October 16, 2016 | Exodus 3: 1-15 | Rev. Wade Lifton –
Here are some words from poet Tom Barrett:
I can’t talk about God and make any sense,
And I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.
I think this is the best way to start a conversation about God.
This paradox of faith.
Talking about God
When I was very young, I had this idea that traffic lights in the city were all controlled by a person sitting in a room. I imagined this room with a control panel on all sides and there was a switch for every traffic light that this person flipped, one by one. When my family was in the car and the red light wasn’t changing I thought that the person had forgotten to flip our switch, and we were going to be stuck at this red light forever.
I don’t know where I got that idea or when it changed.
When it comes to talking about God,
we don’t always know where our images or understandings of God have come from.
We absorb ideas of God as children and as adults from conversations, movies, hymns, pop songs, sermons, art.
A common understanding of God is not that different than my idea about traffic lights,
this idea that God is a master controller.
When something happens in our lives that is difficult,
we may wonder what’s going on in the control room.
Have I been forgotten?
This God is usually portrayed as a man, a white man,
probably with a beard, sitting up in the clouds.
He also has some similarities to another white, bearded man.
He sees you when we’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
If you’re good you get a present and if you’re bad you get a lump of coal.
If you’re good you go to heaven. If you’re bad you go to hell.
We know this God.
For many people, churched or un-churched, this is still the image that comes to mind.
For some people, this still provides comfort and meaning and for many it does not.
When someone says something inappropriate and then says,
“I might get struck by lightening for that one,” that is a theological statement.
It’s a joke because there’s this shared idea that if you do something bad, you might get punished from above.
It’s heart-breaking that many people think
this is the only God that the church has to offer.
The poem we began with continues:
If I say the word God, people run away.
They’ve been frightened–sat on ’till the spirit cried “uncle.”
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can’t name.
They know God’s out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.
There is all this stuff in the way.
Some of this stuff has come from taking the bible at face value.
Following the Exodus story, we hear about the God who frees the people of Israel from oppression, who gives them manna in the desert and water from a rock.
Then one day God gets tired of their complaining and sends poisonous snakes after them. And that’s when God’s only mildly annoyed.
When God gets really upset there’s a flood that wipes everything out.
If we simply take these stories at face value,
then of course we run away from the word God.
If we don’t wrestle with the stories, get in there in the mucky parts and ask questions – Why did people tell this story? What were they trying to say about God and the world?
Does it have anything to say to our lives and our world?
If we don’t practice an active relationship with scripture,
then we’re left with a God who looks like Santa Clause,
and the Christian message is reduced to:
He knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.
Scripture: A buffet of images
These are very difficult stories,
and the gifts and challenges of these stories lie in how we read them,
how we engage with what we are reading.
Here is one of the greatest gifts of scripture –
there are endless images and descriptions of God. It is a smorgasbord feast:
God walks and talks with Adam and Eve in the garden.
Jesus says God is like a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.
In the Pentecost story the apostles experience the Holy Spirit
as a rushing wind and tongues of fire.
But the prophet Elijah sits in a cave while there’s a powerful wind and an earthquake and a fire, but God is not in the wind or earthquake or fire,
God is in the gentle whisper that came afterwords.
The bible shows us that God is named and experienced in endless ways.
Every week the words are read before the scripture,
inviting us to listen for the meaning these words hold for us on this day,
which is a way of honouring that these are living stories that we are in relationship with, not problems to be solved.
Faith is not about figuring out the sacred,
it is about being in relationship with the sacred.
The bible is a smorgasbord feast of testimonies to so many people’s relationship with God.
Faith is a relationship
I started going to camp when I was 8, and I remember loving going to the chapel for vespers every evening. After campfire we would walk to a little circle of benches in the forest, and as we sang quiet songs and lit a candle I felt a sense of being held, a sense of being connected to something bigger than myself, something loving. I remember going back to the chapel during the day by myself to sit and feel that sense.
Many of us have our own experiences of God as a sacred presence.
That sense of connection is very different than the control room God managing the switches.
Now it would be convenient to end there –
God isn’t a bearded guy in the sky, God is a loving presence.
But that would just be taking God out of one box and putting her into another.
In my 20’s I was praying and felt a strong sense of being held in a father’s loving arms. Being a good, United Church young adult I thought –
No, God isn’t a person, God isn’t a man –
and I wrestled with that for about 3 seconds and then realized, this feels wonderful. Being held in a father’s loving arms was exactly the unexpected comfort I was needing
in that moment.
The intimacy of that moment was a very different experience of God’s presence than feeling connected to the vast cosmos.
Herbert O’Driscoll, a Canadian theologian says,
“We speak so casually about the presence of God.
We assume certain things of it,
that it is nice, that it is soothing, encouraging, affirmative.
This of course is a reflection of our wishes,
and indeed there are times when the presence of God is thus.
But to describe the presence of God in this way
is like describing the ocean as calm, the wind as a whisper, or fire as warming.”
In a guided meditation I once experienced God as a lion,
much like Aslan from the Narnia stories.
The lion was beautiful and awe-inspiring and terrifying.
I felt the most heightened respect for the power of this creature,
and knew that I must behave in respectful ways in its presence.
Scriptures that I never liked or understood about fearing God, started to make sense.
I’ve met God as an elderly woman – the kind who loves you feeds you cookies
but isn’t afraid to take you by the ear if you’re out of line.
Scripture and prayer both offer us a smorgasbord feast
of images and experiences of God, and there are always more flavours to discover.
Our God-talk matters
One of my biggest concerns about Christianity is that it becomes too heady.
Faith becomes an intellectual exercise instead of a living relationship.
And yet, how we understand God and talk about God matters.
We live with the tension of both giving ourselves to our relationship with God,
while also asking, who is this God we are in relationship with?
It is a prayer in itself to ask, Who are You?
To keep asking throughout our lives, Who are You?
I am who I am
One of the things I love about this morning’s story, is the indirect way Moses asks this question. In this holy encounter, he doesn’t ask, “Who are you?” He says, “If the Israelites ask me the name of who sent me, what shall I say?”
This is my favourite name for God in scripture:
“I am who I am.”
There is a directness, and also an unwillingness to be pegged down.
Who is the God of this story?
The God of this story shows up in our day to day lives.
Moses isn’t doing anything particularly special. He’s herding the sheep.
God shows up in the mundane work of our day to day lives.
The God of this story hears the voices of those who suffer.
The cries of the suffering matter to God.
The God of this story has a mission.
“I’ve heard the cries of these people and we need to do something about.”
This is not a God who shows up to give Moses a warm fuzzy feeling.
God shows up and says, “You and me Moses, let’s get to work.”
This is not a generic God. God shows up at a particular place and moment,
in a particular way and says this is the particular task at hand.
As we go about our daily lives – insert your own to-do list here –
what are the particular ways that God is showing up?
What are the cries of suffering God is bringing to your attention
and what are the particular ways you are being invited to participate?
Paradox and Blessing
I can’t talk about God and make any sense,
And I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.
We can’t talk about God without being in a living relationship,
And we can’t be in a living relationship without asking who we are in relationship with.
These are a few of the many paradoxes of faith.
If we turn our eyes to the ceiling of the sistine chapel, it’s appropriate to be skeptical about this image of a bearded white man, reaching out to another white man.
It’s also appropriate to be struck by the beauty of reaching for that transcendent reality beyond our knowing, and to feel God reaching for us.
May we be blessed in our reaching,
in our questioning and in our clarity,
in our words and in our silence.
May we be blessed with moments of feeling God’s presence,
Infinite or intimate,
Inviting us to take off our shoes on that holy ground
And say, “Here I am.”