The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021
One could read the entire prologue of Mark in a few minutes. The prologue is very tightly structured and crafted in bringing us those incredibly important few words for us to hear. We start reading the prologue on the first Sunday of Advent.
With Christmas season and the Feast of the Transfiguration on the winter calendar, the lectionary spreads out the fifteen verses of the prologue over two months. It is divided up and read on or near the beginning of the seasons of Advent, Epiphany and now Lent. Because, as we talked about last week, the beginning of the gospel or most any story is telling, we would be well advised to reflect upon the prologue, and assemble it one unit to do so.
First, it is important to remember just how much Mark wants to get right to the start of the ministry of Jesus. Recall that he skips over the genealogical and birth narratives of the type conveyed by Matthew and Luke. There is a sense of urgency on the part of Mark—when Mark does things he does them quickly, immediately. So, it is ironic that we have to wait months to finish reading the entire prologue. It might be a case of hope being deferred.
You might recall, that on the first Sunday in Advent in December, we read from the gospel of Mark, the first three verses.
It starts off: “The beginning of the good news.” To begin the gospel in this way, reminds us: this is all about the good news and the coming of Jesus Christ. Like a good warm up act at a concert that know how to make a mark but not too much, John left an impression. Some people even confused him for the main act, Jesus.
Mark’s use of the word beginning is also clear reference to Genesis, which starts of “In the beginning” suggesting or rather, indicating that what John is heralding is connected to the first creation, but this will be a follow up, in essence a “new creation” and like the first creation, the power behind it will be none other than God. There will be a cleansing and judgement, but in a world gone wrong, a serious housecleaning was a good and needed thing. Something new was desperately called for.
Over a month later on the second Sunday in Epiphany, we returned to the prologue and picking up at verse 4 and reading through verse 8.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This deceptively simple text, again just a few words, points to Jesus, but upon closer inspection, the text is not so simple at all.
For starters, what exactly does Mark mean by a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” What is the connection between baptism, repentance and forgiveness of sins. What is our role versus God’s role?
Scholars have spilled tons of ink dissecting this complex phrase. As for me, I think all three are connected in a way we don’t have to split hairs over. What the text seems to suggest is that the spirit will be the initiator and the force behind: Baptism, repentance and forgiveness.
This highlights why it is important to keep the notion of the new creation in mind. The Spirit was ushering in a new creation, and these three things are expression of the movement of the Spirit. We cannot do it alone, but the Spirit is there to move us forward in a life giving way.
This also answers the question about why John calls Jesus the more powerful one. Jesus is more powerful because he comes endowed by and infused with the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus is able to baptize people in the Spirit, unlike John who works with water.
This brings us to today’s gospel and the final verses of the Markan prologue, the Baptism of Jesus which we read about today. Mark records the story in a way very distinct way from Matthew and Luke. In it, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he came out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. God speaks claiming Jesus as his Son.
It is interesting that the baptism itself is pretty routine or uneventful. It is what the baptism sets in motion shortly after that is unusual. The tearing of the heavens strongly suggests a world changing event. A rip in the heavens is never normal, but forebodes something huge to come. It is interesting that a dove accompanies the tearing, which connects us to the account of the flood, part of which we read today. The dove signifies the time after the great flood waters are receding.
And, when God claims his Son, it is certain that Jesus is linked not only to the Spirit but to the Father.
Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, or rather to a different part of the wilderness. He is tempted there.
Even Jesus must undergo his trials. No one is exempt from that kind of tempering experience, but he is able to withstand the temptations. Mark again curiously says very little about the temptations, almost nothing.
And then finally, after John is arrested, Jesus proclaims the good news. We have covered the entire prologue. Pretty easy to go over? Yet, we have only scratched the surface of the meaning, detail and imagery packed in fifteen verses. The prologue tells the tell of Jesus, the one who comes to bring a new creation, powered by the Spirit. He will overcome all temptation and he will proclaim the good news.
In our baptism, we are just as Jesus was, are named and claimed by God.
We are called to see that the time is at hand for the Kingdom to come near,
We are called to repent.
We are called to face our temptations during these forty days, just as Jesus did.
