Thy Will be Done: Expect Some Failures
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 31, 2021
Exodus 5:1-9; Matthew 17:14-21
The topic for today is a tough one the day after the MSU vs. UofM so I want to issue a trigger warning, especially for UofM fans that this sermon is about expecting failure. (I promise I would have made that joke if my Spartans had lost too).
Failure is a gigantic subject. If you put the word failure into google or a youtube video search you will get hundreds of hits. “How to avoid failure” “How to fail your way to success” “Learning from Failure” Our culture is obsessed with failing, probably because we have all experienced it and desperately want to avoid it.
It is a gift that Moses is not afraid of his failure. Or at least he isn’t afraid of it when he writes Exodus because he includes stories where he fails. He could have left those parts out and painted himself in a stronger tone, but Moses wants us to know failure will be part of the story. It was part of his story and the story of Israel and we should expect failure to be a part of our story too.
I really liked the way this passage read in the Message so let’s listen to this story one more time :
1 After that Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh. They said, “God, the God of Israel, says, ‘Free my people so that they can hold a festival for me in the wilderness.’”
2 Pharaoh said, “And who is God that I should listen to him and send Israel off? I know nothing of this so-called ‘God’ and I’m certainly not going to send Israel off.”
3 They said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness so we can worship our God lest he strike us with either disease or death.”
4-5 But the king of Egypt said, “Why on earth, Moses and Aaron, would you suggest the people be given a holiday? Back to work!” Pharaoh went on, “Look, I’ve got all these people freeloading, and now you want to reward them with time off?”
6-9 Pharaoh took immediate action. He sent down orders to the slave-drivers and their underlings: “Don’t provide straw for the people for making bricks as you have been doing. Make them get their own straw. And make them produce the same number of bricks—no reduction in their daily quotas! They’re getting lazy. They’re going around saying, ‘Give us time off so we can worship our God.’ Crack down on them. That’ll cure them of their whining, their god-fantasies.”
Moses and Aaron walk into Pharaoh’s court with extraordinary boldness. They don’t do any of the bowing or exulting or greetings we see at other times people enter powerful courts. They get right to the point “the Lord has said.” This is a power move for sure. Pharoah thinks of himself as a god so to be told that another god is commanding him to do something is not going to go very well. That fact does not seem to bother Moses or Aaron. They start off with the command.
This immediately goes sideways. Pharoah is offended they didn’t greet him appropriately and they issue a command from another god with whom Pharoah has no relationship. Of course, he is going to get defensive and snap back at the audacious duo.
Moses and Aaron see their mistake and try to do some damage control. They know if Pharoah won’t let them go the plagues will come but saying “you will be punished” is not going to be a great follow-up. So they try to illustrate that the Egyptians and the Israelites are all in this together. One big happy community that should be aware that “God will strike US with disease or death.” Instead of saying God will strike “you”, which is the truth, they soften the delivery and say, “us”
It’s too little too late and Pharoah issues an order that makes the brick labor harder without reducing the daily quota. This is not to say if Moses and Aaron came in bowing and bribing Pharoah things would have gone differently. This is to say WHAT DID THEY EXPECT!?
In their wildest dreams did they actually think going in there and asking for a free weekend was going to work? I don’t think so. I think they knew that was how the meeting was going to go. Maybe that’s why they didn’t bow, they knew it wasn’t going to help anyway. They expected to fail. And they did.
But when they did fail it wasn’t crushing because they were ready for it. When we expect to fail it softens the impact. Yesterday I was watching the football game with friends who were cheering for both sides. At the end of the third period though it sounded like we were all rooting for the same team because we all kept saying “we will find a way to lose this just you wait.” We were protecting ourselves from the impact of losing by expecting to fail.
Acknowledging that failure is possible helps us deal with the blow that failure can throw at us. And it allows us to bounce back faster and stronger.
