ORDINARY PEOPLE…ORDINARY THINGS
Exodus 3: 1-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
August 31, 2014
Hear the sermon.
If there were no such thing as a Labor Day, the church might very well invent a liturgical day to honor labor. By that I am not talking about wages or working conditions, although those are important. What the church has to say about labor can be summed up in one word: vocation. As the origin of that word implies, it has to do with a sense of call, a summons from outside of ourselves, a feeling that you did not choose this work as much as you were chosen for it. If your income-producing job coincides with your vocation, then you are fortunate indeed.
Few contemporary accounts of vocation are more moving than that of James Foley, the journalist whose savage execution in Syria has broken our hearts. Coming from a devout Catholic faith in Rochester, New Hampshire, he had already endured one kidnapping in Syria in 2011 when he was held for 44 days before being released. When he determined to return to Syria to report what was happening, he told his family that he felt compelled to go back. His friend Sarah Fang, who taught with him in Teach for America, is quoted as saying, “His sense of integrity has always meant devoting himself entirely to his work.”
Clearly, he felt called by a higher power to his work. His integrity and his courage honor his profession of journalism, and his sense of calling honors his profession of Christian faith. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, who suffers by following a sense of call. When his death was first reported, I could not help but think of the words of Martin Luther’s famous hymn:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.
James Foley stands in a long line of honorable and courageous people who felt that God was calling them to do something important.
We have heard read today the familiar and ancient story of the call of Moses. Even those in our culture who practice no religion at all are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Knowing what we do about the early life of Moses, we would all agree that Moses would not have been voted “Most Likely to Be Called by God!” He was, in fact, a white collar criminal, a fugitive from the law, on the run in Midian, trying to stay one step ahead of the sheriff. He had committed murder in Egypt, fled the land, found a wife, and was given a job by his father-in-law that would keep him on the backside of nowhere, which was a perfect place for anyone on the run. The scripture seems to emphasize just how far away he was: …he led his flock beyond the wilderness, it says. Not just to the wilderness or in the wilderness, but BEYOND the wilderness, the better to hide from the law.
It is just at this point that I want to recognize the fact that the call of God came to this man, not in temple or shrine or palace or classroom. It came in a lonely, desolate place on the backside of nowhere. And it came to a lonely, desolate man who must have been wondering if his life would ever amount to anything. The importance of this reality cannot be overestimated, for that is the way God seems so often to work!
So there he is in the middle of nowhere, and the story gets interesting: 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.
Is the story implying that if Moses had not turned aside, then God would not have spoken to him? What if he had chosen to walk on by as though he had seen such things a million times before? It could happen! We do it all the time! We are terribly busy; no time to stop; we have schedules to keep; we’ll come back later, we say. We keep walking.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
That was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 19th century.
Every year at this time there are hosts of people who move into this community for school or a job. Some feel lonely and anxious. It can be overwhelming! They do not expect to see a burning bush! They may see this meeting house and wonder if they should turn aside, but they conclude that religion is just mumbo-jumbo about God, and the last thing they expect would be a life-changing encounter with the divine.
But Moses turned aside! And God spoke to him out of that vision of a burning bush! St Catherine Monastery in Egypt claims to be the very place where Moses saw the burning bush. They even have the Chapel of the Burning Bush, with the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus.
But I have good news for you! You don’t have to go to Mount Sinai or St. Catherine Monastery to encounter the same God who called Moses! You can keep trudging through your wilderness, keep every appointment, return every call, attend every committee meeting, pour over every report, meet every deadline, fill out every required form, create a new vision statement, answer every email, type every report, do your exercises, eat the right foods, get a good night’s sleep, feed the cat, walk the dog, and fulfill every item on your job description, and still miss your calling! There comes a moment when you must stop and turn aside.
That is what worship is all about. Worship is a time to slow down long enough to see the burning bush, to hear the voice calling, and recognize what is holy in this life. It allows us a safe place to hear the voice calling us from our contemporary burning bush!
What do we find when we turn aside? We find a God who is not consumed and will not be silent. I don’t think God was silent when God led the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to ignore the command of the King to kill every boy baby. I don’t think God was silent when the mother of Moses hid her baby for three months, and finally decided to make a little papyrus basket that would float, and place it among the reeds in the river where she knew the daughter of Pharaoh bathed. I don’t think God was quiet when Miriam, the sister of Moses, watched until the princess found the little basket with the baby Moses in it and offered to find someone to nurse the child. God was not silent; God was still calling people!
The sound of the god-kings of Egypt, like Ramases II, the great pyramid builder, seemed to be the only voice heard by most people. They would bow and scrape before the voice of the Pharaoh, and oppression of the poor slaves would continue it seemed forever. But in the Bible, there is never any question about whose side God is on in the historical equation of master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. God is freedom to the bound, comfort for the bruised, reproof for the tyrant, and strength for the weak.
And God will not stay silent. God is a burning fire that will not be consumed by tyrants in any palace. When God says to Moses, I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry, we are hearing a universal truth. God always observes the misery and hears the cry, including yours! The question is never whose side is God on, but whose side we are on!
This brings us back to that issue of vocation on this Labor Day weekend. A genuine sense of calling may be one of the most counter-cultural things the church can proclaim in our world. The ideology of our time is that we can live an uncalled life, a life spent doing work that is totally channeled toward meeting our own needs and fulfilling our own desires. Self-fulfillment is our culture’s mantra.
But biblical faith in general, and Christian faith in particular, provides an alternative to the autonomous life. That alternative is vocation, a life called by God to live in community as part of God’s people. The model for Christians is the call of Jesus, whose summons came to ordinary people busy about ordinary things.
If any want to become my followers, he said, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. The precise meaning of that call is different for each of us, but what is clear is that the call of Jesus is meant to be lived out in community. It is not an individualistic ethic of the solitary “I.” It is “we,” living in community as God’s people, calling out our various gifts, enabling ordinary people in ordinary places to do extraordinary things.
Some of us in this room heard that call years ago, perhaps in a church or around a campfire or alone in our room. And we responded by quietly saying,
Wherever he leads I’ll go, wherever he leads I’ll go;
I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so.
Wherever he leads I’ll go.
Now that same Christ has led us together in this place, in this community, to be God’s people. This may be the very time that God has been waiting for you to turn aside, to be in God’s presence and listen for God’s voice calling you.
It is significant, I think, that all through the Bible God’s name is attached to the names of people. God says to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God’s name is always attached to human names: God is also the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth; the God of Roger Williams and James Manning and Isaac Backus and Samuel Stillman and Thomas Baldwin and Francis Wayland. God has a very long name! And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name, and by this name God will be known forever.
Ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places…that is where God’s extraordinary presence burns to this day, and that is where God’s voice still calls us to do extraordinary things.