Sunday, August 31, 2014

“Playing with Fire” (Exodus 3:1-15)

“If God gives you something you can do,
why in God's name wouldn't you do it?”
(Stephen King)

One of the “truths” about life is that we do not always do what we are told to do.  Awhile back my two-year old granddaughter and I were preparing for a fire in our fire pit.  Over and over again I told my granddaughter that it was hot and not to touch anything.  Like any good two-year old she dutifully repeated, “Hot!”  Even after we got the fire started I reiterated that the fire pit was hot and do not touch because it was hot.  The granddaughter was given the instructions over and over, and Grandpa felt that the message had sunk in.

Then it happened.  Removing the cover with the prod, setting it on the ground, the granddaughter proceeded to grab the handle . . . the hot handle.  She did not grab it for too long . . . well, because it was hot.  She immediately released it, got that look of horror on her face, and looked around at all the adults around the fire pit to see how she should react.  Seeing the concern on all the faces of the adults she decided it was an appropriate reaction to start crying.  After all, it was hot.

Well, luckily for the granddaughter, she barely touched the cover before she realized it was hot.  We put her had under the spigot and its cold water.  The damage was practically nothing . . . no blisters . . . nothing.  Just having the bejeepers scared out of her and a few tears.  She was fine, but she learned that playing with fire could get one burned.  A week later she again helped Grandpa prepare the fire pit, but this time . . . without any prompting from Grandpa . . . she was the one pointing out that it was “hot”.

Our reading this morning deals with “fire”.  As we continue our story from the past couple of weeks, we now see that the baby Moses has grown up and now is basically an alien in a foreign land being a shepherd for his father-in-law.  Yes, the baby Moses has grown up . . . in the span of his life up to this point he has killed a man . . . become a fugitive . . . run off to a foreign land, gotten married, and had a kid.  He is a shepherd for his father-in-law.  He is well-established, life goes on, and one day he is out tending the flock when he stumbles upon a peculiar sight . . . a burning bush.

Not only a burning bush . . . but a burning bush that talks. “Moses, Moses!” said the bush.  A burning bush that talks and knows his name.  To say the least this caught Moses’ attention.  When the bush reveals that it is God, it really grabs Moses attention who takes a worshipful pose before the bush.  The bush, God, calls out to him and gives to him a task . . . “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way that the Egyptians are oppressing them.  So now, go.  I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Now understand, God asks Moses . . . Moses the spared child of God’s people . . . Moses the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter . . . Moses the one who killed another man . . . Moses the one who flees retribution for his actions . . . Moses who exiles himself in a foreign land away from Egypt and his people . . . Moses who is pretty content with his life as a shepherd, husband, and father . . . God asks Moses to return to Egypt, free God’s people, and lead them into a new life.  Moses knows all of this and his reaction is one that we all would probably have, “Why me, Lord?”

In the mind of Moses he does not imagine himself of the quality of the individual that God would call to take on such a huge task as freeing an oppressed people from a powerful oppressor . . . after all, Moses had not quite led a heroic life up to this point . . . and, he was only one person.  Andrew van der Bijl is a Christian missionary who is famous for his exploits of smuggling Bibles to communist countries during the height of the Cold War.  This feat earned him the nickname, “God’s smuggler”.  Brother Andrew, as he is affectionately known, says this about God’s call upon a person’s life: “God does not choose people because of their ability, but because of their availability.” 

Though Moses is thinking, “Why me?”  God is thinking, “Why not you?  What else do you have to do?”

This story is a story of calling . . . God calling one out to serve the will and purpose of God . . . God calling one out to meet the needs and serve others.  Calling is a part of who God created each of us to be . . . calling is fulfilling that relationship between God and others . . . it is not so much about “us” as individuals, but “us” as the family of God.  Author Gilbert Meilaender writes: “The point of the calling was, quite simply, that it was appointed by God to serve neighbors.  If along the way some self-fulfillment came as well, there was nothing wrong with that, but it was hardly the point of the calling.”

In the end, there was no argument that Moses could use that would deter God from calling Moses forth to serve the people . . . to bring freedom to the people . . . to restore the relationship within the family.

We all have been called by God.  We have been called to “play with fire” by God.  True, playing with fire can burn a person; yet, at the same time, stepping into the fire can bring cleansing and purification and new life.  From out of the fire there is always hope for something new and better.  God calls Moses to step into the fire . . . to come and play.  It will not be easy.  There will be the potential for great harm.  Potential for great disaster.  God calls us to try.  As author Stephen King says, “If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?”

Understand that God is not going to call all of us out to do great tasks like Moses . . . God is not going to call us out to free an oppressed people; but, God is going to call us out to serve God and others.  The key is in listening . . . listening for the voice of God.  Sometimes God is going to use some pretty flamboyant ways to get us to listen . . . like talking burning bushes.  Other times God is going to whisper softly . . . almost so softly that we mistake it for the breeze; but, God is going to “call” us.  We just need to listen.

