September 3, 2017
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
It could be said that today’s readings from Exodus and Matthew are about call and response: God calls. We respond. But what does that call look like? How does it work? What does it require from us? Well, it seems that our first reading from the Book of Exodus offers some important insights that lead to a much clearer understanding.
This reading is all about deciphering God's call. Scholars actually refer to this as a 'call narrative.' That is, a narrative that biblical writers frequently use to tell the story of how a person is called by God. The structure of these stories carries a message about who God is and how we go about deciphering the call of God in our lives. So, by applying this particular structure of the call narrative, biblical writers were not simply trying to show that Moses was authentically called by God, they are also inviting the readers to apply it to their own lives. The structure of these stories suggests several important things about how we go about looking for and identifying/clarifying the call of God, and this is done in 6 steps:
First Step: Divine Confrontation
This encourages us to look for the call of God in the ordinary experience of our everyday lives; our everyday routines. Moses is tending sheep; he is not out looking for a mountaintop experience. Frequently, the call of God to biblical characters is unexpected. This suggests that we should not be looking for the call of God as something special or as something in addition to or other than our routine, but as something that arises from it. (Apostle Paul: walking along the road to Damascus. John Newton: steering a slave ship.)
Here at St. Peter’s, in the midst of everyday routines, God is confronting people all the time and calling them into ministry: liturgical; mission and outreach; Christian education; many areas of leadership…) If you believe that God has created each one of us for a particular purpose, it just makes sense that God calls us to serve Him and the world in ways that we are intended to serve. We just have to train ourselves to know how to recognize that call (that Divine Confrontation) when it occurs, and respond accordingly.
Second Step: an Introductory Word
In this story from Exodus the introductory word is - quite simply - God appearing (rather dramatically, through a burning bush that is in flames but not becoming consumed) and then speaking in a way that captures Moses attention. And this tends to establish a relationship between God, Moses, and the people of God. This relationship will provide the basis for everything that Moses is called to do. The relationship with God is emphasized here, and lies at the very heart of Moses' call.
It is Interesting to note that in this call story, God recounts the entire history of salvation in order to put this call into its proper perspective. God says, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob... I have witnessed the misery of my people in Egypt and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors. I know what they are suffering and have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that country into a fine, broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey... Now the Israelites cry has reached me, and I have also seen how hard the Egyptians oppress them..."
So, here, in this introductory word, we recognize that the call to Moses fits into God's unfolding plan, AND that just as God has been with each of these people and incidents throughout salvation history, God WILL and DOES remain with Moses, and each of us. Today, God continues to appear to us and speak to us in numerous ways (perhaps primarily through Word and Sacrament), AND every call from God must be seen within the context of God's continued unfolding plan.
Third Step: Particularity
God's call is often specific and task oriented. The call of Biblical characters is never vague or abstract. Instead, the divine call in Scripture always arises out of specific situations that require a concrete task. For Moses, the task is to lead Israel out of Egypt.
Fourth Step: Objection
These call stories/narratives tend to include some objection from the one being called. In this story from Exodus, Moses does not see himself as worthy to serve God and the Israelite people in this way.
Biblical writers are telling us at least two things by incorporating an objection into the standard form of call narratives: (1) as humans we are inherently inadequate to fulfill any divine call and (2) there is risk in being called by God, and we often initially object. Why would I willingly take on a task that requires selflessness and sacrifice when there are so many other things in my life that would be easier, and certainly more glamorous? Moses recognized the sacrifices this call was requiring; but herein lies the whole point: As the People of God, it is NOT about our comfort, or our wants – it IS about hearing God’s call and overcoming our objections so that we may follow God’s ongoing plan.
Fifth Step: Divine Reassurance
Objection always prompts divine reassurance, and we see this in God’s response to Moses where God says: “I will be with you”... which is more or less the standard divine reassurance that is given throughout the call narratives/stories. This reassurance is neither a guarantee of success or comfort; nor is it a psychological pat on the back. God does not respond to Moses by affirming his innate leadership skills. No, the reassurance is a divine commitment to share the risk of the one being called. I, God, will be with you always…
So, following a call from God means that we will never be alone, even though we may fail. (Remembering that our understanding of 'failure' may not match up with God's.) Moses may very well have felt that his response to God's call was NOT successful, as we recall that he died before actually leading the people into the land of Canaan. But that's not the point. The point is that he did respond, and God was with him, providing him with what he needed, every step of the way. Biblical characters are not evaluated by their successes, but by their courage - their faith in God's Presence, particularly in the midst of the challenging times.
