine, but that there is something of God’s own beauty and goodness reflected in each one of us.

But let me ask you this question again.  What does it mean to be created in the image of a triune God?

Obviously none of us is three-in-one, not in the way that we profess God to be.  We may very well be multifaceted sorts of people.  We may fulfill different roles in our lives: friend, parent, employee.  But none of those things really get at what it means to be triune.  When we talk about a triune God we’re not talking about qualities of God or roles of God or different kinds of relationships we might have with God, we are talking about God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: who is fundamentally both three and one.

I’ve said before, I think, that what I find most meaningful about this doctrine that otherwise sounds a little made up, is that it gives new meaning to the saying God is love.  It doesn’t just mean that God loves and wants us to love too.  It means that God actually is love, fundamentally, inherently, on the inside, because God consists of the loving relationships between the three persons of the Trinity.

John Wesley preached that to be created in the image of God who is love means to be created to love and be loved, that this is our first and true nature and purpose, the thing that is both broken in us and restored through our sanctification.

It says something to me that even God can’t be God alone, that God is community, and if we are in fact created in the image of this God, then we are created for community too.  None of us can do this alone: not faith, not life.  We are meant to be in this together.

You know, if someone asked me today how I can believe that God is both three and one, I’m honestly not sure I’d have a much better answer than I did at fifth grade during recess.  I would at least probably pray for my own understanding first.  But the fact that I don’t really understand how any of this can be bothers me a lot less now than it did then.  I’m comfortable with the idea that maybe I’m not really supposed to know.

Most good theology, I think, can’t be recited in a creed or summed up in a formula.  Just being able to say the right words – if they are even that – doesn’t really mean much.  Good theology is sometimes more like poetry than the words of a creed, which is why I sometimes prefer the words of St. Patrick to the Nicene Creed.  But even more, I think, good theology is something that needs to be lived into.  And if I’m living my life in a way that professes that God is love, that I am made for love and community, that that is the image of God my journey of salvation is leading me back to, then maybe my trinitarian theology is better than I know.

And as for the details, we can keep figuring all of that out, as long as we do it together.

 

We Are Witnesses

Scripture: Luke 24:46-53; Acts 2:1-21

Sometimes when life is hard we all need some (healthy) escape mechanisms.  One of those for me in the past couple months has been getting into a new show on Netflix, Kim’s Convenience.  (Any of you know it?)  It’s about a Korean family, first and second generations, who own a convenience store in downtown Toronto, and it’s also about family dynamics, sometimes cultural and generational differences, friendships, and everyday life.  I love this show for a few reasons.  First of all, it’s easy to watch.  Sometimes I do like shows that require a lot of emotional investment, but that hasn’t really been what I’m in the market for recently.  It’s hilarious, often subtly so, which makes me appreciate it more.  And I also really like the diversity of the world that is represented in the show.  Its characters are Korean and Chinese and Indian and black and white, and while cultural differences between these characters are often a topic of conversation, they’re mostly not a huge deal, either – this diversity is simply a natural part of their urban life, in a way that seems very true to life to me but that you don’t often see depicted on TV.

I started watching Kim’s Convenience because people in one of my Facebook groups were talking about how much they liked it.  This happened to be a group of young women pastors and they especially liked the character of Pastor Nina, the new young woman pastor of the Kims’ mostly-Korean church, who is not Korean herself.  They were talking about the show, so I decided to try it for myself.  These days whenever anyone I know is looking for recommendations for a new Netflix show, I always tell them Kim’s Convenience.

This sermon isn’t really about a TV show.  You probably have some you could recommend to me too – or if not a show, then a restaurant, or an event, or some sort of discovery that has made your life easier and better.  We discover lots of things by word of mouth and pass them on.  That’s also how things happened in the aftermath of Easter: one person encountered the risen Christ and went to tell more people, who encountered Jesus for themselves and went to tell even more people.

Today is Pentecost, our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame and the beginning of the church’s mission.  Seven weeks ago now we were celebrating Easter with its good news of an empty tomb and risen Christ. In between those two events, as Luke tells the story, the women who first arrive at the tomb go and tell the apostles, and Peter comes to see for himself.  Later that day two disciples are walking on the road to the town of Emmaus, processing everything they’ve heard, and Jesus appears and starts walking along with them, though they don’t recognize him until they stop to break bread together.  Once they do, they also return to Jerusalem to tell the others.  And once the whole group is gathered back together, Jesus appears again, letting them touch him and eating fish to prove he’s not a ghost.  One person encounters Jesus and goes to tell others, and they encounter Jesus for themselves, and they go and tell others.

But we still have to get from resurrection to Pentecost.  We have to move on in the story from Jesus’ physical presence with his followers to the church on its Spirit-powered mission.  And that means Jesus has to leave.  Not completely, of course – because the promised Holy Spirit will be his ongoing presence with all of his followers.  But he can’t be there in the same physical way he has been. He has to return to his Father in heaven, which we call his ascension.