I think that a lot of us hear the voice of God in our lives, but we don’t always recognize it as the voice of God.  For example, how many of us have a friend or family member that we suddenly get worried and concerned about . . . something is bugging us.  Do we just sit there and brood over the feeling or do we act out on that feeling?  Do we go and see how that person is doing . . . see it there is something we can do?  That is the voice of God issuing a “call”.

There are bigger things that spark responses and feelings within us . . . wars, poverty, discrimination, disease, conflicts, problems in our communities, elder issues, and much more.  Things that prick at our hearts and minds.  That is the voice of God calling us out to serve others and God.  How will we respond?  Will we answer the call and see where the Spirit leads us in this calling . . . are we going to speak out?  Are we going to “do” something to quell the feelings we are feeling?  Are we going to play with fire?

One of the things that I love about my granddaughter is her appreciation for fires.  She loves the beauty of the fire.  She loves having her family sitting around the fire with her.  She loves the laughter and the love that is surrounding that fire pit . . . but, she also knows the danger of the fire.  She understands that if one plays with the fire one could get hurt.  She has come to understand, as much as any two-year old can, that there is power within the fire when it is used as it is intended to be use.

So it is with the “call” of God.  There is power in the “call” of God upon our lives.  Yes, there is always the potential that something could go wrong, that someone could get hurt; but, if it is approached with respect and a desire to please and do God’s will . . . well, it will turn out as God wants it to be.  After all, it is God’s will.  And, if it is God’s will, why in the world would we not do it?  Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drawn Out--Exodus 1:8-2:10

What drives our lives?  Some would argue that it is fear that drives our lives . . . fear that dictates the way that we live.  That argument could be used to explain our nation’s need to jump into military conflicts around the world as a means of protecting ourselves . . . a strong military keeps us safe from that which we fear.  That argument could be used in the way that our legislators hem and haw around in their partisanship moves to protect the interests of this group or that group from another group . . . basically accomplishing nothing but creating more fear and divisiveness.  That argument could be used in the way that our economy works . . . a rumor here or a slight slip there in the markets sends the banks and Wall Street running.  Fear truly does seem to dominate the way that the world revolves.

The fear argument could also be used in our own personal lives.  Consider how much of our time goes into protecting, insuring, and risk-managing our lives.  It has been said that we have made ourselves insurance poor because we have insured every aspect of our lives for that “just in case” moment . . . we have car insurance, house insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, flood insurance, eye insurance, cancer insurance, nursing home insurance.  We invest a lot of money into quelling our fears.  Fear dictates the way that we live our lives . . . the way that we make decisions.  Fear is a big factor in the way that we live our lives.

And, fear is a big factor in our story this morning.  The saga of the Children of God continues.  We have now moved from Jacob and his twelves sons . . . moved from Joseph and his family in Egypt . . . none of that generation is left.  They have all died, but the remnants of their legacy still remain behind in the land of Egypt.  This time of respite from the famine has been good for the Children of God . . . as the scriptures say, they were fruitful and multiplied . . . so much so it seemed that they were everywhere in Egypt.  Their abundance did not sit well with the Egyptians—especially Pharaoh.  In Pharaoh’s mind these refugees were a problem . . . a problem that scared him . . . how were they going to control this growing problem.

Thus it is out of fear that Pharaoh develops a plan . . . increase their workloads . . . work them to death.  It is a good plan, but it seemed that the more that the Egyptians worked the Israelites the more they multiplied.  It did not matter how cruelly the Egyptians worked them they continue to gain more and more population in the land of Egypt.  Thus the plan is expanded.  Now there is a mandate that stipulates that all the male babies born to the Israelites are to be killed.  So strong is the fear of Pharaoh and the rest of Egypt that they resort to basically enslaving the people and killing off their children.

So it is fear and hard-heartedness that drives the story at this point and makes the lives of God’s Children miserable.  But, that is where we pick up the story this morning . . . where we see the shift from the Joseph cycle into the Moses cycle.  Despite the order of Pharaoh to kill the male babies of the Israelites, the mid-wives refuse to do it . . . they feared God and because they did they had compassion upon the children and let them live.  When questioned by Pharaoh as to why the children were not dying in childbirth, the mid-wives made up the excuse that the Israelite women gave birth too fast . . . always before they got there to help. 

Of course, this made Pharaoh angry.  In his anger he changes the mandate . . . he broadens it; now it is just not the newborns that are to be killed, but all the males that are born . . . they are to be thrown in the river and drowned.

