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Monday, March 19, 2007

Sermon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
March 11, 2007

Lent III: Year C

Exodus 3: 1-15
Psalm 103
I Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13: 1-9

This morning we begin our lessons from Scripture with the great passage from Exodus about the burning bush. I began to think about what Moses might have been thinking in encountering this burning bush, when he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great site, and see why the bush is not burned up.” I think, unfortunately, our distance from tribal and agrarian living has sometimes left us a little impoverished as we approach scripture. As I contemplated what the burning bush might have meant to Moses, I tried to imagine what fire meant to him and his people.

What are the two things that fire would have meant to them, that for us have little significance anymore? Light and warmth of course. We live with the convenience of electric lights and oil or gas burning furnaces, but to them, fire meant warmth, and in the evening, a source of light. For those of you who burn wood as a primary or secondary heat source, what is the significant chore related to wood fire? Chopping, splitting, and carrying wood! What a chore! And what would you do if you saw a stack of wood that continued to burn, but it didn’t consume the wood? Well, I’d imagine that you would want some of that wood. Think of the convenience! So certainly Moses would be interested in this phenomenon; and he drew close to investigate to find that the bush could burn without consuming the branches...but it also talked!

This is the way God encountered Moses to give him his mission. Moses was respectful and awed by the experience, but when it came time to understanding what it was he was supposed to do, he asked who should he say has sent him. I guess you have to imagine that Moses was searching for away to convey to his family and the Israelites in captivity what had transpired without sounding like a total idiot. Can you hear him trying to convince his family? Yeah, I had been out with the goats for a long time, and it was rather lonely, but I really hadn’t gotten into the wineskins too much...and then there was this bush that was on fire, but didn’t burn up, and it started talking to me. I can hear his relatives giving him something of an equivalent of, ”Yeah, right!” Well, he probably did have a tough sell.

But of course what is so interesting about the seminal passage from Exodus is how God chooses to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asks who shall I say sent me, God replies, tell them “I am has sent me to you.” What an intriguing way for God to respond.

Now you have to understand that for cultures in this time and period, the naming of something carried with it a certain kind of power, and, to a certain degree, power over the thing or person. In telling Moses to tell the people ‘I am’ has sent me, God was refusing to be named by Moses and the people. As an illustrative diversion, I want to bring us all back to our high school grammar (do they still teach grammar?!) This is the conjugation of the verb to be in the present tense: I am, you are, he/she/it is, they are, we are. God, refusing to be named or characterized simply said ‘I am,’ not ‘I am holy, I am good, I am beautiful, I am eternal, etc.’ just ‘I am.’ In some translations they have it as ‘I will be who I will be.’ And in every generation we carry on this battle of trying to name God, and thereby, in some way, sometimes unintentionally, we try to box God in.

I think there is something also useful about us taking some refuge in this statement, and, to the degree that we are created in God’s image, it is important to remember that first and foremost ‘We are’, we just are. Not ‘we are this’ or ‘we are that’, just ‘we are’, or I AM. Or, to play with the verb a little, “I be who I be!” So often we become so obsessed with what we do, what we own, or who we’re related to that sometimes we just forget that the very fact that ‘we are’ is so important—-and that it is important to remember sometimes to just ‘be’! All you baby boomers need to help here, but we had a great iconic song in our generation that sang this message. Any guesses?

Here’s a hint, Paul McCartney wrote this song after a dream where his mother, Mary, who died from cancer when he was 14, came to him to sooth him during a troubled period.

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

Well, I suppose this is a bit of a hokey way to try to get a point across, but the sentiment of the song is definitely in line with the lesson I’m trying to convey-—at the end of the day, God is much more interested in how we are a human BEING, rather than a human DOING!

It is said that once, when the archangel Michael was complaining to God of the racket and jumble of voices from the earth that Michael suggested God had made a mistake by giving humans the power of speech. God replied, “I don’t listen to their voices, I listen to their lives!”

This provides me with a good segue to the Gospel lesson this morning. This was a hard lesson—-a rather good one for Lent. In it Jesus teaches the valuable lesson that people who suffer calamity are not more sinful than we are just because something terrible happens to them. He says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners?” And, “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—-were they worse sinners?” He answers his own questions with, “No, I tell you: but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

What was Jesus teaching here? Well, clearly he was teaching that calamity is not related to sinfulness; but the ending of his teaching is the most troubling and enigmatic. Why did he say, ‘Unless you repent, you will end up like these poor souls? I suppose we could simply say that he wanted to put the fear of God into them. But I think to be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching we have to look for something deeper.

And here we can develop that good Lenten theme: repentance. What does it mean to repent? To repent literally means to ‘turn away from.’ So the fuller, deeper meaning for repenting in Christian life is not just that we are sorry for something we might have done, but it means to turn from it and turn toward God. Repentance, in good Christian understanding, is to identify those things that cheapen who we are, that tarnish the glory with which God made us; and to turn from them so we might be whole again.

Jesus was teaching that if we don’t repent, or turn from those things that cheapen and tarnish the God-image in us, then we are worse than just dead. When Jesus tells us we will perish, he is talking about our ‘being-ness’ with God. It is as if by not acknowledging those things that separate us, we are being bled dry spiritually by them and there is no wholeness to our being.

Remember a couple weeks ago I told you that story about my experience in the monastery. Learning to sit in silence and pray was all about my repenting, my turning away from those things that keep me from being grounded, centered, and whole. This is why the journey of Lent is so important. It’s not about self-mortification and recalling our sins as some weird exercise of piety. Self-examination and self-mortification are a means to reclaiming the blessing and grace that God created us for. It is a time of calling us to wake up to the beauty of God who is the Great I AM, and calls us to be, in God’s image who we are too.