Monday, September 15, 2014

Pay attention. Listen. Try.

It's been 5 months since I've added anything to the blog - sheesh! It's been a week, from Peter Rollins to Chris Crass to the beautiful opportunity to speak to the congregation of First Presbyterian-Argenta on Sunday. I'm sure I will have much more to say on the first two, but for those who asked I've posted my sermon below. A few points:

1. Yes, I write everything out.
2. I write what I'm hearing, and I write it for a particular audience. So I'm preaching at me, really. And I'm speaking in the context of a particular congregation. I hope it translates.
3. It seems SO much longer when I try to fit it on the blog!
4. The scripture reading was from Exodus 3:1-15 - the burning bush.
5. I'd love your feedback. Is something I said unsettling? Anything you'd like to push back on? Anything you'd like to elaborate on?

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It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

When I showed up last Sunday morning, I met Lori – and I told her I wanted to get a feel for the rhythms of the service, since I’ve only been here a few times – and ½ of those were Easter bluegrass.  She assured me not to worry about getting it wrong – that 1st Pres is a lot like that Island of Misfit Toys… an illustration I am WELL acquainted with.

I don’t know most of you, but I do know many of you (some who may or may not actually be in attendance today). I know some of your stories, and the history that you bring into the larger story of 1st Presbyterian - Argenta.

Some of you come from toxic environments, where you were hurt or dismissed – it made it difficult for you to trust others, and to trust God.

Some of you come from communities you loved, that you poured your heart and soul into, only to see them crumble, or slowly dissolve away.

Some of you come from perfectly fine and seemingly healthy congregations, where you just never quite fit in.

And I’m told a rare few of you are actually dyed in the wool Presbyterians who always found your place in a church very similar to this one.

This week we get a picture of Moses the misfit - raised in a Hebrew home, adopted into Egyptian royalty, and never quite fit in either place. The scriptures jump right from Pharaoh’s daughter adopting & naming the child, to Moses entering adulthood:

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

That well proved serendipitous, as it led to Moses getting a job, meeting a girl, and finding a place to settle in. And he did settle in, as well as someone can who’s not quite Hebrew enough for the Hebrews, not quite Eqyptian enough for the Egyptians, and now finds himself a stranger in a strange land.

Scripture goes on to tell us, “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

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Storytellers need a good arc. Obviously we are not told every mundane detail of Moses’s life. (Or the Israelites’… Or God’s…) I’m going to venture to guess that God hadn’t been oblivious to the Israelites suffering. God had long seen their suffering, long heard their cries, long held concern, and long remembered the covenant. But it makes for a better storyline if God suddenly heard & noticed – because it means the action is about to pick up.

One of my favorite scripture references is the advice in Thessalonians to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.”

I would have made an excellent Hobbit.

Of course, if you know the story of The Hobbit, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you know that sometimes even comfortable little Hobbits are called beyond the life of the Shire, called to an adventure, called to live beyond themselves.

As dear Sam reminds us in The Two Towers: “We shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?”

Moses certainly fell into a tale. He was out in the fields, leading a quiet life, minding his own business, working with his hands.

And then he saw a burning bush. A bush covered in flames, yet not consumed. He was drawn to the spectacle. And while he was paying attention, God spoke to him. God told him to take off his shoes on holy ground. God told him he had seen the oppression and heard the cries of his suffering people. God said he was here to rescue his people. And then God said:

“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

So now go.

I am sending YOU.

Come again, God…?

“But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?””

Who am I?

I’ve been there. I don’t fit in. I tried to help and I messed up. They didn’t even want my help. Nobody wants me there. Nobody will listen to me. I mean, what am I supposed to even say?!

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

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I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t really do conflict. Or change. Or chaos.

Did I mention the Hobbit thing…?

So there are many parts of the sweeping epic of scripture, of the sweeping epic of human history, that disturb me. The land wars and the pillaging and plundering. I could do without it.

Yet I’m drawn to the sociology in things like The Lord of the Rings or, say, The Walking Dead. I’m drawn to the parts of the story that show how life goes on despite all of the destruction, the hopelessness, the oppression, the sorrow and the loss. How we walk through it – together.

When I first started pondering the scripture for today, my mind drifted to burning bushes of hashtags. Those little symbolic words that tie together posts in our hyperconnected world, that help us stay current on events around the globe, to see the chaos and confusion and trauma that is occurring not only in our own communities, but in our neighboring communities, our neighboring countries, and to the uttermost parts of the world.

It can be incredibly overwhelming to get a picture of just how much turmoil and destruction, hate and misunderstanding, greed and apathy have a presence in our world.

Whether it’s a hashtag or a headline, these stories capture our attention. They call us to notice oppression. They call us to listen to the cries of the people. And knowing how and when and where to respond can be a great challenge.

We may throw up our hands and say it’s too much to deal with.

We may make the mistake of thinking we can fix it all, and in the process break down.

We may insist that we’ve already tried.

We may ask, but who am I to do anything about it?

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I want to insist to you today that being here, in this community, is a brave act.

Like I said at the beginning, I know many of your backstories.

You have all traveled here from different places and different experiences. You carry those places and those stories with you. Maybe you wore yourself out serving in every ministry under the sun. Maybe you were told you were not worthy to serve. Maybe you felt like the gifts and talents you had to offer weren’t valued, or maybe your time and energy were bled dry.

Putting yourself out there – offering yourself to community is brave.

Other people force us to face us.

To face our hurt. To face our brokenness. To face our own oppressive natures & destructiveness. To be honest about our doubts and fears and secret hopes.

Community forces us to face the reality that bad stuff happens. And there’s nothing we can do about it except sit with one another until we’re strong enough to stand, stand with one another until we’re energized enough to walk, walk with one another until we’re motivated to act.

Community also forces us out of our comfort zones.

You had a choice to say, “You know what? I’m tired. I tried. Been there, done that. I’m comfortable now. Please God don’t make me go back there.”

Yet something caught your attention. Something drew you near to this place.

In scripture, we hear the Creator’s promise to be with us as we dip our toes in once again to this experiment in becoming something bigger than ourselves. We learn from our stories, and we keep pressing forward, walking in the purpose that Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The hashtags and the headlines may be overwhelming.

Life may be overwhelming.

But the Spirit of the Lord is on this Church, and you have the opportunity in this community and with your neighbors to be present to one another.

You have the opportunity to live out that notion of ministry described by John Howard Yoder where “there would be no one ungifted, no one not called, no one not empowered, and no one dominated.” I would add, no one unheard.

Moses observed the oppression of his people. He tried to help, and he failed. But when God told him to go back and try again, he gave it another effort with God’s presence.

You are God’s presence for one another. You are the hands and feet that care for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. You are the mouths that proclaim the Lord’s favor.

And the more that we are brave enough to give it another go, to plant some seeds, and build some relationships, to break down some barriers, and listen deep, to speak out against oppression, and speak up for one another, the more you practice resurrection on earth as it is in heaven.

May we pay attention to the signs around us.

May we listen to the Spirit speaking to us.

May we have the courage to try, try again.

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