September 3, 2023

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

September 3, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:  Exodus: 3:1-15; Psalm105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

     From Exodus, (And the Lord said), “Come, no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

      One of the joys of visiting Rome this past summer, was the opportunity to simply gaze upon incredible architecture, as well as exquisite works of art and sculpture. One particular sculpture that took my breath away was Michelangelo’s Moses. This seven-foot high, muscular, commanding image of Moses seemed a fitting depiction of the man who would become Israel’s deliverer from slavery and leader of the Exodus. Nevertheless, that sculpture is misleading. So much so, it might cause one to think that because of his obvious masculinity, Moses was God’s natural choice given the tasks that lay ahead of him. But the Moses described in Exodus was far from that. In fact, he was much more like you and me, and that is important for us to remember as people of God today.

     See, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God’s call to specific people for specific tasks in every generation. And each time God called someone, they discounted their skills and abilities. This was true for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and host of others including Moses. Sometimes they cited their unworthiness, “O Lord, I am not holy enough to do this. You should find someone else,” as if anyone can change God’s mind about whom God calls. Or, the person cited their lack of public speaking skills, “But Lord, I have a stutter and people will make fun of me.” And each time, regardless of the excuse, God’s answer was always the same: “Don’t worry, I will be with you” or “I will put my words into your mouth” or “I will guide you,” and so on. God’s point is this: God’s call on our lives is never about our abilities or lack thereof. It is always about advancing God’s purposes. God chooses ordinary, everyday people and calls us to ministry and service. 

     In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses encounters a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames and through this apparition, Moses has an incredible sense of God’s presence. Now, there is a shrub in the Middle East that, depending upon the angle of Sun, will appear to be in flames but, really isn’t. That’s why some suggest this story isn’t true. Well, whether the bush was really on fire is not important. God used this particular shrub in order to get Moses’ attention: to get him to stop and look. And once that happened God told Moses to take off his shoes. That may seem odd to us but in reality it is upon that action that everything else in this story unfolds and, actually, our own stories unfold. See, in ancient Hebrew culture, the only people wearing shoes were either masters or free persons. Slaves and servants went barefoot. By removing his shoes, Moses symbolically sets aside his standing in life, his position in the community, his own self, and with that set aside, he is ready to be called into service. Yet there’s even more to this story…

God tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people … I have heard their cry … and I have come down to deliver them …” Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have expected God to reveal what supernatural acts God will use to free Israel from slavery. Instead, God does something completely unexpected. God says to Moses, “Here’s what I am going to do: I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” Wait a minute God, I thought you said you were going to do something. “I am – I am going to do something incredible and I’m going to do it through you.” As the Psalmist affirms, God acts through God’s people. God works through folks like you and me to further God’s mission, God’s purposes. God enlists everyday things, everyday people to do the incredible: to reconcile, to free, to restore, and to bless the world.  

     In our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples he is going to die and rise again from the dead because that is God’s purpose. Peter, who was just described as a rock, jumps up saying, “God forbid … This must never happen to you.” And Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not a rock after all. You’re acting like a stone – something to trip over. ” I find Peter’s response typical of human nature. We want God to do what we believe God should do, or whom God should save. Jesus tells Peter that service, just like Moses learned, is never about us, nor our abilities, or what we want. It is about the divine, about God, about redemption.

That’s why Jesus goes on to explain that answering God’s call is difficult because it not only requires setting aside what we want, but setting our own selves aside, you know, taking off our shoes, and do so because there is no such thing as a part-time disciple. Christianity is not a way of life practiced on Sundays so we can do whatever we want the rest of the week. Jesus says following him is a life of giving, not taking. He says those who seek to save their life lose it while those willing to lose their life always find it. Now how is that possible? Well, those who let go of what they think God should do, or who is welcome in the church let alone God’s kingdom, let go of what we expect God to do, tend to find God’s presence everywhere because disciples seek and serve Christ in every person, in every situation and moment, in those burning bushes, and in every-day life.

     See, when we think of ourselves as the center of the universe, that we are all that matters, when our own goals and dreams and desires are the sole focus of our lives, while we might think these self-interests are what life is really about, Jesus says that is the human standard and it is misguided. God’s call, the divine standard, is to embrace and foster, embrace and live, God’s vision for this world. We lose out on life when we focus solely upon ourselves and only our needs. But, to lose our lives for the sake of Christ, means we set our minds and hearts on the things of God and in so doing sense God’s presence all around us and in us, and grasp that wherever we stand, wherever we go, wherever we live, is holy ground. When we lose or set aside self-interest, then we are set free to become a part of a greater whole – God’s kingdom. We become free to forgive, free to reconcile, free to live life in all its fullness as God intended: free to live in unity with God and neighbor. We are free to embrace the divine in every aspect of our lives and watch it re-order, transform and change us as we called, as we are invited, to embrace a new way of life: God’s way.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans, says this embracing of the divine enables our very lives to become a living sacrifice unto God. This isn’t a call to martyrdom, but rather, about seeking and living lives marked by sacrificial love, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It means embracing God, God’s ways, God’s values, God’s justice and mercy so fully that we welcome opportunities to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty even when that soul in need is our enemy.

Now I am sure some are thinking, well that sounds good, but if I had a burning bush experience I’d be more inclined to buy into what Jesus and Paul are saying. Well, I believe that if we are honest we will recognize that at some point in our lives we have experienced that burning bush: something caught our attention long enough for us to stop, to listen for, and ask, “Where is God?” For me, it was when the twin towers fell in New York City on September 11 (2001). For some it was death of a loved one, or some natural disaster. For others it was something miraculous like the birth of their first child or grandchild, or embarking upon a new career, or simply a new opportunity. Something happened that took our breath away and we realized that “God is here”, present and calling us to step up and make a difference in this world. But that was then. What about today?

     Well, let me invite you to a different kind of burning bush experience this morning: it is a holy moment, an invitation basked in a presence of God that exceeds anything ever imagined. And this time, God calls out, “Come closer! Taste and see that the Lord is good” We call this presence of God the Holy Eucharist where Christ, himself, is made known and offered to us in the breaking and sharing of bread. And through communing with God and each other, we find ourselves forever standing on holy ground and our lives forever changed. “Come closer.” Take off those shoes that deafen your ears to God’s call, those shoes that blind your eyes to God’s presence, those shoes that urge us to live only for ourselves. Come and be healed, come and be freed, come and be found.

     God said to Moses, “Remove your sandals” – remove your shoes - for you are standing on holy ground right now. May God grant us the grace so to do. Amen.