Sixth Step: A Sign
The call narratives end with a sign. In the call of Moses, God identifies this sign in a twofold way: (1) worship in the mountain (that is a sign that Moses and the Israelite people are in relationship with God and communing with God in that place), and the second sign is (2) the sacred sharing of the divine name: I am that I AM; tell them that I AM has sent you to them. This awareness of the divine, sacred name is a sign that Moses' leadership is authentic. The name YHWH, which is revealed to Moses in this first meeting, means “He causes to be.” (That is, it is a third-person masculine singular causative form of the verb “to be.”) So, the very name YHWH is a sign that his call is an invitation to partner with him in the ongoing creation of the world.
So, this call story opens many doors in terms of understanding of how God's call works along with our potential response. When viewed from this perspective, biblical writers are telling the reader that the actions of a hero must be read in the light of a larger story about God's salvation. Also, biblical call narratives are also meant to provide a structure whereby the people of God in any age can evaluate God's call.
In the midst of our everyday lives (while driving or cycling or walking, cleaning the house, working in our gardens, walking the dog...) In the midst of our everyday lives God does confront us – God does call us; we just need to learn how to pay attention. This call is based on the understanding that God longs to be in relationship with us, and through us, with others. God calls us to specific tasks so that God’s plan may continue to unfold: as church: build an atrium so that children may receive solid religious formation; sponsor a refugee family; reach out to the neighbourhood in which you are placed; provide meaningful worship; explore and establish a collaborative leadership model; etc. as individuals: listen to God’s call as you discern the work to which you are called; make political decisions – make all decisions - based on the teachings of your faith; stand up for what is right; if you witness someone being treated badly: speak up; if you are aware of unjust, unfair systems, do whatever small thing you can to help reverse them; etc.
Call narratives remind us to allow ourselves that piece of the process where we are hesitant, to see ourselves as hesitant, and yet also allow ourselves to find those places and spaces where God offers the reassurance that He/She will be with us always: Places like the 23rd Psalm: “I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” And finally, look for signs that convey this reassurance: often found within the context of worship: Word and Sacrament.
As we were reminded in today's Gospel reading, we as Christians are called to follow Jesus who says: Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he/she must take up his/her cross and follow me." As we receive these calls to action, God is not necessarily promising us an easy time; God is not promising a comfortable time. And it seems to me that this Gospel reading from Matthew sheds further light onto this understanding of God’s call, and our response.
On an ordinary day, in the midst of their every day lives, Jesus grabs the attention of his followers. He introduces his message by emphasizing his inevitable suffering, death and resurrection. Peter, of course, objects; he knows very well the challenges that lie ahead. Peter seems to prefer the easy road; Peter is clinging to the hope that following Jesus would offer him prestige and power, rather that sacrifice and possibly death. And, true to the structure of a Biblical story about God’s call and our response, (after rebuking Satan for Peter’s misguided response) Jesus responds with some words of assurance as he says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up her/his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it…” Indeed, there will be sacrifice. There will be hardship. And that is not something we humans easily embrace. But the reassurance is found in remembering that it is through answering this call to sacrifice that we discover the essence of a fullness of life.
In this story, Jesus gives his most solemn call to true discipleship, which is a call to become like Jesus: selfless and obedient. The tragic truth is that selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-seeking cut us off from the experience of genuine life, whereas giving ourselves in full service to Christ brings us into true and fullness of life. Freedom is founded by God in selflessness and obedience (service). Together, as individuals, and collectively as church, we hear these stories of call and response. I pray that we may be attentive to this call which comes to us within the context of our ordinary, everyday lives, acknowledge our objections, and through Jesus’ assurance of new life rising out of the sacrifices that are required, may we respond in good faith.