Tuesday, March 13, 2007
"So, if you think you are standing, watch out . . .!
Third Sunday in Lent 2007
Sermon by the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld
Grace Church, Amherst
Lectionary Texts: Exodus 3:1-15
I Corinthians 10:1-13
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:12-13)
In the name of the one holy and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today we hear both terrifying and encouraging words from the scriptures. Moses, having flown from the oppression of Pharaoh to be a shepherd in the wilderness, encounters the presence of the living God who appears to Moses in a burning bush. The bush has been ignited, but it is not consumed. As Moses approaches, he hears the voice of God calling to him, “Moses! Moses!” And he is told to take off his shoes, for the place on which he stands on is holy; that is, it is in contact with the very presence of God.
We know the story. God tells Moses to bear witness to the liberating power of God to the oppressive power of the world. God is to raise up God’s people, to set them free and to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. God says, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Moses is called by a voice that comes out of the burning bush to come out of the safety of his bucolic, comfortable, and protected seclusion to be a sign of God’s liberating, holy-making power and steadfast love. And as if to be a sign of that intimate and vulnerable connection with that presence of God, Moses is asked to take off his shoes, to step onto the rocky uneven ground, thus removing a barrier to that place where God has chosen to reveal himself.
It as if God is saying, “Take off your shoes, Moses. The place where you stand is holy ground. My people, when they are freed, will come up here and worship me, right here, where you see me revealed as on fire, and yet not incinerating.”
Let’s imagine and think about that burning bush for a moment. A dry kindle of sticks, set aflame, and yet not being consumed. Might God be showing Moses something of what it means to be holy? For Moses himself is being urged to go into the heat of conflict, of confrontation. Moses is called upon by God to urge freedom to God’s people, at even at some terrible risk to his own safety. He has to give up the comfort of his pastoral livelihood in the hills, to join the rest of his race, burdened as slaves and oppressed. He is being asked, in a very real sense, to get burned for God by the powers of this world, and yet, the sign must tell him on a deep level, you will not get incinerated; you will not be destroyed by what I am calling you to do. It will cost you, but if you are faithful and trust, you will not be destroyed. Take off your shoes, enter into the power of this love, where you will be on fire, but you will not be reduced to ashes.
This is what I take to be a meaning of the burning bush. And that same meaning is extended, isn’t it, by Jesus, who likewise has come down from a place of supreme safety and majesty to walk with God’s people in order to set them free from the power of death, injustice, sickness, blindness, and the oppression of all sin and evil. This sacrament that we share today, in Christ’s Body and Blood, conveys that same power that is within the burning bush. God’s love in Jesus, crucified, dead, a love that is aflame in the heart of Jesus, does indeed die, it is consumed, and yet, ultimately, is not allowed, even after the finality of death, to be annihilated, but is resurrected. The Resurrected Body and Blood of Christ is so much like the burning bush. It is our life in God. It is love, vision, justice, here for all people, and it is never exhausted. We receive it day after day, week after week, but instead of being exhausted, it is multiplied by the power of the Holy Spirit and returns to us every time we come together and approach this Altar of thanksgiving. The sacrament calls us to become what we eat, a burning bush, a broken but risen body, offered up for the holiness and life of the world. Such is the infinite eternal almighty power of God's self-emptying love in Christ.
How are we, here at Grace Church, Amherst, how are you and I, called, in these present days, to be godly? If God calls you and me to take off our shoes, to see this place as holy ground in the presence of the burning but never incinerated love of God at this Altar, in this Communion, who are we being asked to accompany on a journey to freedom, life, holiness? Because, as I’ve said before, this Christian life is not merely about being good, tidy, law-abiding, clean people, protected from the pain and burden of the world. Christianity is not about being merely good. Christianity is about being godly, it’s about being a Pillar of Flame, a living sacrament of the sanctified life for the life of the world. High talk, but what might it mean to you and me, today, in this journey through the wilderness we call Lent?
I know many of us are tired of hearing about ourselves in the newspapers, radios and internet media, tired of hearing about the Anglican Communion’s struggle over the issue of homosexuality…whether we should or should not, as a church, create and adopt forms of blessings for gays and lesbians who seek holiness in their relationship, in their fidelity and commitment toward one another. Whether we should or should not consent to elections of persons to the office of bishop who are gay or lesbian. As you may have heard it the media, or from Margaret’s sermon last week, the leading bishops of the Anglican communion, the Primates, met last month to pray and discuss what role or place, if any, the Episcopal Church, (that is, the American expression of the Anglican Communion,) will have if it continues to bless such unions and consecrate such persons as priests and bishops.
