Sunday, May 19, 2019

Probing the Depths of Truth

PROPERS:         5 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 11:1-18

ONE SENTENCE:        The essence of the gospel is to open the gates of the                                             realm of God wider than many have thought.

            Peter got a glimpse of the radical nature of God’s love in the first lesson today.

            God had shown him, in a dream, that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
            On a mundane and trivial level, that freed us to eat shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish.  We are certainly thankful for that revelation!

            What was largely lost, though, was that the generosity… the expansiveness… of God’s grace went well beyond the Levitical dietary laws.  We still struggle with that issue today.

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            It seems that the insights from Peter’s dream were seen as more specific and less global.  Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from dietary laws.  Yes, the gospel freed Jesus’ followers from the rituals of Jewish initiation.  Yes, the gospel allowed Gentiles into the community of faith.

            But not much more than that. After all, we must place limits on grace!

            Think of this fact from the gospels:  The original proclaimers of the resurrection – the initial witnesses – were all women.  Yet, women were largely excluded from the councils of the church for many centuries.

            It seems that the church took the insights of Peter’s dream and replied, “Yes, but…”. It also seems that, from the beginning, the energy of many centuries of the church was focused on who was inand who was out.

            The interpretation of Jesus’ open arms was too meager.  The love of God was meant for some, but not others.  One could only be a part of the ecclesia– the community of faith – if they were worthy.  That understanding flies in the face of the concept of grace– that which is given freely and cannot be earned.

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            In recent years, the generosity of God’s love has been beautifully and graciously addressed in the words of a young woman.  Her voice has recently been silenced by a very untimely and premature death.

            Rachel Held Evans lived in Dayton, Tennessee – a community known as Monkey Town, because it was the site of the famous Scopes trial in 1925.

            Her father was a professor of Biblical Studies at the conservative, evangelical college there, Bryan College, named for the prosecutor in the famous trial, William Jennings Bryan.  Rachel Held Evans was reared a conservative evangelical, and graduated from Bryan College.

            She married a classmate and remained in Dayton.  But her journey was long from over.  She was blessed with a keen theological mind.  The scripture in which she had immersed herself throughout her life raised questions for her.  

            The application of scripture by her evangelical pastors and teachers posed challenges to her.  So, she continued her journey of faith – looking deeper into the sacred stories she loved so much. And she posed questions to the hierarchy of her church.

            She began to write – both books and a very popular blog.  Her books included A Year of Biblical Womanhood, her account of living according to the Biblical law for women; Searching for Sundays,an account of her journey of faith; and Inspired, her testimony of love for the message of scripture.  Her writing was clear, moving, and poignant. 

            Her questioning of evangelical orthodoxy led to alienation from her faith community – being shunned by those with whom she had worshipped.  She took time off – time from the church she had loved all her life.

            She blossomed as a well-known and much-in-demand speaker. She gained a national following, and the respect of her theological opponents.  She was much-beloved.

            And her journey led her to the Episcopal Church. 

            Sadly, even tragically, she died a few weeks ago.  She experienced seizures after a bout with flu and a kidney infection. She had a husband, Dan, and two children – ages three and almost one. She was 37 years of age.

            In a sense, her voice has been silenced.  But her words live on.  And they challenge us.

            Her words challenge us to hear the story of Peter’s insight with clarity. They beckon us to see the Good Newsas something which goes beyond the strictures of limited understanding.  They call us to see God’s love as something that is expansive – broad, deep, and high – and not as something that is tied to cultural or political norms.

            Like Rachel Held Evans, I have been on a journey.  God has been my constant companion as long as I can remember.  My faith has had its periods of being static– hard and affixed.  But like the great preacher John Claypool, my eyes have been opened to see different dimensions to the gospel.  I pray that that openness to seeing things anew will continue.

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            My family used to stand around my great-grandfather’s piano and sing his favorite hymns.  We were gathered in his house on Hardy Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My aunt would play the old upright piano.

            One of those hymns was Give Me that Old Time Religion.  Another was I Love to Tell the Story.I still embrace that memory – my mother, father, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and great-grandfather all now gone to their reward.  And that old, old story, of which we sang, has not changed.  Only my ability to grasp it in its fullness.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Bolt Out of the Blue

PROPERS:         3 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 9:1-6 (7-20)

ONE SENTENCE:        The release of our tension (and souls) to the Higher                                             Power we call God enables new life.      

