Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2011 Exodus 3:1-15, Matt 16:21-38 “Take Up Your Cross”

Doug and I were sitting in a restaurant in Ashville last Tuesday, enjoying a late lunch after visiting the Biltmore Estate. Suddenly the phone rang – it was our daughter Allie, calling from New Haven, Ct. She sounded a bit overwrought, but then she usually does.

“Are you at home? Are you okay?”

“No, we’re in Asheville. We’re fine. What’s this about?”

“Haven’t you heard about the earthquake?”

“What earthquake?”

“The one in Virginia. We felt it up here in New Haven!”

“Well, we didn’t feel it here.”

“Is the cat okay? The house?”

“I don’t know. We’ll check into it and get back to you.”

Then we began to check our smartphones, sending texts and emails to friends in Richmond, trying to find out more about this earthquake and hoping that it had caused no harm to the church or the parishioners or other friends. And the phone began ringing with calls from relatives further afield, asking if we were okay.

When something extraordinary happens, we try to make sense of it using the tools at our disposal, don’t we? Smartphones, the internet, television or radio…we use what we can to figure out what’s going on. And those tools may give us some information that is helpful, but our response to them is what really matters.

For Doug and me, it was reassuring those who called us that all was well, once we had talked to or exchanged emails with our key contacts back home. And then our task was to accept that there was nothing we could do, and nothing that really needed attention, and so I said a brief prayer to myself and turned back to enjoying the vacation that we had waited for.

The same feeling of “what’s happening and how should I respond to it?” bubbled up again when it became clear that Hurricane Irene was headed this way. I found myself thinking about the impact of the storm on our services today, and on the folks we would be hosting from Caritas. I wondered what would happen if the church lost power and if our guests would be frightened. I knew, though, that our team of Caritas coordinators, led by Paul Jones, would manage it well. I just hoped the bathrooms would work and the windows would keep out the rain. In the moment, I knew there was little I could do except pray that all would be well.

But it’s hard in the midst of something strange or extraordinary or dangerous to simply say, “okay, this is happening…I’ll do what I can and then just leave it in God’s hands.”

This is the problem that faces both Moses and Peter in today’s scripture readings.

They are going along, doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing and – BAM – something shocks them off course. For Moses, it is an encounter on a hillside while he is herding his father-in-law’s sheep. There’s a burning bush, a talking bush. Now Moses may have thought he’d been out with the sheep too long, or that the sun was getting to him, but the bush kept talking to him…and he realized that this was the voice of God speaking to him. It was pretty weird. Bushes don’t normally burn without being consumed, and they certainly don’t talk. So he used the tools he had at his disposal, asking questions, to try and make sense of what was going on.

“Okay, God, thanks for telling me you care about all us sorrowful Israelites under the thumb of Egypt. Thanks for telling me you’re going to help us. But I know these folks, and the first question they’re going to ask is, ‘who is this God with whom you spoke?’”

And God says, “well, you can’t really understand my name…it’s a bit more complicated than Fred or Marco…just say my name is I AM.”

Oh yes, that really helps.

So God gives him some further information, instructions about what will happen. But Moses is no dummy. He knows how his people will react to this news, so he says “what if they don’t believe me?” And the God named I AM gives him some further tools to help the people believe the message.

Moses is struggling with that question of “what’s happening and how am I supposed to respond to it?” And it takes him a little while to grow into the reality of it, to accept God’s words and wishes.

Just like it sometimes takes us a little while to accept things that happen around us, and to figure out how to respond to it.

As usually happens when some natural or unnatural disaster occurs, a religious leader announced that it was all because we are sinful people…God was exacting a vengeance upon us. When that happens, I usually say a few unkind words under my breath about so-called religious leaders who try and shape a difficult situation to fit their own agenda, and then I say a few words of prayer for all those people who might become shamed or guilty or frightened because of misguided words like these.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter reacts strongly to Jesus’ announcement that he is facing arrest and death at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. “Don’t say that, Lord!” Peter cries. It’s understandable. Jesus is talking about a horrific thing happening. Peter responds in a very natural way…he doesn’t’ want this bad thing to happen to the man whom he has followed for these three years and whom he has grown to believe is the Messiah. The only tools he has to deal with the fear and the horror are his emotions and his words, and those words spill out of him before he thinks twice: “God forbid it! It must never happen!”

But words don’t stop an earthquake or a hurricane, and words will not stop the things that will happen to Jesus. Jesus knows this, and is aggravated with Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” In other words, “Your words tempt me to try and avoid this thing which I must do. Don’t say that!”

The hurricane is inevitable. The earthquake is inevitable. The death of Jesus is inevitable. And yet we try to make sense of the irrational using our meager tools.

For Moses, it is the words that articulate his fear that his people will not believe that God has spoken to him. For Peter, it is words that try to block the fear that Jesus will die a failed Messiah. And for Jesus himself, it may be the cold grip of fear that he could be tempted by Peter’s words to abandon the thing he must do that will save humanity from its sins…and for him, the words he must use are harsh and hurtful ones, because he is strengthening himself to face something more painful and horrible than an earthquake or a hurricane.

We look for rational scientific answers to natural disasters. We try to quantify the force of the winds or the seismic shift. We try to suss out why things happen.

Sometimes we try to blame it on God’s vengeance, because it’s easy to pin it on a being who is so far beyond our comprehension. Sometimes we try to say God is teaching us a lesson, even though he told us going all the way back to the days after the flood that he wouldn’t exact such a price again. We try to understand what’s going on.

We forget that trying to understand what is happening is foolishness. Praying is the only response.

God knows the fears in our hearts. God hears our feeble attempts to try and make sense of the vast complexity of the natural world, including natural disasters. God responds as he did to Moses: “I have heard the cry of my people, and I will be with you.”

So pray for those who were hurt in natural disasters. Pray for those who are helping. Pray for those who mistakenly believe that God is punishing us.

Then, like Moses, gather yourself up and go and do the work. Like Peter, take the
Lord’s words to heart and start walking on the road to Jerusalem. Like Jesus, face the hard work ahead, not without fear, but with the certain knowledge that God is with us, in these days and always. Take up the cross and follow.


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