I have kept my own counsel for the most part about all this, and have waited on the Holy Spirit to move me a place of fidelity and trust in God, as I seek to serve Christ as a priest in Christ’s Church here at Grace Church. As all the priests have here, I have taken vows. To quote the ordination service of the Book of Common Prayer, those vows are “to endeavor so to minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received.” Each of you who are baptized have committed yourselves to these vows: “to proclaim, by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.”
We were baptized into that burning bush, my friends in Christ. We were baptized into a body that calls us to give our whole selves with a love that, by Christ’s triumph over rejection, humiliation, cruelty, injustice and yes, death itself, will not allow us to be destroyed or reduced to ashes as long as we are faithful to that love.
So I take to heart Jesus' words today. There is heat to these words, and I don’t dismiss them. Don’t say, Jesus tells us, "don’t think that it was because of some vile sin that those victims died after the tower fell. But if you don’t repent and return to God, you too will perish. And if that fig tree doesn’t bear fruit, despite the vineyard owner’s patient tending and spreading manure on it (on us in the religious community, that is!); well, then cut it down. Burn it up, it’s not good for anything.” I actually believe Jesus' warnings, when it comes to his warnings to the Church.
We are called to be faithful to that burning love that calls us to liberate and make holy this world. We are called to live with a bright and shining integrity, knowing that God will not, in the words of Paul today, test us beyond our strength, but will show us a way out of every trap, and give us the power to endure what ever comes in our mission “to restore all people to unity with Christ and each other in Christ.”
Over the course of my years as a priest I have experienced in myself a kind of inner dissonance, a tension that I now able to claim is nothing less than a holy fear. When I perform a wedding ceremony between a man and a woman, I now register in myself a fear that I am now willing to say is the spirit of God calling me, as from out of a burning bush. When I say these words: (you can look them up in the prayer book on page 423) “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and, further, It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people,” I feel that holy fear most intensely.
Gays and lesbians are part of Christ’s body, the church. They are the church, as much, if not more, as I am as a straight white man. But this sacrament, and the grace it is meant to convey, is not available to them. “So,” says the voice in my soul, “what mysterious unity is this holy matrimony a sign of at this time in our history, this portion of our journey Christ?”
After years of prayer and reflection, study, and discussion about this, I have come to the conclusion that I am now called to a holy fast. If our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori calls our Church to a fast, as she has, from performing blessings between two persons of the same gender, in my considered and respectful view, we are called to an even deeper fast. We are called, I believe, to join the fast that our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ have had to observe all their lives. We are called to abstain from any wedding or marriage ceremony, hetero or homosexual, until such time as my bishop, in agreement with the Episcopal Church, allows us to celebrate the holy faithful relationships of all persons. We are called to this fast whether or not consensus is reached among the churches of the other provinces, whom I will always call my brothers and sisters in the Church universal no matter how they regard me.
I can no longer hold together my own integrity as a priest who has made vows to minister faithfully the sacraments of the reconciling love of Christ, if indeed to perform such sacrament means deeper, more wrenching, more agonizing tearing of the Body of Christ to which I am called to support and nourish.
Like Moses, like Jesus, like Paul, like myriad saints of ages past and yet to come, we are summoned to journey in the wilderness, in the desert. Abstaining is not easy. There are people young and older who, I imagine, would love to be married in this church, by me, or Ton Whiteside , or Margaret, or Chris Carlisle, or Susan Schaeffer, all of whom have expressed agreement with this fast. Weddings are fun, mostly, though, let’s be honest, most of the weddings we are asked to perform are set up only after the couple has set a date with the Lord Jeffery Inn first. As though the church needs anything more to trivialize the church’s sacred mission!
But we are called to experience the pain, the longing, and the joy of fellowship with our brothers and sisters, saints of God, who have been waiting, traveling barefoot though a rocky and uneven wilderness. I invite us to join in solidarity--no, a better phrase would be--in communion, with those persons who have been fasting and walking in the desert their whole lives, not by choice, but because the Church has forced them to.
What would such a fast feel like, such a time in the desert? I suspect it won’t be easy. We may get burned, but I trust that God will be faithful. Help my trust. God, I pray, will give us more time, as the owner of the vineyard in the parable gives the fig tree more time and attention, and yes, even manure, to cause us, and the Episcopal Church, to spring to life.
Who knows, maybe a miracle will occur, maybe the Episcopal Church will give up some of its cherished and quaint idols and come to worship more faithfully, and approach more nearly the God who speaks out of the burning bush and calls us into those fires without fear.
Who knows: maybe we could actually follow more boldly the Jesus who sprang from every trap the religious and political powers set for him. The Jesus who came to remind us that we are all bound for Glory in God’s heavenly realm, where, by the way, Jesus also said, “there is no marrying or being given in marriage, but where we are all of God in heaven.” (Matthew 22:29ff).