            The first lesson’s account of Paul’s interrupted trip from Jerusalem to Damascus is one of the most famous stories in all of scripture.

            There are famous sayings which come from it:  I saw the lightand A road to Damascus experienceare examples of how it has entered our everyday language.

            Paul, of course, was then known as Saul.  He ultimately became the most important Christian missionary of all time. It was through him and his teaching that Christianity was transformed from a tiny sect in Jerusalem to a powerful movement in the known corners of the world.

            But he did not get there easily.

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            Saul was a devout Jew – a Pharisee, with an excellent education.  He was deeply concerned by this new sect within Judaism. They were teaching heresy and the unusual nature – some say divine – of this itinerant Galilean rabbi, who had been executed and had, according to some sources, risen from the dead.

            Saul began to oppose that movement – forcefully – to cleanse the people of this unsightly blemish growing on the body. His actions approached physical violence.

            We are told of his role in the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon and first Christian martyr.  While enraged men threw the stones which would kill Stephen, Saul held their coats and looked on approvingly.

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            Some of what I am saying will be theoretical or hypothetical.  But I know human nature, and I suspect I know Saul’s mind at that point.

            Saul became obsessed with the new movement, called The Way.  The more it spread, the more he obsessed.  It became his mission to eradicate the tiny but troublesome sect from the earth.  He was likely consumed by his anger and obsession.  As the old saying goes, He was tight as a tick.

            I suspect he had trouble sleeping – tossing and turning, thinking about what was being done.  He may have had trouble eating – his appetite consumed by his obsession.  His rage grew.

            So, we are told in the first lesson,still breathing threats and murder, he asked for letters of permission from high religious authorities in Jerusalem – permission to capture and bring to justice those in Damascus who followed The Way.

            Saul got the permission and began his 150-mile journey on horseback.

            It was then that things got interesting.

            Saul and his companions were on the way.  At about noon, a blinding-light struck Saul, and he fell from his horse. A voice out of the light said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

            Scared out of his wits, I assume, Saul asked reasonably: “Who are you, Lord?” The voice from the light responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up, and go into the city and you will be told what to do.”

            Saul was blind and enfeebled, and at that moment his life pivoted.  In New Testament Greek verbiage, it was a metanoiaexperience – a radical turning about.

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            Former Chicago mayor and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel once said, “A serious crisis should never be wasted.”  That was certainly the case with Saul.  The crisis he faced was not wasted. His life and the world would never be the same.

            As directed, Saul went into Damascus.  There he was welcomed, somewhat skeptically.  He had a well-known and threatening reputation. But he was welcomed and after several days he took food and drink. A little-known fact about Saul: He studied, prayed and grew for several years before he was unleashed on the world.

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            Have you ever been bound up by concerns of life – so tight that you could not focus on anything besides the issue confronting you?  Have you ever been so overwhelmed with life that you could not see the next step?  Have you ever been so resentful – that is anger with dust on it– that relationships are broken and alienation runs rampant?

            Perhaps you can identify with Saul.

            Alcoholics and those with issues of chemical dependency know the bindwell.  Their only thought is the next drink… or the next hit of a drug.  That is, until…

            Until there is divine intervention – or in the parlance of 12 Step Programs, they recognize they are powerless and give themselves over to a Higher Power. We Christians call that Higher Power God.  And it was such a Higher Power that knocked Saul off his horse, blinded him, and changed his life forever.

            Saul had to reach the depths of his obsession.  Alcoholics have to reach the depths of their addiction.  The need for relief will come like the ultimate thirst for water, when the throat is dry and parched, and you are surrounded by a vast wasteland.

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            There is an analogy to Saul’s story which, like all analogies, is not perfect. After all, even after a significant turning about,we remain afflicted with the human condition.  But, in this case, a life was significantly changed.

            Thomas Albert Tarrants, from Mobile, was a young man who was enraged.  He was enraged with the civil rights movement in 1960s Mississippi.  He was enraged with what he saw as the dominance of Jewish businesses in Mississippi communities.  He believed that the Jewish people, today, were responsible for the cross and for what he believed was the suffering of white Mississippians.

            So, he began a war of terror – burning black churches, dynamiting a rabbi’s home in Jackson, and, in a night I remember well, bombing the synagogue in Meridian. It was a reign of terror.

