Lent 3, 2019 I AM (a God of infinite compassion, and high expectations)
Beware of desiring to encounter the living God. Moses turned aside to see the bush that burned without being consumed. “Take off your shoes,” he was told. “The place you are standing is holy ground.” So he did. We all know what happened next, what responsibility was laid on him. It is a fearful thing to encounter the living God.
When Rick and I went on retreat at the Desert House of Prayer over the last two weeks, in theory we chose this place so we might better hear God’s voice in the silence, but I showed up wearing double knotted hiking boots over heavy socks – no bare feet for me! And yet at the first gathering for centering prayer, I was gently reminded that shoes must be removed and placed under the chairs before the session began. A sign there reads, “The desert will lead you to your heart, where I will speak.” Clearly I was torn between my desire to hear God speak, and my fear of actually doing so. Who is this God, and what might God ask of me?
“I AM who I AM,” God tells Moses. And Moses asks just who this “ I AM” is. Our creeds tell us: God is the Creator of heaven and earth, the Incarnate One, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who broods over creation and inspires our souls. But Moses didn’t have our written creeds, so God simply said, “I am the God of your ancestors.”
Through the words and witness of Jesus, and from the insights gained through science, we have a far bigger awareness of God than the Israelites could possibly have imagined. “God who IS” flung into space the whole universe: “galaxies, suns, moons, planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” The Kepler space telescope discovered that there are potentially 25 billion planets in the Milky Way alone where life could take hold, and the Milky Way is one among trillions of galaxies. God’s creative exuberance likely embraces a multitude of other worlds, and the eternally begotten Word may well be spoken in languages we can’t begin to fathom. “I am who I am throughout all generations.”
And yet this God of the Universe is also the God who is intimately concerned with our wellbeing, especially with the welfare of those in most desperate need. God doesn’t just dwell in the heavens, but is here, now, in this place. And God came to Moses because God saw the suffering of the Israelites, heard their cries, witnessed the racial profiling that sent every male Hebrew child to death by drowning – and God wanted Moses to help deliver them. What happens on this fragile planet matters to God.
That’s both the good and the scary part. If we seek God, God might find us, and ask something of us that we never imagined. In the Arizona desert, I turned aside to look for God in the red flame of a desert sunrise, and in the nest of baby rabbits outside my door, then I walked to the chapel of Our Lady of Solitude, took off my shoes, and in the deepening silence remembered how close we were to the border, where those in desperate need are denied, separated, incarcerated– and I knew that God was saying, “These, too, are my people. Let them go.”
The great I AM who spoke to Moses was made incarnate as Jesus, the Compassionate One who came to set all of us free, who took children in his arms and blessed them, who fed multitudes, who healed and loved and challenged those who followed him.
Today’s gospel is an example of God’s compassion, and our responsibility. Jesus makes very clear that those who were killed – whether by the brutality of Pilate, or that of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and New Zealand – and those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, or when a 737 MAX 8 fell out of the sky – were not sinners being punished, but beloved children of God. A political leader, Pilate, killed those people. Faulty construction brought that tower down. God does not wreak such horrors on the people of this Earth, this place to which he sent his own beloved Son.
Jesus says no to the idea that what we suffer is what we deserve. His warning isn’t “If you don’t repent, God will get you for that.” What Jesus is saying is that if we don’t take responsibility for the evils that surround us, those “evils done on our behalf,” if, for example, we don’t enact sensible gun laws, don’t call out by name the corrupt and brutal white supremacy that poisons our government and the right wing media, if the government shuts down when pilots and other airline safety executives warned of danger but safety fixes scheduled for January get postponed till April, if we cut health care and nutrition programs for children, if we legitimize those who deny climate change – if we don’t call things by their true names and work seriously, really seriously, to fix them, we will watch more people gunned down, more airplanes crash, more children die; the Earth itself wither and die.
That’s what Jesus means with, “If you don’t repent, you will all perish as they did.” Not because of what God does, but because of what we fail to do.
I realize all that sounds pretty bleak and overwhelming, but remember that God trusted Moses—Moses, a fugitive, a shepherd with a speech impediment — to free the Israelites from slavery, and God trusts us to take on the challenges of our time.
God has infinite faith in his beloved creation, and in us, his wayward creatures. God is a God of second chances, and more. Even with possibly billions of other inhabited worlds, God cherishes this one, cherishes us, longs for our wellbeing. Consider the parable of the fig tree. Maybe humanity isn’t bearing such good fruit right now in the history of the world, but if we learn to nurture the earth instead of ravaging it, rescue victims of abuse instead of blaming them, welcome strangers instead of incarcerating them, and continue to take delight in dawn skies and the coming spring, in the love of our families and friends, and in the gift of God’s Son Jesus, we will bear good fruit.
And remember God’s promise to Moses: “I will be with you.” We aren’t expected to undertake any this work on our own. After all, the response to our Baptismal Covenant is, “I will, with God’s help.”
This is Maine, in March, and I doubt any of us are likely to take off our boots or shoes, but right here and now, this Great Hall is holy ground. God is with us. God speaks to us. God asks something of us.
With a shaky voice, I answer, “I will, with your help.”