Picking Up the Call
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Sermon – Picking Up the Call
The Rev. Emily Griffin – 2/28/16
Exodus 3:1-15, I Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
I thought it was Jesus we were following – into the wilderness, that is. Isn’t that what the season of Lent is all about – reducing distractions and facing our demons honestly as Jesus did in his 40 days in the wilderness? I’m afraid we missed a signal somehow. You see, in clock time, by today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has already moved on from the wilderness. He’s not there anymore. He’s set his face toward Jerusalem. He knows where he’s going. The problem is - I’m not sure we’ve caught up with him just yet. It’s not entirely our fault; it is an election year on the eve of Super Tuesday. It’s understandable to feel a little lost. Many of us aren’t done with our wandering in the wilderness, not by a long shot; we’re not sure yet where we’re going - as individuals, as a community, or as a nation - much less how we’ll get there.
Fortunately, our Old Testament reading from Exodus lets us linger in the wild a little bit longer. We can use the make-up time, I think. Only our companion this time isn’t Jesus. It’s Moses. Let’s see if he can help us get our bearings. Our translation says Moses went beyond the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God. But he hasn’t really left the wilderness. He doesn’t know where he is (not really) or where he’s going; that sounds like wilderness to me. At this point, the only person who knows this is the “mountain of God” is the narrator. Moses doesn’t know yet that this is holy ground, that all ground might actually be holy because God is already here. (In that light, it’s a wonder we ever wear shoes. But I digress.) For Moses, his new life begins as just another work day at the base of an unmarked mountain tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He’s not looking for God when God finds him. Thank God it works that way sometimes.
In a way, this is Moses’ second life, his second try at being an adult. His starter life was in Egypt under the care of Pharaoh’s daughter, the one who drew him out of the Nile and adopted him. Remember Moses, the baby in the bulrushes? Well, by the time we meet him today, he’s all grown up. We aren’t told when exactly he figured out that he was Hebrew (and not Egyptian like the Pharaoh), that his relatives weren’t royalty after all, but slaves. Talk about an identity crisis. What did he do to grow up in luxury while his people were in poverty and chains? In a youthful attempt at solidarity, he ends up killing an Egyptian who was beating a fellow Hebrew. Naively, he thought he’d be praised for defending his own; but all he ends up doing is scaring the slaves and enraging the Pharaoh. The Moses we meet this morning is not a hero, at least not yet. He’s a fugitive on the run.
He’s made a new life for himself in Midian, sure – like many of us who’ve tried to make a new start in a new place. He’s gotten married, had a kid, settled into a career as a shepherd. It’s not a bad life. If he stays in this new land long enough, maybe he’ll be forgotten back home. It’s not redemption, but who is he to expect that? Maybe if he’d made better, less foolish choices when he was younger, there’d still be time to do great things for God, great things in the world. But it’s too late for that, right? If the past can’t be repeated, perhaps the most we can hope for is that it will be mercifully buried and forgotten. I mean - how else do we move on?
No wonder he doesn’t feel like picking up God’s call to go back home. He tried playing Savior once before, and look where that got him. So what if the old Pharaoh is dead now? The statute of limitations may have passed on his crime, but he still knows what he did. It’s not false modesty that leads him to ask, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” The LORD’s response is either comforting or infuriating, depending on your perspective. God does not answer the question with a reassuring list of redeeming qualities or marketable skills. It’s simply this: “I will be with you.” Apparently, that’s enough.
This passage from Exodus is the beginning of what’s known as the call of Moses. What we have here is just the start of Moses’ argument with God. He asks God a lot of questions. It’s good to know we can do that. Who am I to do this? Come to think of it, who are you, God, to ask? What if they don’t believe me? He protests even. I’m not good at public speaking. I can’t think on my feet. Finally he pleads: Please…(and I quote) “send someone else.” Perhaps our identification with Moses is never as strong as at this moment.
