Keeping the Faith

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15

Given on 09/03/2017

You really had to imagine that Moses thought he was in the clear. After his breathless escape from Egypt after killing the slave master, after being found at a well in Midian by what must have been an attractive woman with a wealthy father. After having married that woman, had a son with that woman, and taken over the day-to-day operations of her wealthy father’s estate, you really have to imagine that Moses must have figured he had left his life in Egypt behind. This was not a wholly celebratory reality. He had after all left at least his mother, father, sister, and brother, not to mention his adopted mother who had plucked him from the reeds of the Nile, but, having made peace with that, you kind of have to think that he believed that he would never again return to the Egypt of his formative years and instead would remain in Midian with his wife, and wealth, and children, and future grandchildren, and live a life of peaceful existence. It would seem that God had other plans for Moses.
And so we are told that he was out one day with his sheep taking them to pasture when he came upon the Mount of Horeb, And Horeb will become an important locale for Moses and the Israelite people in general. He will later strike the rock of Horeb to bring water to his parched people and receive the 10 commandments from God there. The prophet Elijah will escape from Ahab and Jezebel to the mouth of the Mount of Horeb and wait to hear the voice of God in the sheer silence. On this first occasion, Moses is out with his father Jethro’s sheep and the life that he had left in Egypt was probably a million miles from his mind when he came upon a curious sight, a bush burning on the mount yet not being consumed by the flames. As Moses came closer to explore this miraculous sight, he was brought to a stop by a voice commanding him to take his sandals off for the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. And as he complies and draws closer to the flames God begins to speak and tell how God has seen the plight of the Israelite people, God has seen the way in which they have been abused and enslaved and made to work for the Pharaoh, and most importantly, how they have called out for relief. And God then tells Moses that their pleas have not fallen on deaf ears, that they have not gone up into the ether and then faded away. No, God, has heard their pleas and is sending Moses to be the holy mouthpiece for the Divine. To go and bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into a land flowing with milk and honey. God was sending Moses to be the hands and feet, to be the mouth and voice of God to a people who have been trapped in slavery and abuse for far too long. God is sending Moses to enact God’s holy will for the Israelites and Egypt. God is sending Moses to lead the people to a new place, a holy place, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of promise. God chose Moses to affect change and to be the physical presence of the Holy One to a people crying out for relief. So, too, does God send us out into a world of people crying out for help—a reality that has been put on crystal clear display for the past 10 days.

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21Given on 09/03/2017

It is often difficult to step into the pulpit at the end of a week like we have had. A week in which we have seen some of the worst destruction that the natural world can mete out on a civilization. A week in which we have seen a once every thousand year flood subsume one of the largest cities in our nation while decimating the areas all around it. And it is difficult. It is difficult to watch as mothers carry babies on their heads to keep them out of the water, as elderly couples return to homes they have owned for half a century to see all their possessions washed away and the structure of the house completely eroded under the pressure of unrelenting water, as patients in one hospital are helicoptered to another hospital because the first has lost water and power. The evening news can hardly contain all the images, the devastation, the ache in one 30 minute block so the all day news cycle takes over and offers up hour after hour of videos and interviews and commentary until you just have to turn away. And I am drawn back to last year about this time when Hurricane Matthew wiped out my own small home town, portions of which were wiped out of existence and will likely never reappear. And it is not easy. It is not easy to stare into the chaos and confusion and maintain some semblance of hope. And yet we are called to do and be—to be a hope filled people who use their hands and feet to bring about hope in this world. To be a people who seek to embrace a spirit of resurrection even when the natural world brings about destruction. To speak words of peace and joy and faith and love even when it might feel as if we are casting our voices out into the darkness of the immediate moment. But more than any of that. More than any words or prayers or good will or resources that we might send along down there, as important as all of that is, we are called to action, to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world. To be about the work of reconciliation and to be repairers of the breach. And to keep the faith.

If you’ve ever found yourself in the midst of natural tragedy or human tragedy. Violence or disease, hurricane or tornado. If you have ever found yourself personally touched by the brokenness of the world, the hatred of the world, the uncertainty of time, then you know. You know that it is difficult to keep the faith. You know staring into the darkness that it is almost impossible to see the light. You know that in trying to put together the slivers of your life when it has been shattered that figuring out where God and Jesus and Spirit and goodness and hope and mercy and grace fit in is a Sisyphean task that bears down upon you like a boulder. And because it is hard, because it feels impossible, in the immediacy of the moment, all you can possibly do is depend on the faith and kindness and humanity and love of others in your midst. You have to rely on others strength and trust in the goodness of the world. You have to entrust your life and your religious commitments to another. And that is where we must come in.