We are reminded to believe in the good news, that the Spirit of God which defeats all the powers of evil and defies Satan, that Spirit is with us at all times, in all the circumstances of life.
I am grateful that we are able to embark on this Lenten journey together. This is year which has felt like Lent in many ways even before the season of Lent began. We have been waiting and wating for a return to “normalcy.” But with the Spirit in our midst, if we attend to the words of the prologue of Mark, the waiting will be worth it, because we will come out the other side closer to the promised land and life as God intends for each of us having repented, been forgiven and free from all that diminishes us as part of the renewed creation.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the Last Epiphany, 14 February 2021
Each Last Sunday in Epiphany, we read a gospel account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and the disciples climb up the mountain and encounter Moses and Elijah.
In conjunction, today, we also read from 2 Kings about Elijah in his final moments. Elijah’s experience with Elisha in those moments before his departure hold relevant insights for those of us on the faith journey—that is, all of us.
The mountain top is a place of transfiguration. But Jesus and the disciples had to climb the mountain first. Does the very process of scaling mountains unlock some faith related insights?
I am not an expert on climbing, but it is clear that an elite climber must possess an extraordinary amount of stamina, tenacity, skill and courage to succeed. And I have learned, there are mountain climbers and then there are free climbers, in many ways the most intrepid of climbers. One such climber is Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell has long been regarded as the best free climber in the world. He was a climbing prodigy. His gift took him around the world.
To train further, he went to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan with some training partners, including Beth, his then girlfriend also an outstanding climber. They were in the midst of a hard climb when gunshots rang out. They were captured by a group of Kyrg rebels. Eventually, left with one guard and fearing for their lives, Tommy pushed the man down the cliff. The climbers were able to make a harrowing escape.
Tommy was deeply burdened by guilt over the man’s death, and took it hard. He was greatly dispirited by the terrible dilemma he faced--that was to take on the burden of killing in order to save his friends. Years, later it turned out that the rebel soldier had miraculously not actually died. Tommy did not know this and this might have been the end of his climbing but slowly he did return to climbing.
He and Beth, then his wife, decided to build a cabin in the woods and continue climbing. One day, late in the afternoon, he was cutting a piece of wood and accidently sawed off his index finger. It could not be re-attached. That should have been the end of his climbing career. Free climbers depend on having all their fingers as all the techniques depend on having a grip of crevices and small rock outcrops. Caldwell figured out a way to climb with the missing finger.
The most challenging free climb in the world is the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, a 3,000 sheer granite wall. Tommy could not climb parts of it even with 10 fingers. So, it would be object of a quest.
Along with his training partner Kevin Jorgensen, who was an incredible mountaineer, but actually had no previous big wall experience, Caldwell spent six years, pain staking planning and mapping out the Dawn wall climb. Each hand grab and each foot hold had to charted and then tested.
Most people in the climbing world felt the climb was an impossible feat. Yet, in 2015, they made their attempt. It went smoothly at first, but the weather started to worsen. They had to spend more time living on the side of the wall on a portage. Each day they got weaker.
Then they got to the most difficult section what is known as pitch 15 a blank spot as it offers almost zero places to grab onto—just tiny, jagged rocks in some stretches. Tommy went first and failed a number of times, but he eventually made it across through a highly creative but exhausting round about climb, less technically demanding but incredibly exhausting and time consuming. The ascent was a one person at a time deal, so Kevin attempted to cross the pitch 15 traverse. Time after time, he stretched across the rock face, holding on by his finger-tips often in a cruciform shape. He fell again and again— his safety ropes catching him each time. Exhausted after each try and fingers completely shredded and bleeding, each renewed attempt meant resting until the next day on the wall.
Tommy continued to ascend and stopped below the top as he refused to summit alone without Kevin even though his dream was within his grasp and the chance could have been lost with a turn in the weather or conditions.
As a large media contingent watched their every move below through long range lenses and telescopes, Kevin eventually made it on what was likely his last attempt. In the process, he mangled his fingers and split one in five places. But clear of the hardest pitch, they both made it to the summit.
Along with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, the triumphant summit of Tommy and Kevin holds a lot of pertinent lessons, not just for climbers but also for those who aspire to be faithful.
