The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
September 3, 2017
“A Mid(ian)- life crisis”
Moses had likely witnessed the overseer beat, torture and kill slaves before. This man was a lifer in the service of the Pharaoh and had friends with clout, so good sense screamed out to Moses to turn a blind eye. But Moses pitied the workers nonetheless. One day, Moses spoke with the overseer in order to try and understand the reason for his brutality. The man said: “it is simple, Moses, these people don’t understand anything but the whip and the rod. If a few disappear into the sands, so be it to keep the order. You have lived in the palace, so you cannot possibly understand how to deal with these people” Moses turned a blind eye to the man’s brutality as long as he could, but eventually, something inside of him could no longer bear it. When he saw that no Egyptians were looking, he beat the man so fiercely that the overseer disappeared into sands. Sand for sand. Poetic justice. However noble his intentions, Moses feared someone would start chattering about what he did.
Indeed, some of the Hebrew slaves started gossiping both in admiration of and out of fear of Moses. With ears everywhere, Pharaoh heard what Moses did and wanted him brought in. Like his ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who wandered the desert long before, Moses fled into the wilderness seeking safe haven. Raised in the lap of luxury where every one of his needs was attended to by a veritable flock of servants, he now found himself tending his father-in-law’s flocks in some forsaken place.
In the quiet of night under stars in the middle of nowhere in remote Midian, Moses must have reflected on how his life had amounted to nothing. He had:
no place to call his own,
no people to call his own,
no god to call his own.
He was a man in crisis burdened by some of the deepest doubts that might weigh on a person.
Then out of nowhere, in a way that only the God of Israel could have imagined, a burning bush would illuminate the sky and shed light on his identity and purpose.
Moses could not help but be drawn to the mysterious bush that burned brightly without being consumed. Moses was entranced by the visual spectacle, but he was also drawn in by the voice which uttered his name. Hearing his name must have startled him because, he sought out the expanse of the desert to be unknown. Anonymity was a good thing when you found yourself on the Pharaoh’s most wanted list. But at the same time, he must have found it deeply comforting to hear his name being uttered, far more than we know in the West, a name carried immense significance to people of the ancient Near-East. If the divine force behind this bush knew his name, maybe it also knew that Moses, the one who was drawn off the water and saved, had a soft spot for those in trouble. Maybe it knew that is why Moses came to the rescue of the Hebrew slave who was being beaten by the Egyptian overseer. In the middle of nowhere where he is nobody, Moses is known.
Moved by hearing his name and the prospect that he is known by the divine, Moses responds: “here I am.”
God then commanded Moses to “remove his shoes.” Many have interpreted God’s command principally as a sign that God demanded respect for the holiness of that ground. But there was also a more personal dimension to God’s invitation. In Near Eastern culture, shoes and hospitality are connected. A host invites close family and friends to take off their shoes upon entering their home. One would only be invited to take off their shoes in a place where they were welcomed, felt safe enough to be without the protection of shoes—in short, the vulnerability, intimacy and welcome were tied closely to belonging in a place.
By asking Moses to remove his shoes, God had invited Moses into the household of God. From then on, Moses would know he was no stranger on God’s holy ground.
With an increased sense of belonging, God felt that Moses was sufficiently grounded to take on a challenge relating to the people of Israel. God had heard the cries of his people, who were being battered and broken by Pharaoh. God asked Moses to retrace his steps back to Egypt to try to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Moses’s response to God showed his angst and uncertainty about his identity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses was saying he is a nobody in the eyes of both the Egyptians or the Israelites.
God does dispute the reservations of Moses. Instead, God answers him by saying: “I will be with you.”
Like a loving parent who knows not to deny the fears of a child, but who instead reassures the child that they will not be abandoned ever, God reassures Moses that he will not be abandoned. Moses remains unconvinced that he is the right man for the job. But God does not let Moses stay stuck in his fear, and further instructs him to tell both the Egyptians and the Israelites that I am having sent him.
“The Lord God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent you.” This served to remind Moses that he came from a long line of people who had dealt with Egypt in times good and bad. Moses will take up that mantle- after being changed by the encounter with the God in the burning bush.
