“The Imagination of Grace”
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham
by Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21
Perhaps one of the reasons I like stories about Moses is he was as rootless as I am.
He was born of a Hebrew mother while she was being held in exile with her people in Egypt, adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and given an Egyptian name, and then ended up on the run because he killed an Egyptian guard trying to defend one of the Hebrew slaves. The reasons for my life of moving around are not quite so colorful, but I resonate with his struggle to find his place. We pick up his story this morning as he is herding his father-in-law’s flocks as a means of laying low – of taking care of himself – when God shows up in a bush that was burning, but was not burning up to call Moses out of his anonymity and self-absorption and back into community: “Go and bring my people out of Egypt.”
From the time I first heard this story as a child, I have been fascinated with Moses’ ability to talk back to God. After seeing the burning bush and hearing God’s call, Moses responds, “But why me?” The flames did not burn off either his self-absorption or his insecurity. He was wounded and hurt and alone and struggled to hear the pain of the Hebrew people over his own. Besides, what good had it done to stand up before? Why couldn’t God pick someone else?
Moses talked back to God, and God answered, calling Moses out of himself, to which Moses responded with a second question: “Whom shall I say sent me?” And – this was one of my favorite parts of the story as a kid – God replied, tell them my name is I AM WHO I AM. To the ears of a young boy, God sounded an awful lot like Popeye: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am . . . .” Though translating exactly how God was identifying God’s self presents some challenges in translating from Hebrew to English, one way to read it is God said, “Tell them the verb TO BE sent you.” Tell them you’ve been sent by the Present Tense. Somewhere in God’s answer, Moses moved the focus of his life from his pain and his past and found the courage to listen and respond to God’s call to solidarity in the present tense with the pain of the people in bondage. The story finished quite dramatically, as you know, with Moses leading the people out of Egypt and into freedom.
It’s easy, I suppose, to see the story as finished there, as though the pattern is God sees a problem and calls someone to come forth and fix it. But Moses led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness, into wandering around for forty years trying to figure out who they were together. Life, even in Bible stories, has never been simple.
And what of our present tense? As we are gathered here, Hurricane Irene is lashing her way up the East Coast leaving damage and despair in her wake. People in Japan are still hurting from the earthquake and tsunami from months ago. Over a year later, thousands of people in Haiti are still living outdoors. Birmingham will take years to recover from the tornadoes. New Orleans still bears the scars of Katrina. In Somalia and Kenya, people are dying in a famine that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. The genocides in Darfur and Congo continue as well. Our congressional leaders act in a way that makes middle school playground fights seem mature and they offer policies that have little regard for the poor in our country even as they do what they can to protect the rich. Our schools suffer from a lack of funding and concern. Ginger came back from Israel with pictures of the forty-foot high concrete wall the Israelis built to isolate the Palestinians, while we build walls and fences with our rhetoric about immigration in our country. Our city struggles with crime and violence. Our own faith partner is homeless and unemployed. And we could go around the room and speak of enough pain and grief and struggle to keep us all wondering what to do next.
How should we then live? In the face of all that is a part of our lives, who is God calling us to be in a world we can’t fix?
When I was a hospital chaplain in Dallas many years ago, my supervisor was talking to us about who we were to be in that universe of grief and illness we could not fix and he quoted a line from Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Our call, he said, was to be present. To stay past the point of our comfort. To trust God could use us in ways we could not see.
To live in the present tense means, first, to stay present. Karl Barth suggested the best way we could live out our faith was to live with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. The passage Bob read from Romans offers more specifics on how we might do so. Listen again, this time from the translation called The Message:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
Several of the commentators I read this week pointed out that there are over thirty imperatives in this passage, which might lead us to respond much like Moses did: “Who are we to live like that?” It makes me think of the words of G. K. Chesterton, who said, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” I’m not sure I’m willing to go quite that far, but he’s on to something. God’s grace calls us to live beyond ourselves and into community, which calls us to a commitment to looking for new eyes and new ways of thinking. Listen to this story from Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist.
I was in Baghdad in March 2003, where I lived as a Christian and as a peacemaker during the “shock-and-awe” bombing. I spent time with families, volunteered in hospitals and learned to sing “Amazing Grace” in Arabic.
There is one image of the time in Baghdad that will never leave me. As the bombs fell from the sky and smoke filled the air, one of the doctors in the hospital held a little girl whose body was riddled with missile fragments. He threw his hands in the air and said, “This violence is for a world that has lost its imagination.” Then he looked square into my eyes, with tears pouring from his, and said, “Has your country lost its imagination?”
We, are who are created in the image of God, in the image of the verb TO BE, are called to live with the imagination of those who have been captured by the wondrous raging fury that we call the grace of God, trusting that the God who burns bushes and opens hearts can use our hands and feet and minds and hearts to bring healing in our world. What the commentators called imperatives are invitations to the imaginative.
Katherine Matthews Huey writes:
I’m the first to admit that I find Paul’s words hard to live by, but then that was the point about grace, wasn’t it? If we opened ourselves up to the Spirit of God at work in the world, through us, loving one another, listening to one another, hoping and sharing and forgiving and not being so proud and self-righteous, welcoming one another (and their perspectives), returning gentleness and kindness for every wrong, well, . . . it would be a new kind of triumph over evil: by civility and hospitality rather than by force. Of course, it would also be a whole new way of doings things, wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing to behold?
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “and every common bush afire with God: but only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
the rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.” Let us pray, as we live in a world ablaze in need and pain, that we would see with the eyes of those doused in the imagination of grace, of those who know we are called to live life together in every circle of our lives from our families to our neighbors to the connections to those we don’t even know. Amen.