It was quite remarkable that Tommy refused to summit alone without Kevin. Instead he risked the prospect of exhaustion or a surprise weather event either or both could have forced him off the wall. He was willing to risk his ascent out of a loyalty to his friend. This kind of loyalty is reminiscent of how Elisha refused to leave the side of Elijah, not once, or twice but three times. Elisha was warned and knew it might be dangerous to stay, but he remained by Elijah’s side.
Climbing also helps us see clearly the importance of community. They relied upon a large, dedicated support team bringing them supplies like food, medicine and other gear like replacement ropes. In the course of their time on the Dawn Wall, over 800 pounds of supplies were lowered down to the pair of climbers. There was also the filming team which recorded the whole endeavor. The climb could not have happened without the support of many. Don’t we know this in the church world too!
And, finally, sometimes the journey will push us to the limit and find us at a particular stopping point where we are stretched to the max. Despite all their planning, the traverse was the point where they needed to push beyond, against all the odds. Elisha did not think he could go on without Elijah, but he did.
In spiritual terms, a point (or points) of great difficulty may come in nearly countless forms. Maybe we find it impossible to get past a past hurt, maybe we find it too much to forgive someone, maybe we find it hard to put away bias and prejudice against certain groups, maybe we find it hard to confess our shortcomings to God,
The list could go on but it is certain that we all face something like pitch 15 in our spiritual lives. That is a place which we find nearly impossible to get over or through.
But perhaps we find our finest moment, our moment of transfiguration, if we tackle the most yawning and difficult spiritual spans in front of us.
To me climbing and the mountains have an incredibly spiritual dimension. In ways, it is not surprising that the Dawn wall, actually first called the Wall of the Early Morning Light, was given its name because when the sun rises the face of the wall is brilliantly illuminated. From the first time he saw it Tommy Caldwell described seeing the light hit the Dawn wall as a spiritual experience which changed him—perhaps you could say a moment of transfiguration.
The stories of Caldwell and Jorgensen, and scriptural account of Elisha and Elisha have much to teach us. These lessons come to us at a time when they can offer us much for our own journey, even if we are not mountain climbers like Caldwell and Jorgensen or prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
In the daily news and on social media we constantly, almost endlessly
-hear of people who refuse to recognize their indebtedness to anyone else
-we see an almost pervasive lack of willingness of individuals and institutions to take on challenges that are daunting and demanding, like immense imbalances in the distribution of wealth, poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and the list goes on.
Even if we are comfortable and even if we hide out in the cozy, yet illusory cave called denial, there remains a sense that all is fraught with risk of loss and it feels to many like we face the impossible without any hope:
But none of this is how it has to be! That is not what God intends for us. The world would be a more harmonious, hopeful place if we each chose to walk the path of transfiguration. We do this not so much to become transfigured, but to live into our identity as the ones who are already transfigured.
For God intends for us to be self-giving and sacrificing, God intends for us to be supported by community and to support the community. And God fully expects us to take on and prevail over the “impossible” things that stretch us to the limit. Recall that Jorgensen’s body formed a cruciform shape on the wall, he gave all that he had to offer, and he came across the traverse.
In all these things, we have described, we have outlined, the life and mission of Jesus, our companion and model for the journey. So, as we end the season of Epiphany, let us resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the way he did, and then with certainty, we will meet our friend and Saviour on the mountaintop in the brilliant light of transfiguration.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 7th of February 2021, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Accomplished writers will often tell aspiring writers that the beginning and the ending are the most critical parts of a narrative or storyline.
After successfully using the reading strategy in high school, I found out it doesn’t get you an “A” on a college paper. Yet, reading the beginning and end of a book does tell you a whole lot about what comes in between. So, we should pay attention beginning of the gospel of Mark as it is markedly different from the other gospel accounts. Instead of dwelling on the background and early life of Jesus, very quickly Mark describes nascent ministry of Jesus.
In last Sunday’ reading from the first half of Chapter One, Jesus broke the hold of demons on those afflicted. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus builds upon his healing ministry. He broke a fever which had gripped Peter’s Mother in Law.