            Police and the FBI were stymied.  But a tip came in, and a stake-out was set up at prominent Jewish businessman’s Meridian home.  Neighbors were secretly evacuated.

            When Tommy Tarrants drove up to the home in an unlighted car and deposited 29 sticks of dynamite in the carport of the businessman’s home, a gunfight between the hidden policemen and Tarrants erupted.

            Following a harrowing chase through Meridian neighborhoods, Tarrants was captured. He was tried and convicted for his crimes, and sentenced to Parchman Prison in the stark, bleak flatland of the Mississippi Delta.

            But Tarrants still raged.  His war was not over. A wily and dangerous man, he escaped prison, but was captured a few days later outside of Jackson.  Back to prison he went – with an additional five-year sentence.

            It was then, in the depths of dark solitary confinement, that Tommy Tarrants became a new creation.  He encountered God in a grace-filled way. His life pivoted.  It was a metanoiaexperience – not at all unlike Saul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

            When he was released from prison, Tommy Tarrants entered the ordained ministry. He received a Master’s and Doctoral degrees and for several years was affiliated with the C. S. Lewis Institute. He has a new book being published in August: Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation.

            Life can change.

            What the stories of Saul and Tommy Tarrants tell us is that there is nothing– no brokenness, no affliction, no bitterness, no obsession, no hatred – which is stronger than the potential grace of God. Paul tells us that in his Letter to the Romans.

            When you are at your deepest, you are closest to God’s grace.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Light at the End of a Tunnel

PROPERS:         2 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 5:27-32; JOHN 20:19-31

ONE SENTENCE:        The world was transformed by the proclamation of Jesus’                                    resurrection.         

            There is an indelible image in my mind.  It could be called a resurrection image.

            I have had the pleasure of traveling to Israel 12 times.  Out of all those trips, a few moments take my breath away. It happens every trip.

            Let me set the scene for you. Our tour bus is traveling through a tunnel – long and dark.  Everyone on our bus is tired – weary from the day’s visit to the Dead Sea, Masada, and Qumran.  The bus trip has taken us – in just under and hour – from the lowest point on the face of the earth, to the high country just to the west, in the Judean hills.

            We find ourselves traveling through the tunnel.  It is dark.  We are tired. And then it happens.

            First, we see a glimmer of light from the tunnel’s end.  It grows brighter and brighter.  And then, suddenly, the view erupts brilliantly. Off to the left of the bus is the ancient walled city of Jerusalem – symbolizing the hopes and fears of all the years.

            There, in the brilliant sunlight, within a one-mile square area, is the holiest site in all of Christianity, the holiest site in all of Judaism, and the third holiest site in all of Islam.  There, within eyesight, are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.  The most sacred plot of land in all the world.

            From darkness to light.  From the focused dimness of the long tunnel to the brilliance of the holy view.  All in a moment’s time.

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            That seems to me to be a spot-on image of the dramatic change of life that took place on that first Easter morning.  The darkness of the grave gave way to the brilliance of Sunday morning. The silence of the tomb gave birth to new life. “O, death, where is thy victory? O, grave, where is thy sting?”

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            We can all name moments in which we have had our eyes opened by stunning experiences or events.  My generation would identify JFK’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, the Challenger disaster, and the attacks of 9/11.  Earlier generations would connect with the attack on Pearl Harbor or perhaps VJ Day.

            Believe it or not, important as those days were, they pale in comparison to the arc of history of a particular period.  The Axial Age.

            In looking back, historians and philosophers have identified a key pivot point in history – the eighth century BC to the second century of the Christian era. It is from that era that much of the foundations of our world were built.

            It was during that time nations began forming from local centers of power. The Greeks and Romans arose as powers – as would the Byzantines later.  People began thinking cosmologically – wondering about the place of their world among God’s creation. Various philosophies came into being. Trade between regions spread culture and knowledge.

            Before that time, there was an emphasis on local gods – gods for particular places; gods of fertility.  New, broader understandings of the divine began to emerge.

            The world was becoming, at the same time, more complex and interconnected.

            It was into that era that Jesus came.  His life is barely noted in the secular historical records of that time. But what happened after his execution has enlivened that story and has lit the burning coal of hope in the lives of 100 generations.

            That first Easter morning – the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox – was, to the world to come, like coming out of the tunnel of history.  A brilliant light of hope was seen and embraced by a people that had dwelt in darkness for many centuries.