I heard an interview with a prisoner of war a few months ago and he was asked what the best survival technique is for those situations. He answered “be pessimistic” he went on to clarify “it was the optimistic ones who died first. They would count the days and say “we will be out by Christmas, this will be over by easter, we will be on the beach by the fourth of July” As their prediction dates passed they ran out of hope. He also said the pessimists didn’t fare well either, especially after being rescued. It was the soldiers who expected to fail that made it through. The ones that expected success did not enjoy the days between Christmas and Easter because they were looking into the future. Then when the big day came and went they were crushed by the impact of failure. The ones who expected failure could shrug it off and prepare for the next day.
Leaving room for an expectation of failure helps us absorb the impact when we do fail and it also teaches us that failure is not the end of the story. People who expect to fail, and then fail, learn that the world goes on after failure.
You have probably heard the quote from Thomas Edison “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work” That is the voice of someone who expects to fail. SO I failed, big deal, I’ll try again.
My favorite quote about failure is from Henry Ford “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” This is what it sounds like to be a person who expects to fail. It’s not the end, failure is one of the steps, maybe 10,000 of the steps, but it is just part of the process.
Moses and Aaron walk out of Pharaoh’s court as failures. And it probably hurt a lot, but they kept going. They knew that was just the first step. The disciples on the other hand have not pushed through the failure as well in Matthew 17.
They tried to help the boy but failed. That failure derails their faith and they can not recover. They let their initial failure cloud every other attempt. They did not see failure as a learning experience. They didn’t try a different prayer or maybe even try a second time they send the boy off and Jesus has to fix it. The disciples give up.
Jesus is not thrilled. “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” It's a gut-wrenching thing to hear Jesus say. It’s like a parent saying “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” UGH!
Then Jesus talks about the mustard seed. We use this section of scripture to empower and uplift. The mustard seed has become a symbol of power and success. Yet when we read this whole scene it’s not a particularly uplifting moment.
Faith the size of a mustard seed yes but what else is in there with the mustard seed. A pumpkin seed of shame, an avocado seed of fear, a coconut of failure. The disciples are focusing on the wrong thing. They just see the failure and forget about the tiny seed of faith behind it.
Moses and Aaron were better prepared to notice the mustard seed. They kept trying. They knew failure did not mean an end to God’s story and so it did not mean an end to their story. Jesus wanted the disciples to grasp this concept because he expected the failure his movement was about to face. Jesus wanted them to expect failure so that when he was put on a cross they would remember the mustard seed in the corner and hold on. Because in God’s story failure is never the end, it is just a step towards the solution.
We must expect to fail. It will help us absorb the impact and we will bounce back stronger than before. We must expect to fail because what seems like a failure could, in three days, turn into the solution. Failure is never the end of the story.
If you feel like you are in the midst of failure, remember your mustard seed. The seeds of failure and shame and fear feel bigger than your faith and are incredibly distracting and discouraging, but all you need is a mustard seed-size faith. Those other seeds want our attention. Failure and shame want our resources to grow bigger and stronger.
But we can look at failure and say “I expected you to show up, Hello. If you would excuse me the seed behind you is the one I’m going to fertilize and help grow” Failure becomes less of a distraction when we expect it to be there and remember our story goes on after failure.
Jesus proved that failure is not the end of the story so let’s stop allowing it to derail our efforts and our faith. Reassess, adjust the plan, try again, and water the mustard seed. Failure is to be expected and it is not the end of your story.
Thy Will be Done: Discover our Gifts
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 24, 2021
Exodus 4:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:3-7
A few weeks ago I talked with you about how important it is for us to examine our Theology and notice what kind of effects it has on our daily practical lives. My example that time was how believing that somebody is a sinner versus believing that they are made very good can affect the way we interact with and see the people around us. As I was studying the scriptures for today I realized this time I was going to have to be a little bit more vulnerable and talk about a way that a seemingly inconsequential belief caused serious damage in my life.
Because this week we are talking about gifts from God, and for the majority of my life my understanding of God’s gifts caused me to feel unworthy. Now I want to be clear that the toxic theology that I had taken to heart was not something that was purposely given to me to be hurtful. In fact, on the surface, everything that was taught to me was very well intended and looked to be an uplifting theology. The only way I have learned that what I believed was wrong is by the fruits it has produced in my life. When it became apparent that the fruits this belief was producing were rotten, I had no other choice but to re-examine how I understood God's gifts.
