Sunday, June 24, 2018

Purpose, presence, and power—a sermon on exodus 3-4 & Luke 10

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s 
Purpose, Presence, and Power
Exodus 3.1-15, 4-1-17, Luke 10.1-11
24 June 2018, O Sing To The Lord 4

448 Shine, Jesus shine
189 Be still, for the presence of the Lord
557 O Love that wilt not let me go
153 Great is thy faithfulness
531 Shout to the Lord
Great Big God

Exodus 3.1-15, 4-1-17 (NIV)
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’
And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’
‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’
But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’
And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’
Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
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.”’
God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.”
‘This is my name for ever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.
Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you”?’
Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’
‘A staff,’ he replied.
The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’
Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. ‘This,’ said the Lord, ‘is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has appeared to you.’
Then the Lord said, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous – it had become as white as snow.
‘Now put it back into your cloak,’ he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
Then the Lord said, ‘If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.’
Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’
The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’
But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.’
Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so that you can perform the signs with it.’

Luke 10.1-11 (Common English Bible)
After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’


On the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, George Matheson, minister at Innellan, not far from here, returned home from his sister’s wedding, though the rest of his family stayed overnight in Glasgow. In the midst of the happiness of the occasion, he was also sad as he remembered the day twenty years earlier when he had told his fiancĂ©e about his rapidly advancing blindness, and she had declared she did not want to be married to a blind man and left. 

Later, reflecting on that evening, he wrote:

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time....
It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.
I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.”

A few months later, the poem was published in Life and Work. Two years after that, a committee wished to add it to the hymnal, but there were no tunes in that metre. The editor took the text with him when visiting a friend in the manse at Brodick, and after reading it a few times he wrote a tune so quickly that he later said “the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.”

It’s fascinating that both the words and the tune came so quickly, like a gift, and that both writers were open enough to receive that gift, so that 135 years later, we can continue to sing O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, and still find it both beautiful and meaningful.

I think it is a coincidence that both tune and text were composed in manses. There’s no special power in a manse, of course, much though I might wish otherwise. But it is interesting that both revelations were received at home, in the course of everyday life—visiting a friend, coming home from a family wedding. 

We rarely think of the burning bush story that way, but it too is a story of being open to God in the midst of everyday life. Moses was going about his business, being a shepherd. He took care of the flocks, moved them from place to place to ensure they had enough to eat and enough to drink, and protected them from predators in the wilderness. It was there, when he was at work, that something caught his eye and piqued his curiosity enough that he turned off the path to see, and found himself unexpectedly on holy ground.

Reading this story always makes me wonder: what else had God tried to get Moses’ attention, before setting a bush on fire? I often hear people say they wish they could have a burning-bush moment, where God’s presence and call would be so clear to them. But what if God is trying to get our attention all the time, and we haven’t seen, or been willing to turn aside from business as usual? 

When God appeared to Moses that day, the encounter didn’t go as smoothly as it did for the hymn writers we’ve been hearing about. Moses was receptive to the presence of God, and even to the power of God, but not so much to the purpose of God. Or, more specifically, to God’s purpose for him. He may have been fine with the idea of God freeing the Israelites from slavery...but did it have to be him? After all, he didn’t even know God’s name. And the people probably wouldn’t believe him anyway. And he stuttered. And, frankly, he didn’t want to go.

God has a patient answer for each of the excuses—from revealing God’s name, to giving Moses power to perform signs and miracles, to reminding Moses who it is who makes speech possible. But in the end, Moses has to be honest that these are just excuses. He has tried, and failed, to pretend, but God is never fooled by our pretence, and God’s purpose will not be thwarted.

That is also something I noticed in today’s gospel reading. When the disciples arrive in a place, Jesus tells them to join in the normal everyday life there—to eat and drink, to talk to people, to accept hospitality, and to visit the sick. It is there, in doing regular life together, that they will be able to point out the presence and power of God in their midst. Not in special places, or carefully designed moments, but over dinner and in the market and at the bedside. The task given to these followers of Jesus is to direct people’s attention to where God can be seen, to what God is doing. And if people won’t turn aside to see, if they are too set in their ways to receive the blessing, then leave them with this word: “even so, know this: the kingdom of God has come to you.” I have probably read this story a hundred times and never noticed that instruction, to leave them with good news: whether people will receive it or not, whether people will notice it or not, God is already present and God’s purpose will continue to work itself out.