After his encounter with the burning bush, Moses would no longer feel like he had nothing and he would no longer lack a purpose.
His place was with God and his purpose was to carry out God’s saving work with the people of Israel.
What might we expect out of our own encounters with God?
God finds us in the places we inhabit even if those are places where we are hiding from something, somebody, even our innermost selves. Those places become the ground for seeing, hearing and knowing that God is real and dwells with us. And we are called to extend this same holiness, not just in the spaces we consciously and confidently mark as holy. Holy places are hospital rooms, board rooms and living rooms and rooms with flood victims.
God calls us to act in the world; in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, to make the whole world the House of God. God also awakens the gifts and the desires that reside deep within each of us to carry out the work of realizing our freedom as God’s own.
Like Moses, we might be tempted to doubt that we are the right person for that kind of mission.
We might say that there are better choices for the job.
We might say that we do not have the right gifts or skills.
We might say we do not have the right look, or pedigree or cultural background.
Lord, can’t you find someone else besides me?
Despite our doubts and fears, when God shines a light illuminating our own deepest self meets the deepest needs of the world*, we are known in the deepest way, grounded by God’s holiness and sent out by God.
I pray that, like Moses, we say to the Great I am: “Here I am.”
*a paraphrase borrowing from the wisdom of Frederick Buechner
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8 -2:10
Call us Midwives
We read in the book of Exodus and perhaps also remember from Charlton Heston’s memorable performance in the “Ten Commandments” that Moses had a way with water.
-He commanded the waters of the Nile to carry several plagues to Egypt while attempting to free his enslaved people from the iron grip of Pharaoh.
-He parted the waters of the Red Sea on the way to bring his people to safety when trapped between the Pharaoh’s army and the sea.
-He tapped a rock in the desert to secure a flow of life giving water for his parched people.
Moses commanded water in miraculous ways through the power of God working through him.
But before Moses could become the towering figure of the Old Testament, the tiny infant Moses would experience some trouble on the water and need five women working behind the scenes to help him escape death.
Pharaoh wanted to nip the perceived threat in the bud from the ever-growing population of Hebrew slaves, whom he feared were breeding far faster than the native Egyptians and threatening to overrun the whole country. After other measures designed to exhaust the Hebrews through non-stop labor fail to lower the birthrate of the Israelites and their families continue to grow robustly, the Pharaoh issues an edict to kill all newborn Israelite males.
Knowing that if she were found to be pregnant that Moses would be killed upon his birth, his Mother hides the pregnancy.
But all her efforts would have been for naught but for two other women. His birth became possible because the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, disobey the orders to kill all male babies. When they are questioned by Pharaoh after he notices that the population seems to be still be growing, they claim that Hebrew women were not like Egyptian women, but were rough and sturdy and thus did not need the services of the midwives. “Sorry, Pharaoh, we can’t keep up with these ladies. There is nothing we can do.” Frustrated, the Pharaoh wants all male babies under the age of one thrown in the Nile.
His Mother ingeniously complies with the order to throw her baby in the river, but gives him a chance placing him in a basket first.
Pharaoh’s daughter spots the basket with Moses floating down the river. Instead of turning a blind eye and letting him drift by to a certain death she defies her Father’s wishes and she has a maid draw Moses out of the water to safety. The maid turns out to be Miriam his sister, who manages to convince Pharaoh’s daughter to give Moses to a nursing woman, who Miriam knows is Moses’ actual mother.
Shiphrah, Puah—the two midwives, Moses’ Mom and Sister, and the Daughter of Pharaoh chose to say no to the death decree of the Pharaoh. But they also act using the gifts and resources at their disposal to keep him alive and well.
-The midwives cleverly use their knowledge of ugly stereotypes about Hebrew women held by the Egyptians to deflect the criticism of the Pharaoh and to keep on delivering baby boys.
-Moses’ Mom hides Moses and constructs a river worthy basket that increases his chances. Then, his sister uses quick thinking to get Moses back into her Mother’s arms so she can nurse Moses.
-Pharaoh’s daughter chose to rescue Moses from the river and use her resources to support his care.