Before Jesus goes he has some final words for his disciples.  First, he tries to sum everything up for them and connect the remaining dots.  “Remember what I told you before,” he says to them, “about how all of this had to happen according to what is written in Scripture: that I had to suffer and die and rise again in three days, and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed to all nations in my name.”

And then he reminds them: “You are witnesses of these things.”  Just in case they’ve forgotten, they were there!  They’ve actually seen this stuff happen.  They have known Jesus in his life, in his death, and now in his new life again.  But it’s not just a reminder: it’s a commission.  Just like they’ve been doing, spreading the word from one to another, their ongoing job will be to witness – not just as people who have seen the story unfold, but as people who testify to it, people who are going to make sure others get to hear and see it too.  This life of witnessing that begins on Pentecost is the whole basis of the book of Acts, which Luke writes as the sequel to his Gospel.

And in Jesus’ closing words to his disciples I hear a reminder and commission to myself and to all of us as well: We are witnesses.

But then I have to stop there, because the problem is I haven’t actually been a witness to all of those things the disciples were.  I didn’t get to know Jesus during his life on earth – none of us did, which is probably why we have so many disagreements about what Jesus would do today.  I didn’t watch him die on the cross, or meet the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, or watch him ascend into heaven.

I haven’t seen those things.  Instead, I have learned about him and his story through the words of others: words written in the Bible, stories told in Sunday School, hymns sung in worship.  And so, I wonder: how am I supposed to be a witness to any of this when I haven’t actually witnessed it in the first place?

I haven’t experienced the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, firsthand.

Or have I?

Maybe I didn’t meet Jesus as he lived 2000 years ago in Palestine.  But I have met him in people today.  I’ve met him in strangers who have welcomed me into their homes and lives in faraway places, in members of our homeless community here who have given their last Metro tokens as an offering to the church, in people who take risks and make sacrifices and give their lives on a day to day to loving others.  I’ve met him in the people who call themselves his body, in the church that raised me to follow him and the church that helped me recognize my call to ministry and the churches that have loved me and taught me since.

And maybe I wasn’t there at the cross on Good Friday to witness Jesus’ suffering.  But I’ve seen the way he still suffers today through the suffering of people he loves: through migrants seeking refuge at our border; children afraid to go to school for threats of lockdowns and active shooters; people weighed down by the weight of grief or physical or mental illness.

And maybe I wasn’t there at the empty tomb, or on that road to Emmaus, but I have known the truth of resurrection: in the lives of addicts who become sober and homeless neighbors who get housing after years on the street, in the possibility of things I never thought were possible, in the way I’ve experienced renewal in my own life in other times of grief and pain.

These are things I have seen, and known, and experienced for myself, and that makes me a witness.

What about you?  What are you witnesses to?  How have you seen God at work, or how have you met Jesus in our world today?

Jesus final words to his disciples are also a reminder and commission to us: because we’ve been witnesses of these things, our job is to become witnesses to these things.  Not because we’re supposed to tell other people about Jesus as part of being a good Christian – but because, just like when we find a great new show or book or restaurant or activity – just like those first disciples who met Jesus for themselves and ran to tell the others – we’ve seen and experienced something we think other people should know.  We don’t have to recite a script we’ve been given.  No one is asking us to tell people things we haven’t seen for ourselves.  Let’s tell them what we have seen; let’s tell them what we’ve discovered and want them to discover too.

What I really like about Jesus’ last words to his disciples here is that he doesn’t just talk what they’ve already seen.  He reminds them that the Scriptures tell of the Messiah’s death and rising again, and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” In other words, they not just witnesses to what has already happened, but also to what is still happening, to what is about to happen, to what God is yet calling them to.  Because that is part of the resurrection story too, a story that God isn’t done with yet.

And our witness isn’t just about words.  The Greek word for witness is martys – what does that sound like to you?  As one commentary I read pointed out, that same word in the New Testament goes from meaning someone who sees something, to someone who testifies, to a martyr, someone who risks and sacrifices all for that truth they’ve discovered.  Our witness is how we live our whole lives as a sharing of what we have heard and seen and experienced for ourselves.  It’s how we take risks and make sacrifices in love and service to others.  It’s how we help break down the barriers between people that God is trying to remove, and how we let God break down those barriers in us.  It’s how we cling to our faith in God’s resurrection work even in the face of suffering and death.