When Moses directed his attention to that burning bush, God told him the divine name, which is often translated as “I am who I am.” It’s a tricky name, because it’s a form of the verb “To Be” which is the foundational verb of language—without it, we almost can’t speak at all. I have learned five languages in addition to my own, and every time To Be is the first verb we learn, because it has so many forms and appears in nearly every sentence. But the form that is God’s name, which isn’t used anywhere else, isn’t clear about tense. It could mean “I am who I am.” Or it could mean “I will be who I will be.” Or some scholars say it is best translated “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I am.” 

In other words, the name of God is simultaneously ephemeral and persistent... foundational yet always moving... it can’t be pinned down, but it also can’t be lived without. Ever present, and also elusive, a mystery that is both everyday and powerful.

The disciples are trying to direct attention to that reality: that God is doing something, right there, in the middle of their workaday lives, trying to open people’s curiosity to see the Spirit moving.

They may very well have plenty of excuses. Moses did. We still do. But God and Moses came to an understanding that day at the burning bush. And even the towns that wouldn’t or couldn’t join in God’s work still heard the good news that the kingdom of God is here. So what does that mean when it comes to us?

I think it means that now, just like in biblical times, God is here and trying to get our attention. Sometimes that might be in increasingly obvious ways. And God wants us to turn aside from the way we have always done things, to find ourselves on holy ground and engage in the purpose God has for us. 

What would that look like, for instance, in a Church of Scotland that can’t seem to turn aside from a story of decline? Sometimes I think we have resigned ourselves to that narrative, and it has blinded us to the presence and power of God, who is always doing a new thing. The emblem of the Church of Scotland is the burning bush...and yet we seem to stand there in front of it full of excuses. There is a world in need of liberation, in need of leadership, in need of hope and peace and grace and love and justice. There is a world that longs to be moved, to encounter the holy, to be embraced by true beloved community. That world is on our doorstep. I sometimes wonder if, like Moses, our story of why we can’t do those things—too many buildings, not enough people, not enough money, aging congregations, not enough ministers, people have other things on a Sunday—are just excuses to cover up the reality that, like Moses, we don’t want to let go of our favourite seat or the way we worship or our committees? 

Well...God isn’t having any of that from Moses. And Jesus isn’t having any of it from the towns and cities he sent the apostles to visit. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will let us wallow in excuses either. I think the Spirit is setting things alight all around us and within us, asking us to turn aside to see, to move from our set ways to new ways, to practice being open to God’s presence, being transformed by God’s power, and following God’s purpose.

We have already been practicing this month, rooting ourselves in God’s word through learning Psalm 1 and reading the gospel. If you didn’t have a chance to read a gospel last week, I hope you will take 10-15 minutes a day this week to read one. When we spend time with God’s word, it is much easier to see the Living Word at work around us. Think of the gospels almost as another version of God’s name, that elusive yet crucial form of To Be: central to who we are and how we communicate, yet also ever changing as we look at it from another angle, or with different life experience. Every time we come to scripture, the Spirit will show us something new, something deeper. And our familiarity with God’s story will open our eyes to see things in the world that we might not otherwise notice—like bushes, burning in the wilderness.

Two of our hymns today were born out of the authors’ familiarity with scripture, rather than any particular moment in their lives or a particular tenet of faith they wanted to convey. They use phrases and images from across the whole book, reflecting on the variety of ways God is revealed, trying to invite us to go deeper in our reading of both the Bible and the world. 

So this week, I invite you to take up that invitation. To keep your eyes open to see God’s faithfulness, morning by morning. To look for places where Christ’s love is shining. And to pray for the church—for the Church of Scotland, for the Body of Christ worldwide, and for our church here at St. John’s—pray for us to catch a glimpse of God in our midst, to have enough curiosity to turn aside from business as usual, to hear God’s call to us, and to be honest about our excuses. Listen for what God is calling us to do. Look for what God is already doing among us. Ask for God’s transforming power to take root and lead us, to give us strength for today and hope for tomorrow, so that we can take our place in the long line of God’s faithful people, who are blessed to be a blessing.

May it be so. Amen.