The women form a chain of compassion that is linked by their common refusal to give into the Pharaoh’s fear driven death sentence. The community of women, each who hold limited power, cleverly and effectively frustrating mighty Pharaoh’s crazed demand for the blood of innocents.
And as it turns out, by acting to resist the death edict of the Pharaoh, their actions have an impact far beyond their lives. If Moses did not lead the Israelites out of Egypt and if he did not receive the commandments, the history of the world would be very different.
At times, even the simple act of showing up and offering hope in the face of slim odds can make a difference.
While it is no longer the case, when I was born, survival rates for very low weight babies were almost zero. The technology was not widely available at the time to handle babies as small and frail as I was. The doctors at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles told my parents that there was zero chance of me living. Perhaps thinking that it would spare my parents further grief, they discouraged them from naming me given the inevitability of my death in the hospital. The priest on duty as chaplain agreed with the doctors.
Nanna, my paternal grandmother arrived at the hospital. A diminutive, woman of few words, she insisted that my parents name me. Even if I lived only a few minutes, I would need a name to be baptized. My exhausted parents agreed naming me after my grandpa George. Within that same day, I slowly turned the corner. Nanna died while I was only six years old so I did not get to hear her tell this story. Perhaps, it was my grandmother’s faith and prayers in the power of life over death that made the difference. I was fast approaching death, but somehow I was snatched from the waters of death; a year later, I was baptized into the waters of life.
Moses was named so because he was drawn out of the water and saved. As an infant, he needed the saving help of the five women, each who acted quietly and without recognition.
Like Moses, I suspect that each of us can name a person in our lives who acted behind the scenes faithfully on our behalf sometimes in dire or even hopeless circumstances. We each likely know someone in our lives who refused to give up on us, even when it looked like there was no hope. My grandmother was just the first of many people to do this for me. It seems that my grandmother and others have acted in the role of midwife, that is as a person who got me past a critical and dangerous passage, and who in that way are responsible for my life.
While the role does not have its traditional prominence and is increasingly a thing of the past, midwives serve to bring life into the world.
Each of us can be midwives of hope by using our gifts and resources to in the face of slim odds, fear and even at times death itself.
May we each in our own ways help birth and nurture hope and compassion in a world hungry for a life giving alternative to hate, mistrust and fear. As today’s processional hymn reminds us, may we offer up a labor of love that defies the waters of death and that will usher in a “new creation by water and the word.”
August 20, 2017
The Church of The Saviour
The Reverend George C. Wong
“Wide enough for everyone”
In “The Sound of Music”, the Abbess and the nuns of the Nonnberg abbey find themselves deeply troubled by a postulant named Maria. The nuns are beside themselves over her sincere but free-spirited ways. They agonize over whether she would ever fit in and truly be one of them.
Singing, “How do you Solve a Problem like Maria” the nuns express how Maria had unnerved them:
She’s always late for everything except for every meal
From all of which I take it, you very firmly feel.
Maria’s not an asset to the Abbey
Maria challenges the nun’s deepest values, because she behaves outside of the boundaries of what they consider proper decorum for a nun. By being herself, she threatens to undermine their carefully constructed and maintained world of ordered service to God. The song is playful and seemingly good-natured—but when you strip away the lighthearted melody and clever lyrics, there is a powerful and not so hidden desire on the part the nuns to get rid of Maria.
Like the nuns of Nonnberg abbey, Jesus must figure out how to deal with the Canaanite woman who poses a serious challenge to his most deeply held beliefs, in this case his understanding of who deserves God’s mercy.
The Canaanite wasn’t considered an asset to society.
She was a despised foreigner, not one of theirs.
Nonetheless, there she was shouting at Jesus to show mercy upon her and her daughter. How do you solve a problem like the Canaanite woman?
The woman recites one of the most powerful and profound prayers ever spoken, an ancient version of the Kyrie Eleison: “Have Mercy on Me Lord, Son of David.” Not willing to entertain her, Jesus ignores her and likely hopes she will get the message, and leave.
For their part, the disciples know they are insiders, sons of Abraham and members of Jesus's team. So they are appalled by this foreigner who dares to call their master, Lord. “Jesus get rid of her!”
It seems that Jesus agrees with the disciples, because he tells her that he was sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, not people like her. Jesus then insults her by telling her that helping her would be like taking food away from children and giving it to the dogs.”
