Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Name Game

The Name Game

Exodus 3:1-15

Robert J. Elder

11th Sunday after Pentecost: August 28, 2011

When we read stories in Exodus like this account of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, if we are like lots of other people, we may think of them as, well, stories about Moses. It may appear that one of the main reasons for the second book of the Bible is to recall the activities of Moses. We may think this story tells us about Moses’ religious experience in the desert, about his reluctance to follow God’s call to go free the people in Egypt. Seeing things from the human point of view, we think the story is about Moses.

Silly us.

That might explain the amount of ink spilled over the centuries in efforts to explain Moses’ state of mind when he came on the bush that burned and was not consumed. There have been tiresome modern attempts to describe Moses’ psychological condition at the time he encountered the burning bush. There have been some who have held forth at length on Moses’ repressed guilt for having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster, some who speculated on whether he had a speech impediment, others who believe they have found him to have been a mystic, and still a few more who have seen him as a crusading agent of political liberation for an enslaved people.

I’m not ready to deny that Moses could have been any or all of these things. He might well have been suffering from repressed guilt, he could easily have been a mystical revolutionary held back only by a halting ability at public speaking. He might have been these things and others besides, but I don’t find as much help in scripture for pursuing those biographical leads about Moses as others seem to do. When I turn to this story of his encounter with God at the bush on Mount Horeb, I am struck not so much by what it tells me about Moses, as what it tells me about God. It seems to me that for all our understandable curiosity about the figure of Moses, that is not the main purpose of scripture. This is a story in which we discover some of the most important things about God that can be found anywhere in the Bible. To miss that by dwelling too much on the quirks and foibles of Moses is to miss a great deal.

Would you like a clear description of the God we worship, the one Jesus confessed? Would it be helpful to know how God goes about working with people he calls as his servants, even those who answer reluctantly? Just what sort of God do we know through the testimony of scripture and the witness of the church? This passage supplies us with a pretty thorough profile on these questions if we will just pay attention.

This is the God who calls out, reaches out,

moves toward us, takes initiative (vs. 4).

In the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, we discover a God who always takes the first step toward his people. For all the Hollywood attempts to make this Bible scene terrifying and dramatic, I believe we are meant to be struck more by the ordinariness of it, because that is the kind of time when God calls out to us, plain old ordinary time. Moses was simply the fugitive son-in-law of a fellow who owned some sheep, sheep which Moses took to the greener pastures around Mount Horeb. He was not on a spiritual quest, and he likely thought the day was going to go by like any shepherd’s other. If this was the mountain of God, it was going to come as news to Moses.

In the middle of ordinary time, while we were yet sinners, it is on a day that is just like any other day there ever was, that God moves toward us, reaches out to us, calls us. We don’t have to wait for some special place or time, some sacred site, some holy day. On a day like any other, God’s gesture is extended toward us, beckoning us. It is never the wrong time to find the call of God addressed to us. This is the God who calls us in the middle of the very sort of world we live in.

This is the God who was known by those who went before us,

by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (vs. 6)

God was known by Grandma and Grandpa, by old Uncle Lou, by Pastor Perkins, and by our 7th grade Sunday School teacher. He comes to us through family, our network of relationships is one of God’s most effective vehicles for self-revelation. God has cared for those who went before. Now God will care for us. If we can believe that God was active in those past times both inside and beyond the accounts of scripture, then this declares that same God is the very one who steps up and is willingly self-revealed to us.

This is the same God that is known by that great cloud of witnesses, who, according to the letter to the Hebrews, have gone before us. We don’t have to step outside the faith that has been handed down to us from patriarchs and apostles and disciples. There is no need to reinvent God in our own image. This is the God who was known to those who came before us, and who wishes to know us just as he has known our fathers and mothers in the faith.

This is the God who has seen misery, heard cries of anguish,

knows what it is to suffer (vs. 7).