God’s gifts were always presented as good things. If something was good in my life it was a gift from God, which sounds truthful enough. However when this idea pairs with another common Christian teaching it turns toxic. I did not just believe God’s gifts were good, I also believed I was unworthy of them. And so the equation that developed in my mind was good equals God, bad equals me, or what I deserved.
This is not what was taught to me but this is what found its root inside me. I was supposed to be striving to be perfect like Jesus, and that was a task I could never hope to achieve because I was a miserable sinner. We can begin to see how these theologies play off each other and start rotting us from the inside.
So I tried to be good. I did what the assignment was. I was the good student, I was the good child, I was the good friend, but when I found myself in a relationship with someone else and I started valuing being the good girlfriend over everything else, it suddenly became apparent that this was not a healthy way to live. Because I believed good things came from God but that I deserved bad things, and so when my partner dealt me bad things that fit with my view of myself, it's what I deserved. My job was to be the good girlfriend despite it all. The occasions when good things happened it was a blessed relief from God. When bad things happened it was par for the course. What more could I expect to have happen to me?
My theology justified the abuse. So for four years I tried to make the pieces fit together. Until one day, the Spirit took hold of me and I refused to meet up with that person again. I told him to forget my number and forget I existed. I wanted nothing more to do with him.
That is exactly how I described my break free moment. The Spirit took hold and saved me, but can you hear it even in that? My toxic theology was present even in the moment I broke free. I could not give myself any credit for the good thing that I had done, that I had finally stood up for myself. It was all God! This is how strong our beliefs can dictate our lives. They literally write our story for us and in my story I never said I did the good things. It was always God. While it is true that God gives us good things we also need to see that God does not do anything alone. We have to save some credit for ourselves.
When I was reading this story about Moses, I heard the same toxic theology come up as I was reading. Oh here is poor miserable Moses, who is the runaway murderer, who is a stutterer, who can't get anything right. God is stepping in and saving him, giving him the good things he needs to be the leader God is asking him to be. Moses does not deserve the position or attention he is getting from God, but yet God takes Mercy and gives him good gifts.
That is how I always read the story until last week when I finally made the connection that the toxic theology that nearly destroyed my life was trying to inform me about what was happening to Moses. I had to stop and reread this with a new lens and stop seeing Moses as the unworthy and God as the ultimate good, but try to understand why Moses is chosen, why are these signs given to him?
When we stop assuming Moses is a worthless loser we begin to see how this partnership actually comes together. The first sign, when Moses gets worried, God says what do you have there in your hand? And Moses looks and says, well this is my staff, this is what I used to guide my flocks when there is a dangerous edge of a cliff. I can stand and direct my flock away from it, if there's a fight within the flock I can break it up. From far away, if there is a predator on the outskirts of the flock, I can raise my staff high and make myself look bigger and scare away the danger. This is just a staff.
God knows this is a good start. God also knows there's other dangers among the flock. Moses also knows how to pick up a snake by its tail and throw it far away. God knows these are really good skills when you're standing with the people and they don't believe who you are or who sent you. Take your staff, throw it on the ground and it will turn into a snake. when you grab that snake by the tail, it will turn back into your staff. God uses the skills that Moses already has to create the sign that Moses needs to convince people. God doesn't say, I'll be with you. I'll put some lightning in the sky. There will be a miraculous sign they will have to understand. God doesn't take any of the credit. God uses what Moses is already good at to create the sign needed.
And if that's not enough God gives another sign. God does not just know what Moses is good at on the outside, God knows who Moses is on the inside. God saw Moses put his body in between the slave and the Egyptian guard, and when the slave was being beaten Moses put his body in between them and said stop. Moses was so passionate about this because he murdered the abuser. God knows that Moses is a leader willing to put his flesh on the line for the things he believes are right. So knowing that, knowing that Moses is already willing to do that, God says here's another sign. Put your hand inside your cloak. When you remove it it will be filled with disease, then when you put it back in your cloak and pull it out again it will be healed. This sign shows the people who Moses is as a leader, someone willing to put his body on the line for them.
