Saturday, August 27, 2005

Proper 17A--Who Does God Say We Are?

We had spent the whole day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Lara and I and some parents had taken a group Jr. and Sr. High youth as a reward trip for having the most consistent attendance at Sunday school. We had spent the day riding roller coasters…but the real roller coaster was waiting for us on the highways of Kansas. I was driving a van with a shell top (you know, the kind you see the big churches buy—the kind you don’t have to crouch in to get to the back seats.)
Unfortunately, I’d always noticed the shell on the van caught the wind like a sail, and it was unsettling to drive if there was any wind at all. Heading west on the interstate in Kansas, I began to notice the sky in front of us was dark, and the wind that I dreaded was picking up. 18 wheelers were careening in their lanes, trying to stay within their bounds, and many cars were beginning to pull over as sheets of rain began to pummel my windshield. I glanced from my white knuckles to the rearview, amazed to see my youth laughing and carrying on and flirting with each other, oblivious to the torments that I saw ahead of me. On the radio, I heard the distinctive beeps that proceeded a weather alert. It was a tornado warning—but I had no Kansas map, and the locations of touchdowns meant nothing to me.
In the middle of Kansas, there aren’t many places to seek shelter in a storm, but I found a gas station and pulled in to see if I could find a map. Sure enough, the tornados were directly west of us, headed our way. Now those of you who know tornados know they like to follow strait flat paths—like interstates. I remember the big plastic garbage cans at the gas station flying around the parking lot as I ran back to the van. I knew the ramshackle old gas station wouldn’t do anything to shelter us from the approaching storm, and the kid’s parents would already be waiting an hour or two past our estimated time of arrival because the hard rain had slowed our travel down significantly. The tornados were far enough away that I knew we’d be able to make it to our highway going south (and out of their path) before they made it to us.
My prayer was more a demand than a petition. “These are your children God, and I’m the only one you’ve got to get them home safely. Now I need you to show me that you’re with me!” I pulled out of the gas station, back onto the interstate and toward our southbound highway. Not 5 minutes after I’d said the prayer, a lightning bolt crahsed into a tree out in a pasture 100 yards outside my driver’s window. The tree exploded into flames, and my hair stood up on my arms.
A resounding “coooooool” was mixed with shrieks of fear from voiced by the teenagers in the seats behind me. It was like I had not been riding in the van all along, my mind had been racing with possibilities of all the things that could go wrong. After I witnessed my own “burning bush” though, I had a new sense of confidence in God’s presence. The rain didn’t let up, the wind still rocked the van, the wet road continued to slow us down, but now my grip on the wheel relaxed, the blood rushed back into my knuckles, and I was able to feel the road better because I had loosened up enough to actually feel it.
We made it home safely. The sign of God’s presence that I had prayed for was actually presented to me in an unmistakable way. Though God had been answering prayers in a more subtle way for me for my whole life, this particular instance gave me a renewed sense of purpose and promise as a steward of God’s church.
The theme of today’s scriptures seem to be “identity.” My encounter with the “burning bush” led me to a deeper sense of connection with the God, and through that sense of connection it led me to a more profound understanding of my own identity.
Jesus gives us a conundrum to cut our teeth on in which identity seems to be the focus. I imagine several of us have wrestled with the notion of “losing our life in order to save it.” From what I gather from the God of the Bible, God is interested in bolstering who we are and what we shall become. Our life is very important to God, and what we For many, this notion of self-denial is a struggle, and for many it is far too easy. Unfortunately, some people who have been victims of circumstances have heard this scripture and imagined God punishing them or trying them in order to test their faith. They hear the words “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will gain it,” and they imagine that their difficulties are ordained by God in order for them to give in.
What I perceive to be the common thread running through today’s texts is the act of claiming our identity despite the struggles in which that identity may involve us. The Divine Vision of the future calls us out of our status quo affirming existence and on the path for adventure and creativity. The little boy who was set in the basket and put out on the Nile embodies a sense of Divine adventure. When he grows into a man and tries to make excuses as to why he can’t live the life of liberation and leadership towards which God is calling him, he is assured, “I will be with you.” The boy who is put into a manger also embodies God’s creativity and lure toward genuine adventure. When he grows up and is tempted to diverge from his path that leads to certain death, he calls his disciples to “pick up their cross and follow him.” Paul leads the Christians in Rome to devote themselves to practices of non-violence in a culture that glorifies the sword. What a genuine openness to God’s creative impulse toward true adventure!
Moses is living a fairly settled life when he notices a curious burning bush and meets a God who calls him out of his pastoral existence and into the role of facilitating God’s liberation. It is not convenient for him to remember the God of his ancestors who reasserts his identity as a member of the slave class of his birth and the troubled situation that he had fled. Though Moses is safely hidden away, tending sheep for his father in law, God plants a vision of freedom in his heart—a freedom that means dangerous confrontation.
