Posts Tagged ‘ lent ’

who am i that you would call me?

Moses is having an identity crisis.  And it’s not your run of the mill, mid life kind of identity crisis.  It’s an all out, “I don’t know who I am or where I come from” kind of crisis.

To catch us up, we need one of those “previously on…” introductions to tonight’s reading, so here goes…

The Hebrew people have been enslaved in Egypt now for quite some time.  Long enough, in fact, that Pharaoh – the dictator king – realizes that the Hebrew people outnumber the Egyptian soldiers and could possibly stage a coup and overrun their masters by simple numbers.  So Pharaoh decides to better the Egyptians chances of staying in power by increasing the oppressive labor required of the Hebrew slaves, and when that isn’t’ enough, he decides to strategically kill off some of the Hebrews, specifically, all the new born baby boys.

Moses is born into a Hebrew family at this precise time when baby boys’ lives are in danger from Pharaoh’s orders.  In order to protect him, his mother and older sister, Miriam build a basket, cover it in tar, and send baby Moses down river to, hopefully, safety  out of Pharaoh’s reach.

Well, baby Moses’ seafaring is short lived.  Just down the river, his basket boat gets caught up in the reeds and before his older sister can pull him back out into the current again, along comes none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess, who hears the baby crying and rescues him out of the river.  The princess realizes this is a Hebrew child but has compassion and decides to raise him as her own.  Only problem is, she isn’t a mother herself, so she can’t nurse the baby.  Miriam, thinking on her feet, steps in and offers to find a Hebrew nurse to care for the child until he is weaned, the princess agrees, and Miriam goes and finds Moses’ (and her own) mother.  Now Moses mother gets to nurse the baby and is on Pharaoh’s payroll while doing it!

Fast forward a few years, Moses is on solid foods and the princess takes over rearing and raising him, where?  In Pharaoh’s palace. Moses is given the life and benefits of a true Egyptian prince.  He’s treated as if he were the king’s own grandson, cousin to the prince who will himself inherit the throne one day.  So, you can imagine the inner identity struggle (that all good story characters must have, right?) that Moses deals with throughout his growing up.  Am I Hebrew?  Yes, but not really.  Am I Egyptian?  No, but kindof.

Along with that identity crisis, comes a spiritual struggle: see, the God of the Hebrews is one and walked and talked with Moses’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Joseph who got Moses’ people into Egypt.  But that God doesn’t seem to be here in Egypt.  Here in Egypt, there are many gods: a god of this tree and a god of the sun and the god of that river and that palace and a god for everything.

This “who am I and what do I believe” struggle that all college students have comes to a head one afternoon when Moses is a young adult.  He sees an Egyptian soldier terribly beating a few Hebrew slaves.  He tries to get the soldier to stop using is “adopted grandson of the king” shtick, but when it doesn’t work, Moses decides to physically handle the situation and ends up killing the soldier…which at first he thinks he’s gotten away with, but finds out the next day that everyone in town is talking about it and he decides that once again, in order to prevent Pharaoh from killing him (which he is bound to do as punishment for killing a soldier) he will once again try to escape and hide out.

Now, Moses finds himself in Midian, a pagan and desert land just outside of Egypt.  And in a moment of chivalry Moses finds himself defending 7 sister shepherdesses from some rough, surly men, which wins him a place in the heart of the shepherdesses father, who then welcomes Moses into his home and gives him one of his daughters, Zilpah, as a wife.  And Moses accepts his reward, which seems to me to be the opposite of chivalrous.  Turns out that “dad” is a priest in Midian – he is in charge of leading the people through their worship of idols, so now there is a third layer to Moses’ spiritual and identity crisis. God of Abraham?  Gods of Egypt?  Gods who reside in idols? For years he lives in this family and, having taken over the shepherding business so the sisters don’t have to risk dangerous run ins anymore, he’s now in charge of caring for the sheep in this dry, desert place.

And that’s exactly where we encounter Moses in this evening’s reading.

There he is, this sometime hero, sometime villan, sometime savior, sometime killer, Moses who ran and hid from the consequences of his choices on more than one occasion, who has worshipped the gods of Egypt and the idols of Midian, there he is, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the middle of the Midian desert,
when the God of his birthing sets a thorn bush on fire and invites this wayward wanderer who doesn’t know who he is to alter the course of his own people’s story.

 

Image

You can hear an urgency in God’s voice
as he cries out from within the bush:
MOSES!  MOSES!  This God knows Moses’ name…in the Jewish culture, (as in many others) one’s name is inextricably tied to his identity.
To know and use someone’s name is to claim an intimate knowledge of who he or she truly is.   And this God calls Moses by name….

