Proper 17A

August 28, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 3:1-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c
Reading 3: 
Romans 12:9-21
Reading 4: 
Matthew 16:21-28
By Bruce G. Epperly

Can God be experienced in all the seasons of life? Do divine revelations and inspirations come to us in times of challenge and desolation as well as success and elation?

The story is told of a controversy among rabbis, surrounding the question “Why was the bush burning but not consumed? Many possible answers were given, but the arguments ceased when one rabbi asserted, “The bush was burning but not consumed so that one day when Moses passed by he would finally notice it!”

The call of Moses is a spiritual, theological, and homiletical goldmine. I would be delighted to stop here and overlook the Epistle and Gospel, but alas we need a complete homiletical diet this Sunday. The story begins with a theophany – an appearance of the divine – and an epiphany – a recognition of God’s presence. On his way to work, Moses notices a strangely burning bush. Curiosity gets the best of him and he risks being late for work to find out the nature of this unusual phenomenon. Well, curiosity leads to theophany. A voice comes from the bush announcing that Moses is standing on holy ground and must give proper respect to the Sacred One.

I am sure that Moses is overcome with awe as well as terror at this unexpected development. A burning bush? A voice in the bush? Am I crazy? But, Moses stays put, and the voice gives him a lesson in theology. The voice announces that it has heard the cries of the Israelite people. God is involved in history, listening and feeling as well as acting. God has been touched by their pain, and is going to respond. But, a responding God can’t do it alone. Though God has intentionality and power, God needs human companions and followers to accomplish the task. Contrary to unilateral understandings of God’s power, this passage describes a divine-human synergy that is essential in achieving God’s vision for the world.

Of course, Moses protests. He knows his history – he is a wanted man in Egypt – and he is more than aware of his limitations. Yet, God overlooks his protests. Moses is anxious and concerned about his abilities; but God is faithful and will be with Moses as he attempts the impossible. Relationship is everything here: God does not reveal how God will deliver the Israelites and empower Moses; God simply says, “I will be with you.” Like the presence of a parent, soothing a troubled child in the wee hours of the morning, God’s presence and care is sufficient to comfort and protect.

There is power in the words we use. Moses wants to insure that the Israelites will accept his leadership and the authority upon which it rests. “Who are you? By what name do you go?” Moses asks. He receives two complementary answers: “I am who I am” or “I am what I will be.” The Great Energy of the Universe has called you. The Source of all Creation now and in the future has sent you. But, this is not just an impersonal energy or power. The Great “I am Becoming” is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has been active in the universe and in our personal lives. God is known in the give and take of call and response, revealed in intimate interpersonal relationships.

Each life is touched by God. God calls forth our lives in a personal way. God also companions us on the pilgrimage, intimately knowing and responding to the details of our lives. God’s vision is embodied in this creative adventure of call and response throughout cosmic and human history. This is the message of the call of Moses and Psalm 105. God is to be praised because God has done marvelous works of creation and deliverance. God has inspired the Israelites’ march toward freedom and their journey to a land of milk and honey.

The words of Romans 12 counsel the first Christians in terms of their behavior within the community of faith and their response to the pressures of the external world. Within the body of Christ (as church), we are called to live by an ethic of service and loving-kindness, recognizing that in caring for our brothers and sisters, we are responding to God’s presence in our midst. In the spirit of the Benedictines, we are to treat everyone as if he or she were Christ. Spiritual maturity involves growing from self-interest to balancing self-care with care for the whole. What I give to another nourishes me. The success of another contributes to my own well-being. The walls of isolation are broken down; we are intimately connected with one another, constantly creating and re-creating each other in our relationships.

Toward those who persecute or harm us, we are to practice goodness. We are not victims of the oppressor and persecutor. We are always able to choose our response even in difficult situations. In Christ, we have the freedom to choose the pathway of peace and personal affirmation. Awakened to Christ’s presence, we are strong in the spirit, strong enough to keep our spiritual center despite the threats and temptations of life.

Today’s Christians need to live by affirmation not negation. While we are called to respond to the ills of our time, we are not to become embroiled in the culture or religious wars and their attendant objectification, polarization, and demonization of opponents. We are called to practice the same charity toward our “enemies” as we do with companions in the body of Christ.

In the gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the suffering he will experience in the future and reminds his followers that faithfulness may mean suffering on behalf of his message. With Bonhoeffer, we can affirm that grace is always free, but never cheap! Even God must follow the way of the cross. As Whitehead notes, God is the fellow sufferer who understands.

Jesus points to his future suffering. Here, we must ask: “Is Jesus pointing to a specific event such as the cross? Or, is Jesus describing the realities of his mission – faithfulness to God may lead to conflict, persecution, and death?” Although I believe that Jesus had the freedom to escape the cross, he chose to be faithful to his calling regardless to the cost in terms of reputation and life. I do not believe that God chose the cross from eternity, but I affirm that God inspired Jesus constantly to follow a pathway of fidelity which might lead to a number of possible outcomes including crucifixion. Jesus was not a puppet, but he followed the highest good for himself and for us.

We are also called to take up our crosses. This is not some form of self-imposed suffering. We are not called to martyrdom as death, but martyrdom as witness to our beliefs. Our faith in Christ is intended to shape our character and actions in a Christ-like way. This may mean going against public opinion, prudent self-interest, and personal well-being in certain circumstances. The pathway of integrity may prove costly in terms of finances and reputation. Honesty, faithfulness, and love cut off certain possibilities, treasured in our world. But, those who lose their lives – who look beyond the ego and its desires – will gain their lives, that is, experience the beauty and joy of companionship with God. This passage is about a different kind of self-interest – the expansion of the self to embrace the well-being of others as being as important as my own. This is a tall order for most congregations and people in this time of economic insecurity and diminishment. It calls us to move beyond individualistic and self-interested public policies; to share rather than hoard; to care for the neighbor and the stranger rather than close our doors to their needs. It calls us to live by abundance even in times of scarcity. This is a call to the beloved community in which the well-being of all is insured by our generosity and the generosity of congregations, institutions, and governments.

Christians are called to stature and generosity in our institutional and governmental as well as personal lives. This spiritual generosity is a far cry from the growing number of Christians who identify Christian virtues with lower taxes, expelling immigrants, reducing safety nets, and lowering employee benefits. Ayn Rand’s gospel of individualistic selfishness has no place in the Christian life. Our anthem is to “love one another” not “this is mine, stay away from it.” We are to be fountainheads of sharing and generosity, insuring communities where no one lacks for housing, health, education, or food. This is not just a right, but a requirement of the realm of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Today’s readings join mysticism and mission. Encountering God leads to transformed values and a vocation of service to the vulnerable and oppressed. God is encountered in the least of these as well as the greatest. In going beyond self-interest and our sense of limitation, we give God a world of beauty to experience and enable God to be more active and energetic in our lives and in the world.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, pastor, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed; Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for a Postmodern Age. He may be reached for conversation, lectures, retreats, seminars, and media appearances by email.