Proper 17A 2017: God

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800 BCE, first known mention of the God of Israel

Text for Preaching

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.  Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  So come, I will send 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?”  He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”   But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”  God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:  This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”


You may or may not have noticed,
but I do not preach much about “God.”

Instead, I start with the Bible
or the Liturgical Reading,
and dig into whatever it says.
Wrestling with the readings
to imagine what the author or editor
wanted us to hear –
given his or her context –
is usually where I like to start.

Starting there usually offers plenty of wisdom
to then explore and share
over the twelve or fifteen minutes
I have to preach –
which may feel like an eternity to you,
but feels short to me.
I am reticent to preach at length
on something I know so little about – God.
But today is different.
Today, because of that Exodus story,
I feel emboldened.
So let’s just notice
what we have spread out here before us.

There is a fire that burns without consuming.

Turns out, that is a metaphor for God.
As we read on,
in Exodus and elsewhere,
we learn about a god that loves without controlling,
gives freedom without conditioning,
desires justice without punishing,
and offers mercy without questioning.

We have here
a fire that burns without consuming,
which stands for love so perfect
even we can almost feel it –
though we cannot get close enough to touch it.

We can almost imagine the kind of love that kindles fire
even though we actually never know it like it knows us.

What we have here
is a god who sees misery.
Think on that, pause on it,
get curious about it.

This god that burns without consuming
has lost its innocence,
and been defiled,
by the sight of infants impaled upon swords.

This god that sees,
has seen women violently battered and abused.
This god that sees,
has watched men enrich themselves
while trading other men for gold.

This god that sees,
does not look away
and does not squint.
This god that sees,
stares at misery through tears.

But we notice so much more in this story
if we pay attention.

We discover a god
who hears.

We should be shocked by that –
really, if we are at all honest,
we should be amazed by a god who hears.

This god that hears,
hears slaves scream.

This god that hears,
listens even to dispossessed, marginal, enslaved people
scream while bleeding at the hands of taskmasters.

This god that hears,
listens to the cry of a single human voice
even amidst all the music and noise of the cosmos.

This god that hears,
can even hear the quiet, internalized agony
hidden in a human heart,
beating within the envelope of these pews –
right here, right now.

This is a god who can focus on the music of Niagara Falls,
a songbird at dusk,
an oboe playing in the stillness of some empty cathedral,
AND, while hearing all of that,
still hear
your silent pain and mine.

A god that sees
and a god that hears
is more than we can imagine,
at least in our right minds.
But what we have here,
is a god who also knows – us.

This is a god
who actually experiences us.
Seriously, a god that is embodied in us.

This is a god
that could just as easily
have created the cosmos
and let it go like a spinning orb,
just to watch what happened.

This is a god
that could have dispassionately experimented with us,
or simply smirked at our foolish state,
from an invulnerable perch of otherworldliness.

But instead, this is a god
who chose to experience us – that is, know us –
from the inside out.

Think about what that means.
Seriously, bore into the notion
of what it means that god knows us,
and experiences life as we live it.

In order to do that,
to know us,
this god must be vulnerable like us.

You see, to know us is to suffer, like us.
To know us is to explode with joy, like us.
To know us is to be amazed by hope, like us.
To know us is to have tasted love so sweet it hurts, like we have.
To know us is to have reached beyond our grasp for something we desperately wanted
and come up short, just like we have.

What we have here before us
in this story from Exodus,
the story at the beginning of the story,
is a god who hears us
and knows us
and sees us;
a god who is with us like a second skin –
or maybe under the first one.

So now,
because we have a god who knows us like that,
it is only natural for us to want to know God
with the same intimacy.
That is what Moses asks:
he wants to know God as God has known us.
Tell us about yourself, God.
Tell us who you are.
Let us hear.
Let us see.
Let us know you, as you have known us,
Moses chirps with utmost eagerness.

“No,” God says.

The god who knows us so well
is also a god who refuses to be known.

“I will be who I will be,” is God’s answer.

In other words,
You are unable to know me the way I know you.
You are unable to see and hear and experience me,
as I see and hear and experience you.

What we have here is a god
who burns but does not consume,
sees but is not seen,
hears but is not heard,
knows but is not known;
a god that loves without controlling,
gives freedom without conditioning,
desires justice without punishing,
offers mercy without questioning,
and knows us from the inside out but is not known by us.

All of that is why I avoid talking about God
if I can help it.

5000 years later,
we do not know anymore about God
than Moses did standing on that mountain.
The best we can do
in the presence of this kind of god,
is to take off our shoes and be amazed –
and be grateful.

But let’s be honest.
Amazement and gratitude is never enough
for creatures like you and me.
We want it all.

We want definition.
We want proof.
We want a god who fits within the laws of nature –
even though we do not fully understand those laws,
or that nature.

We want a god
that acts like we expect a god to act,
and do what we need a god to do.
We want a god
we can prop upright in the corner
that will listen while we yammer.

Amazement and gratitude are all well and good
in the moment that we feel them,
but what’s after that?

We want a god
that does stuff, and does the stuff
we ask that god to do.

That’s who we are.
But let’s stop right there and pause.
Is what we want, what we need?

Did you ever feel truly heard by a friend?

Remember what that feels like?
Remember pausing from the long, woeful description
of your pain and fear
as you realized that your friend
had actually been listening intently.
Remember how it felt to know
he or she not only heard your words,
but also heard the feelings within tears
rolling down your cheeks,
and the ache gripping your heart,
and the knot tying up your stomach?
Remember what that felt like,
to be held within the rapt attention
of someone else’s caring?

Amazing, right?

So then, can you remember a time so horrible
that the only thing anyone could do for you,
was just…to be there?

Remember what that was like?

They were just there with you:
not asking or doing,
not trying to fix or cover up the awfulness
of what you were going through,
but just there for you?

Maybe at the time it didn’t seem like that big a deal,
but as you looked back, you realized how crucial
and how powerful
their willingness to just be there with you
was, and the impact it has had.
It was a grace, wasn’t it,
if ever there was grace in your life?
They were just there with you,
and in retrospect, you are so very grateful.
Remember that?

The bravery of simple presence,
and the courage to experience
what someone else is experiencing,
is powerful beyond words.

Even if that was all we ever got from God,
wouldn’t be enough?
Would we demand more?
Do we really need more?

I think what we see
when we take a syringe
to the heart of this Exodus story,
and extract a single drop of its healing blood,
is a god who hears,
who sees,
who experiences,
who becomes present,
and who points to a way out.

I know we like to get all miraculous
and supernatural about such stories,
and make inflated claims and promises
for things we have never seen or heard,
before or since,
but I do not think we need to do that with this story.

What this Exodus story actually offers,
tucked up under the gold leaf and statues,
is much more basic
and much more powerful.

Being known from the inside out,
and knowing the presence
that extinguishes the darkness,
is plenty powerful enough.

A god who sees,
a god who hears,
a god who knows,
a god who experiences,
a god who is present,
and a god who points to the way out,
is plenty powerful enough for creatures like us.
Don’t you think?