            The effect was gradual.  But as the lesson from the Book of Acts said today, those who had been touched by the life, death, and resurrection of the itinerant rabbi could not fail to tell that story.  And those who witnessed the new light – in the form of the Risen Jesus – began to spread the word. Thomas, who doubted, gave way to Paul, who went from persecuting the new faith to spreading the Good News to the known corners of the earth.

            It was a new world.  Death ruled no more.  The power of sin had been vanquished.

            We are residents of that new world.  We live enveloped in grace and hope. It was as if the world had come out of a long, dark tunnel.

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            On July 16, 1945, another era was born.  The world left another tunnel. The light which it created held potential for the end of the world.

            J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brains behind the Manhattan Project, watched in the New Mexico desert as his “gadget” exploded into a burst of light brighter than many suns.  He had helped birth the atomic age.  The first atomic bomb was a success.

            Yet Dr. Oppenheimer did not feel ecstatic.  He thought, “What have we created?” The words of the ancient Hindu book, the Bhagavad Gita arose in his mind: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

            His emotions at that moment were understandable.  The world had shifted on its axis because of the elemental powers which had been unleashed.  In all likelihood, the world would never be the same.

            But contrast the two scenes: The earth-shattering explosion of a small ball of plutonium, releasing the core energy of the universe; and the quiet of a vacant tomb, completely without a corpse, with carefully folded burial linens.

            All light is not equal. I ask you:  Where do you find your hope?  Which light illumines your path?

            For Christians, we have emerged from a tunnel into new life.  The darkness has given way to the brilliance of a new day. We see clearly.  The world has changed.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Fire to be Redeemed

TEXT:                 EXODUS 12:1-4, 11-14; JOHN 13:1-17, 31b-35

ONE SENTENCE:        The deliverance symbolized in this week is a gracious gift                                    and can be unwrapped by our receiving and sharing it.

            “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months,”God tells Moses and Aaron.  It is the eve of the first Passover – the beginning of the Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

            The beginning of months. Indeed, for all the meaning it has assumed, this is the week of weeks.  It is in this week that God’s movement collides with the brokenness of the world.

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            In the wee hours of Good Friday, March 28, 1997, a fire broke out in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Starkville, Mississippi.  The church building, beloved by more than 2,000 parishioners, burned to the ground on Good Friday. It lay in smoking ruins at the end of Holy Week.

            I was Rector at Church of the Resurrection there. We were shocked beyond words. More poignant symbolism could not be imagined.

            Until this week – the week of weeks. Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful cathedral located on the Seine River in Paris, met a similar fate.  Much of its historic edifice was consumed by flames that leapt scores of feet into the air.

            These fires, destroying houses of worship, are metaphorical.  That is, they point toward something else.  They symbolizesome aspect of life.

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            In this case – in this week of weeks– they point us toward thehuman condition at the time of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt and Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry.  

            Face it:  Our world is broken. The world was broken in Egypt for the Hebrews (and even though they didn’t notice, it was broken for the Egyptians, too).  The world was broken in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago – as the teeming crowd praised Jesus when he arrived, and then watched as the Romans crucified him.  And it is broken today.

            Human efforts to reach the height of existence – to reach dominance, power, and affluence – lies in a smoking heap.  Those aspirations are idolatry. And we flail about, seeking to find the next thing, whether that is technology, politics, economics, or something else.

            It is analogous – again, symbolic– to the Tower of Babel.  The higher we reach, the more we strain, the more we become splintered, divided.

            We should all be humbled.  Like the ashes of a great cathedral, we should acknowledge that we need help to rise anew.  The ways were not working for the Hebrews in Egypt.  They were not working in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. And we have ample evidence our ways are not working.

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            The Gospel reading from John is instructive. It is about aroad less traveled.The passage tells us that a willingness to serve one another is the way to follow Jesus.  That simple act of washing the disciples’ feet symbolizes all of Jesus’ teachings – loving one another, turning the other cheek, giving your cloak to another person, not returning evil for evil.

            There is a small portion of the Gospel which jumps out at me.  Hear the words again:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

            The simple fact of that passage is this: In order to show mercy, we must receive mercy.  In order to show love, we must receive love.  In order to give grace, we must receive grace.  In order to serve, we must be willing to be served.

            That gift – the fullness of God’s love – is what is being offered to you today. It is being offered here in the washing of feet, and in the body and blood of the Holy Eucharist.