A close friend once shared with me the grief he went through when his father was dying.[1] His father had a rather long battle with cancer, and so he could see the end coming quite some time before it arrived. He said that one day someone who knew of his father’s condition brought him a copy of C.S. Lewis’ short book, A Grief Observed, saying, “I want to go through this with you.” Later, my friend picked up the phone and called, saying “Do you want to go through it now?” “Through what?” she asked. “Through the book you gave me.” But she said, “Oh, I didn’t mean the book. I meant the loss of your father.” That is what she wanted to “go through with him.”

So few people are open to that need to “go through” suffering with others. Often, our inclination is to run the other direction from suffering. But the ones who know grieving best, who are most intimately acquainted with it from their own lives’ experiences of loss, are frequently the ones who are able to help the most. They are the ones who in “going through it with us” go through their own grief as well and seek with us the transformation that “going through it” rather than going around or avoiding it can bring. God is like that friend. God sees, hears, knows suffering. And God says to Moses, as God says to us, “I have come...” I want to go through this with you. This is the God who sees, hears, knows who we are and knows what we suffer.

This is the God who acts not so much to erase suffering

as to transform it (vss. 8-10).

When I was in college, one guitarist we all knew, whose talent clearly placed him in a league beyond any run-of-the-mill top-40 player, was Eric Clapton. Clapton has had the sort of rugged life of big-time stardom and hard-time drug abuse that characterizes so many who emerged out of the 1970’s music scene. But then, by the 1990s, he seemed to have straightened his life around. Then one summer, his four year-old son, Conor, ran to an open window in his mother’s high-rise apartment in New York City and fell to his death.

Since that day, one news report said ­­– rather snidely, I thought – that Clapton “has sought support through religion, therapy, and Alcoholics Anonymous.”[2] I don’t pretend to know what spiritual resources Clapton lays claim to, but I know pain when I hear it, and one of his subsequent songs – one of the most unlikely top-40 hits I have ever heard – was filled with it. Listen to some of the words he sang to his dead boy:

Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?

Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong, and carry on,

‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand, if I saw you in heaven?

Would you help me stand, if I saw you in heaven?

I’ll find my way, through night and day,

‘cause I know I just can’t stay here in heaven.

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.

Time can break your heart, have you beggin’ “Please,”

beggin’ “please.”

Beyond the door, there’s peace, I’m sure,

and I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.

These are the sorts of questions and observations only grieving parents could bring themselves to ask. Someone once said to me, “When a loved one dies, it is a feeling like no other.” And it is true. Morning after morning, we awake to the knowledge that the one who once was here is now gone, irretrievably. Yet somehow, after time, an occasional morning will come and go, and we are startled with the realization that we haven’t given a thought to our loss. It may first strike us as if we were guilty of disloyalty. How could I forget? But we don’t ever forget, not really. I have seen tears over the loss of a spouse thirty years after the actual death, which struck me as fresh as the tears shed over yesterday’s grief. We never really forget, our suffering is never really erased.

But it can be transformed. Not invariably, but we have seen it happen. The knowledge of a certain pain can transform a person into one who is more sensitive to the pain of others. This is not to say that God sends pain to us. Nor is it to say that suffering inevitably builds character. Some people react terribly, become embittered. But I think there is the possibility that God can empower us, bit by bit, day by day, to live through the pain, and to appreciate, even grow because of the difference it has made in us. This is the God who can make all things new, even the old news of suffering and loss.

This is the God who takes our own limitations and fears seriously (vss. 11-14).

God met each of Moses objections to the call to go to Egypt by taking them seriously. As soon as it became clear that God had a job for Moses, Moses went from saying, “Here am I,” to “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God never says, “Never mind that now, just go and do what I tell you.” Throughout this story, God takes each of Moses’ objections with utter seriousness, and answers in kind. To Moses’ question “Who am I?” God answers, “I will be with you.” What you say, you say for me. So it doesn’t matter who Moses is so much as who God is. This is the God who takes us seriously, and makes our shortcomings irrelevant by the abundant availability of his power to bring to pass the new thing he has in mind for us and for our people.