Up to this point, Jesus’ had treated the Canaanite woman with scorn, with no sign of concern or kindness for her or her daughter. Jesus seems interested in guarding the tradition, which clearly says that she is unworthy of his care. She is not a sheep of his flock, so she need not apply for help. This is far from the kind of compassionate response we would expect from Jesus.
Jesus had his human side too—was he just having an off day? As we might expect, there is more to the story of the Jesus and the Canaanite woman.
Ironically, the woman is slighted by Jesus when he chooses rules over compassion right after he had read the riot act to Pharisees for their restrictive views on religious codes. Jesus argues that what a person eats does not defile them, or make them unclean. Instead, he suggests that the Pharisees look at what comes out of a person, not what goes inside a person. Food preferences and dietary choices were closely related to one’s ethnic, social, religious and racial background. So, Jesus is really saying that a person is not defiled simply because their ethnic, social, religious, and racial background differs. It is the heart of a person that matters. It is as we say the character and content of a person that mattered then and matters now.
The Canaanite woman knows that people don’t really know anything about her heart but still judge her unworthy. “Is this how you really feel too Jesus?” It is as if the woman is calling upon Jesus to walk the talk: “if you believe what you just said to the Pharisees, do not sacrifice my daughter and me for the sake of following your rules and tradition about who is in and who is out. I do not deserve to be sacrificed on the altar of tradition, I deserve and claim mercy.
Despite her desperation, and impossibly low status, she knows God’s blessing are too big to be held back by tradition or rules or cultural norms.
Jesus recognizes the deep underlying truth of her claim to God’s blessing. Moved by her persistence and by her faithfulness, Jesus says: ‘Woman, great is your faith.’ At that moment, her daughter is healed. This is an incredible moment, because Jesus, the Son of God, has learned from a hurting, outcast, one who was below the mercy radar screen according to tradition. The miracle seems to depend upon a widened understanding of who deserves mercy—only when that happens does the physical healing of the daughter occur.
If Jesus was able to learn and change his understanding of mercy and tradition, we might take that as an important guide for our own learning and be more willing to expand our understanding of faith. The story of the Canaanite woman reminds us of the power of standing firmly on the ground of faith even when others try to shove you out of the picture. It also cautions us about holding too narrow a view of who deserves mercy and who doesn’t deserve mercy.
Mostly, Canaanite woman reminds us that God’s mercy washes over us. The wideness of God’s mercy is big enough for many, even those whom others want to get rid of:
Like Maria who was never accepted in the abbey
Like the Canaanite woman, who pleaded for and received mercy from Jesus for her and her daughter
Like Joseph who was dead man rescued from a pit
Like Joseph’s brothers who are rescued by the brother they had left for dead in a pit.
In the course of life, most of us experience being on both sides of the divide between who is in and who is out. As the highly praised rabbi followed by thousands and as the despised rabble rouser condemned to death, Jesus knew both sides of that divide.
When we feel like we are on the outside and are scorned, we might be well served to remember the truth that the Canaanite woman taught us: that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
When we find ourselves on the inside, we are called to invite those on the margins of society into our circles and to sit side by side with them. Again, we need to remember that there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
May we like Jesus did continue to grow in our willingness to be merciful and compassionate. May those we meet around town in Denville, at work and in our neighborhoods say of us: there is a people who know that and live like there is a wideness in God’s mercy.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
The Church of the Saviour
I want to walk a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.
The words of our sequence hymn express the desire of countless faithful over the ages. You can imagine us standing beside a long line of the faithful who have come before. First, in line were Peter, James and John who literally walked in Jesus’ footsteps. Glimpsing Jesus from their fishing boat, seeing that he was like no other man to walk the earth, they cast down their precious nets to follow Jesus and become fishers of men.
Their decision to follow Jesus catapulted three fishermen from a simple routine to a life of constant activity. Jesus sought out people in every nook and cranny: in the streets, at wedding banquets, at the temple and in their homes. Jesus met people where they were and as they were. He did not shy away from the hard and earthly lives of the people of villages and the countryside who struggled daily.