            When we are so washed and so transformed – so touched by the gracious hand of God – we will be able to rise out of the ashes to new life in Jesus.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Striving for the New Creation

PROPERS:         4 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 2 CORINTHIANS 5:16-21; LUKE 15:1-3, 11b-32

ONE SENTENCE:        As Paul Tillich notes, what matters is a “new creation.”  

            You have heard me refer to Paul Tillich here before.  He was, arguably, the greatest theologian of the 20thCentury.

            Tillich was born in Prussia – an area of modern-day Germany – in 1886. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Tillich, too, was ordained at age 26 and became a military chaplain during World War I.

            He continued his academic pursuits. His public lectures brought him into conflict with the Nazis who had come into power in 1933.  He was dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Berlin.

            Another great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer, had already fled from Germany to the United States. He invited Tillich to come to America’s welcoming shores.  Tillich did, and took up a teaching position with Union Theological Seminary in New York.

            It was there in 1955, after more than a 20 year teaching stint, that Tillich preached a retirement sermon – a sermon that was among his finest (and his sermons were excellent).  The sermon was entitled The New Being, and it is based on our second lesson today.

            Tillich hears Paul’s words:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  

            What is this new creation?  Tillich grounds his approach in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – Chapter 5, Verse 6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. 

            The great theologian is saying that nothing counts for anything except reflecting a New Creation – which is characterized by faith acting through love.

            The church has historically said that this approach is to clarify the early understanding that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; between Jew and Pagan. Tillich says the difference is greater.

            He contends that Paul’s words read down through the ages say that nothing matters other than the New Creation.  No institution, no ideology, no political philosophy, no creed. 

            He says that it does not matter if a person is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or member of any other faith tradition if that person does not embody the New Creation in Christ.  Nor are those folks excluded from the covenant community if they do manifest that New Creation.

            He goes on to say that rituals of any tradition – as he says with the Jewish rite of circumcision – do not make any difference, in and of themselves, without the New Creation.

            Since Tillich preached that sermon in 1955, he was bound by the times.  He listed the various political philosophies in vogue and said that they do not provide what is essential to the person of faith.  He listed Fascism, Communism, Secular Humanism, and Ethical Idealism.  No matter how high the ideals and aspirations of a movement, they do not bring the New Creation.

            What we need to hear, I think, is that we are called – as are all people – to manifest the New Creation that is provided through the life and teaching of Jesus – and that is seen in a life of faith, acting through love.  If we do not, we are like Paul’s description in First Corinthians – “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

            All of this sounds like our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, calling us to follow the Way of Love. He expressed it so well in his sermon at the Royal Wedding last summer.  If we are not motivated by love, we are not motivated by Christ.

            You may ask:  What does this New Creation look like? How will I know I have reached it?

            I would respond to the second question first.  It is an elusive goal.  It is similar to catching smoke in your hands.  You may do it one moment and not the next; one situation and not another.  But the message is to keep trying.  You are human.  Sometimes you will realize the goal; other times, not.

            The first question: What does the New Creation look like?

            We have an excellent example in the gospel lesson today – the Prodigal Sonor, more accurately, the Loving Father.

            The Prodigal Son, seeking forgiveness, and the Father, forgiving, are wonderful models of the New Creation.  Their actions reflect their motivations.

            The older brother, who resented the younger one, has yet to be made a New Being. He continues to rely on legalisms and what seems right.  On a human level, he is right.  On the divine level – the level to which Christ calls us – he is not yet a New Being.

            You may have already taken on the life of the New Being.  That may be your manner of life. At the very least, you probably know someone who has reached that way of being.  

            But most of us can attain that New Being in the same way a musician gets to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Like all other elements of walking in faith, we strive, we fail, we fall down, we turn about, we give ourselves over to Higher Power, and we continue to strive.

            It is in following the one who most clearly lived the life of the New Being – Jesus, the Christ – that we find the way to being made new.

The One Who Shall Not Be Named

PROPERS:         3 LENT, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 EXODUS 3:1-15; LUKE 13:1-9

ONE SENTENCE:        God will be who God will be – regardless of our efforts to define and constrain the divine being.         

            It has been said that the best theology today is being done on the silver screen.  That may well be true.

            Also, some of the most memorable.

            I suspect that most of us here have seen the memorable Cecil B. DeMille production of “The Ten Commandments”.  The lead role of Moses was, of course, played by the late Charlton Heston.