This passage tells us so much about the nature of this God, that by the time God gets around to telling Moses the name by which he can be known, it is almost unnecessary. The literal translation of God’s name means, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” And just what is that? Refer back to verses 6 through 14: I am the God who calls, the God who was worshipped by those who came before you, the God who knows fully what human misery is about and yet who acts to transform that misery into new life, the God who takes seriously the partnership God has entered with human beings. If you want to know the name of God, look for one who is revealed in those ways.

Look especially to Jesus on the cross, in the tomb, and raised from the dead, because this became God’s most powerful way of declaring solidarity with us in all our humanity, and transforming suffering into victory over death.

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] George Chorba, “You Are...”, a sermon preached at 1st Presbyterian Church, New Vernon, NJ.

[2] Newsweek, March 23, 1992, p. 53..

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gone Wandering 5: The Best of All Is Yours

Gone Wandering 5: The Best of All Is Yours

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

20th Sunday in Ordinary time: August 14, 2011

Genesis 45:4-20 (-28)

If we were going to make a modern film of the story of Joseph, we might be tempted to take the sort of liberties with the original narrative for which Hollywood has become famous. Remember, it is Hollywood that has turned such classics as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from a tale of tortured 19th century guilt over sexual indiscretion into the sort of modern R-rated film that would have caused Hawthorne to blush and run from the room. It is Hollywood that transformed Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame from a dark and brooding story ending in tragic death into a cartoon tale of bright songs and happy endings.

So, being possessed of such artistic license, we might take another look at the story of Joseph. What would be the motive running the narrative if Hollywood were to write the script? It would be revenge!

We could cast Matt Damon in the part of Joseph; Harrison Ford is old enough now to play Jacob; Justin Bieber could be the youngest brother, Benjamin; Keifer Sutherland as the waffling eldest brother Reuben; and maybe someone like John Malkovich as scheming Judah. We might then make the ending of the Joseph saga go more like this:

So, many years after they threw him into a ditch to leave for dead, years after they pulled him out of that terrifying pit only to sell him as a slave to a passing tribe of Bedouin traders, Joseph is only too happy to see the faces of his evil brothers again. They come to him in Egypt, hats in hands as it were, to beg for a bit of food to feed their starving people back home in Canaan. They do not know that the all-powerful representative of Pharaoh to whom they address their requests is none other than the very brother they had as good as left for dead so many years ago.

On that day, tied to that Bedouin trader’s camel, bound hand and foot, Joseph looked his brothers in the eye as they rode off and, quoting an older anti-hero, muttered, “I’ll be back!” But this was even better. He didn’t have to travel back home to make good on his threat. They had come to him. He had them right where he wanted them. The irony of it was too good to be true. His chance for sweet revenge stood right before him.

After toying with them for a time, forcing them to perform a handful of degrading tasks, then threatening their little brother with capture, Joseph finally revealed himself to them. He dropped his regal face down close to theirs and growled, “Don’t you know me? I’m your very own brother!”

After a brief gasp of recognition, swords were drawn instantly, once the ten realized the danger this one they had thought long dead now represented to them. Surely he would kill them like worms. Their lives weren’t much, yet they realized their only hope for such lives as they had would be to fight their way out of the Egyptian court. They would have to make plans on the run from there, if they managed to get out alive. Reuben – the cowardly eldest who on that fateful day so long ago had failed to stand up for his youngest brother, only lamely suggesting that they not kill Joseph – Reuben now lived to regret his long-forgotten moment of compassion. Joseph dispatched him first with a fierce swing of his broadsword. Then he turned on the others, all but young Benjamin, who wouldn’t have been much help in a Pillsbury bake-off, much less a sword fight. Benjamin spent the next half hour cowering in the corner, whimpering.