This personal intimacy between Creator and creation, between God and humanity, is the HEART of Jewish and Christian theology.

God knows God’s people, so the voice from the bush is evidence that the divine urgency is about relationship:
“Moses!  I know your name…and I know who you are.  Even if you don’t.”
And then, God issues a task for this prophet to do:
“I’ve heard my people’s cries and I want you to go to Pharaoh and I want you to convince him to give them their freedom.”

Moses objects, “But LORD, who am I to do this? Why me?”
Did I mention Moses is having an identity crisis?

And God answers, “I will be with you.”
You can imagine Moses thinking,
“Well, what does that have to do with who I am?”
“Everything.”  God seems to be saying.

“The fact that I am with you and will continue to be with you makes up your identity. Who you are, Moses, is tied up in me. “

 

It is important that we recognize that God’s answer is not a guarantee of Moses success in this calling… God does NOT respond to Moses by telling everything will be just fine, that he will be safe, that it will be easy.
Rather, God’s answer, “I am with you and I will be with you,” is a divine commitment to share in the life and the risk of the one being called.  “Your identity is tied up in me…and I’m going to be with you when you risk everything to pursue this calling.”

See, the God in Moses’ story, our God is not independent from humanity.
Throughout our scriptures, God reveals God’s self to the world in personal and intimate ways, and by divine design then, humanity is tied up in God’s presence: Moses is Moses because God is with him.

And what happens next in this story has undeniable implications for the rest of history, and I would argue, deeply and profoundly effects the kinds of Christians that you and I are today:
Moses asks God, “What if the Israelites ask who sent me?
What do I say then?  WHO ARE YOU?”
See, Moses has asked the question, “Who am I?” and God has answered
“I am with you,” so now Moses asks, “Well, then, who are you??”

And the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah,
this God who uses Moses’ name
and therefore intimately knows who Moses is,
this God tells Moses God’s name:
I AM. He says.  In Hebrew, ‘ehyeh asher ‘ehyeh.

It can also be translated
“I make happen whatever is made to happen”
“I will be who I will be.”
“I bring into being whatever is brought into being.”
I AM who I AM.  “Tell them I AM sent you. “

From within his story, this beautifully constructed story, emerges the truth that this God, I AM, is involved in history, engaged in our lives when we turn away.

I AM is not wholly other… there is no gulf between God and humanity.  “Moses, who you are inextricably tied to me because I am with you.
And because I am with you, who I AM as God is also tied you.”

God’s identity is wrapped up in us, just as our identity is wrapped up in GOD’s.  That’s the way God designed it.  That’s God’s story, that’s Moses’ story, that’s our story. We know God’s name and God knows ours.

As we journey though Lent, doing the hard work of self-examination and repentance, a wrestling with our identities- who we are and who we are called to be, learn from Moses’ story:
God is with you and in you, and that has everything to do with who you are.

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Wilderness and Water

The season of Lent is a journey for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus.  A time of preparation, of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and sacrifice.  Throughout the scripture readings assigned for the Sundays in Lent, two themes or images keep coming up, keep appearing in the Hebrew Scripture stories as well as the Gospel and Epistle excerpts: wilderness and water.

Water is a source of life – nourishing, quenching, greening, facilitating movement and growth.  But it can also be a source of death and destruction – over-saturation, drowning, flowing waters uprooting or carving it’s own new path.

Wilderness is a place of danger, of darkness, of the unknown, it’s where the wild things are.  But it can also be a place where new discoveries are made, where, in the midst of the wild, we can learn some things about ourselves.

These images, these themes of water and wilderness appear in the readings for the first Sunday of the season, and so they kind of set the tone, show us where it is we need to go in these 40 days.

First, we heard the conclusion to the flood narratives, the end of the Noah and the Ark stories.

Noah and the inhabitants of the ark have floated through forty days and forty nights of purging rain, on (as the Genesis story tellers told it) what seems to be an ever-rising sea of God’s anger at the social disintegration of humankind’s inability to love one another and care for creation.

Despite the way you learned it in 1st Grade Sunday School, this is NOT a good children’s story and I’m afraid, over the years, the felt boarding and colorful picture books have done some great disservices to the intentions of our ancestors in passing this story along.

It’s terrifying, it’s violent.  The flood waters kill everyone and drown everything except Noah and his family and those animals in the ark. And if you’re a fan of folk music from the 60s or of Shel Silverstien’s poetry, you know that the flood even kills the poor unicorns who missed the boat!

