Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pentecost 16 - Year A

An oddity to be sure. A glow in the distance. A fire in the mountain. A burning bush that it not consumed. What would YOU think it was?

Moses had more curiosity than sense. He abandoned his sheep in the valley to go snooping around on God’s holy mountain.

Maybe it would help if you visualize who Moses was and what he was doing. You might be picturing Charlton Heston striding confidently up the mountain with a decisive hunger in his eyes, his booming baritone belying any fear he might have said to possess. With his chiseled jaw and determined gait he marches purposefully up the side of the cliffs, preparing to meet his God.

After all, his climb is an ascent to his destiny where he will receive his sacred mandate to free God’s people from slavery to lead them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey; a divine charge that they would have to pry from his cold dead hands.

It’s a scene only Cecil B DeMille’s grandiose imagination could create. The Ten Commandments is no mere movie. It’s an event. An experience. The ultimate triumph of good over evil, righteousness over tyranny, and faithfulness over idolatry. Four hours of unadulterated edification, best to be seen without commercial interruptions.

But scrub that picture from your eyes. That’s not the story the bible tells. When you read the story from Exodus you’ll notice that the storyteller is no Cecil B DeMille and Moses is no Charlton Heston.

Moses, after all, was a coward. He was no gun-totin’ Republican. John McCain would not seek his endorsement. The NRA would never elect him their president.

Moses was a fugitive from justice. A murderer. He fled to the desert to hide. Among the sand dunes he met a Midianite woman whom he married.

Presumably, he was planning to spend the rest of his life raising both sheep and a family, but lowering his head every time he heard a voice with an Egyptian accent. Moses was no hero. Moses was human. Which makes this story all the more remarkable.

Moses takes some time off during the work day to chase a curiosity. A strange glow in the mountains. A burning bush that doesn’t crumble into ash.

Moses runs into the wilderness and climbs the mount called “Horeb.” Horeb was no majestic mountain. You wouldn’t vacation there. Horeb was no Waterton National Park.

Horeb was a wasteland. Dark. Lifeless. Empty. If it weren’t for the burning bush Moses probably wouldn’t have had any reason – EVER – to step foot in that forsaken wilderness.

But that’s where Moses found God. That’s where God was waiting for him. And where God asked Moses to leave his shoes at the door, for he was “standing on holy ground.”

At the beginning of worship I invited you to take off your shoes because we are convening “on holy ground.” For our Muslim friends, this is nothing new. Each time they enter their worship space they take off their shoes in deference and reverence to God.

But I get wondering about that. They take off their shoes even when they’re not praying or worshipping. They go shoeless even when they’re coming in to change the light bulbs or to vacuum the carpet. What do they see in their worship space that they don’t see elsewhere? What makes one room in God’s planet more holy than another?

They might point to today’s OT reading. God is in the Holy Place and asks that Moses take off his muddy old boots to meet the divine.

And there’s some logic to that. We take off our shoes when we arrive home and when we visit someone at their house. Doesn’t it then makes sense that we should take off our shoes when we arrive in God’s house?

That might be true if this worship space were God’s primary residence. If God were confined to these four walls, imprisoned by religious expectations, then we might be more inclined to go barefoot in the presence of the Almighty.

But as Moses found out, God’s lodging is both bigger AND smaller than we may realize.

A friend once invited me to his prayer group. Having nothing else to do that morning I shuffled over to a storefront in downtown Kitchener where his church met.

These were your garden variety holy-rollers. They prayed with hands in the air. They wept as they cried out to God. They danced spontaneously as a sort of prayer. I kept glancing at my watch trying to think of a plausible excuse for a quick escape.

After an hour (or three) of praise songs and weepy prayer, I was handed a brown paper shopping bag.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“To hand out to people,” I was told.

Afraid that this might be filled with evangelistic pamphlets or bibles, I looked inside. I didn’t want to be that guy hassling people on the street with unwanted religious literature.

But inside the bag were sandwiches that the group had made the night before. We were going to a downtown hotel (if you can call it that) and knock on doors and hand out food. For many of its residents this “hotel” was the last stop before a homeless shelter or jail.

“I can do that,” I said.

Apparently this little prayer group had been doing this for some time because they knew everyone’s names and visa versa

“Hey Phil, how’d your knee surgery go?”

“It feels great!” he said, unwrapping his turkey sandwich and showing off his new knee. “Aren’t you going to pray for me?”

Some folks from the group gathered around Phil, laid hands on his head and shoulders and prayed for Phil’s health and for his salvation.

“Pretty bold prayer,” I thought to myself. They asked everyone if they wanted prayer.

On the way out I asked one of the group members how they got mixed up in this kind of ministry.

“Ken used to live here,” the man said pointing to a grey haired fellow.

“His room was just down the hall. He got us started. After he came to faith and got his life back together he felt God calling him back to minister to his old drinking buddies. He said he found God in this hotel and he wanted to show others that God hasn’t left.

“He’s shown us how to talk to these folks. Most of us are pretty white-bread middle-class types, and we’ve been blessed by this ministry. Without Ken bringing us down here and introducing us to people, we would’ve never have had this opportunity to serve this way. We’ve seen God do some pretty amazing things. Sometimes when God’s presence is so powerful here I feel like I need to take off my shoes.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, so we figured we’re supposed to do the same thing. We’ve learned that God is hiding in places like this. And if it wasn’t for Ken bringing us down here, we would have missed out on a lot of what God is doing.”

I think the biggest mistake that the movie made was casting Charlton Heston as Moses. The Moses of the movie was insufferably earnest, unbearably pious, and nauseatingly fit.

The Moses of the bible, however, killed someone in cold blood and fled. He argued with God until God grudgingly compromised. The Moses of scripture was not well spoken. He stuttered. He couldn’t hold a crowd. No one really listened to him.

I think that’s why God chose him to lead God’s people out of slavery. No one else could have.

Like Ken who knew how to talk to his old drinking buddies, Moses’ royal pedigree gave him special insight into Pharaoh’s thinking.

Like those holy-roller Christians who ministered to both body and soul in the halls of that crumbling hotel, Moses learned that he could find God at Horeb – the wasteland – because that’s where God hides.

Moses learned that the wasteland was holy, not because that’s where God’s mail gets delivered, but because God said it was holy.

And that little church group learned that holiness is not something we achieve but something we find, a gift we are given. And from that unexpected holiness we minister – like Moses – to those who need God’s presence in their lives.

Where is your Mount Horeb? Where is your wasteland? Where do you meet God? From where do you minister to others?

It could be the death of a spouse or even a child. The terrible break up of your marriage. A teenager you can’t control – or maybe you were that teenager. The bottle you couldn’t put down. The cancer you beat but left you scarred. Everyone finds themselves on Mount Horeb at some point in their lives.

Conventional wisdom says that we should build on our gifts and strengths, use our skills and passion to impact the world.

But I wonder if God’s wisdom asks us to minister out of our weaknesses, from our wounds. I wonder if God is asking us to meet God in the wasteland of our lives, and from that wasteland we greet the world, our faces shining with God’s glory and love, speaking words of truth and compassion, bringing God’s message of life and salvation to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

God’s bush is still burning in the darkness, calling us to mission for the life of the world. It will never be consumed as long as faithful people answer God’s call to speak God’s words, even with a stutter.

So shine. It is God’s light that illuminates your life and your work.

May God’s radiance shine through you into the dark wastelands of our world. Amen.


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