Proper 17 A August 28, 2011
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“May you live in interesting times.” Is that a blessing, or a curse?
We certainly live in unsettled times. The earth is literally shaking under our feet, even here in Central New York, where geologists describe our bedrock as “old and cold.” How many of you felt the earthquake, or know people who did?
Yesterday on the Thruway there were hundreds of rescue vehicles headed east: cherry pickers to work on downed power lines, tree-cutting equipment, National Guard trucks loaded with supplies. Even we, here on the far edge of what is predicted to be a massively wide hurricane, felt the unsettled nature of the weather. Millions of people in its path have had to alter all of their plans for the weekend, batten down their hatches, stock up their shelves, fill their gas tanks.
Meanwhile, out in Wyoming, weren’t there some financial gurus speaking? Some meeting to plan the end of the current financial crisis or recession or slowdown or whatever describes our unsettled economic times? The snippet I heard from the head of the Federal Reserve went something like this: things will get better but slowly. Great.
Name your marker for unsettled times. Global warming. Disappearing farmland. Student loan debt. The foreclosure rate.
Or your own personal unsettled-ness, a marker for when your life changes for ever and you feel somewhat uneasy: dropping your child off for her first day in pre-school, or helping him move into his first college dorm room. Friends who move away, spouses who die, parents who become ill and dependent. Your life gets messed with by forces beyond your control. You know what it feels like when the earth begins to shake under your feet, when the barometric pressure drops and you feel the hurricane coming. You know those moments, great and small, when you don’t know what will happen next, when you are waiting for that next shoe to drop, a moment that seems to last forever.
Think about those moments this way: the place on which you are standing is holy ground. It might be shaking and blowing and all manner of bushes around you are bursting into fire, but as God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
What a curious thing to say to someone who is terrified out of his mind.
We last saw Moses when he was a baby, about to be coddled by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s household. He grows up as an Egyptian, but he begins to understand who he truly is when he sees an overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses leaps into the fight and kills the Egyptian, and then runs for his life. And so the Moses we meet at the beginning of today’s lesson is a Moses on the lam. An illegal alien, who is a criminal, to boot. He is hiding out from Pharaoh’s law, thinking the wilderness will protect him.
We meet Jesus and his disciples, too, out in the wilderness. Jesus, too, has told them something which makes their world shake. Peter has tried to soothe over what Jesus has predicted are terrible times ahead, and Jesus rebukes him in what seems to be a cruel and heartless way: Get behind me, Satan. You are tripping me up here. Before new life, comes death. In order to save your life, you must lose it. In order to gain your life, you must give everything away. The bush is burning. The earthquake is rumbling. The wind is blowing. The place on which you are standing his holy ground.
The divine presence in these two stories – God speaking to Moses, Jesus to the disciples – is profoundly de-stabilizing. God throws people off-balance, shakes them up. Does God throw random events our way, like some trickster? I think not. A trickster would not call such de-stabilization “holy ground.” Merely random events, however scary, would not result in gaining our lives.
When God gets into our lives, these two stories tell us, it is serious and scary stuff. I can’t really subscribe to the theory that God is testing us with such earth-shattering events, or that if we really believed all would be smooth sailing. I think God is letting us know that life is like this, with challenges and upheavals and temptations from all sides. God in these two stories is telling us that there are times when nothing is easy, times when everything feels upturned and chaotic and dangerous. When we take up the cross, when we face difficulty and death, when we stare, terrified, at a burning bush, then God is there. It is holy ground.
At times like this, when we feel the earth shaking under our feet, the words Paul wrote to the church in Rome fairly sing and leap for joy. If life was always clear sailing, would these words make any sense at all? His words about love, about how much affection and honor to show each other, about patience and perseverance? If we weren’t staring at certain death on the cross, would we need to be reminded with phrases that sing with beauty? If we did not know what it felt like to be persecuted or cursed or miserable or in conflict, would we need to be told to rejoice? If we were always generous and hospitable, if we committed all of our lives and our worldly belongings to the common good, would we need to hear that even saints and strangers need our love and care?
I know Paul can be difficult to read at times, but today he’s got it all right. He’s describing what life is like on the other side of the cross, the life we gain after we give it all away, the place on the other side of the burning bush, the land flowing with milk and honey, where enemies dwell in peace, where strangers are friends. Earthquake, wind and fire, cross, suffering and death – put your own name to these troubled times. God is here, and the place on which you are standing is holy ground.