Archive for September, 2014

And A River Runs Through It

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Genesis 2:4-10, The Revelation 22:1-2
September 21, 2014
Steve Hammond

Today we are running into a convergence of important events. September 21 is International Day of Peace. It’s also the day of the Climate Action March in NYC. And today marks the beginning of Campaign Nonviolence Action Week. Peace, nonviolence, and the climate crisis. That’s a lot. That’s why I can understand the allure of a faith that deals simply with getting ourselves into heaven. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, that wasn’t the kind of faith Jesus had. He was very much concerned with the issues facing this earth and, indeed, the whole universe. Throughout his ministry he was focused on the healing and redemption of the entire creation, and the possibilities of his followers joining him in building a new world.

I or anybody could spend a lot of time this morning talking about why peace, nonviolence, and living sustainably are important. But I am going to take it as a given that you all agree with me that all of those things are important matters to followers of Jesus. And I also assume that you agree that working for peace and a healed climate are cut out of the same cloth of shalom. If you don’t agree with me we probably should get together for a bit of dialogue. And I am serious about that because there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t have agreed with these matters had something to do with following Jesus. I would love to tell you what has happened to me.

Today I simply want to mention some observations I have made as I’ve been thinking about these three events. Let’s begin with rivers and trees. Most of us, I think, realize that the Bible is not a single work, but a collection of the sacred writings that tell the story of our faith in a variety of ways. But I can’t help but notice that at the beginning pages of the Bible and the very last pages of the Bible we are reading about rivers and trees. I think that is something worth paying attention to. Again, if the point of our faith is simply to get us to heaven, there wouldn’t be any trees and rivers at the end of the story like they are. At the end of the story the earth hasn’t been destroyed after some cataclysmic battle between Jesus and the forces of Satan. There is a renewed earth with a new city. And there is a river running through it. And there planted by the river is a tree for the healing of the nations.

I think The Revelation is a very weird and strange story that is a reflection on the life of Jesus and his vision for our world. Jesus believed that the end of all things was not this orgy of death and destruction as so many, including the guest preachers we had on campus this week believe. Instead, for Jesus what this whole thing is ultimately about is everything and everyone coming fully alive. That’s why resurrection matters so much to me. Death does not get the final word. Life does. What’s that great question the Apostle Paul asks as he reflects on the resurrection of Jesus and all that means for everyone and everything? “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?..But thanks be to God who give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What’s even weirder than The Revelation is that the church has taken this theology of life that was not simply at the heart of what Jesus was about, but everything he was about, and turned everything upside down to where the god of Jesus is a god of death. Even to this day, the rulers of this world know that they can rely on the church to endorse their wars and myriad forms of violence and death. And the church does that in the name of Jesus.

How did it come to this? We’ve talked before about how in the early church the signs and symbols of Christianity were rivers and trees. That’s what you find in the art work. It wasn’t until much, much later, around the times when the crusades were gearing up that the cross became the predominate symbol of Christianity. As the church became more and more an accomplice of empire rather than a challenge to empire, death became more and more important in Christian theology. That’s because you can’t run an empire without a considerable focus on death. And the church had decided that it was for its own best interest to go along with empire. So the rivers and trees and paradise disappeared from Christian artwork and understanding. And the world got sicker and sicker.

The end of the story, though, tells us that the rivers and trees have always been there. The vision of Jesus may have gotten obscured, but it’s always been there. And the other part of the story is that all trees and rivers are for the healing of the nations. Human beings are not meant to be unconnected from the creation. Back in that story in Genesis 2 we read that God took the earth, the humus and created the earth creature, the human. The testimony here that people and all of earth are connected is about as subtle as a search light. That thing we say about how from the earth we came and to the earth we will return is not a surrender to the meaninglessness of life, but a witness to our connection with everything. The internet of everything is not a new idea.

Imagine what would happen if we really began to understand that our healing was in the trees and the rivers, the earth and the sky, the animals and each other. A simple rule of life, and I think it should be elevated in all our minds as Christian doctrine, is that if we take care of the earth the earth will take care of us.

What if we spent our time, concern, and national budgets on taking care of the earth rather than fighting each other? What if we stopped that kind of violence and the violence we do against the creation? We would be healed. So, I guess that was my first thought. The next two are way shorter.

We are reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life in our current study group. The chapter we just finished outlined a history of how far back in the history of this world people were working on lifting up the importance of nonviolence. Many of the founders and early adherents of many major and minor religions focused on the importance of nonviolence in their religions. The teachings on nonviolence in the New Testament and early church were not simply this new notion that can just be passed off as a great idea but wholly impractical. Lots of people have been thinking about this for a long time.