Into this situation comes an Israelite man and woman who give birth to a son.  Fearing that the Egyptians will come and take her son to throw in the river to drown, she hides the fact that she has given birth for nearly three months.  But the child grows and becomes more difficult to hide.  So the mother concocts a plan . . . she will place the boy in a basket and place him in the reeds down by the river . . . her hope is that someone will come family.  She sends a daughter to stay back and watch what happens to the child.

Luckily for her the child is discovered . . . discovered by an Egyptian, Pharaoh’s daughter none the less . . . who picks up the child and feels compassion for the stranded child.  The sister sees an opportunity and offers to Pharaoh’s daughter a nurse maid to nurse the child until he has grown a little older . . . she volunteers her mother.  Thus the baby is saved.  The baby is nursed by his mother until the day comes when he is too big to be nursed.  He is turned over to Pharaoh’s daughter who then declares him to be her son.  She names the child Moses . . . Moses meaning to be “drawn out” . . . a reference to her having drawn out of the water and saving his life.

In this story the theme is fear . . . Egypt has a fear of the Israelites—the Children of God.  It is a fear that drives them to treat them with great cruelty to the point of even killing children.  It is fear that drives the mid-wives from carrying out the original orders . . . fear of God and what God would do to them if they went and killed these innocent children.  It is fear that makes Pharaoh broaden the mandate of killing the male children . . . a fear that floods over into the lives of all the people, fear as to what Pharaoh would do to them if they did not carry out his orders.  It was a mandate that even included those closest to Pharaoh . . . like Pharaoh’s daughter.

Despite the fear, Pharaoh’s daughter feels compassion for the child she discovers . . . she feels sorry for the child; and, instead of drowning the child in the river, she rescues it, provides for it, and adopts him into the family.  She goes against her father’s desires and orders to save a life.  Little did she realize that she also saved a people . . . the Children of God . . . the Israelites.  Out of all the fear that was surrounding this situation it is compassion that is drawn out . . . Pharaoh’s daughter cast off the fear and chose the more excellent way . . . she chose compassion.

If we listen to God . . . listen to the voice of God in our lives, and truly trust in God, then God will draw us out of our fear to do God’s will for our lives and the lives of others.  God will draw us out into the more excellent way . . . the way of love and compassion.  The voice of God calls us to love and compassion . . . always to love and compassion against all odds . . . against all fear.  The key is to listen and to trust.  For most of us the listening is not too difficult . . . it is the trusting that is hard.

As the Children of God we are a people drawn out of the chaos of fear that governs our lives.  We are drawn out to discover love and compassion for ourselves and others.  We are drawn out to make a difference in the lives we live and share with others.  We are drawn out to embrace the hope and promise of God’s presence in our lives . . . to step out of the waters of fear that bog us down . . . to do the right thing for God, others, and ourselves.  It is believing . . . trusting . . . and responding with faith.  God will take care of us . . . always has, always will. Let us allow God to draw us out so that all of God’s children may live.  Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

“Grace” (Genesis 45:1-15 & Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)

It has been stated that we live in a society of being insurance poor.  That we carry so many insurance policies to cover every possible scenario that could happen in our lives that we barely have enough money to meet our daily needs.  Thus it should come as no surprise that everyone loves a good insurance policy that doesn’t cost much.  I know that I do.  I have insurance policies that cover my house, my automobiles, my health, my teeth, my eyes, in case of accidents, my life, and I can even get policies to cover having to go into a nursing home . . . none of them are cheap.  They cost a lot of money . . . but, they make me feel safe . . . make me feel protected . . . like I have all the bases covered.  All because I throw some money into a pot and it is all taken care of.

There are those among the faithful who live their faith in the same manner.  Those who believe that once they made their declaration of faith . . . declared Jesus their Lord and Savior . . . that they were covered . . . that they had just received that ultimate insurance policy that would cover them in all things they do to get themselves into the pearly gates of heaven.  That they had received grace.  Because they have received such grace they continue to go about their lives as if nothing ever changed.  They are protected . . . covered . . . and safe to do whatever it is that they want to do . . . and, all they had to do was to open up their mouths and receive Jesus into their lives.

This is the sort of insurance . . . and at the right price—free for the asking—that any of us would want.  Isn’t that what it is saying in John 3:16?  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Isn’t that what the Apostle Paul is saying in Romans 10:9?  “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Isn’t that grace pure and simple . . . and, free?

Well, no.

That is “cheap grace”.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor in Germany during the late 1930s and into the Second World War, would tell you that this is nothing more than “cheap grace”.  And, he would know.  As Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime rose up in power in Germany they began instituting their own version of ethnic cleansing to create what they deemed the “perfect race”.  The greatest part of this cleansing movement is one most familiar to the world . . . the Holocaust in which Hitler and the Nazi regime attempted to wipe out a whole race of people from the face of the earth.  Yet, what we forget is that it was not just the Jews that Hitler and the regime wanted gone . . . there were those who were disabled, those who were homosexual, those who were gypsies, and many others. 

