In Line With Moses & Peter - Exodus 3:1-15 - Year A, Proper 17
On Monday morning Camden and I boarded a train and then a bus as we headed into D.C. We were on our way to the Ministers March for Justice, a rally beginning at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and ending at the Department of Justice. Organizers of the event had been expecting 1000 clergy from across the religious landscape of America to attend. By 11:00 3000 clergy had registered and were assembled on the south side of the National Mall, plus my 4 year old. I would be lying if I told you that my original plan was to take Camden with me, that would make for a heroic, great sermon illustration but it would be a farce. The original plan was to drop Camden off with his great grandmother, my Ahmama, but through Ahmama’s unwillingness to read my mind, or my forgetfulness, Ahmama was not given advance warning. So off to D.C. Camden and I went together. Even while not being fully independent on this trip to D.C. I knew Camden and I would make it work. Given enough snacks, water, and an Orioles baseball cap, Camden is a pretty durable kid. And if those things did not work, there was always the bribe of ice cream (which, as Allison would tell you works for both Camden and I).
Whether we are marching in D.C. or moving up the rungs of life, the idea of independence for ourselves is a temptress that many of us strive to achieve. We show up for work as young adults because we desire financial independence from our parents. We work hard so we can become the boss; liberating ourselves from the bosses, who does not know much of anything, let alone how to run an efficient office or project. We choose to live in neighborhoods without a homeowners association that dictates the color of our front doors or the number of vehicles that can parked in one's front yard. And, we choose to drop our kids off with loving family members so that we do not have to carry them from one side of D.C. to the other.
Our scripture reading this morning is a familiar one: Moses and the burning bush. Last week, Rev. Kate Floyd of Arlington Commons, a new United Methodist faith community in Ballston, shared with us about Moses' birth and the courageous midwives who ensured Moses along with other Israelites babies were not slaughtered by Pharaoh's command. In between the midwives of last week and Moses standing in front of a burning bush this week a lot has happened. Moses has killed an Egyptian man who was beating an Israelite slave, forcing Moses to flee from Pharaoh's reach in Egypt, settling in Midian and marrying the daughter of an influential priest. Moses being forced to leave Egypt might have been a setback for Moses, a stumble, but he kept moving towards independence, even while he was residing in an alien land. He married into an influential family, was living comfortably outside of Pharaoh's reach, and as a shepherd would have had few responsibilities.
Like Moses, even when we stumble, we do our best to gather ourselves, moving back on to the path of independence, the path we have carefully charted out and are attempting to follow with laser-like precision. Even when we take a step back, either because we killed an abusive Egyptian, or because we stumbled over our best-laid plans, we can typically get back on track, moving back towards the independence we desperately desire. We often find though, just as Moses did, that God has other plans for our lives.
While Moses was minding his own business, tending to his father-in-law's flocks, an angel of the Lord and then God appears to him in a burning bush. This is no ordinary encounter for Moses or for God (is any encounter with God ordinary?). Not only is this encounter visible, designed to get Moses' attention, but God speaks to Moses in three parts. First, there is a summons to get Moses' attention and let him that not only is God speaking but that God is speaking to him. Second, God asserts God's holiness so that Moses will know everything is being changed in that moment. Finally, God provides identification, connecting and assuring Moses that this is the god of his ancestors.
In this moment, God is disrupting the independence Moses had created from Egypt, the life Moses had made for himself. In this moment everything changes. Moses is told that the safe life he was making for himself in Midian as a shepherd would end abruptly as he was being sent back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites from their captors. In this moment God is telling Moses that the independence he was seeking would be no more. Moses tries to convince God that he is unworthy of the task. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring my people out of Egypt," Moses asks, questioning his own ability to complete the task set before him. In God's response, Moses independence turns to dependence, dependence upon the divine, "I will be with you."
Returning to Egypt, liberating Israel from slavery, is not something Moses will be able to do on his own. Moses, while stepping out, returning to Egypt, back within Pharaoh’s reach, will be taking a step back, a step behind God and the plan God had to liberate the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The will Moses had for his own life was now being put on hold for the will of God.
There is a story in Matthew's Gospel that echoes this Exodus reading:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” - Matthew 16:21-28 (NRSV)
What does it mean to pick up your cross and follow Jesus?
During the time Matthew was writing his gospel, to follow a rabbi would have been a lifelong commitment to learning his teachings and live a life mirroring that of the one you were following. Giving up oneself so that you could fully follow. Like Moses giving up the life he had in Midian to follow God to Egypt, so too are the disciples of Jesus. The problem though is our desire to be independent, our desire to be child-free during a march, moves our position from behind Jesus to being out in front of him. The story of Moses and the burning bush changes if Moses does not follow God, giving into the question, “who am I?” and not return to Egypt. Our following of Jesus changes when we act as Peter did, rebuking Jesus, and telling Jesus how we want things to turn out.
Moses passively and actively responded to God's calling in the burning bush. Passively responding by acknowledging God's divinity, faithfully witnessing to the call placed on Moses' life and actively responding by being a leader among those whom he was sent to liberate. So too is the practice of cross-bearing for followers of Christ. But as Frederick Bruner, professor of religion at Whitworth University, notes, "'Mainline churches' (that's us at Mount Olivet) have tended to stress the passive" and in doing so we are missing out on the invitation of Christ extended to his disciples, a similar invitation that was extended to Moses.
When we accept the invitation to take up the trials and troubles that come in the life of discipleship and bear them bravely as Jesus we are accepting the passive piece of cross-bearing. But active cross-bearing calls us to something different. Active cross-bearing calls us to lose our independence entirely, submitting to the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms we are striving to build for ourselves. Jesus told his disciples, "For those who want to save their life will lose it." We have the choice. Discipleship is a choice we make. Discipleship, following Jesus, is a decision that enables us to turn away from the independence we seek and live a life without the self-aggrandizing independence tells us we need.
Following Jesus will mean something different for each of Jesus' disciples, and only through the Holy Spirit will we each discover what that means. But following Jesus is about more than following his teachings. It is about following him to Jerusalem. It is about dying to ourselves, our independence, and through the waters of baptism finding new life in the Resurrected One. It is about following God off Mount Horeb and returning to the place you fled.
Now I do not mean to insinuate that taking Camden to the Ministers March for Justice was a burden-some cross to carry. Sure, carrying a 4 year old for most of the day, in August humidity, was not the most glamorous thing to do but when Camden asked me why we were there and I had to explain to him what has been going in our country as best I could to a 4 year old, and he responded with bewilderment because as he put it, "God loves everybody" the cross was laid before me.
In the end we have a choice to make. Moses could have ignored God. Peter could have stayed in front of Jesus. I could have left Camden at home with Allison while she worked or we could have simply stayed home. Taking up our crosses and following God is not self-denial so much as chocolate or social media during Lent, but rather a decision to let another Lord rule your life. A lord that even when we feel unworthy of the liberating task set before us is empowering and strengthening us.
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