Third thought. There is actually a fourth commemoration of note for us today. In addition to being the International Day of Peace it’s also the International Day of Prayer for Peace. That was set by the World Council of Churches back in 2004 to coincide with the International Day of Peace. People are thinking about lots of action today. I think the World Council of Churches is helping us to see that it’s more than action we need to be thinking about today. Or maybe to realize that prayer is one of the actions we need to include as we consider all of these things.

Jesus believed in partnerships. Partnerships between people, including those who are normally divided from each other for a variety of reasons. He also believed in partnerships between us and God. Jesus showed us we can’t do this without and God isn’t going to do it without us.

Prayer connects us. Not only to God but also who are what we are praying for. Prayer without action is empty. Action without prayer robs us of depth and new possibilities.

There is going to be a march at Noon on Tappan Square in solidarity with those who are in New York at the People’s Climate March. But before we go to Tappan Square, and I hope many of us are, l want us to pray for peace in our world and with our world first. These are days for prayerful action. In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul writes about all of creation awaiting for the revealing of the children of God. Now is our time. From battered countries, to battered lives, to a battered climate, creation is waiting for us to come into our own and stake our claim with Jesus. A river runs through it all. From the beginning to beyond the end the river shows us the way of life, it brings us healing. And like all of creation it is waiting, waiting, waiting.

[We used this prayer, attributed to St. Patrick at the close of the service]

Today in this fateful hour
I place all heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with it whiteness,
And Fire with all the strength it hath,
And Lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness
And the Earth with its starkness;
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of Darkness.
St. Patrick

When Yesterday Looks Too Much Like Today

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Exodus 14-15
September 14, 2014
Mary Hammond

I read lots of pastoral blogs and commentaries on today’s text from the Book of Exodus. Nothing I read touched the deep churnings of my heart until I found Barry J. Robinson’s blog, Keeping the Faith in Babylon. Everything else felt trite in the face of both present day circumstances and the underbelly of violence and suffering inherent in the Exodus story itself.

Like Robinson, I cannot look at the world we live in now and the world the Egyptians and Israelites lived in then and ignore a host of parallels. We see the ageless themes of the oppressed chafing against their oppressors and the oppressors clinging to their power at all costs. It is Pharaoh vs. Moses; the Egyptians vs. the Israelites. The oppressed become a band of refugees, searching for a new and better home.

In the biblical narrator’s understanding, the penchant for indiscriminate violence is not just reserved for Pharaoh in his cruelty toward the Israelites. The storyteller attributes violence to God as well, setting in motion the death of the firstborn sons in Egypt while Pharaoh continues his oppression and resolve (Exodus 4:4-5). Later in the text, the Red Sea parts to let the fleeing Israelites pass through unharmed. Then the waters return to their place, drowning the pursuing army. The result is powerful and joyous for the Israelites. Not so for the Egyptians and their families back home. After so many centuries and such long and brutal oppression, the Israelites have escaped. The tables are turned, even if just for a season.

Moses breaks into song, exulting in the one he describes as a ‘warrior God’ (Exodus 15:3) Yet haven’t we seen people praise the ‘warrior God’ way too much throughout human history? Hasn’t that view of God resulted in devastating consequences for the history of this planet across religions? We are reading Karen Armstrong’s book, “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in study group. She makes the assertion that we need to reject any interpretation of scripture that leads us to violence.

Looking back, the Exodus story seems clear-cut. There are 400 years of suffering and waiting. Finally, in one great tug-of-war and a final blast of victory launched by God through his servant Moses, the liberation begins! Yet too soon the story becomes murky again with 40 years of desert wandering.

I so often read the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the Israelite slaves released from bondage. This is the dominant story line, and a critical one that has inspired successive generations of the oppressed in their impulse for liberation.

Last week for the first time, I found my attention riveted on the Egyptian soldiers who drowned in the Red Sea. Maybe that is because so many soldiers on all sides of so many battles are dying today. Some are escaping disenfranchisement, unemployment, and poverty. Some are fighting for a cause they believe in; others are mere children, drugged and forced into military service. Some approach their enemies with hatred; others sooner or later are wracked with guilt and anguish over the violence they have participated in and witnessed. Countless soldiers will prematurely go to the grave, as they have for millennia. Countless families will mourn both their deaths and their living deaths.

Is the story of the Exodus really so clear?

