The Adventurous Lectionary – August 30, 2020 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6. 23-26, 45a; Romans 12:9-21: Matthew 16:21-28
This Sunday’s readings join mysticism with action and God-awareness with sacrifice. Following the way of God, and the path of Jesus, doesn’t always lead to winning, contrary to the bloviations of certain political leaders who identify faith with coercive power and domineering orthodoxy. Following God’s way may lead to sacrifice, downward mobility, and moving from calm to chaos. Yet, our encounters with God provide a still point in the storm and give us composure when those around us are losing their heads. We can experience “a center in the cyclone” and inspiration in conflict. (for more on keeping your spiritual center, see Bruce Epperly, “A Center in a Cyclone: Twenty First Century Clergy Selfcare.”)
The call of Moses joins mysticism and mission. It unites surprise with vocation. Having fled in fear and disgrace from Egypt and now living comfortably in Midian, Moses doesn’t anticipate a divine call, but it comes to him on an ordinary day on his way to work. Our most “secular” activities are chockful of the “sacred.”
Once upon a time, a rabbinical gathering considered the question, “Why was the bush burning but not consumed?” The rabbis posited of a variety of answers until one responded, “It was burning and not consumed so that one day, as Moses walked by, he would notice it.” The encounter of God with Moses could take up a sermon series. First, Moses’ encounter with God describes the character divine communication: God is always calling and sometimes we notice. God’s omni-activity and omnipresence remind us that we are always being addressed and confronted by the Divine One. We are always on holy ground, the world is full of “thin places,” and every so often we stop, take off our sandals, and bathe ourselves in the constancy of divine revelation. Too busy to notice these God moments, we fail to see beauty, wonder, and love right where we are. Spiritual formation is about taking time to pause, notice, open, yield and stretch, and then respond to the holiness everywhere. (For more on daily mysticism, see Bruce Epperly, “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians” and “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing,” Bruce and Katherine Epperly, “Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.”)
Second, a particular kind of God notices. Some gods are apathetic and insentient. Others are complete and are unable to embrace new data. (The classical doctrine of omnipresence, for example, suggests that nothing new can happen to God; it is already known by God.) The God that Moses encounters is personal, dynamic, changing, and demanding. God is profoundly historical. God knows what’s going on in the world and wants to liberate the Hebrews from captivity. God has heard the Hebrews’ prayers, felt their pain, and wants to respond. God is intimate, not aloof; lively and dialogical, not unchanging and impassive. God is passionate and receives as well as gives. God is, in contrast to Aristotle’s unmoved mover, the most moved mover (Charles Hartshorne), the one to whom all hearts are open and the one who registers intimately the pain and joy of the world. What kind of world is God experiencing now? What kind of world are we giving God? The heart of ethics is theistic – loving the creator by loving the creatures, giving God a beautiful rather than ugly world. (For more on divine dynamism and relationality, see Bruce Epperly: “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”)
Third, God needs Moses. God has power, the power to sustain the universe and guide the overall historical process, but at the micro level of cells, souls, and communities, God is dependent on human agency. We are, as Teresa of Avila says, God’s hands and feet. God is sending Moses as God’s emissary and revelation; the power of God to liberate. Divine power is real, but it is always contextual and contingent, and intimately connected to human openness and decision-making. Would God have been able to liberate the Hebrew people without the commitment of Moses? We are not stronger than God, but our efforts can be the tipping point in a lively interdependent universe. We are as Jewish mysticism affirms called to be God’s partners in healing the world. We embody God’s vision in the challenges of history. Inspired by God, we push the moral and spiritual arcs forward.
The words of Psalm 105 describe in broad stroke God’s call to Moses and Aaron. God hears the pain of Israel and responds. This leads to question such as: Where is God responding to our pleas and the pain of the world today? Where are we called to be God’s Moses and Aaron? To what cries do we need to respond with acts of liberation? If God is passionate and receptive, what actions should our receptivity and openness to the pain of others lead us toward? We can certainly experience God in the cries of creation, and the impact of global climate change on the underdeveloped world. We certainly experience the call to act as we ponder our response to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the rampant explicit and implicit racism. We can hear God’s call in the cry, “I can’t breathe.” We can experience the fears of a Muslim mother whose children have been bullied at school
The words of Romans 12 provide a list of faithful behaviors. Followers of Jesus seek good, support one another, forgive mistakes, provide comfort to vulnerable people, live humbly and in harmony and provide hospitality to strangers and friends. Following Jesus inspires zeal, energy, and love. Our communities are to exhibit healthy, life-supporting, and loving interdependence. We are look for goodness everywhere and bring forth holiness from all its hidden places. Paul is not suggesting a new legalism or some form of works righteousness; rather grace inspires grace – God’s grace to us takes us as we are and then inspires us to become people of graceful stature and hospitality. Paul invites his listeners to self-awareness and intentionality. Our commitment to certain behaviors transforms our behavior and also our character. In a world of polarization, we are to perform acts of kindness and unity.
Those who wish to save their lives must lose them, so says Jesus as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. Our salvation is found in moving from self-interest and egocentrism to world loyalty. In the spirit of Jesus, we are called to grow in wisdom and stature; to have large selves that embrace otherness gracefully. This may mean sacrifice and letting go of power and privilege for the greater good.
Just two months before the election, in a time of intentional polarization and divisiveness, often promulgated by religious and political leaders, we are called to take another path, grounded on our vision of God’s presence in all creation. We are to affirm the “holy otherness” of our brothers and sisters, even those with whom we disagree or who politics and behavior we deem as dangerous to the body politic. We are to go beyond bloviation and bullying, recognizing that orthodoxy without love is dangerous to our souls and the soul of the nation.
Followers of Jesus must be willing to let go of safety and self-interest. They must be able to see their lives globally as well as locally and recognize that the well-being of others may be as important as their own well-being. Holy sacrifice is part of life; it liberates us from the prison of self-concern and individualism. It expands our personality, individuality, and uniqueness to embrace a larger world in which the self is not lost but transformed into the self of the world. This means letting go of small-spirited nation first and Christian nationalism to love the weakest as well as the planet. Jesus bids us to be little Christs, as Martin Luther said, or bodhisattvas, who seek the wholeness and liberation of others as well as our own.
Sacrificial living is essential to the Christian journey, and it entails, at the end of the day, gain and not loss. When the small self lets go of control, and pauses long enough to listen to divine wisdom, a new and larger self is born; one that participates in everlasting life and is able to let go knowing the wonders God has planned for us. It is from large-souled living, we become mahatmas, who challenge injustice, racism, and violence, with the spirit of peace and reconciliation.
God is constantly moving in our lives; we can align ourselves with God’s movements by commitment to self-aware practices of faith. Our openness to God awakens us to burning bushes on every street corner and healing in every encounter. It inspires us to move from mysticism to mission and claim our role as God’s companions in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, FAITH IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC, PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD, and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.