By Pastor Tracey Leslie
More than 15 years ago, I had a ministry experience so intense I have never forgotten it. The church secretary came to me to explain that a well-dressed gentleman, in very obvious distress, was looking for the pastor. I walked into my office with Tony and, slowly, carefully, he began to reveal to me the source of his distress. He was part of an organized crime network and he was trying to extricate himself which, as he emphasized, wasn’t exactly like giving notice at McDonald’s. The details of his situation had reached a critical tipping point. He’d been sent that very day to carry out a hit. But several months prior, Tony had stumbled into a church and his life had changed and now he was longing, desperately, to be delivered from the violent life that was holding him captive. Tony was desperate to be delivered from a lifestyle that was destroying his life.
Although the events and circumstances of Tony’s life are a world away from most of us, his feeling of being held captive and his desperate yearning for deliverance is not unique. Our church, our community, our world is comprised of people longing to be delivered; not from some ancient Pharaoh or modern-day mob boss, but delivered from:
This morning’s scripture is the story of the call of Moses and it can and should remind us that our God yearns to deliver his people from that which oppresses and threatens us; those things that cause us sorrow so great, it captures the attention of God. Ours is a God for whom salvation implies far more than forgiveness of individual sins. Salvation, in the true biblical sense of the word is a holistic concept; it is about health and wholeness of body, mind and spirit. It is about being in right relationship with God and with others. It is about being able to live into the future that God has prepared for us, set free from the enslaving burdens of fear and guilt and regret. This bible story is a reminder that our God comes down to deliver his people… but also a reminder that he accomplishes the deliverance of others through us.
As I’ve already mentioned, this morning’s scripture is a call story, but it is not a call that Moses readily accepts.
There is the story of a young, frazzled housewife. The phone rings and she listens with relief to the kind voice on the other end: “How are you, dear? How’s your day going?”
“Oh, mother,” says the young housewife as she begins to sob, “I’ve had such a bad day. The baby doesn’t want to eat and the washing machine broke. I haven’t had a chance to go grocery shopping; plus, I just sprained my ankle and I’m hobbling around… On top of that, the house is a mess and I’m supposed to have two other couples over for dinner tonight.”
The mother was immediately sympathetic. “Oh, darling,” she said, “sit down, relax, and close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do the shopping, clean up the house, and cook dinner. I’ll feed the baby and call a repairman for the washer. Now, stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll even call Shafeeq at the office and tell him he ought to come home and help out for once.”
“Shafeeq?” said the housewife. “Who’s Shafeeq?”
“Why, your husband, dear…” “Isn’t this 223-1374?”
“No. This is 232-1374.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I dialed the wrong number.”
There was a short pause until the pathetic voice said, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”
The story of Moses and the burning bush is an exciting story. A bush set afire, but unconsumed, would attract anyone’s attention. But this story has a context. It is not just the story of Moses. It is the story of God’s people, suffering in bondage and set free by the power of God. The final verses of Exodus, chapter 2, set the stage for this dramatic story of deliverance:
After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned
under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for
help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God
remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew them.
Now, in the original Hebrew of these verses, there is no grammatical object of the Israelites groaning. In other words, they are not crying out to anyone in particular. They are so downtrodden; theirs is simply a wail of despair. Not a formal prayer; just a desperate cry for help. But still, God hears them because whether or not they know God, God knows them. And God knows that these are his people… because our God is a relational God. Our God, my friends, chooses to define himself in relation to his people. God tells Moses that he is the God of his father and of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God does not need to define himself in relationship to us. But God chooses to define himself in relationship to us. And even if we are at a place in our lives where we have developed a sort of spiritual amnesia, our “forgetting God” does not negate God’s remembering us. If you are someone who has strayed from God, who has forgotten God, then let me reassure you that God has NOT forgotten you. And if you are in pain, if you are oppressed, if you are longing for deliverance, then cry out. And rest assured that God will hear you. God will recognize your voice and God will respond to your distress.
In that little story of the telephone call when the older woman thought the voice on the other end belonged to her daughter, she could not sit still; she could not sit idly by and ignore her suffering. She had to help her daughter. And it is bad news for that young mother at the phone call’s end when suddenly she must face the fact that she has unloaded her woes on a stranger who does not even know her.
But, our God is no stranger to us. He is our heavenly parent and he cannot bear to watch his children suffer.