We see this ancient tug-of-war playing itself out in devastating violence in revolution after revolution in our own time. In the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America…in our own nation’s drone warfare, boots on the ground, and proxy revolutions.

I am reminded of a verse in I John that I don’t think about very often, but I have been referencing a lot lately in my head. “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (I John 2:18). So often we hear the word “antichrist” in reference to some person or nation. It is associated with the many ‘end-times scenarios’ popularized by books, films, and conservative Christian radio.

But what does “anti-christ” really mean? I understand it is an ideology or theology diametrically opposed to all Jesus lived and taught. “Anti-christ” is about mercilessness instead of mercy; violence instead of peacemaking; bitterness instead of forgiveness; cruelty instead of gentleness; hatred instead of love. It is about building Empire rather than beloved community, whether Empire is constructed through extremist ideology or dazzling Corporatocracy.

When God provided Israel land on which to settle after the Exodus, was that land meant to be shared or meant to be taken away from its previous owners? What if this story continued with a theology of reciprocity and communal sharing rather than one of conquest and extermination? I want to re-write this story from way back. Honestly, I do.

I have seen in my own lifetime how the Exodus story has inspired generations of oppressed people the world over to trust in a God that Sees their need, Hears their cry, and Comes to their aid. I saw that so intensely in the Nicaraguan people in the 1980’s, when local community leaders, with the help of a supportive government, increased literacy among the poor. They developed neighborhood health clinics. Base communities sprouted up, even as radical Catholic priests were reproved by the Vatican or defrocked. The Reagan administration clamped down and crushed that movement, calling it a Communist plot. Soon Nicaragua was back under our thumb.

There are huge forces at play in this world. Pharaohs continue to proliferate and refuse to let the people go. Faces change, names change, locations change. Moses rises again and again in the form of one ordinary human being after another, leading nation after nation toward liberation. Prophets gaze at their burning bushes, struggle with God, and finally confess, “Lord, send me.”

Sometimes people are liberated, and sometimes they must wait for another day, year, decade, or multiple generations. How shall we interpret and imagine God in the midst of such Meta-History? What can we hold onto, as we look back at the march of generations and the multiple Exoduses of time, past and present?

First of all, there is Hope. Without hope, we are lost. No matter what our story, or our neighbor’s story, there must be hope. The South Africans taught us that with apartheid, as have so many other oppressed groups. “If liberation does not come in my lifetime, maybe it will come in that of my children or my children’s children.” This was their mantra. That visceral hope did not die, nor did it ultimately disappoint.

Secondly, there is Love. Without love, how do we stand against Empire here in the United States? How do we counter our own violence as a nation? How do we walk with the hopeless, the war-torn, the displaced, the sorrowing? Mother Teresa, in the slums of Calcutta, taught us about love. Bob Thomas, the Moderator of the church when we moved here in 1979, taught us about love. We teach each other about love. Without love, we are lost. Love is expressed in many forms–doing justice, promoting the common good, practicing hospitality, providing comfort, and offering forgiveness, to name a few.

And finally, there is Faith–Faith in the One whose hand is unseen behind the grand machinations of Empire, anti-christ, and all the rest of the horrors of Time. Faith that this One still Sees, Hears, and Responds to humanity and indeed, to all of Creation. This Holy One of both Mystery and Promise responds through me, through you, through Doctors without Borders, through Christian Peacemaker Teams and Muslim Peacemaker Teams, through Interfaith PeaceBuilders in the Middle East. This One is seen, heard, and experienced every time the Way of Life reclaims even an inch of ground from the Way of Death.

So, today, I give you the ancient story of the Exodus, of the children of Israel under the leadership of Moses fleeing the brutal hand of the Egyptians. We weep with them over their centuries of enslavement. We rejoice with them in their promised liberation. We remember both the slaves who perished and the soldiers who perished. We mourn with the Israelite families that lost their children in the slaughter of their babies and the Egyptian parents who lost theirs as well.

We stand with the landless, refugee Israelites of ancient times in their search for a new home, and all the other refugees through the generations searching for hospitality and safety. Today, in 2014, we long for this home in the Middle East to be shared, where there is no conquest and dominance, no lust for power and resources. We long for it to be a home where there are no “winners” and “losers.” We long for it to be a home where there is Light and Life for all. And here in the United States, we long for the same.

As we join in offering God our tithes and gifts, we offer as well our dreams and visions of a world renewed. This is what we must pray for, work for, strive for, and seek to live into, right where we are. Amen.