And then we have the last sign. This last sign is a bit different because God is asking Moses to go and get something that he doesn't already have on his person. But this, I think, was God's move to try and win over some of the skeptics that will be among the crowd. Modern-day illusionists do this too. If you don't believe that my card trick worked, or you believe this cup might have a hole in the bottom of it, or if you don't believe the tricks that I showed you with the things that I brought, then I'll ask you to give me a $20 out of your pocket, something you know very well. If I can do something magical with that then you may be more willing to believe my skills.
The Israelites knew the water. The water around them was their life. It gave them nourishment, it washed them. They let their kids play in this water. They knew it inside and out, and in all of those years of interacting with this water it had never turned to blood. So for Moses to say to someone, go and get a pitcher of water from the Nile, and for that water they know so well to be brought to him, to be dumped out and for blood to hit the ground, the skeptics would realize this is real. We know this water. How could it have done this in the hands of this person? It has become something we have never seen before.
This final sign connects all that Moses is as a leader to the people. He uses the thing they value the most, their greatest asset, to show that in his hands he can make something different happen for their lives.
These signs are God's gift to Moses. They are meant to help him as he takes on the role that God has chosen him for. It is true that they are good gifts but the whole truth is it they are also Moses's gifts to God. Moses has learned how to use that staff. He has learned how to handle a snake, so in that moment God has something to work with, to make a sign out of the skills that Moses already possesses. Moses is already a person who before God chose him to do anything was willing to put his body in the line of danger to protect the people. When God needs another sign to give to Moses, he makes one Moses will be comfortable with because it is connected to who he is at the core.
The third sign is probably the one Moses feels least comfortable with. He has never turned water into blood. But because God first asks the things that Moses is comfortable with and they have some success producing these signs, together Moses easily steps into the third sign of accepting the water and throwing it on the ground.
It would be absolutely correct for Moses to claim all these signs are God’s because they are. But they are also deeply rooted in who Moses is, what he is skilled at, who he is inside at his core nature. These are good gifts from God, and Moses is a very active and willing partner in the process of making this great good, which is releasing God's people from Egypt. It is a great, good work of God and it is a great, good work of Moses.
Our second testament reading encourages us to fan the flames of our gifts. This imagery shows it so beautifully because our gifts are just minor sparks. But when we take the time to fan them, to take them out and put them on a torch and show the world our gifts, we become active participants in the good that God is doing through us.
When I gave God all the credit for rescuing me from a bad relationship it left me with deep distrust in myself. I had chosen the bad person. I was not able to get out. I might choose wrong again and need God to rescue me again. It wasn’t until I accepted my role in making that final call that I began to trust myself again. That it was the strength I had built inside me that allowed me to break free. Was God there cheering me on, reminding me of my strength? Absolutely, but that strength was mine. It was my voice that spoke up. The power that took control that day is mine.
And so I want you to take some time this week and give yourself the credit. You have gotten this far, yes, with God's help, yes, with God's good gifts, and you have had to act on those gifts that God has given you. You have had to actually do something about that problem in your life and stand up for what you know to be true. You are not unworthy, you are the very tool that God needs to make this world into what it is becoming. Give yourself credit for being a willing and active partner with God for the betterment of this world. You deserve credit for the good things you have done. You are worthy, you are worth it.
Thy Will be Done: Open to the Impossible
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 17, 2021
Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 10:1-4
I felt like a fraud. It was the first official day of classes at seminary, and I felt like a fraud. To understand this, you need a bit of background. A little over a month after our wedding, Cindy and I loaded all our worldly possessions into an unairconditioned U-Haul truck and drove from Houston to Richmond, VA. I then spent the next six weeks in “Greek School” learning enough Greek so that I could read the Bible in its original language. With Cindy’s help I managed to pass. At that point I was officially a student. The first day of classes I gathered with the other first year students and we took the obligatory class photo and then went to meet Dr. John Leith, perhaps one of the world’s greatest Reformed theologians. He leveled his gaze over us and then said the following, “Most of you should not be here. If you can’t explain soteriology, ecclesiology, and Christology and if you are not familiar with Biblical interpretation, then you have no business being here. You need to pack up all your things, go back to college and get a degree in Bible or theology. Then you can come back and see us.” As I looked around the room, it seemed as if everyone else was checking off their list of yes, I know those things, while I was just trying to figure out what those words meant. What you need to know is that prior to entering seminary my entire religious background was two Old Testament college courses and reading the New Testament once. I felt like an imposter and figured that soon they would discover my lack of knowledge and ask me to leave.
