-The following sermon was delivered by the Rev. Canon Dr. Marda Steedman Sanborn at the 2017 Convention Eucharist
I would have to confess, these are not necessarily kind of the scriptures I like to preach on – hatred, division, sin – and it kind of led us down a false path to begin with. We hear this loudly beautiful Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy, of the song of Moses, how the dew falls as the words of God, and just falls on fresh grass. Isn’t that just a lovely picture? And then it talks about how God is our rock. Oh, praise God! And I think now we are good to go. And then we move on.
So then I contemplated what I might say and I decided I wanted to start with Moses. And I want us to consider… We all know the story of Moses, it’s one of the earliest stories we learn in our childhood. Moses, the Israelite child, put in the bulrushes by his mother so he would not be killed, picked up by Pharaoh’s daughter, lived a life of great privilege. Gradually, then suddenly, what happened? What happened was he was tired of watching the abuse of the Israelites by Pharaoh’s soldiers, and he could take it no more. He became in that moment an activist, and he decided, “I have to do something.” And so he interceded on behalf of the one being beaten.
He took action. He went too far, he murdered a person and then he ran away. How that is like us when we’re finally moved to be active and to respond out of a place of faith, and morality, and rightness. But it doesn’t go as smoothly as we had planned, as though we were the ones in control. And so he decided, “I’m outta here. They’re gonna find me, they’re gonna kill me. I want no part of that.”
So he went far, far away where he didn’t believe anyone could follow him, or anyone would care. Meets up with Jethro… We know this story, right? We’re familiar. And all of a sudden, after many, many years in the wilderness… He’s now a married man. He’s out tending the sheep, which is a place you can hide. It’s important work, but it’s not a place of activism. Maybe the sheep think so. They like to be nurtured and fed. However, all of a sudden one day, there is a phenomenon that he wanted to ignore. The bush caught fire. Now, I don’t know about you, but the first thing that I would have done is I would’ve thought to myself, “I think I’ve been with the sheep too long. I think I need to do a reality check. Oh my goodness, the bush is burning, but it’s not being consumed! That is not the natural order.”
I would not, probably, have approached the bush. I’m just saying, and I know that most of you wouldn’t have gone to the bush either. But he did. Something compelled him to move forward. I believe that is a step of faith. A step of responding to the move of the Holy Spirit deep within him, that it is once again time for action, “You have been fallow long enough, you need to step up, Moses.” So he hears the voice of God. Now most people who hear voices are institutionalized. Is not the Church an institution? Now I want you to realize exactly what Moses did. I know you know this story, I just want to emphasize parts of it. God said to him, “I need you to go back to Israel – back to Egypt – and save the Israelites.”
Moses’ first excuse, “Well, I’m not a very good speaker. I’m probably not the one that should be doing this.” And yet, after much argument with God – nowhere does it say in Scripture you cannot argue with God, he simply asks us to be obedient. We know this story. He goes. He does amazing things. He takes every risk necessary to follow the call of God in his life.
Now I want to challenge, Bill and Pat. Do you really know what you’re getting into today? You think, like Moses, you do and know every step. You think you have a plan for your life and your ministry. You are in for a surprise. Moses thinks, “Okay, God wants me to save these people. I’m going to go out and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to save these people.” And then he goes to Pharaoh and he says, “You need to let my people go.”
“Who do you think you are? You have no power here. You have no place to be talking to me in this manner.”
“Well, God says let my people go or there will be consequences.” You have to be prepared to stand in the gap. You have to be prepared to take the challenge, take the risk. It is risky business.
We know the outcome, he lets the people go after many miracles, after many plagues. And when he gets to the other side, it’s such a long journey into the wilderness. The people decide, “What have we allowed Moses to do to us?” And they begin to rebel. You think you’re going out into congregations where people will just jump up and want to follow you as you bring to them the situation in the world dancing on the edges, the fringes of society. You are to come back to the church and tell us what you see and what you experience in the world. To be a bridge for us, to challenge the rest of us and to motivate us to action. And some of us will follow. And some of us will say, “Well, I’m not getting called to do that. I don’t want to accept the challenge for the rest.”
Let me share with you a story. A story that one of my doctor friends shared with me many years ago. He was working with a family, a family with two children: a boy, seven, and a girl, twelve. And the girl was very ill, but one of those rare blood types. She needed a transfusion, and there was nothing in the blood bank that would be a good match for her. And as she grew sicker and sicker, of course they tested the parents, and they were not compatible. And they tested the parents’ siblings, and they were not compatible. They finally decided that they would test the blood of the seven-year-old, and they tried to explain what “blood transfusion” meant, but at seven you don’t really get it. And he was the match. So he began to provide for his sister the blood of life. Christ provides that for us, the blood of life. The blood that draws us together into one family, the healing blood of Christ, the blood that makes us whole, and makes us a family without division.