Remembering the Future

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Matthew 20 and Luke 22
September 7, 2014
Steve Hammond

[Earlier in the service we read the Last Supper stories from Matthew 20 and Luke 22]

Ask people to compare and contrast the two stories. Mention that Mark’s gospel is almost the same wording as Matthew’s except for the Judas part.

One difference is that in Matthew’s gospel the talk about the betrayal and Jesus not eating this meal again until he eats it with them in the realm of God comes before the supper in Matthew’s story and after the supper in Luke’s story.

There is also a big difference in exactly how, for lack of a better word, the liturgy went that night. In Matthew’s story Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup. In Luke’s story, Jesus passes the cup, then later in the supper, breaks the bread, and after the meal passes the cup again. In Matthew’s story you can almost see a somewhat formalized ritual. The plates are cleared out of the way a bit, things get real solemn and then Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, much like what happens in most Communion Services. But in Luke’s story, it seems like things go much more with the flow of the meal. Before all the food is brought out Jesus passes the wine. After they have been eating for a while he breaks the bread, and then after the meal is over he passes the cup again.

So in adapting communion to a church service, which has always struck me as weird anyway, since it was first done by Jesus and in the early church as a part of a meal, we usually share the Lord’s Supper toward the end of the service. We do get real solemn and break the bread and pass the cup. We sing a hymn and go home.

If we adapted it to Luke’s way though, we would start the service by passing the cup. And then sometime later on, probably before the sermon, pass the bread. And then at the end of the service pass the cup again.

It’s become so important in the life of the church, since its early days, to make sure we do this right. Schisms and battles have ensued throughout the history of the church over the right way to do communion. But there isn’t even agreement in the gospels about what really happened that night.

I think the more important thing is not figuring out the right way of doing communion, but focusing in on that remembering part, which I might point out is only in Luke’s story. Jesus in never recorded as having said ‘do this in memory of me’ in either Matthew or Mark’s gospels. But I still think it is important and will offer some back up on that in a bit.

Remembering means something like putting the pieces or the members back together (re-member, like re-build). When we remember Jesus we are putting the story back together, or retelling the story. We are restoring the memories. We are recalling who he was and what he was about.

Sometimes, though, communion has become just the opposite of remembering. Instead of putting the pieces of Jesus life together, we pull out his death and isolate it from the rest of the story. It’s as if nothing in the story of Jesus before Good Friday is of any importance. Instead of remembering we are, and dismembering Jesus (or an invented word might be demmebering). Instead of reconstructing the story of Jesus we are deconstructing it to simply a cross and some lashes, and not much of anything else.

I don’t believe that when Jesus is recorded in Luke’s story of asking us to remember him, the only thing he was thinking about was his death. We’ve talked about this plenty of times before and in plenty of different ways, but I am convinced that there is something, at least, as redemptive in the life Jesus lived as there was in the death he died. People want to be remembered for how they lived. Nobody wants to be remembered for the way they died, unless all you think you have to offer is martyrdom.

Let’s look at another communion story. This one is not from the gospels, but from the life of the early church. It didn’t take long for things to go bad. I am going to be reading from 1 Corinthians 11.

17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for[g] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink[h] without discerning the body,[i] eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[j] 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined[k] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters,[l] when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

Paul seems to be more familiar with the Luke story about the Lord’s Supper. He uses the ‘remember me’ language. He doesn’t say anything about Jesus passing the wine at the beginning and the end of the supper. But his story does have Jesus passing the bread during the meal, and then later, at the end of the meal, passing the cup.

What Paul doesn’t mention is the part of the story about the betrayal. He doesn’t tell us whether Jesus talked about that at the beginning or the end of the meal. There are several reasons that we could speculate on about why Paul didn’t write about that important part of the Last Supper, some literary, some theological. But one of those reasons could be that Paul wasn’t so much concerned about a betrayal that happened in the past during that first Lord’s Supper, but one that he saw actually taking place, in his own day, in the Corinthian church.

If Jesus did, indeed, ask us to remember him whenever we do this, the question obviously becomes what should we remember. Nobody can, of course, tell us what we are supposed to remember. Memories are our own, even flawed memories. When we remember Jesus we bring our own memories of what we have discovered about him in the scriptures and in our lives.

What Paul seems to be doing with the folk at the church in Corinth is not so much telling them what they are supposed to remember about Jesus, but showing them what they have forgotten. Paul was appalled by what communion had become in that church. Their dysfunctions, which were many, came to a head when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper. Their divisions were fully put on display when the poor folk, who couldn’t afford to bring any food with them, had to watch the rich folk stuff themselves on food and drink. And the poor folk were also the ones who were probably expected to make sure that the rich folk who were too drunk to get home on their own, got their safely.