In some ways, the first set of healings demonstrates the character and the raison detre of Jesus’ ministry. Following the will of the Father, Jesus had come to break the bonds that held people and society captive whether were demons, a fever or the unholy cultural, systemic and occupation forces which enforced or which aided and abetted oppression, bondage and exploitation.
Jesus must to some have appeared to be just another healer of which there were many in his time.
Jesus healings were different in important ways critical to our faith. Why are accounts of Jesus healing so critical to emphasize nearly 2, 000 years after his ministry ended on the cross Gethsemane?
There are many reasons of course. I want to explore two that have Roman roots. It may seem unlikely but two Latin words; munus and donum hold a lot of potential for explaining why the healings of Jesus are so important for Christians.
Munus has a rich variety of meanings which center on the obligation of a citizen to give back to their city or the state. It captures a sense of the obligation of a single person to the larger group in which they live and from which they benefit.
The meaning of donum is closely related to munus, with a different focus that being a gift or an offering.
The philosopher Robert Esposito set out to explore the roots of community. His work led him to deeply examine the meaning of munus and donum in his quest. His powerful, creative insights can be applied to help break open and deepen our understanding of the work of Jesus, and understand how it informs true Christian community.
In his book entitled Communitas, Esposito arrives at a conception which emerged from through his immersive study of the Roman conceptions of munus and donum.
Esposito re-imagines the obligation as a gift which is too rich and too important to keep for ourselves. The munus, the obligation, and donum, the gift can be described as the obligation to share the gift that one has. Esposito expands further: this is the “gift that one must give and because one cannot give.” The gift in essence is bigger than the holder; it is beyond the control of the one who possesses it. That is the true sense of donum and is a primary component of true community. Esposito writes densely in dialogue with other philosophers. He is not a theologian; yet his work, in a stunningly profound way, he illuninates important aspects of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus.
For instance, was not Jesus’ gift for healing people and for restoring the wholeness of people a gift that he could not keep for himself?
It was a gift which was far too significant and impactful not to share.
Of course, we have the benefit of knowing of the importance of his gift, because his gift emanated from God.
We also know that Jesus was following a much larger plan of salvation by healing people. It was the tiniest of the tip of the iceberg signifying a sea change to come. Offering salve to a small group of people prefigured the salv-ation of all of mankind.
The impetus or underlying motivation for the offering is free from ulterior motive. An ulterior would shatter the life altering potential of the gift, the authenticity of the gift, and more important, the power of the gift to point to an alternative outside the transaction giving, in philosophical lingo—an alterity.
By contrast, a healer peddling their healing power for their own gain cannot be said to be offering a true gift, because it is transactional or in exchange for something in return. This is not alternative pattern, but of the old ways—it is quid pro quo.
When one demands something in exchange for a gift, it ceases to be a gift.
Note there is no record of Jesus demanding anything in exchange for this healing. Because he did not ask for anything.
If we fast forward to the end of Jesus ministry, we see that his own death conforms to the pattern of giving the gift that cannot be kept for himself.
And the gift of Jesus moves us to a new spiritual dimension, because he gives himself, an offering out of love for the sake of the community, that group beyond that of the individual, the community of the entire world and all of creation.
Jesus was himself that gift unexcelled offered freely to the larger community, the munus, in this case, the world.
It is important to note that this giving of the gift may come at some or even great cost. We will explore this aspect of giving in community more next week.
But for now, perhaps, we can focus our attention on how we might offer the gifts that we cannot keep for ourselves.
What must we share? What can we not share?
The answer is something that each of us is invited to pray about, listening for the will of God, as did Jesus in that deserted place.
We are of course not expected to be the Saviour—there was only one and none are expected be Jesus.
Yet, when we act in the way he did, we bring a piece of salvation to the world. What we do when giving freely for the sake of the world has an immediate impact on everyone around us.
Like a stone dropped in the center of a pond, an authentic gift has a ripple effect which spreads across the pond. If you have received a true gift or given a true gift you know of its undeniable power. A true gift always has salutary and healing impact.
Returning to the gospel once more, it is also important to note that after healing the woman and many others, that Jesus departs to a deserted place to pray. This strongly suggests that we need to pray in quiet, which is to listen and not speak in order to hear the will of God—to act without listening to God’s will, what we would call contemplating, falls away from the pattern Jesus set for us.