Our God is a God who chooses to enter into our suffering and pain. Notice what God says: “I have come down to deliver them.” As Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we know that our God is a God who has come down being born as a baby in Bethlehem and dying for our sake on Calvary. We do not worship a God who observes our suffering from a distance. And we do not worship a God who is neutral. We worship a God who takes the side of the oppressed and the suffering. We worship a God who puts himself on the front lines of the struggle of those who are oppressed and in pain. The mighty empire of Egypt and her powerful Pharaoh may have thought they owned those Israelites. But they would soon learn differently. They would soon discover these were God’s people and that God would see to it personally that they were liberated from their oppression and set free to become the people God called them to be. So friends, if you feel yourself being held captive, held down and oppressed by some of those things I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, than let this be the morning that you avail yourself of the power of God to set you free. Now, that doesn’t negate the need for things like counseling, developing healthy supportive relationships and habits, or even medication. But the bottom line is this: God does not want you to live held captive by anything destructive in this world. God wants to set you free so that you can do and be all that God has created and called you to do and be. And anything less not only causes YOU pain, it causes pain to the God who knows you and loves you and hears you when you cry. You may not always recognize God’s voice; you may not always remember God. But God has not forgotten you and God will always recognize and respond to your voice.
But, there’s one more thing about this Exodus story. God uses his people to deliver his people – and not just the ones that are well-trained and well-adjusted. God clearly states that he will be with Moses. It is Moses’ job, but it is God’s mission. My friends, there are some churches, some brands of Christianity, that place the focus solely on individuals. They teach that it is all about YOU. And if you have got it together and you’re right with Jesus, and you’re healthy and financially sound, then congratulations, you’ve arrived. Your journey is done. But I’m sorry to tell you, that is not an accurate picture of authentic, biblical faith because the God of our scripture is a God who calls us into Christian community: “one for all and all for one.” Our God is a relational God. God calls us to work together, to serve one another, to be about the task of delivering one another from those things that hold us in bondage. As the Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen put it, we are all “wounded healers”; called to minister to one another whether we find ourselves whole and healthy or a hot mess. “It’s not about you.” At least it’s not about JUST you. It’s about US. It’s about all of God’s people because God’s wants all of his people to be set free from bondage so that they might do and be all that God has created and called them to do and be.
“Does this mean you’re not coming over?” I wonder what that older woman did. I wonder if she breathed a sigh of relief that this wasn’t her daughter, her responsibility, and now she had a free afternoon. I wonder if she rushed to hang up the phone.
Moses wasn’t very eager to answer when God called. But God was not about to take “no” for an answer from Moses… or from any of us. I don’t think he sets many bushes on fire anymore, but he’s definitely still in the calling business and in the deliverance business. And he just might be calling you; consider it a “divine delivery call.” It may not be easy. It may not be comfortable. It could very well be quite risky and, like Moses, you might not think you’d be very good at it. But God will not let you rest until you respond. Like Moses, God wants us to join with him in the work of delivering his people, setting them free to do and to be all that God has created and called them to do and be.
“Does this mean you’re not coming over?”
Whether you are the desperate voice calling out or the one whom God calls, rest assured our God is the God of deliverance.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 10:40-42
A story is told of Irish sacramental theologian Siobhan Garrigan arriving at a Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland. She was greeted at the door by two women. She soon discerned that these women were functioning in an official capacity: to engage visitors in conversation, an interview of sorts, to ascertain the first names of each stranger. Upon learning the names, they drew conclusions about the cultural and religious identity of their guests. Those with Protestant names were warmly welcomed and shown to their seats. Those with Catholic names were told that they were, undoubtedly, in the wrong place and they were sent on their way.
It is, by American standards, an appalling story of prejudice and the inhospitable boundaries it constructs. And yet, theologian Eugene Park writes, “we want immediately to dismiss such boundary keeping as abhorrent to the gospel… Nevertheless, if we are honest about the church we know, we would have to confess that, though we define our borders differently, we define them still – and more subtly.”[i]
It is a word from the context of yoga that serves as the title of this morning’s sermon: “Namaste.” Namaste means, literally, “I bow to you.” It springs from the belief that there is a divine spark or presence within each of us. This, of course, we might also liken to our Judeo-Christian biblically-based teaching that each of us have been made in the image of God and that that image – though admittedly disfigured by sin – resolutely persists if we have eyes to see. Namaste, at its most basic level, is an expression of hospitality because hospitality, despite what marketing would have us believe, is not about a new grill or deck furniture or whether you can prepare sushi from scratch. Hospitality is ultimately about the way we are oriented toward the other. Any outward expression of social nicety – a clean towel, a warm blanket, a fresh pot of coffee – is only truly hospitality if it has been prompted by our desire to treat the other person in a welcoming and gracious way; to receive them as they are into our homes, our lives and our hearts.
