Monday, August 29, 2011

August 28, 2011 - Proper 16A

Last week we talked the talk; now it’s time to walk the walk. For those of you that were here last Sunday, you know that this sermon is the second part of a two-part series. Last week our readings told the stories of Moses’ birth and Peter’s response to Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” We each must answer that question- “who do you say that I am?” and we do so in both word and deed. Through their actions, the women of Exodus answered that question with deeds of justice, trusting sacrifice, steadfast love and courageous openness. But actions are not enough of an answer; we must also use words to comment on who Jesus is. So Peter is an example for us of giving a bold and honest answer.
          Last week was the theory, this week is the practice. In my sermon last week, I introduced a highly advanced theological word to you all- that word was “but.” And that word comes into play again this week. We looked at the ways we answer the question “who do you say that I am?,” BUT life happens. BUT how do we persevere in our answer to that question. Both Moses and Peter understand something about the power of God in their lives and they struggle to live faithfully. BUT the world doesn’t make that an easy task; nor does it for us. So today let’s move on from our answers about who God is to how we proclaim that answer over the noises and distractions of life.
          The way that we do is to realize that we are called by God to a task. You see, the answer to the question “who do you say that I am?” isn’t nearly as important as what we do in response to our answer. If you say that God is love that’s fine and dandy, but if you show God’s love to the world then that is something beautiful. Having an answer to that question is what sets us up for our call to a task. And as you all know, when you have a task, it becomes much easier to endure and stay on track.
          So first up is Moses in one of the most famous passages in the Bible. As the story begins, Moses takes his flock beyond the wilderness. That’s an interesting place to start a call narrative, beyond the wilderness. Beyond the hubbub of life, leaving the bad decision in the past, moving past our fears of what lies in the wilderness. And Moses had a lot of wilderness in his life. You’ll remember from your Sunday School days that Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court, but one day kills an Egyptian who is abusing Hebrew slave and becomes a fugitive. Now perhaps none of us has committed murder, but we all have wilderness in our lives. The wildernesses of aging parents, growing children, a lost job, depression. Often we live on the edge of the wilderness and venture into it often.
So it is on the other side of the wilderness of his life that Moses sees the burning bush. After he has journeyed through the wilderness, Moses is found by God. And God says to him “take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” God takes Moses from the wilderness to the holy in a matter of seconds. And God can do the same for us. When we see those burning bushes in our lives, those moments where it seems that God is near, we can be rescued from the dangers of the wilderness and brought into the safety and bounty of being in God’s presence.
Now that God has Moses’ attention, God tells Moses that he must go to Pharaoh and tell him to “let my people go.” Moses then starts the excuses. Who me? No, I’m not the right guy. Um, God, let’s talk about this first, I’m not so sure about your plan. Hey, what’s your name anyway, I don’t even know who’s sending me. But why bother, they’ll just say no. Oh, okay God, but you see, I stutter, so as much as I’d love to do this, I’m just not the right person for the job. Send someone else.
Moses comes up with plenty of reasons why he shouldn’t be called by God. And here comes that word again, BUT, God addresses all of these concerns by saying “I will be with you.” Maybe you think that you can’t teach Sunday School because you’re not good with children; maybe you avoid reaching out an estranged family members because you’ve been hurt before; perhaps you don’t tithe because you are afraid of making that kind of commitment; you don’t proclaim your answer to “who do you say that I am?” because you don’t want to be labeled. BUT, God will be with you.
And God was with Moses. God was there to help Moses find the words to speak to Pharaoh. God was there to help Moses perform the signs that showed that he meant business. God was there when Moses rallied the Hebrew people. God was there in the plagues against Israel and in the parting of the Red Sea. God was there with Moses, just like God promised. Now this doesn’t mean that what Moses had to do was easy. Being wanted for murder, Moses still had to go into Pharaoh’s court and say “let your source of infinite and free slave labor go.” Moses still had to contend with the unruly Hebrews. Moses did not have an easy task. I’ve said it before, God offers us minimum protection, but maximum support. Having God be with us doesn’t meant that following our call will always be easy, BUT it does mean that it will be possible. What’s so great about this passage is that it is not God alone or Moses alone that saves the day, instead it is God acting in and through Moses that salvation comes to all. And the same in true in our lives and in our world. You are called by God, and God will be with you in that journey.