Some people look at this story and rue the fact that people would come to the Lord’s Supper just to get drunk. Though Paul had a problem with that, his bigger problem was that the rich were dividing themselves from the poor.

When Paul warns the Corinthians about the dangers of partaking in the Lord’s Supper without discerning the Body of Christ, he isn’t saying that the danger is they don’t have a proper theological or creedal understanding of Jesus. He isn’t commenting on what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus. Though there are some of his writings that have caused great consternation in the church, Paul comes up with some pretty amazing things, including his understanding of the Body of Christ.

The body of Christ is a metaphor that Paul uses for the church, particularly local congregations. It’s in the church that the living, saving presence of Jesus is seen and felt and followed. To not discern the Body of Christ is to not discern what the church is about. And the church, definitely, is not about keeping our divisions in tact, liked they were doing at Corinth. In showing them what they had forgotten, Paul was helping them to realize that remembering Jesus surely has something to do about tearing down the walls that divide us rather than keeping them up or even making them higher and stronger. To discern the Body of Christ is to remember that Jesus called us to love each other, to welcome in the outsider, to take care of each other and the world. When we have forgotten those things that is when we are eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. People are ill and dying not because of God’s judgment for their lack of clear theological understanding about Jesus and his cross, but because they weren’t taking care of each other.
We’ve done all this talking about Matthew, Mark, and Luke and Paul. But we probably should take a quick look at what the Gospel of John has to say about the Lord’s Supper. Can somebody find that for me and read it real quickly? John, of course, does not write anything about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. What he does write about is the foot washing that took place. It’s John’s version of understanding that the Body of Christ isn’t just about the dead, cold body of Jesus, hanging on a cross, but about service and love and compassion.

When Paul remembered Jesus, he remembered the world Jesus told us we could make with Jesus and each other. And here’s the thing. Paul wasn’t there to hear Jesus say any of this. But the remembering of others who had been with Jesus, who were struggling to come to grips with that vision of a new world that Jesus had given them, gave Paul something to remember, along with his own very mystical encounters with Jesus. They were all remembering a future that Jesus believed in. And that’s how remembering Jesus is not only about personal memories, but corporate memories.

So what’s sacred is not the bread and the cup but the remembering. I think the folk in that church who were so worried I would join them in Communion have forgotten some important things about Jesus and the Body of Christ. But there was another time I was asked to preach at another church in town for a pulpit exchange. One of the first things that happened there was someone came to me and wanted to make sure that I knew that I was welcomed to share in the Eucharist with them. That’s remembering Jesus. The most important remembering we do, of course, is not when we share the Lord’s Supper, but the day to day remembering we do. How are we the Body of Christ with each other on Tuesday and Wednesday? Every day we get to put back together the pieces of Jesus and remember the future with him. That’s what we are celebrating this morning.

The Many Songs of Surrender

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15
August 31, 2014
Mary Hammond

Moses is a man on the run. Thanks to his mother’s clever, last resort plan, Moses escapes a massacre of Hebrew innocents at Pharaoh’s decree. Placed in a basket and rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised in Egypt in pharaoh’s court. Astonishingly—or miraculously–his Hebrew mother is offered the position of wet nurse, breastfeeding her own baby boy.

I wonder how long Moses’ mother has access to her child. Does she sing the songs of her people to him in the night? Does she whisper stories about his biological family and heritage—about his people, the Israelites, who are groaning under the oppression of the Egyptian state? Does she tell him about his biological father?

As Moses grows, he becomes a “man without a home,” bred Egyptian, born Israelite.

One day, as a young man, Moses witnesses the cruel treatment of an Israelite by an Egyptian slave master. His instincts flare; his anger hardens. Moses kills the man and then tries to cover up his deed. However, word gets out. Moses has crossed the line. Pharaoh wants him dead.

Moses flees to safety in Midian. There he marries and settles down, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses is safe. Life goes on. Pharaoh dies, and another equally oppressive pharaoh takes his place.

And one day, everything changes.

Moses is out in the wilderness, tending the sheep. He is alone with the flock, on the land, in the quiet, surrounded by the pulse of nature and the ordinary rhythm of his everyday life. He is headed toward Horeb, the mountain of God.

All of a sudden, Moses sees a bush burning, yet not burning up. The next thing that happens is extremely important. Moses stops, and he looks. And God takes notice that Moses stops.