This passage is one of the best at illuminating humanity’s hesitancy to follow God’s inspiration. God tells Moses about God’s plan for the oppressed Hebrew people to have a land of their own: A land “flowing with milk and honey.” Moses asks God, “Who am I to go to the pharaoh and ask for the release of our people?” God’s response seems to be simple—you are the person I have asked. “Well in whose name shall I come?” Moses needs some firepower if he is going to face the Pharaoh. He needs this God’s name in order to harness the power of that name. God empowers him only with a cryptic non-answer: “I am who I am.” Go and tell them “I am” has sent you. YHWH. I’ve heard it’s the sound of a breath being taken. So that Moses doesn’t go into a struggle without some accountability, God tells Moses to remind the people that this God is the God of their ancestors.
Though “I am” has no reference to the past, this God affirms the part of our existence that is thoroughly rooted to the past. God doesn’t identify Himself as “I was,” “I am who I am” is a reference to God’s ultimate identity. “I am” is thoroughly present thoroughly alive and breathing. Indeed, the name itself is remniscent of something as present as the breath. The breath is our constant reminder that we are alive and connected with creation. We breathe in what others breathe out.
When Jesus is tested by the Pharisees as to who a woman who was married to seven different brothers in her lifetime is joined to after death, Jesus responds, “We worship a God of the living, not of the dead.” As God’s identity is thoroughly rooted to the present, so are our identities. Every moment is an opportunity for change and renewal. We are not stuck in the mud of our pasts. Our identity in the present moment is a being who is alive in the present moment. Our experiences shape us, but we have a freedom of will that ultimately points the direction of our future.
At the same time, YHWH identifies as “the God of our ancestors.” If we were to imagine our human family as a large tree, and our ancestors are the roots, then God would be the rich soil that gives the great human family solid foundations and nourishment. God is there as a part of our story, and this is as much a part of the living God as the great “I AM.” Though our identities are not stuck to our past, they are nurtured and shaped by our pasts. Some of us have experienced our personal history as a nurturing soil and some of us have only experienced desolate dust. The history that Moses celebrated was an enriching aspect of his life. Though there are negative and positive aspects of our history, God identifies himself as a part of our history, giving guidance to those in need, a vision of hope for those at the crossroads of despair.
Though Moses attempts to bring up reasons why he should continue living the stable, safe life that he has found, the God who dwells in the present moment and in the roots of Moses’ history encourages him to put aside his hesitancy and follow the pull toward liberation. When God gets a hold of our identity, we’re in for a wild ride!Matthew 16: 21-28
In the Gospel passage, Jesus also accepts his identity as one who must face extreme danger (even death on the cross) in order to proclaim God’s redemptive liberation. In this passage, Peter offers the excuse that haunts Jesus in the back of his mind. “God forbid it! This must not happen to you.” Jesus identifies this refusal to accept his mission in full as a stumbling block. He tells Peter, “Your mind is on human things, not on Divine things.” Our identity as beings shaped by the Divine Will for each moment of experience sometimes brings us to the brink of great powers of resistance.
Matthew tells of Satan tempting Jesus to ignore God’s inspiration and live a comfortable life. Here, Matthew tells of Peter’s refusal to accept the implications of Jesus’ radical message of liberation. Jesus apparently is reminded of his struggle in the desert. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says to Peter. “You are a stumbling block to me.” Poor Peter. One minute he is a foundational rock on which Jesus will build his church, the next moment he is an annoying rock in Jesus’ path.
Jesus tells his disciples in this passage that if they want to be like him, they will have to pick up their own crosses and follow him. I take this to mean, they will all have to face their own fears and doubts and excuses, and instead choose the life changing, life threatening inspiration of God.
Jesus wanted us to “lose our lives for his sake in order to save them.” Some have taken this as Matthew’s “tip of the hat” to the martyrs, but I believe it has meaning for us who aren’t being oppressed as well.
If we choose to live with an awareness of our true identity—that of an interconnected Creation of God, A true “Body of Christ,” then we will in a sense “lose our lives.” I believe Jesus uses the conundrum about “saving our life to lose it and losing our life to gain it,” in order to enhance the depth of our identity.
Christ sees the connections in the world. Whereas most philosophers of his day wanted to draw a line between pure and impure, Jesus taught that those lines didn’t exist. When the world was separated between men and women, Jesus associated openly with both, and spoke of “the two becoming one.”
Jesus intends for us to see beyond our self imposed “lines of demarcation” as see the whole. Jesus wanted us to see the forest and the trees. Though we typically think of our identity as an individual, Jesus asks us to be aware of our collective identity. The church, like Moses, and like Jesus, possesses an identity that puts us at odds with our surroundings. God asks us to identify with the poor, with the aliens, with the oppressed. Thinking of ourselves as “part” of these people’s problem as well as part of their solution is what it means to be the church. Thinking of ourselves as a part of them rather than apart from them is what it means to claim our Christian identity
God called me to perservere in the midst of great fear on the highways of Kansas. God’s presence was made manifest to me in a startling way. The experience was a formational part of my calling into “set apart ministry.” It has opened my eyes and mind to the fact that our prayers make a difference in the world. It was given me a vision of my identity as an interconnected part of God’s Body, God’s Creation.


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  4. Anonymous12:32 AM

    Thanks for the commentaries over on the center for process studies page. I am new to process theology and appreciate reading your sermons. One question: How do you read so many books with a new baby and a new call?


  5. hey nathan,

    great sermon- and thanks again for the great commentaries at the process & faith site.

    i, too, have had an influx of blog comment spam (the first three comments to this post look fishy). i had to turn on the word verification option to screen it out.

    say hi to l & w for me!