The doctor shared with me that during the transfusion, the little boy called him over to his bedside. And this is what he said to the doctor, “When will I die?” He thought that he had been asked to sacrifice his life for his sister’s wellness. And the doctor said, “No, no, you both will live.” He was willing at that very young age to take a risk that he thought would end in his death. Many of us are never prepared for that kind of risk, or that kind of challenge. And, yes, many times when we are called into a challenging place, or a place of risk, we don’t know the outcome. We cannot know it. The question is whether or not we will enter in.
We move to our next lesson when Paul tells us about the divisions. He talks about the temple in particular, and how we have this court of Gentiles and we have a court of women. And then we have the court of the Levites, and the court of the priests, and the Holy of Holies. And then marble walls, the barriers, from one court to the next. It says, “Death to you who go past this point.” It’s all about division and separation. Our world has been battling persecution, the separation for generations upon generations, and Jesus is the answer that says, “I have come to show you a way without division.” It is not to become one nation, that has never been the point. The point is that through Christ we can become one people of community. Not one nation.
We have heard the preaching. We have heard the teaching. Those who heard Jesus, heard the words of his Father. Those who chose not to listen, were told they have chosen sin. Because sin is about separation from God. He encouraged those to be willing to open themselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, to be able to recognize that they had to be able to step into the void, and to become something new. Something hope filled, welcoming, and initiating.
We have made strides to try to be better through Christ, and, honestly, we have failed. If you look around our society right now, there is still division. There is still hatred. There is still a willingness to say that, “If you cannot agree with me, I want no part of you.” But the challenge in the Scriptures today is about listening. About really listening, and listening to the heart. Being willing to do something beyond yourself. To be open to possibility, open to risk taking, open to challenge.
There’s a story, an experience that happened in a French cemetery in World War 2. There was a group of comrades who were carrying one of their members who had died. They went in to the French cemetery, and they talked to the priest because they wanted their friend buried. They didn’t want him left behind. And the priest asked one question, “Is he Catholic?” And they said they didn’t know. And he said, “I am really sorry, but you cannot bury him here.” So they opted to bury him just outside the fence of the cemetery. They buried him themselves. And they came back to check on him in the morning, to say goodbye before they went on with their mission, and they could not find the grave. They searched, “How could this be? We buried him right outside the fence.” The priest came out to them and he said, “I had a very rough night. I pondered what I had done, and how I had made a decision. And so I got up in the middle of the night, and personally I moved the fence to take him in.”
It has been said that there is enough room in the world for all the people in it, but there is not enough room for the fences that divide us. We need to be compassionate and caring. And we need to go outside what we think is proper, or normal, or right. We need to listen to that Spirit that is moving within us. That is the challenge of all of us, and part of our Baptismal Covenant. None of us are released from that.
When we look at the Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that, “The world hates you because it hates me. But you… You need to love one another. You need to be something different.” The reason that the world hated Christians in Jesus’ time and after, is that they didn’t understand us. They thought that we were incendiaries. That we broke up families, and that we actually were guilty of. That we were immoral because we had agapes. And they thought that we were cannibals because we broke and ate the bread, the bread of life, the body of Christ. What does that mean to us? To be one in the body and blood of Christ. To be united in that service. Sometimes we are unwilling to say, “I don’t know.” Better yet, we are unwilling to say, “I may be wrong.” Dig ourselves in.
Well, I’m gonna add a story about who’s right and who’s wrong. In World War 2, we had almost a major collision. The captain of one of the destroyers radioed to another ship approaching him and said, “You need to move 40 degrees to the north.” And the voice came back, “No, you need to move 40 degrees to the north.” And they went back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth several times. Finally, the captain of the destroyer was furious, and he said, “I am the captain of a US destroyer! Move 40 degrees to the north!” And the voice, almost in panic because they were so close, said, “Well, I am Seaman First Class, you move 40 degrees to the north!” And they continued, rapidly toward one another. Finally the Seaman said, “I am Seaman First Class, and I am the lighthouse!”
There were, never in that conversation, any questions been asked. It was merely by assumption. Merely by assumption. And power. I outrank you, you move. That ship had no control, it couldn’t move the lighthouse. And that’s what we do, we dig in. We hold firm in places where we should be running. Dude, let it go. Let it go. Embrace the love that is before us.
As deacons of the church, you will serve your bishop. He just said, “Will you obey your bishop?” I know a clergy who, before their ordination, thought long and hard before they answered that question. There was long pauses. ‘Cause you are giving up the freedom that you had as laypeople, and your life will never be the same. Doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, you cannot take off the yoke of ordination. Our stoles are yokes to remind us that we are connected forever with God. And you the deacon, will be connected to the bishop. Serving him, loving him, loving our people. And it’s important work. The way forward is the way of love.