We are witnesses.  We have seen and known God at work in our lives and our world.  And our job is to witness to love and mercy and resurrection – in our words, in our deeds, in our whole lives – so that others can know.  And maybe they will experience them for themselves, and go and tell others.  And maybe, then, the world will never be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

Blessed Assurance

This past Friday was the anniversary of an important day in the Methodist world, and so in honor of that, we’re going to begin today with a little bit of Methodist trivia.  You might find the answers to some of these questions in your bulletins, or you may have already heard me say them earlier in the service.  Some of them might require a little bit of outside knowledge.  Here we go:

  1. The name of the founder of the Methodist movement. (A: John Wesley)
  2. The name of John’s brother, who wrote many of the hymns in our Methodist hymnal. (A: Charles) Can you name some of his hymns?
  3. The name of John and Charles’s mother, who was their primary religious instructor growing up. (A: Susanna)
  4. John Wesley’s life spanned almost one complete century. What century was it? (A: 18th – he lived from1703-1791.)
  5. What country did the Wesleys live in? (A: England)
  6. In what church, or denomination, was John Wesley ordained? (A: Church of England – the Methodist movement he started was a renewal movement within the CoE, never meant to be a separate church.)
  7. During his time in university, Wesley led a group known by some as the Holy Club, which met frequently for prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, communion, and visiting and serving others. What university did he attend? (A: Oxford)
  8. After his Oxford days, Wesley traveled to the American colonies as a missionary. Which colony did he go to? (A: Georgia – statue of him in Savannah)
  9. The name of John Wesley’s girlfriend, who he finally refused to marry and ended up getting chased out of Georgia by her powerful uncle. (A: Sophie Hopkey) (Even religious leaders have their relationship drama.)
  10. A hard one: the name of the non-Anglican religious group that influenced Wesley in his early days back in England with their strong faith? (A: Moravians)
  11. The street name in London where Wesley had the conversion experience we are commemorating today. (A: Aldersgate)
  12. Switching from history to theology: Methodists believe that we encounter God’s grace in three ways. Name one of them. (A: Prevenient, justifying, sanctifying)
  13. And just for fun: what is the one thing, so far, the Methodist church in the US has split over? (A: slavery)

OK, so, let’s put all of this together.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was born in England in 1703, to a father who was an Anglican clergyman and a mother, Susanna, who taught him everything he knew on a very strict schedule.  He went to Oxford, along with his brother Charles, who wrote many of the hymns in our hymnal; there they got together a group of friends to meet regularly for the purpose of living and growing faithfully: they read Scripture, sang hymns, shared communion, visited people who were sick, and gave money to the poor.  This earned them several fun nicknames including the Holy Club, the Bible Moths, and Methodists (because they were so methodical in their approach to faith.)  John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England, went to Georgia as a missionary to convert the natives, had little success in doing so, compound that with some romantic drama, and came back to England generally feeling like a failure.  On his way back to England he fell in with the Moravians who helped him to look at faith in a new way, one that was less about trying to do all the right things and more about trusting and waiting for God to be at work in your life.

Here’s the thing.  Up until this point, Wesley had spent his whole life trying to do the good and faithful thing.  He got ordained, met with friends every week to make sure they were doing the things God expected of them, went off to be a missionary.  And all of those things would go on to be important in the movement he founded.  But they also weren’t enough.

On May 24, 1738, Wesley went to a Bible study in a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London.  He wrote in his journal:

In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

This has come to be referred to as Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, or sometimes just Aldersgate, and that’s what we’re celebrating the anniversary of today.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what Wesley experienced at Aldersgate that day: this experience of assurance of his salvation.

Wesley doesn’t tell us exactly what he heard from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans he heard that night.  (I thought maybe I would read it and try to figure it out, but it turns out it was like 270 pages long.)  I also don’t know what passage of Romans they were talking about that night.  I do know that he preached on and referred back to one particular passage from Romans many times as he later talked about assurance and what it looks and feels like to be saved.  So we’re going to hear that passage now.

 

[Scripture reading: Romans 8:12-17]

 

Question for you to answer quietly or out loud: How do you know you are saved?

Maybe we even could stand to back up here and define saved.  For many of us we might define it as something like “we’re going to go to heaven when we die.”  And actually, Wesley saw salvation as more of a lifelong process of being remade in the image of God, the process of sanctification.  But I think the salvation he referred to that night on Aldersgate Street was more about justification, being made right with God.

So how do you know you have been made right with God?  For Wesley, one of the answers to this question was assurance.  That’s what he felt like he was missing during his time at Oxford and in Georgia.  He was doing all these things he knew he was supposed to do as a good Christian: praying, reading the Bible, giving money, serving others.  But the thing is when you’re just trying all the time to do the things you’re supposed to do, you’ve always left something out, and it’s never really enough.  Wesley was doing all these things and he never really felt like he could be sure he was saved, like Christ had really died for him.

That was what he finally felt on Aldersgate Street that day – assurance.  That’s what he felt when he wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.

Do you know that feeling?