Slowly and with great stealth the “unwanted” we gathered and removed in Germany . . . and, no one said anything.  Not even the clergy.  No, many of the clergy left the country to safety in other countries.  Those who stayed behind to protest the “cleansing” found themselves arrested, thrown into concentration camps and prisons, and eventually eliminated with the rest.  Among them was Bonhoeffer.  His faith would not allow him to sit idly by, banking on his insurance policy of grace, and not say or do anything.  His faith called him to action . . . called him to speak out . . . called him to put his life on the line . . . to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  In the end, it cost him his life as he was executed hours before the Allied forces freed the prison where he was at.
It was while he was imprisoned that he wrote his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship—smuggled out in bits and pieces from the prison before eventually being published after his death.  In that book he confronts this idea of “cheap grace” . . . grace comes with a price.

In continuing our story from last Sunday, Joseph—the dreamer—has now established himself as a powerful leader in Egypt as the “number two” guy below the Pharaoh.   He has created a plan to keep Egypt safe from the famine and drought that is effecting the world . . . while the rest of the world struggles to survive, Egypt is sitting pretty.  Jacob, Joseph’s father, sends his sons to Egypt to negotiate for some food to provide relief to their hungry families.  Little did they realize that the person they would have to deal with was their brother . . . the brother they had sold off as a slave and told their father he was dead.  But they trudge over to Egypt and put their fate into the hands of a person they knew nothing about to grovel for food in order to survive.

Of course Joseph recognizes them, though they do not recognize him.  Before him are the ones who sold him off to be a slave in a foreign land.  Before him are the ones who had even considered killing him.  Before him were the bullies who had made his life hell.  Before him was his opportunity to get back at them . . . to make them pay . . . and, for a few moments, he does.  He toys with them.  Accuses one of them of stealing.  Threatens to send them back empty-handed and without their brother.  He makes them grovel and beg for mercy . . .

. . . he makes them suffer. 

And, who wouldn’t?  Who among us would not want to make the life of our persecutors miserable for the hurt they have inflicted upon us?  Who among us wouldn’t want to get our revenge?  Joseph teaches his brothers a lesson before he reveals himself, but he does not stop there . . . no, he imparts grace.  He imparts something that is unwarranted . . . something that is undeserved . . . upon his brothers.  He forgives them, welcomes them back into his life, and provides to them and all their family refuge in a time of great famine . . . he rescues them despite being well in his rights of inflicting punishment for how they have treated him.

That is the sort of “grace” we receive from God through Jesus . . . unwarranted and undeserved . . . freely given . . . because God loves us.  Because God desires us.  Because God wants us in God’s life . . . to claim our rightful places in the family.  Though it seems as if it is freely given . . . and, in a matter of words it is . . . it demands of each of us a cost.  For what we have received . . . on the open market . . . what would we be willing to pay?  What would we be willing to return for such love and grace in our lives? 

In the minds and hearts of many—including Bonhoeffer—it is simple . . . we are to walk where Jesus walks . . . we are to do as Jesus does.  What Jesus does is not always easy . . . is not always without cost.  Sometimes it even means laying down our lives.  When coming to understand “grace” we realize that there is no “cheap grace”, but that grace is costly.  Grace asks for our lives and the way that we love and live.  All of us.

The prophet Isaiah tells us what we must do for the sake of “grace”: “Maintain justice and do what is right . . .”  And, the prophet reminds us that this grace is greater than any of us could ever imagine . . . that it is not just for our select group, but that it is for everyone who binds themselves to the Lord to “maintain justice and do what is right.”

We are living in a time in which our “grace” is being challenged . . . a time in which we are being asked to pay up or shut up.  We are living in a time when we look about ourselves and the world we see the suffering of many at the hands of great persecution . . . in the midst of starvation and famine and disease . . . in the throes of wars.  We live in a time in which we witness great injustice at home and abroad.  We live in a time when we need to step up and speak out . . . in a time in which we need to discover the true cost of discipleship . . . the true cost of walking with Jesus. 
We live in a time where we cannot afford to be silent in our faith, assured that we have our insurance plan all paid up—that we have everything covered for ourselves—that we have our ticket to heaven punched.  Bonhoeffer would point at history and proclaim, “This is what happens when we refuse to pay the price of grace we have received in our lives.”  The Kingdom of God can ill-afford us grace if it is ever to come into being.

I share the words of Martin Niemoller , a German pastor who wrote them about the cowardice of the German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen target, group after group . . . no one said a word.  No one stood up.  No one protested.  He says:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Grace is not cheap . . . it calls for our lives in love and service to God and others.  Amen.