Those of us who have ever felt tapped, nudged, prodded by God (or some unseen force) to do something big, something costly for somebody else; we know what this feels like. Maybe it’s a new job or role that expands our influence – that makes us more visible and open to criticism that gives us pause. Or maybe, as with Moses, it’s a call to move closer to home, closer to our families and their messy needs, that scares the living daylights out of us. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with a move. Maybe it’s a call to stay put and take some responsibility for the needs of our own communities that frightens us.
Like Moses, we might not know how to reconcile our privilege with our neighbor’s poverty. We don’t want to say or do the wrong thing and inadvertently make things worse. Perhaps we weren’t looking for God when God found us and opened that new door, when we saw another person’s suffering and were asked to respond. Not just with our prayers, but with our resources – or perhaps even more valuable, our time. Perhaps we tried playing Savior before, and we fell flat on our faces. Maybe we lost the distinction between our needs and theirs and made it more about us than them. It happens. Or maybe we tried to help and got had. That happens too. We don’t want to do any of that again. So what can we learn from Moses and his wilderness story that might give us some direction in ours as we discern our calls to serve?
Well, it’s worth noting that we don’t necessarily need to be in the “right” place and the “right” time in our lives to hear God’s call. I’m not sure there is one “right” place or “right” time. We can get the holy nudge here in church, sure, but it might just as easily happen at work or home or where we volunteer. It might happen while we’re reading or watching the news, or it might not feel like a watershed “moment” at all. It may dawn gradually after months, even years of discernment. And it probably will change over time. Sometimes we outgrow the pot in which we’re planted. The truth is, there is no ground, no time that cannot be made holy – once we have the eyes and ears to notice the God who’s already here. We might not get a burning bush. In fact, we probably won’t - even when such a sign might be really helpful. But an encounter with God doesn’t need to be exotic or even extraordinary to be real.
What about our past, though – all those things we wish could be mercifully forgotten, erased from the cosmic internet for good? What if our shame doesn’t automatically disqualify us from doing something great in the world for God? We cannot undo what we’ve done; that’s true. But we can learn something from our mistakes and failures and bring what we’ve learned to the next situation – whether that lesson is humility or compassion or simply an awareness that God’s not finished with any of us yet. Who knows? Maybe that’s part of what redemption looks like. There can be more than one way to move on.
So what does all this Moses talk have to do with Lent, with our life at St. Alban’s and in our world now? I thought it was Jesus we were following. Don’t worry – it still is. We haven’t wandered that far from the pack. In fact, something we’re doing in just a few moments might help us as we find our bearings again. Very shortly, we will be commissioning the newest members of the Board of the WSA – the Workers of St. Alban’s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the WSA, this is the group of people who take the funds raised from our Opportunity Shop and turn them into grants for community organizations – into meals and shelters and job training. These people don’t settle for knee jerk charity. They visit the places seeking help; they talk with the staff; in some cases, they visit with the clients. They learn what poverty on the ground looks like in our city and extend our reach as the body of Christ in the world. They help us all to do something great as a parish for God. There are many ministries in our common life which exist to glorify God; I’m glad we get to lift up this one today. It’s one of which Moses (and Jesus) might be rather proud.
But that’s not the only Moses-Jesus connection I find today. Jesus’ words in the Gospel – seemingly harsh at first - make more sense, at least to me, in light of Moses’ story. It wasn’t too late for Moses to do something great in the world for God. Nor is it too late for the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, despite the years of barrenness, the less than stellar track record. It might just bear fruit yet. We may have more distractions and demons to fight this year than most, but I’m OK with our odds for getting through this wilderness to the other side - because in the end, it’s not about us and what we bring to the table, our redeeming qualities, our marketable skills, our good intentions. It’s about the One who says “I will be with you,” no matter how long we find ourselves wandering. The good news of the Gospel is that we won’t be in the wilderness forever.
Eventually we will find our way to the cross. And yes, it will get worse before it gets better, but even that’s not the end. Why? Because Easter is coming. We can’t see it yet. We can’t predict, and God knows we can’t control what new life will look like. But it is as sure as the dawn. I don’t know how we’re going to get there but, thank God, I do know where we’re going. Easter’s coming. Amen.