It isn’t until this point that Moses hears the voice of an angel, and then ultimately the voice of God. I’m struck by this brief commentary. Epiphany moments rarely come “on the run.” They command our attention when we stop and look. When we look again. When we ponder what we see.

When God tells Moses that the Holy One is the “God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Moses hides his face. It is as if an ancient memory resurfaces deep within Moses’ rootless heart. The God of his father? Who is his father? Chances are real good that Moses has no relationship with his biological father and may not have ever even met him. But Moses does realize that his paternal line runs through the Israelites, that he belongs to this tribe that is enslaved in Egypt. They are his people.

God and Moses have quite the conversation, one that extends even beyond the text we read today. Moses pummels God with questions: “What shall I tell the Israelites your name is?” (Exodus 3:13). “Suppose they don’t believe me–then what?” (Exodus 4:1). Moses has objections–“Lord, you know I have never been an eloquent speaker and am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Finally, he begs, “Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

When in Egypt, Moses was a fugitive from the law. In Midian, he is safe. Why in the world should he go back to Egypt and potentially risk his life, what alone confront the Pharaoh now in power about the enslavement of the Israelites?

God isn’t budging.

Moses’ experience at the burning bush looks a lot like the slow song of surrender. But, but, but, but…Everything about this summons seems utterly counter-intuitive.

Recently, I contemplatively read and journalled through two books by Jewish author, Elena Rosenbaum, a psychotherapist and mindfulness instructor whose work is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Rosenbaum speaks to those with chronic or terminal illness about “acceptance” or “letting go,” living fully in the midst of the reality that presents itself, whatever that may be.

As I journalled on her question, “What does acceptance mean to you?” I wrote this: “To me, surrender is acceptance; acceptance is surrender. But I don’t surrender to Nothing. I surrender to God, who holds my life in the divine hands. I surrender, knowing there is a deeper spiritual awakening in surrendering than without it. There is a pathway that Acceptance or Surrendering takes us on, and that pathway moves ever closer to the Light.”

During Sharing Time today, we talked about the images people in the congregation have when they hear the word “surrender.” One person described surrender as “giving up,” holding up that white flag, surrender as a form of defeat or sign of weakness. Another spoke of surrender as “giving in” to those injustices that we should not “give in” to. These are common images of the word “surrender. However, neither is the way of the Spirit, the way of the Voice arising from the Burning Bush.

In its deepest spiritual meaning, surrender is the act of saying “yes” to God, in spite of our natural human resistance, fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Surrender can be a type of “falling into the struggle” with both hands, both feet, and a willing–even if fragile–heart.

Sometimes we navigate big surrenders, and we find out later that they are just “warm-up acts” for bigger surrenders. Has that ever been your experience? It certainly has been mine.

Moses himself is barely warming up to the surrender that follows. The call he receives is just the start of something much bigger. He has pharaoh and the powers of the Egyptian State to contend with; he has a recalcitrant band of Israelites to shepherd on a long and arduous journey. And like the rest of us, Moses has his own doubts and weaknesses to contend with.

Moses struggles, he questions, he expresses doubt and disbelief. He distrusts his capacity to do what is put before him. God meets him each step of the way. Moses feels exposed and anxious due to his difficulty with public speaking. God offers Aaron as a mouthpiece. Moses doubts his leadership abilities; God offers a staff or walking stick with special powers. It, too, becomes a gift amid Moses’ weaknesses.

Our former Peace & Justice Intern, John Bergen, sent this short e-mail describing the period of astonishment and doubt that he faced recently as he boarded a plane for Iraqi Kurdistan with the Christian Peacemaker Teams. He said this: “Every time I move to a new and unfamiliar situation, I usually feel fine about the move until the morning before, when I wake up two hours before my alarm, terrified that I’ve forgotten to do everything, feeling like I’m an idiot for moving, etc. etc. Today was no different. But writing this e-mail, and knowing all the people I carry with me as I journey across the ocean, helps bring me back to myself and to the excitement and joy that lies underneath the fear. You give me joy.”

John’s burning bush led him to train with Christian Peacemaker Teams this summer and decline a job offer in Indiana for this fall. Now he is half a world away, bearing witness to the tragedy, suffering, an anxiety filling Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of us won’t make such a journey, yet we each need the time to step back and notice the scenery around us on our own journeys.

What bushes are burning up around you, and not being consumed? In what forms do they come to you? Are they subtle or arresting? Are you stopping and looking, and looking again?

Amen.