I read an article the other day, in which the author noted that the usual “This flood is God’s punishment for…” (fill in the blank) explanation is unusually muted in the aftermath of Harvey’s destruction. Apparently, the areas being flooded this time are the heartland of that particular brand of theology, and they aren’t quite willing to accept the “wrath of God” explanation when that wrath is falling on themselves! We are so willing to see something as a sign from God, as long as the consequences are felt by someone else.
I am always cautious about putting responsibility for things like Hurricane Harvey on God, and am never willing to claim that it’s some sort of punishment from God for our bad behavior. If we are going to look for a human cause, a discussion about climate change would be a lot more applicable. A lot more difficult, too, because it would mean accepting the ways in which we ourselves contribute to other peoples’ sorrows. At this point most of you have probably heard me challenge the “God has a plan” theology that tries to explain away suffering as part of some bigger, mysterious plan God has in mind. I know it brings comfort to some, but for many, myself included, it suggests God is a heartless bully, getting his* way while others suffer.
Instead I look for the ways in which God is seeking to redeem such events. I saw a snippet of a news story the other day about how people were taking their boats out into the flood waters to rescue people stuck in waist-high water in their homes. I watched as a man with a strong Hispanic accent helped an elderly white man up into his boat and reassured him he was safe now. I wondered if the man being helped had been a supporter of the movement to push the man helping him out of the country. And I burst into tears. For me, that was a sign. A sign of the kingdom of God breaking in, using the worst moments of our lives to open us up to the possibilities available to us, if we could just stop being afraid of each other.
In today’s readings, both Moses and Peter have to wrestle with what a sign from God might really look like—and what it demands of them.
We’ve jumped over quite a lot of the story to get from last week’s story of Baby-Moses-in-the-bulrushes to today’s Full-Grown-Moses-before-the-burning-bush. Without that part of the narrative, God’s call to Moses to return loses some of its impact.
Moses was out in the wilderness, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, because he was a fugitive. His decision to leave the privileged status of being a member of Pharaoh’s household was not a noble one. He was on the run. He had killed an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, and ran away when he knew he’d been discovered.
When he asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” is a lot more than false modesty. He just can’t see how anything he could say would make a difference. He had no moral high ground on which to stand.
God doesn’t let him off the hook. Every “I’m not good enough” argument Moses uses to try to get out of this call is met by the same basic answer from God: “I will be with you. I AM enough.”
God doesn’t promise it will be easy, or trouble-free. God just promises to be with him as he goes through it, and that he will get through it, and worship God on that very mountain. (I am still pondering what it means that worship is the goal.)
In contrast to the story of Moses that skips over an important piece of the narrative, our Gospel reading places a pause where there really shouldn’t be one. The story you heard today, of Peter trying to rebuke Jesus, loses something by being separated from the story you heard last week, when Simon names Jesus “The Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and in turn Jesus gives him the new name, Peter, meaning “rock,” and says that he will build his church on that foundation. For Jesus, this clarity from Peter is a sign that he can begin to explain what discipleship really means. Following Jesus is not about overthrowing the oppressor and riding triumphantly into a free Jerusalem.
Following Jesus means being willing to lose everything. Being willing to be identified with the poorest, the weakest, the marginalized. To see “the other” not as enemy to be feared, but as neighbor to be loved.
But Peter doesn’t get it. And suddenly the rock of Peter is not a foundation stone but a stumbling block, something trying to trip Jesus up as he looks toward Jerusalem and all that will happen there. Jesus will not be raised up on a throne, but on a cross.
Jesus says his followers will take up their cross and follow him. He is not talking about putting on a pretty piece of jewelry and counting on it to communicate to everyone of what we believe. He is saying that the way we show our faith is by setting our own comfort and safety aside, and walking where he leads us.
But be prepared, because despite what some prosperity preachers would like you to believe, Jesus doesn’t call us to be comfortable and secure. Jesus calls us to go where comfort and security have been lost, to be with the people who don’t know anything else, and be God’s sign to them that they are not alone. That God is with them.
I can’t leave the pulpit today without touching upon the second reading, that beautiful—and challenging—passage from Romans. After we read it at the Wednesday Eucharist, someone commented, “There it is. That’s what we need to be doing right now.”
She was right. We can’t overcome evil with more evil; we can’t overcome violence with more violence. The only way to counteract the bad in the world is by putting more good in it. Even that little bit at the end there, the bit about the burning coals on their heads, isn’t as brutal as it sounds. It’s a quotation from Proverbs, and it’s not literal; it’s a symbol of repentance.
Paul is saying that by following Jesus, staying grounded in God’s love no matter what is going on, by confronting hate and violence and fear with love—love-in-action—you will become the sign that leads to repentance for someone else. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not in a way that you will ever see. But I can only cling to the hope that eventually, all will see that God’s love casts out the fear that drives so much of the hate and violence. God’s love sustains us and empowers us. If we trust in God’s love, we will be brave enough to get into our little boats and go find the people in the flood and bring them to safety. If we are confident in God’s presence with us, we can go into Pharaoh’s courts and speak truth to power, trusting that sooner or later the Word will sink in.
I want to finish up by re-reading that passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s just so rich, and really does offer us a way to move through the world these days. I encourage you to just close your eyes and listen. Let it sink in, past your fears, past your defenses, past your self-doubts. Let it soak into your soul.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.