Feeling like an imposter actually has a name, which is Imposter Syndrome, or imposterism. Imposter Syndrome happens when we believe that we have been asked to, or promoted to do, or hired to do something that is over our heads and that we are not competent to do. Wikipedia puts it this way, “Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon are convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all that they have achieved.” It takes the old saying “Fake it till you make it” and turns it into “You have made it, but you are only faking it.” While this syndrome was originally studied in high achieving women, later studies showed that it can affect all persons, regardless of their educational or achievement status. I bring this syndrome to our attention this morning because I have often wondered if it was at the heart of Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush.
To understand this, we need to return to Moses’ story. Moses was a Hebrew child raised in the Egyptian palace. Though his princess mother called him son, it would be obvious to all that he was not her son. He was ethnically different. I imagine as he grew older and realized that he was Hebrew and not Egyptian, he would have felt like a fraud; like he didn’t fit in; that one day someone would say, “You are not one of us. You are a Hebrew. You need to be a slave again.” This must have been Imposter Syndrome on steroids. Then, after he fled the palace because he killed an Egyptian, he ended up as a shepherd. Now, while shepherding may seem like a noble profession to us, after all it was the shepherds who came to see Jesus, the Egyptians saw it as a disgusting, demeaning, and unclean job. Shepherds were the outcasts, the lowest of the low. So, when God, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, says, “Hey, Moses I need to you to go free my people,” Moses must have been thinking to himself, “If I did that I would be even more of a fraud. They would ask me what I did for a living, and when I said shepherd, they would know that I could never be a liberator of people. I would just be a disgusting outcast and nothing more.” Again, Imposter Syndrome at work which ought to make us wonder why the disciples didn’t feel the same way.
I have often thought it odd that the disciples did not seem to suffer from the same syndrome as Moses. I say this because the disciples were not qualified at all to do what Jesus asked them to do, to cast out unclean spirits and to cure people of diseases. These twelve men were fisherfolk, carpenters, tax collectors, hot-heads, and all-around malcontents. Some may have had some formal education but none of them had been to miracle worker school. They had not been to the first century equivalent of Hogwarts where they got their wands and learned the magic spells that could drive out demons and heal diseases. Yet, evidently, as soon as Jesus commissioned and authorized them, they went out and began trying out their healing chops. Now, even though they were not completely successful in their efforts, it did not stop them from trying. Rather than explaining to Jesus that they were not qualified because of imposter syndrome, they went to work and changed lives. The question is, what was the difference? What was the difference between Moses and the disciples? Then answer I believe is that the disciples were open to the impossible.
I want to be clear at this point what I mean by being open to the impossible. I will begin by talking about what I don’t mean. I don’t mean the kind of late-night infomercials for Peter Popov’s miracle spring water that can free you from debt by causing checks for thousands of dollars to miraculously appear in your mailbox. I don’t mean Rev. Ike’s prayer cloths that when applied would heal you from any and all diseases. And I certainly don’t mean Bennie Hinn’s famous miracle crusades where he would “cure” people by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. What I mean instead is being open to the possibility that God can be at work in us, using God’s power and our abilities to accomplish more than we thought we could ever accomplish. It means being open to being used by God to accomplish the impossible. I realize that being open to the impossible, that God might be able to do amazing things through us, is something most of us find difficult to believe. In some ways it is like people claiming that they can’t draw, or they can’t sing because somewhere, sometime, someone has told them that they cannot do those things, and so they quit trying. And if they do try, then they have imposter syndrome, believing that someone will see right through them. In the same way, many of us have convinced ourselves that God can’t really do anything through us because we don’t have the real gifts to serve God. We become in some ways a Moses and not a disciple. If that is the case, I want to introduce you to Howard.