It is a frightening story… UNTIL we get to this morning’s conclusion, when God makes a covenant with the whole creation. “See,” God says, “I have set my bow in the sky as a sign of a covenant with you” and there in the sky appears a bow – in the Hebrew language it’s the bow of a bow and arrow.  After the devastation of flooding waters, in a deeply symbolic action, God lays down his weapon of destruction and promises never to take it up again.

Regardless of our interpretations of the flood stories, regardless of believing or not believing the factuality of these stories, the truth our ancestors were conveying in them is still true: there are always consequences to our sinfulness.  When we don’t live in the ways we were created to live, when we don’t fulfill God’s dreams for us when we don’t steward God’s dreams for creation, we suffer.
And, often times, even the innocent get hurt.

And yet, this is NOT what God wants.  God has covenanted with us, with all creation, that God doesn’t want violence or destruction.  God has promised that even when we are far off, even when we are living in a socially disintegrated way, God wants not death or obliteration, but a new kind of life for us and for all people.  This promise, marked by God’s ritual (you might say even liturgical) action of laying down his bow in the sky, shifts the symbol of water from being a death dealing force, to being the elemental vessel through
which God will bring new and transformed life.

Fast forward 70 generations or so and we hear a story of how water is being used by John the Baptist to shift the Jewish understanding of cleansing in a profound way.  Ritual bathing or washing has become a custom in 1st Century Palestine, as a way for the Hebrew people to be cleansed when they have broken a purity code law or in some other way become ritually unclean.  John, however has been preaching that in order to be prepared for the one coming after him, we need to be cleansed not from our ritual impurities, but from our moral uncleanliness.

His baptism is one of repentance, of turning back to God – he’s using water as a vessel through which a person re-orients their whole life around God…and in this morning’s Gospel story, he has just baptized Jesus himself, and as Jesus is coming up out of the water, a dove (the very animal from the flood stories that carries the news to Noah that the waters have subsided) descends from heaven and a voice cries out, “You are my son, my beloved and I am so pleased with you.”

Jesus emerges from these waters of baptism and immediately, Mark tells it, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.

Now the young Nazarene hasn’t even begun his Rabbinical teaching yet, not even called his first disciples.  He’s not even dry from the water in Jordan river, that voice of affirmation and assurance is still ringing in his ears, and immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness where the temptations begin to chisel away at him…  (spend 4 minutes watching this video.)

Though Mark doesn’t share the exact nature of those temptations in the way his successors Matthew and Luke do, this first Gospel account does make it clear that the Spirit doesn’t abandon Jesus out there. The Spirit of God is the very thing on Jesus’ lips as he responds those temptations. The angels minister to him out there, even in the midst of where the wild things are.

For the synoptic gospel writers, part of Jesus claiming his true identity, his real self that was just affirmed in his baptism, is going into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. He learns something out there about himself, is somehow strengthened and transformed by that wilderness time and is then able to emerge from that time preaching to a broken and hurting world that  “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The truth our early church ancestors are conveying in this story about Jesus is still true: growing up, spiritual and emotional maturation requires movement into and through the dark, dangerous, wild places of our lives.   Going there is scary and out there it’s easy to get tricked, tempted, lost, depressed.  The traps set for us in the wilderness are the same as those that were set for Jesus… and yet there is something to be gained in that wilderness, some reason our scriptures and our tradition tell us we need to go there.

Our forty days of Lent are intended to do just that: to make us mindful of the ways that we fall short, to show us how far we have still to go, to help prepare us for what is to come, to get us to that place where we can acknowledge that no matter where we are in our journeys the seductive voice of temptation is ever present.  And I can promise you that out here in this wilderness, we will be reminded of the consequences to our sinfulness.

We will be made aware, perhaps in ways we were never aware before that by not living into the fullness of life that God dreams for us, we have hurt ourselves, and sometimes caused the innocent to suffer.  And it may be scary, and it will definitely be hard, and you can count on us wanting to emerge before it’s time, to be done with it all quickly.

But…if we can recall the tone set by this morning’s stories, perhaps we will remember that, though it may seem otherwise, God does not desire destruction or pain or death, but has promised us, God’s people, has covenanted with us that he truly desires new life.  Perhaps we will remember that on the other side of this wilderness, we will have been renewed and transformed in ways that we did not expect, cleansed not just ritually but morally and spiritually, and will be ready to preach in word and deed to a broken and hurting world that God’s kingdom can be and is a reality here and now.