I do – at least I think I do.  I’ve had some heartwarming experiences of my own.  I felt it maybe first on a retreat I went on my senior year of high school.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Walk to Emmaus program, but this was the youth version of that, called Chrysalis.  I know that there were talks throughout the weekend on different faith-related topics, but the one thing I really remember about this retreat is that they took all our watches and all the clocks away, and how all of a sudden this felt like I wasn’t responsible for everything anymore, all the important stuff in my life at the time like getting good grades and getting into college, and that I could finally relax and actually trust and depend on God.  And I remember at one point during that weekend hearing a song called When God Ran.  It was based on the Prodigal Son story, and it helped me imagine God running to me and embracing me in all of my brokenness and not-enoughness, too.

I’ve felt it, sometimes, this feeling of assurance, in the lines of certain hymns that come back to me again and again.  Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.  Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside – great is thy faithfulness.  Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?  And I’ve felt it, too, in service to and community with others – not because I am doing the things I am supposed to do, but in the experience of God drawing me into a family and the way God breaks down barriers to do that.

Do you know that feeling?  What are your heartwarming experiences?  When have you felt assurance of your own salvation?

But then, I find, there are the other times: the times when God seems far away, and it all seems like just a story in a book.  The times when the times when I fall back into believing that being saved means I have to do more and more to please God, that I am never really enough.  The times when I don’t feel very well assured that anything is going to be OK, and if being saved means knowing you are saved, then I’m not really sure I am.

In those times, it is helpful for me to remember the rest of Wesley’s story.

Aldersgate is one of those days that gets celebrated as this watershed moment in Methodist history.  And yet it wasn’t really that.  It was one moment in Wesley’s life – an important moment, but not necessarily an all-defining one.  He had been a Christian all his life before, and surely had had some moments in which it all felt particularly real to him.  And then, even shortly after that evening on Aldersgate Street, Wesley was writing in his journal that he wasn’t sure he had ever really been a Christian.  This life of faith is rarely ever a straight uphill line to heaven.

Assurance was a concept that Wesley would continue to wrestle with for the rest of his life.  He would write multiple sermons on it and argue with people about it through letters.  He believed that it was and should be a thing that accompanies our justification – that point at which we say yes to God’s invitation and our sins are forgiven.  And he believed that on some level we would know it when we had it – that, as the passage from Romans says, our spirit would join the witness of God’s Spirit telling us that we are children of God.

But it also wasn’t as easy as that.  Wesley knew that our salvation could never really hinge just on how we feel, because that’s putting too much back on us again.  He knew that there were people who had “mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God.”  He called such people “enthusiasts…in the worst sense of the word.”[1] In a later sermon he put it this way: “Madmen, French prophets, and enthusiasts of every kind have imagined they experienced this witness.”[2]  And on the other side of things, Wesley came to admit, over time, that because someone didn’t feel saved didn’t mean they weren’t.  In 1789, two years before his death, he would write this in a letter to a man named Melville Horne: “When fifty years ago my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England that unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, that they did not stone us!  The Methodists, I hope, know better now; we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of real Christians; but we do not enforce it, under pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not.”[3]

Furthermore – even in those early days, Wesley never believed that being assured of our own status as children of God meant that we could just lean back and not worry about how we were actually living our lives.  The Methodist movement he would begin was all about growing in holiness over the course of our lives, the process of sanctification, as God gives us the grace to become more holy and loving and we respond to that grace by putting it to use and God gives us more.  As Wesley preached to crowds and delivered the message of salvation, they wanted to know what to do, how to respond, and Wesley drew on his Holy Club days: we respond by growing in holiness through prayer, Scripture reading, communion, visiting the sick, serving the poor, and other things Wesley called means of grace.

But the thing is even then it’s about grace, and not just about us, not just about trying a little bit harder, not just about doing enough, but about God’s grace on which it all depends.

The idea Wesley never gave up on is that assurance is something God wants us to have.  Not that anything rests on it, but that it is a gift.  That God wants us to know that we are God’s children.  That God wants us to know that we are forgiven.  That God wants us to know that we are accepted, that God runs to us and embraces us in all our brokenness and not-enoughness.  God wants us to be assured of our salvation, so that everything that comes next – our prayer, our Bible study, our giving, our service, our growth in holiness and love – is born out of that.

The gift of Aldersgate, which we celebrate today, is the gift of both-and: a faith that demands our hearts and our hands, assurance of what is and at the same time yearning for more.

May our spirits whisper or shout along with God’s Spirit: we are God’s children – loved, forgiven, embraced.

And may our lives of love and holiness begin and grow from there.

 

[1] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit I” in John Wesley’s Sermons, ed. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 146.

[2] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit II” in John Wesley’s Sermons, p. 399.

[3] Quoted in John Wesley’s Theology Today by Colin W. Williams, p. 106, via a handout from my Methodist Doctrine class