I will always be a huge supporter of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. I will always sing their praises because of the time in which they held my faith when I couldn’t for myself. When Lesley and I drove away from the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 while a mentally unstable man was wreaking havoc on an entire community, it began a surreal journey for both of us. We came back to our apartment and after calling our closest family and friends to let them know we were alright, we began to binge watch the news trying to gather every single detail we could, trying to ascertain if we were safe, trying to make some degree of sense about what had just transpired. That evening, not knowing what exactly to do but aware that we needed to be around people that understood, we made our way back to the main road running through Blacksburg and stopped to eat at a restaurant right next to campus. The experience was one that neither of us will ever forget. There were people out on the street, walking around campus, in the restaurant, but no one was actually there. It was like the whole of the community had been overtaken by specters of people—ghosts of their former selves that inhabited bodies but did little else. Each moving from one place to another but no one looking like they had any idea where they were going or if there was any point in going at all. Stringer reporters were all over the place with long microphones trying to capture the perfect soundbite from stereotypical college aged person but most couldn’t string together more than a few words. That evening, that whole community stood together. Together in hell.

But, because other places don’t actually stop for tragedy, I had to get up the next day and drive back across the state to Richmond were I was lecturing a class in Christian Ethics. I stopped at a gas station on the edge of town to fill up before making the trip back and while standing next to my truck I saw a man wearing a shirt with a Presbyterian Symbol on the front and so I asked him about it and he explained to me that he was from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and they were just here to offer whatever kind of help they could. I explained that I was a Presbyterian doing graduate work and he asked me if I had been on campus during the shooting. I’m not exactly sure what happened next but as I started to tell him my story of leaving campus just as the state police were blocking off every entrance, it was as if all the pain and fear and uncertainty of the past 24 hours washed over me and I completely lost it. And all I could do was collapse in the arms of this person that I had met 2 minutes earlier. I don’t know how much time passed. 5 minutes? 15 minutes? An hour? It was one of those moments when linear time stops making much sense and all I can really remember was this guy, who I didn’t know at all, praying for me, for my wife, for my unborn son, for the whole of the community. Light did not start streaming in immediately. In fact, for much of the immediate future what I felt could be best described as apathy with intermittent bouts of sadness and anger. But, eventually, bit by bit, the light did begin to shine in again. Not in a way that is ever the same. We are never the same people from one moment to the next and tragedy only exacerbates that reality, but it did eventually come back and I am convinced that the only reason that it did, that I was able to put my faith back together again, was because of the kindness and the love and the faith of a man that I’ve only met once in the parking lot of a gas station on the edge of town in Blacksburg who was for me, in that singular moment, Jesus.

Tragedy, natural or that of human origins strikes all the time throughout our world. As the people of Houston and the surrounding areas attempt to put their lives back together, across the world in Southeast Asia, flooding has displaced 41 million people, 16 million of which are children, in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I don’t say this to depress you or deprive you of the hope that you carry with you today, but rather to show that the need is always there for the people of God, the followers of Jesus to be the hands and feet of Christ, both here and around the world and to steel ourselves for a return to the outside world in which each are called to come together, set aside whatever sort of cultural blinders that we each have, and be the bearer of the love of Christ, in whom, we are told, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man, black or white, Muslim or Hindu, rich or poor, for all are made one in the power of the resurrection and we are called to take that power out into the world and use it to set all God’s children free. But, lest that task seem too daunting, too difficult, too overwhelming, let us be reminded that we do not go alone. We gather together today at table, to be in community with one another, to strengthen one another, to hold each other up, and to be fed and renewed by this celebration of the Great Feast of Heaven, in which we are given only what we need to go out into the gathering darkness and be beacon’s of the light of God, to go out into a broken world and work for the reconciliation of all people to one another and to God, to depart from this table, a fortified people who can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ at all times, only relying on words when absolutely necessary. God reached out to a sheep herder and told him to go before the most powerful man in the known world and tell him to let God’s people go. Jesus reached out to a bunch of ragtag fishermen and tax collectors and told them to preach a gospel of love and redemption. The church in every time and place has raised up imperfect, fallen, broken leaders to spread the message of peace in the face of violence, hope in the midst of despair, and a love that calls all the children home. Let us be those people today and everyday. Alleluia, amen.

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