Jesus exhibited non-stop compassion to those who were in need; what gave him the strength to do this. There was something about this man that was different. The disciples had to have suspected there was more to Jesus that they had not seen yet—something that explained his ability to do so much for people. Jesus has just fed over 5,000 people with a couple of table scraps. They knew Jesus was not just a run of the mill rabbi; he was no ordinary holy man. Certainly, there was a transcendent side of him, a side far beyond the ordinary, the earthbound.
Hebrew scripture would have colored their view. The Torah paints a picture of God whose brightness is beyond all compare. As observant Jews, Peter, James and John would have known well the story of Moses. They would know that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, that the mere reflection of Moses’ face was enough to strike fear in people. If Jesus was of the Father, would he ever share that powerfully illuminated side of himself.
They wanted to see not just the day-to-day Jesus, they wanted to see the Jesus who was shrouded in pure light: they wanted to see the brightness of God.
Maybe it was now time for Jesus to share a side he had never shown them before. Isn’t it the case that sometimes we wait to show the very deepest parts of ourselves with those we love—but only when the time and circumstances are right. Maybe the disciples needed encouragement at this point. We can’t know for sure why Jesus decided to reveal himself so on the day of the transfiguration.
Jesus takes Peter, John and James hiking up the mountain side. The crisp mountain can work wonders and offered them a needed respite from the din of constant requests from the growing crowds clamoring for attention and begging for help. They stop for a drink at a cistern holding crisp rainwater, and take it all in.
Jesus takes advantage of rare peace and quiet to pray. In a split second, Jesus’s face and clothes are a blinding flash of light. Guys, you wanted to see the brightness of God. And, here I am.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes Peter, James and John on that day as “eyewitnesses to the majesty of God”; yet, inexplicably, the three manage to nap right at this moment. When they do wake up, they run around rambling, while trying to make sense of the mind-blowing events that have just transpired. They want to build a house, a temple for him so Jesus can stay. Then, a cloud appears and a voice says: “This is my Son, my chosen one, Listen to him.”
One big-time mystery is solved: that is, did Jesus have a side of him that glimmered like the sun? But as sometimes is the case when we learn about someone deeply, that revelation begged new questions. Having seen the illuminated side of Jesus, the disciples must have wondered what was next? Would Jesus flip back and forth. Would he go be like a kind of divine Clarke Kent figure, who would be normal Jesus and then emerge as the illuminated Jesus in the blink of an eye?
Some things would remain questions about Jesus. We still wrestle with the idea of the incarnation today. God becoming man is a mind-bending concept. Some things like the transfiguration are best experienced, not picked apart and dissected.
Peter, James and John were first-hand witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus on a mountaintop. We won’t have a first-hand person experience of seeing Jesus transfigured in front of our eyes. But that does not mean that we do not have experiences that are powerful enough to jolt us awake from a slumber. For instance, sometimes, when we are with those we care about, we are able to see them light up brightly right before our eyes.
I remember this kind of experience from my second year of seminary. In seminary, you are with colleagues every day for class, chapel, meals, studying and service projects-- those demands of the seminary and the challenges of being ordained in life were heavy. I was bone tired and was not seeing a lot of light in myself or others. But on this day, a good friend preached for the first time at the chapel service. In her words and in her face, I saw a light and joy radiate from her in a way that was astounding. She was still completely herself but a bright side shone out from her that could only be the reflection of Jesus.
I remember this well because when we are doing what we are called to do, like my friend, then we often reflect the light of Jesus.
The light of Jesus infuses the world in so many ways. In:
The bright sun and cool rain mingled
A friend retelling a long-forgotten story
A Mozart sonata or a Dave Brubeck solo
The smell of a soufflé baking
A palette of poetry that amuses
The ruffle of a baptismal gown
In these things and so many ways that speak to each of us, we glimpse the shining God, the God who has blazed brightly since the beginning of time and creation.
It can sometimes hard to see illuminated side of ourselves, or of others, or in the world around us. Like the disciples, we wait, we hope, we want to walk with Jesus and look on his face.
Yes, we want to walk as children of the light, we want to follow Jesus.
And, yes, we can rest assured that Jesus will meet us where we are, and shine in our hearts.