One by one they came at Joseph, and one-by-one, his excellent swordplay and superior weapon dispatched each maniacally bad brother to his well-deserved fate, until at last he was face-to-face with his real nemesis: Judah. Judah was the evil one who had not only come up with the idea of selling his own brother – he had personally dispatched his own sons when they displeased him, and killed one of his daughters-in-law. This was a bad man. After a furious fight, where the two combatants spun through the room, tearing at every drape and smashing every bit of crockery that was at hand, Joseph looked him in the eye and said only, “Hasta la vista, Baby!” before dispatching him.

Afterward, Joseph rescued his innocent brother, Benjamin, rounded up his wives, and went back to his father Jacob where they lived happily ever after.

Cue the music. Roll the credits.

That might be the way Hollywood would prefer to play on a story so ripe for the revenge motif, isn’t it? But that’s not how it went, was it? On one level, our passage celebrates something very unusual that happened in the life of this peculiar family. On another level, it celebrates something much bigger, standing as a sign of God’s loving grace that until that day had been only a dream in the mind of a slave boy in the Pharaoh’s employ.

After all the teasing and testing, most of which we did not get to read because it would take up too much time (you may want to go home and catch up on the rest of the story this afternoon), after all that the moment came when Joseph’s brothers, appearing before their former victim in a scene rich with irony and potential for revenge, Joseph’s brothers knew to their horror who it was that stood before them, clothed with the authority of the Pharaoh. This one they had believed was long dead by their own violence against him now stood before them with the power of life and death over them. And in that moment, Joseph did an unexpected thing, the sort of unpredictable thing that makes for the sort of story which could be remembered for 30 or 40 centuries. He did not pull out a sword, he did not call down the guards on his hapless former tormentors, he simply cried out to them instead, “Come closer to me!”

He laid aside the marks of his office, his royal authority, his golden robe, his magnificent turban, and in their place he reclaimed the office which he had craved ever since he last laid eyes on them, the role of son to his father, brother to his siblings: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Old Jacob, who got this whole story rolling. Was he still alive? It was a way of asking, “Is there still a family in which I may be a brother, a son again?”

When I was a young boy scout, I found myself on a long hike with some of my scouting friends. The talk turned to another scout who was not walking with us. Pete, the son of our pastor, was my friend. But because others I was with started bad-mouthing him, I joined right in. I found myself going on the way gossipers do when the person whose character they are assassinating isn’t within earshot, and had just said something like “He thinks he’s too good for us because his father is the minister,” when who should step out from behind a tree just ahead of us but Pete! I was mortified, but only for an instant.

Without missing a beat, Pete – a mature 13 year-old to my young 12 – said, “Aw Rob, you don’t mean any of that,” and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked on. It was a moment of grace I never forgot and never shall. As Joseph said to his brothers when his father, Jacob “was gathered to his people,” as the Old Testament described his death, “Do not be afraid! ... Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good...”[1] My comments must have been intended to do hurt and to harm, but my friend Pete absorbed them in his goodness. Probably part of my penance is that I would one day become a pastor and repeat this story on myself.

Joseph prefigures the work of Jesus in an important way, doesn’t he? In Jesus’ earthly ministry, God set aside his divinity and took up humanity. In Christ God set aside righteous vengeance toward those who have wronged him, and took up forgiveness and reconciliation instead. Faced with the pure goodness of God, we may be only too aware of our failures, our shortcomings, our inabilities to love fully, our submission to hatreds both petty and profound, we may fear evil at the hand of God and desire to run away, to separate ourselves from him. But in the person of Jesus, God turns to us instead and says, “Come closer to me.” Coming close enough to us really to know us, God fell upon us and wept with us in Jesus, and weeps with us still for all the distance we so stubbornly place between ourselves and God in every single day of our lives. God weeps, and yet God repeats, “It is I, Joshua ben Joseph, Jesus, son of Joseph, your brother. What you meant for evil, I turn to good. Come closer to me.”

copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Genesis 49:33 and 50:19-20.