In Moses, we see that we are called and living in that call is one way to endure in our answer to last week’s question “who do you say that I am?” The other half of this enduring is in having a task. It is not just that God calls us by name, but that God presents us with a task. You’ll remember that last week, Jesus asked the disciples what other people were saying about him. And then he asked “BUT, who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke up and said “you are the Christ, son of the living God.” And ding, ding, ding, Peter answered correctly and his ego doubled in size.
Then in the next verses, where we pick it up today, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed. And Peter speaks up and says “Jesus, no, you don’t understand. I just said that you’re the Messiah, and we all know that Messiahs don’t get killed by the Romans.” Peter thought he had it figured out, but in the span of just 5 verses, Peter went from being the rock upon which the church will be built to being called Satan. And isn’t that how life is? From the mountain top to the valley in the blink of an eye.
So then Jesus rebukes Peter and gives him the task- “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It’s hard to preach on a passage like this because you all have heard it before. You’ve heard it a thousand times; we’ve become desensitized to it. So instead of getting into what a cross is and how you bear it, instead I want to focus on our task as being countercultural. No one embraces the cross, no one says, I want to metaphorically or literally die for my beliefs. But that is exactly the task to which we are called.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian who coined the term “costly grace.” He compares costly grace to cheap grace, which he defines as grace without discipleship or the cross. Costly grace he says is the treasure hidden in the field. This is the grace which must be worked for and sought after. It is costly because we must follow Christ, even to the cross. But it is grace because it leads us to follow Christ beyond the cross to the empty tomb. This sort of costly grace is the task we are given in following Christ.
This is not a task we want, often it is not a task we feel capable of handling. It is not a glamorous task, and it is a task that will lead us to the cross. What is important to remember is the while salvation or deliverance is certainly from something, BUT the more important direction is where that deliverance is towards. It was one thing that God delivered the Hebrew people from Egypt, BUT what is bigger is that God delivered them to the Promised Land. It’s one thing that Christ died to save us from sin and death, BUT it’s even grander that we are delivered to God’s eternal Kingdom.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for God’s sake will find it. The reason why the cross is so tough, why costly grace is such an oxymoron is that they go against our sense of what is rational. The calls and tasks which we are given are often countercultural. The last is never first in the business world; grace should be buy one-get one free in our consumerist minds. But this is exactly the sort of task to which we are called. We are called to an upside down vision of how the world works.
We are called to go to the Pharaoh’s of our day, whether that be a school board, Congress or your own addictions which enslave you and say “let my people go.” We are called to set our vision on what we are being delivered towards, not what we have been freed from. We no longer need to dwell on the chains that used to hold us back, but we are free to live for something new. Our task is to work hard for the costly grace found in denying ourselves and taking up the cross.
And I know this isn’t easy to do. I know it’s hard to live a godly life in this world. Whether it’s avoiding foul language, loving your enemy, giving part of your paycheck to charity, not sleeping in or going to a swim meet on Sunday morning, speaking up in a town hall meeting, writing an elected official, inviting a neighbor to church- these things are not things which we do comfortably. BUT, the only way to gain your life is to lose it. The only path to eternal life went through the cross. It’s not easy, BUT God is with us.
I hope that this past week you all took some time to ponder the question “who do you say that I am?” Having an answer is important; persevering in your answer is a challenge, just as it was for Moses and Peter. The way to move forward with our answer is to know that we have been called to a task.
Moses answered with everything he could think of to avoid his task. But at the end of the day, Moses was able to embrace and live in his call when he realized that God was with him at every step of the journey. And Peter, who went from rock to Satan, learned that we are called to a new reality- a world where up is down and down is up; a reality where we live for the Kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world.
As we each explore and discern how we might work to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may we know in our hearts and our minds who we say that God is. May we know that we have been called and be able to know that God is with us. And may we see the world in a new way as we do our tasks as disciples.