Howard was an elder at a small inner-loop church in San Antonio, TX. As the neighborhood in which the church resided became more Hispanic and poorer, the church members decided they needed to serve those around them. They opened a food pantry and offered money to assist with rent and utilities. But Howard believed that God was calling them to do more…and this was exciting for Howard because he was a man who was always open to the impossible. One day Howard told the Session that he believed that God was calling their church to build a multi-story low-income housing project. Most of the members believed his quest was a fool’s errand…that it was impossible. To even consider such an endeavor was absurd. Howard, however refused to give up on the impossible. And so, as Howard put it, with God’s guidance he met the right people, connected with the right resources, and ultimately convinced the congregation to be open to the impossible. The end result was Westminster Square, a 107-unit affordable housing complex open to low-income seniors. This year, after fifty years of operations, the complex was sold to a national Presbyterian Housing Corporation. The sale netted the board over six million dollars, all of which will be used to fund mission and ministry in inner city San Antonio. And all it took was one man and ultimately one congregation, who were open to the impossible, along with God’s silent partnership, to change the lives of hundreds of seniors in need.
This is what can happen when we are open to the impossible, when we are open to using our gifts in partnership with God’s power. The impossible does not need to be a 107-unit apartment building. It can be teaching Sunday school, being a Covenant partner, praying at a meeting or Bible study, or any of hundreds of other things. My challenge for all of us this morning then is this, to ask ourselves, “How am I being open to the impossible? To being open to God doing something amazing through me?”
Thy Will Be Done: Listening Like God
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 10, 2021
Exodus 2:23-25; James 1:19-25
“Dad ... daad ... daaad! ... Dr. Judson!” “What?” Those words are one of the great stories of our family. Our daughter Katie, aged five at the time, was trying to get my attention, but I was mesmerized by my newspaper (remember those?), and I was not listening to her. That event always comes to my mind when I consider the difficulty of listening to others. It may be that you have never noticed the same thing ... how difficult it is to listen ... to listen to family, friends, or strangers. But for many of us we have become aware of how hard it is to listen when we are constantly bombarded with sounds, images, commercials, noise, and of course, our electronic devices. Our phones, computers, and iPads are constantly directing our attention to them and away from those to whom we ought to be listening. And the more ubiquitous those devices become, the more difficult it is to listen. Yet, I have to say that regardless of how hard it is to listen in our modern, busy, and noisy world it is still easier than listening like God listens.
It may be that few of us have ever taken the time to consider how God listens. We simply believe that God listens. But I want us to spend a few moments considering this idea ... and then I will later tell you why. So how does God listen? The answer can be found in our Exodus story that we read this morning. First, God listens to those who are in distress even when they do not cry out to God directly. What do I mean? If you look at the story, the Hebrews simply cry out. They don’t cry out specifically to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; yet God hears them. God hears the cries of those in distress because of their bondage. Second, God’s listening causes God to remember. Granted this can seem like a strange idea, God remembering as if God forgets. Yet, what it means is that the cries of the people caused God to remember God’s commitments to them; that God had promised to bless them and to bless the world through them. Third, God’s listening caused God to act. We know God acted on what God heard and on what God remembered because God would soon (in the story) begin the process of setting the people free. Why is knowing how God listens important? Because if we listen to James, he tells us that we are supposed to listen like God.
Listening like God forms the context for the part of James’ letter we read this morning. I say this because James begins with the command, “Let everyone be quick to listen.” In other words, the members of Jesus’ family are supposed to make “listening” their priority. Listening is supposed to help define who they are and what they do. Granted, over the centuries there have been a wide variety of ways in which this “listening” has been interpreted. Some have said it means listening to church leaders ... obviously put forward by church leaders. Others have said it means listening to God’s word ... which would make sense, since the scriptures are central to the life of God’s people. Others have said listening means listening directly to God ... again a good possibility since prayer was at the heart of the community. But I would argue that when James challenges people to listen, that he means is listening to those in distress, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger, even when they do not cry out directly to us. I say this first because James is a good Messianic Jew, who is rooted and grounded in the stories of Torah which center on God listening not only to God’s people but to those whom society forgets to care for. I say this second, because of where James goes after calling people to listen ... he calls them to remember who they are to be ... the righteousness of God.
