A sermon for Lent 3; Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8
Harley was orphaned as a young child. He was fortunate to be placed with foster parents who were there for him. They were not alone. In Jr. High a football coach notices him and asks him to play football. Harley answers “I don’t know how.” The coach replies “That’s okay; I will be your coach.” In Sr. High, Harley is asked to move positions from guard to tight end. He answers “I don’t know how to catch.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.” Harley’s college playing time was limited but good. In his Junior year, the head coach tells him “We are shorthanded, I need you join the kickoff special team.” Harley answers “I don’t know how to tackle.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.” To most peoples’ surprise, Harley is invited to the NFL combines. There are some four or five hundred college players there, all of them very good. One team expresses an interest. Harley says “I don’t know how to be a pro.” The coach replies “That’s okay I will be your coach.”
So yes you can tell I’ve been creative. But the story is not simply made up. It is crafted from multiple stories I’ve read over time and recently. And yea, I may have woven in a theme from today’s scripture reading.
It is hard to read this story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, without thinking of, Ben Kingsley in 1995, or Burt Lancaster in 1974, or Charlton Heston (1956). But when you think about the story, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house. He learns about his heritage as an adult and only then re-joins his people. He soon kills an abusive overseer and flees into the desert. Wandering around in Midian, Moses comes across a fine lady and joins her father’s tribe.
As today’s story opens Moses is keeping Jethro’s, his father in law, and a priest of Midian, flock. He has led the flock beyond the wilderness, on to Horeb. Moses is tending the sheep. He knows little if anything of God. How could he, for most of his life, he was Egyptian. And he had little time with the Israelites. For Moses Mount Horeb is just another high place. Nonetheless, in the form of a burning bush, God calls him. In scripture fire is a prominent characteristic of God appearing to humans. Moses not recognizing God in the fire shows that he does not know the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Harrelson). Apparently God knows Moses.
Having gotten his attention God lays out the situation. Israel is in trouble. God shares with Moses the divine plan to save them. The specifics hint at more than a mere rescue, there is the insinuation of a new creation (Fretheim). Then God tells Moses “I’m going to send you.” Now, Moses does not know God, but he does not lack in understanding. He realizes that he will be taking all the risks of God’s plan (Brueggmann). Moses also knows he is not prepared (Fretheim). Who could be prepared to take on the Egyptian dynasty and free the labor, that is the underpinning of their social fabric (Pankey). Moses is a nobody; he lacks any kind of authority. His question “Who am I? “is legitimate. (Brueggmann). God doesn’t really answer Moses; however, God does provide divine assurance “I will be with you.” And there are more affirmations in God’s sharing the divine name ‘I am’ that reveals God’s power, fidelity, and presence (Brueggmann).
A couple of observations about this story.
- Saving Israel requires a human agent. It involves a specific and dangerous human responsibility (Gaventa & Petersen) (Fretheim).
- We should understand that Moses’ work is socio-political, it is not church related or priestly (Fretheim).
- In the Bible, a divine commission is always task oriented (Harrelson).
- God’s name “I am,” which is more likely “I will be who I will be,” is unusual because it is a verb. The tense is imperfect, meaning it is ongoing (Harrelson, Pankey). It puts the focus on divine action not on being (Harrelson, 2003).
- Although God’s reassurance “I will be there,” tells us Moses’ task is a shared risk it does not include a guarantee of success (Harrelson).
The leap from Moses to the tragedies and an unfruitful tree, in the reading from Luke’s Gospel account, isn’t intuitive; but stick with me.
Jesus shares two tales of tragedy. Pilate killed Galilean Jews offering their prescribed sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and allows their blood to mingle with the blood of the sacrifices (Ellingsen, 2016). It is as much sacrilege, as it is murderous. The other is the accident when the Tower at Shalom fell killing 18. As we do today, the people in the crowd think that people get what they deserve. It is generally believed there is some connection between peoples’ moral standing and the quality of their life, the good and bad things that happen to them. Jesus is saying that’s not how it works. John echoes Luke’s unique stories in his story of the man born blind when the disciples want to know who sinned, and Jesus says no one (Richter).
In short, we learn that life is capricious. We learn that we should not equate good luck or misfortune or another’s good luck or misfortune with either special blessing or sin (Skinner). One of my least favorite sayings is “There, but for the grace of God, go I. “Why do we assume the said person doesn’t have God’s grace? Why are we elevating our own spiritual status based on someone else’s worldly misfortune? Jesus is telling the crowd, and us, to be careful (Hoezee). Just as Moses has no guarantees, there no guarantees in life no matter our faith or our faith tradition (Epperly). Augustine wrote,
Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them, but in what they do with the ills that befall them.”
“Our Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. Faith gives us a way through tragedy” (Richter).
Now about that tree. We tend to read it as an allegory, with God as the land owner and Jesus as the gardener. But, it may just be a warning against false assurance. Just because you have not been cut down, do not presume that you don’t need to repent. It may be assurances, to those struggling to repent, that everything possible is being done to nurture you (Skinner). It may help to know that ‘leave it alone’ comes from the Greek word aphis which is the root for ‘forgiveness’ (Hoezee). The story of the tree does have its moral implications. Repentance is a theme. You know ‘repentance’ is grounded in the ideal of changing your ways. It can be expanded to include finding a new way of seeing the world. Yet the story of the tree does imply that it is more about being found than it is about finding (Skinner). And here we discover the link to Moses on the Mountain.
God finds Moses on Mount Horeb. God needs Moses for the divine plan to set his people free. Imagine for the moment that we are the gardener; imagine that God needs us for the divine plan for the tree to bear fruit. You know it is God’s desire to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP, p. 855). Imagine God needs you for that plan to work. You may wonder “Who am I? “so did Moses. You may know you are not prepared; so did Moses. You may ask for help, so did Moses. God’s “I am,” will be with you, like it was with Moses. And just how does God do? Which, by the way, is a fair question.
When Moses argues with Pharaoh – God is there.
When Israel is backed up against the Red Sea – God is there.
When they are wandering around in the wilderness -God is there.
As they approach the impenetrable wall at Jericho – God is there.
When Israel is in exile – God is there.
When they live under Roman occupation – God is there
As Jesus hangs on the cross -God is there (Pankey).
As were Moses’ people, as was Israel in the first century, today people, all around the world, are in trouble. There is a plan for a new creation. We may not know its details; nonetheless, we know, like everyone else, that we are called, that we are needed, and at this very moment in this very place, ‘I am’ is right here right now. Our challenge is to trust and follow our divine coach.
Brueggeman, W. (n.d.). New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus (Vol. 1).
Ellingsen, M. (2016, 2 28). Lent 3, Cycle C | Lectionary Scripture Notes. Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes: http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/
Epperly, B. (2016, 2 28). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly
Fretheim, T. E. (1991). INTERPRETATION Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press.
Gaventa, B. R., & Petersen, D. (n.d.). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville.
Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.
Hoezee, S. (2016, 2 28). Advent 3C | Luke. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
Lewis, K. (2016, 2 28). Longing for More. Retrieved from Working Preacher: workingpreacher.org
Lose, D. (2016, 2 28). Lent 3 C: Suffering, the Cross, and the Promise. Retrieved from In the Meantime.
Pankey, S. (2016, 2 25). The Power of “I Am”. Retrieved from WordPress: Draughting Theology.
Richter, A. (2016, 2 28). What Did They Do to Deserve That?, Lent 3 (C) – 2016. Retrieved from Sermons that Work.
Skinner, M. (2016, 2 28). Commentary on Luke 13:19. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/
The Episcopal Church. (1979). Book of Common Prayer.