            The movie is essentially a depiction of the life story of Moses – born into a Jewish family in Egypt when Pharaoh had ordered the death of all Jewish infants; hidden in a basket amid the bulrushes of the Nile River; found by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into the royal family; he became a prince of the powerful nation.

            But life did not go well for him, and he took refuge in the Wilderness – becoming a shepherd, living a life of solitude. Until the moment depicted in the first lesson today.

            We are to assume that this desert God has pursued Moses.  That desert God has found Moses at the foot of Mt. Horeb – what will become known as Mt. Sinai.  It is foreboding-looking volcano rising out of the surrounding desert floor and will later figure prominently in the Exodus story.

            Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flock, sees a bizarre sight on the side of the mountain – a bush that is afire, but is not being consumed.  And drawn like a moth to a flame, he approaches this mysterious apparition. 

            A voice speaks to him out of the flaming bush – and that voice calls him to deliver God’s chosen people from slavery in Egypt.  Moses, reasonably, asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?”

            It is at that moment that we reach the high point – the climax.  Moses is asking this God’s name.  It was believed that having something or someone’s name gave you control over that person or being.

            The flaming bush sidesteps the question: “I am who I am… Tell them I amsent me.” That is known as the Divine Tetragrammaton – the four Hebrew letters yud-hey-vav-hey.  The Latin letters are YHWH, from which we draw the name Yahweh. Faithful Jews will not pronounce the word.  The name of God is too sacred.

            My Old Testament professor was named William Augustin Griffin.  He was a modern version of an Old Testament prophet. He said those four Hebrew letters could also be translated as “I will be who I will be.” Other ways – equally faithful – of translating those four letters include “He-who-is”and “He-who-calls-into-being.”

            God is sidestepping Moses’ question.  He is telling Moses, “I will not be controlled.  I will not be put in a box.  I am the ground of being.  I am the source of all things.”

            God is making the most profound self-revelation to be made before the incarnation of Jesus as Christ.  And he makes it clear to Moses – and us – that “I will have my own way.”

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            I heard an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor this week.  She is a well-known Episcopal priest and internationally-famous preacher living in Georgia.  She was asked by the interviewer how she defined God.

            Her response was much more profound and articulate than I could quote, but the essence was, “God is the glue which holds all things together… The mysterious force of creation… The uniting spirit which intends good… The force which unites creation and cares for each of us.”

            I thought of the great theologian Paul Tillich who described God as “the ground of being.”

            God’s self-revelation to Moses… Barbara Brown Taylor’s attempt to describe God… Paul Tillich’s theological definition… all tell us the same thing: “God will be who God will be.  Do not try to put God in a box.”

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            One of the great issues in theology is theodicy – God’s justice.  It raises the question of Why bad things happen to good people.

            We profess belief in a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and all-present.  Yet, evil still exists.  Illness still wracks human lives.  Disasters strike various places.  Humans are inhuman to others.  On and on…

            The questions of theodicy resist answers.  Perhaps God is telling Moses – and us – that “I will be who I will be.”He will not be constrained.  He will not be second-guessed. He will not be put in a box.  He will not be limited by human definitions.  He remains beyond our ability to understand fully.

            That was the essential point being revealed to Moses. Yes, Moses was being called into a cauldron of trouble.  Yes, the task would be daunting. Yes, the years ahead – wandering in the wilderness – would be difficult. 

            But remember this: “I am the one who calls into being… and I am calling you to rescue my people.”

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            Think of the gospel lesson for a moment.  The passage from Luke tells the story of a man who has a non-bearing fig tree. The landowner is frustrated after three years of the tree being barren.  He tells his gardener to cut down the tree. 

            We might be tempted to do the same – or, figuratively, to give up on a person.

            But, the gardener takes a different view.  “Let’s give it another chance. Let me work with it.  Let me tend it a bit.  Then we will see what happens.”

            I am convinced that is what God does with us.  He gives us another chance.  He tends us.  He loves us. And he loves those that we might give up on.

            Perhaps… just perhaps… God is being who God will be.  And he is letting the world have a chance to work things out.  Sure, that is hard for us.  We would like for everything to be resolved right now.  We would like for figs to be on the tree when we want them. We would like to understand.

            But God stands astride history, time, creation, and all levels of being. Ultimately, he will be who he will be. And we rest, forever, in his hands.