Immediately following James’ command to listen he says that people are to be slow to speak or become angry because those two actions do not produce God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness in Jewish thought is not a codeword for personal moral perfection. It is instead a codeword for imitating God ... for following in God’s way ... for reflecting the character, covenant faithfulness, and righteousness of God into the world. And if God’s righteousness is listening to those in distress; those whom society oppresses or forgets, then listening is the way to achieve that. In the same thought, James says that we are to be slow to speak and slow to anger because they don’t lead us into God’s righteousness. This is so because speaking more than listening and being angry close off our ability to listen; they put the one speaking or being angry at the center of attention, rather than those to whom God’s people are supposed to listen. This then reflects God’s remembering ... that just as God’s listening causes God to remember God’s commitment to the Hebrew people, so too our listening is intended to cause us to remember our commitment to be God’s righteousness in the world; to be those who care passionately about those who are in distress.
Finally, this listening and remembering, or listening producing righteousness, moves us to the final stage of listening, and that is action. James puts it this way, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” For James, listening as God listens is supposed to lead not only to a remembering of our commitments to those on the margins, but to action that serves them; that attempts to offer them a piece of the social, economic, and religious pie. It is intended to bring shalom to all persons and not simply to those who are at the top of the economic heap. At this point though, James offers what to many seems like a strange idea ... that not being a doer is like looking into a mirror and forgetting rather than remembering. One way to think about this is to remember the last time you looked up how to do something on the internet. Then you waited a while before you tried to do it. And if you are like me, you have forgotten much of what you were supposed to do. On the other hand, if I were to do something immediately after seeing the instructions, I remember it much better the next time. In other words, doing something aids remembering how to do it. What James is trying to help us do is set up a positive feedback loop. We listen to the needs of those in distress, which leads to remembering our commitments to God , which leads to action, which leads to better listening, better remembering, more action and so on.
If we want to see how this works, all we need to do is look at our Matthew 25 initiative. We began by listening to the distress of our siblings of color. Then we remembered our commitments to be a community of love and justice. Then we began to act ... to be doers and not just hearers. I wish I could say that the voices of our siblings of color are the only ones crying out in distress. But I can’t because all around us are voices crying out: the voices of our LGBTQIA+ siblings, and especially those in the Trans community, the voices of those dealing with depression and mental illness, the voices of those who are being evicted from their homes and apartments, those who are homeless and hungry. The voices are all around us. The question then becomes, will we listen, remember and act?
My challenge to us for this day then is this, to ask ourselves, am I listening like God, listening to those in this world who are crying out in distress, then remembering who I am and then acting to make a difference in their lives?
Thy Will be Done: Hospitality
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 3, 2021
Exodus 2:16-22; Mark 3:31-35
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Have you ever felt like you were all alone? Have you ever felt like there was no one who understood you? Have you ever felt like the Michigan fan who finally scored a ticket to the Michigan-Michigan State game, but your seat was in the middle of the Michigan State band? If you have ever felt that way you know exactly how Moses felt in our morning’s story. To understand this, let’s recap Moses’ life to this point. When Moses was an infant, his Hebrew mother placed him in a basket hoping against hope that he would not be killed by Pharaoh’s forces. Through an act of caring, baby Moses was saved by the daughter of the Pharaoh. Moses is nursed by his Hebrew mother and then raised in the palace as an Egyptian. His name carries both Egyptian and Hebrew meanings. He knows he is an outsider in the palace even though he dresses and acts like an Egyptian. One day when Moses wanders out of the palace, he kills an Egyptian who is abusing a Hebrew, perhaps because he feels some kinship with the Hebrew. The next day though, Hebrew slaves essentially threaten to turn him in to the authorities. Moses then flees Egypt. Moses is a man without a country, a family, or an identity.