This theology of hospitality perhaps reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel; the one we often refer to as The Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that the way we treat those who are most “foreign” to us (the stranger or alien) and those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Jesus refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” So Matthew’s gospel, as a whole, reminds us that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God. Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
Today’s gospel words, spoken by Jesus, may seem like strange – and perhaps even inapplicable – teaching in our post-modern American culture. This morning’s verses come from a larger section of scripture in which Jesus, lamenting that a plentiful harvest has insufficient workers to meet the demand, is now sending out his disciples to do what he has been doing (teaching, preaching and healing). Jesus provides words of instruction to better prepare and equip them as traveling evangelists or missionaries. During Jesus’ life – and most especially after his death and resurrection – his followers moved about from town to town to proclaim the message of good news Jesus had entrusted to them. Their religion was new and unfamiliar. There were no options for mass marketing; no strategies to boost their traffic on Facebook. If they were going to spread the word, they were going to need to “hoof it.” But as preaching professor Lance Pape notes, today’s Americans hardly live in a culture of “travel-weary missionaries come from distant lands to share the faith.”[ii] Today, even guest speakers we invite into our churches generally find themselves more likely to experience the amenities of a local hotel chain.
In truth, the word we translate “welcome” in this morning’s scripture passage, is better translated “receive” as in “receive into one’s home; into one’s heart; into one’s family.” So this passage calls for a hospitality that extends well beyond a fresh pot of coffee and clean sheets. It implies a meeting of hearts; an openness and a deep connection. It implies a sense of mutual vulnerability. Even today, we face deep risk anytime we open our hearts to another person. That is what makes authentic, long-term relationships so difficult. But that is what the Church is called to be about. Members of early Christian communities were ‘little ones’ and whatever their origins, “the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who are also called to serve other such little ones...”[iii] It should not be surprising that early Christians thought of themselves as “little ones”; after all, our religious movement began with the Son of God assuming the vulnerability of human flesh and then willingly allowing that flesh to be destroyed by the most brutal form of capital punishment. Jesus – by choice – ranked himself among the “little ones.” By virtue of our human nature, we want influence and power, certainty and security, not risk or vulnerability; yet Jesus refers to those who are caught up in the business of his kingdom work as “little ones” who may find themselves standing in need of something so simple as a cool drink of water.
The words of Jesus that I shared this morning begin simply by promising blessing for those who welcome the emissaries of Christ. But the final verse reveals that the blessing extends and incorporates even those who offer a cup of cold water to the disciples of Jesus. Note that it doesn’t say anymore beyond that. It’s a pretty simple gesture, really, that does not even require a profession of faith. My husband Britt likens this to the phenomenon of aiding and abetting. In the American legal system, if you are aware that someone is a criminal – a fugitive – and you harbor them in any way, you can be considered an accessory. In other words, your simple act of aid or assistance results in your “assumed affiliation.” Likewise, those who do something as simple as providing a cup of cool, refreshing water to the disciples of Jesus are drawn – in a certain sense by simple association – into that community. They are joined together through the simple gesture of hospitality.
So what does any of this have to do with us, today, here at Trinity? Well, I hope by now that most of you are aware of the grant we have received for our Ready, Set, Grow Project. We’ve been writing about it in the newsletter every month. It is a series of new initiatives we are launching – things like our summer monthly Garden and Grill meals. And it’s focused on helping us to receive and to welcome those around us. Trinity has identified our Vision as “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” I’d like you to look at the front of your program this morning. The graphic is an artistic rendering of three people (from a top-down view) with arms wrapped around one another. If our vision is to grow through relationships that means we can’t wait for the community to come to us; to walk through our church doors on Sunday morning at 10:20… although, obviously, we’re delighted when they do. But today in America, fewer and fewer people are walking through the doors of churches for Sunday morning worship. Those numbers are falling at an alarming rate. Yet remember, that’s not how the Church started. The Church began with people going out and entering in to the space of others; both giving and vulnerably receiving the blessings of hospitality: open hearts, open doors and open minds. And so perhaps our current cultural challenges do not mean the demise or even decline of the Church in America. Perhaps it is simply our opportunity to return to our roots, our point of “missional origin.”
Trinity’s various Ready, Set, Grow initiatives are a way of doing that… of returning to a more apostolic model of Church. When we host our Garden and Grills, it is critical for us to do more than bring food and set up tents and grill hot dogs for, to serve another person is to exercise a certain power over them. Let me say that again: To simply serve another person is to exercise a certain power over them. But, we need to shift from a mindset of “giving to” and move toward a mindset of “sharing with.” True hospitality means slowing down to engage; sitting and eating with our neighbors; to sit next to them, to be with them, and to recognize – as the beauty of this morning’s scripture reveals – that there is blessing for the one who offers the cool glass of water and for the one who receives it. There are moments of blessings anytime we “receive” or welcome one who comes as a stranger among us. And even greater blessing when we recognize that that stranger bears the image of God and so we bow to the divine spark within them. It is a Namaste moment; it is a moment of true Christian hospitality for when we welcome a stranger, we welcome Jesus.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year A, vol. 3; Westminster John Knox Press; 2011; pp. 188, 190
[ii] Feasting on the Word; ibid, p. 191
[iii] Ibid., p. 193
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