This is where our story picks up this morning. Moses, a very confused young man, is wandering in the wilderness and comes upon a well. At the well are some Midianite women who had come to draw water for their father’s flocks. Some other shepherds drive the woman and their flocks away. Moses, being a man of justice, intervenes, drives off the shepherds and helps the women water their flocks. The women return home and tell their father, Reuel, about the incident at the well. Reuel is appalled that his daughters did not show appropriate hospitality and invite their Egyptian protector home. Now a brief word about hospitality. Hospitality, simply put, is treating a stranger like family, or helping an outside become an insider. This is something that was commonly practiced among most desert cultures. Reuel tells his daughters to go and get the man. Moses is quickly not only treated like family, but he is also made family through marriage. It would be nice to say that this act of hospitality allowed Moses to find himself and he lived happily ever after as a Midianite, but this is not so. And we know this is not so because of the name he gave his first son, Gershom, meaning, “I am an alien who has been and continues to reside in a foreign land.” In some ways Moses was now even more confused. Was he Hebrew, Egyptian, or Midianite?
Two questions that the book of Exodus forces us to ask then are, does Moses ever find his forever family and does he ever feel like he belongs? The answers to these questions are only found thirty chapters later in Exodus…and we shall turn to them now. For most of the Book of Exodus, the answers to these two questions are no. Moses is the ultimate outsider. He is not accepted by the Egyptians. He is not fully accepted and is looked on with suspicion by the Hebrews. In fact, whenever things go badly for Moses in his dealings with the new Pharaoh or with the Hebrews, Moses says to God, these Hebrews are your people, I have had enough of them. It is as if Moses sees himself as a turn-around CEO with no long-term connection to the company. But that will all change because of the great Golden Calf incident.
The Golden Calf incident begins simply enough. Moses has gone up the mountain to get some more rules and regulations from God. The people watch him ascend and the fire and smoke of God descend. For a while the people are patient, waiting for Moses to return. When he doesn’t, they decide they need a new leader and a new God. They choose Aaron for their leader and quickly manufacture Golden Calf for their God. With those actions the Hebrew people have divorced God. They have chosen to be strangers and outsiders to God. They have declared that they are no longer God’s children, God’s family. To say the least, God is not pleased with this turn of events and so makes Moses an offer. “Moses”, God says, “Listen, these people have divorced me, and so I will start over with you and your family and make a great nation of you. How does that sound?” In that moment, something happens inside Moses. I would argue that he remembers his struggle to find a forever family and how impactful was Reuel’s offer of hospitality. And so Moses asks God for an act of radical hospitality. Moses asks God to forgive the Hebrews and welcome them back home; to turn these strangers into family and these outsiders into insiders. In one of the Bible’s greatest acts of hospitality, God does so and that action changes Moses. I say this because for the first time in Exodus, Moses refers to the people as “us” and “we”. It is in that act of God’s radical hospitality that Moses finds his forever family.
It is that same kind of radical hospitality that is at the heart of our Jesus story out of Mark this morning. The people gathered around Jesus are outsiders. As Galileans they are looked down upon by other Jews. They are ridiculed for their accents. They have been dispossessed by the wealthy of their lands. They wonder if they are still part of God’s family. And so, when Jesus’ family arrives and tells Jesus it is time for him to come home and resume his duties as the eldest child, he uses it as a teachable moment about hospitality. He says, pointing to the crowd, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.” This is the radical hospitality of God. All are welcome. All are invited. All can find their forever family in and through Jesus.
This my friends, is who God is. God is the God of hospitality. God is the God of open arms. This, my friends, is also what this table is all about. This is the table of radical hospitality. This is the meal of forever family. This is the moment when Jesus opens his arms wide and invites all who feel like they are outsiders, to come inside. This is the moment when Jesus opens his arms wide and makes strangers into family. So, if you are feeling as if you are alone; as if you have no family, as if you are an outsider; then come to the table and find your forever family. My challenge to you this morning is this, when we take the elements to say, “I am home. I am loved. I have found my forever family.”