As Epiphany, the season of the revelation of the light of Christ, comes to a close, we might take the time to see clearly what Jesus was doing in these healings— offering his gift freely and in turn, we might accept the invitation to offer up our own gifts—the very best and most precious gifts we possess which we are called to share.
Jesus was the divine gift with no equal, who went ahead so that we might follow in his footsteps.
What is it that you would like to offer up in recognition of the fact that your donum, your gift is graced and meant to convey offer something precious and life affirming to all those around you, and indeed, the whole world?
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, the 31st of January 2021
“They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)
“They were all amazed and they kept asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority?” (Mark 1:27)
Good morning. In looking through the Scripture readings today, these 2 verses
caught my attention. From my recollection, it's not very often that we see the same
word used so closely together in the Bible. It “called” me to want to dig in a little more to see what Mark was trying to say here.
Before getting deeper into today's Gospel reading, I thought it might be helpful
for us to remember that the Gospel readings for the past few weeks are from early on
in Jesus' ministry with a focus on the Gospel of Mark. Early in January, we heard the
beginning of the Mark's Gospel which start with the story of John the Baptist. Last
week, the text continued with the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John.
From these accounts in Mark, it appears that Jesus began his teaching in Galilee, about 100 miles from his hometown of Nazareth. This week we learn of Jesus' traveling to the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here according to Mark, he performs his first “public” miracle/act – cleansing a man of an unclean spirit, the spirit knowing both by name and mission. By virtue of this cleansing act, the demon's knowledge of Jesus and the impact of his teaching I think it is safe to say that the local's had not seen the anyone like Jesus in those parts. There are so many words that could have been used by the the folks in Capernaum, but Mark chose the word “authority” and reinforces that by using it twice in this passage. And even more interesting, the use of the word “authority” is not used to describe the removal of the unclean spirit, but focuses on Jesus' teaching. It seems here that Jesus' words, a “new teaching”, left more of an impact on the people of Galilee.
So what is this “sense of authority” that is described here?
The word “authority” can have a number of different definitions and meanings,
but I was interested in limiting my focus in how it might be used in the context of the Bible and particularly the New Testament. After some research, I discovered an article written in 2003 by Arland Hultgren which was helpful and concise. Mr. Hultgren is a New Testament Scholar and Professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He describes three types of “ideal authority” which is demonstrated in the New Testament. These include:
•The traditionalist type, whose grounding is in the "elder" (prince, patron, etc.) of
a social unit, who maintains what has been.
• The charismatic type, in which an extraordinary person (prophet, leader) acts
with inspiration and conviction, gathering a following.
• The third is the legal type, which is administered by bureaucratic structures, and
that is typical of modern societies, with the three of these types manifest at
different times and places in Scripture.
For me, it seems clear that Jesus acted with “charismatic authority”, teaching in
parables of what is to come and what is to be, in contrast to the scribes, whose role it
was to act and lead solely through interpretation of Jewish law and who followed a
more legal sense of authority. Based on what heard and seen in the synagogue, the
people of Capernaum took Jesus' teaching as being credible and reason for his name to be spread throughout Galilee and surrounding regions.
What made this sense of authority so “special”? Jesus' primary mode of preaching and teaching was through Parables, a simple story with a deep and powerful meaning. He did not focus on the intricacies of Jewish law which had bee the “way to live” for centuries, which focused on diligence and obedience as a way to attain
salvation. The impact of his teaching addressed a radically “new law” or way of living
which was one of love and forgiveness. His acts were what caught peoples' attention,
but that was not the focus – it was his teaching. Words powerful enough to draw
crowds and with so much impact to start a totally new movement where Jewish Law
was not the focus but love, forgiveness and salvation were the prime forces.
Throughout his life Jesus shared this “authority” with others. After assembling
his 12 disciples, and before he sent them out “two by two”, he gave them authority
over impure spirits (Mark 6 – the commissioning of the 12). Very late in Jesus' ministry, after his Resurrection before leaving his friends for the final time, he once again shares the authority that God bestowed on him with his now 11 disciples and commands them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. I am with you always, to the close of the age (excerpts from Matthew 28:16-20).
By virtue of Christ's suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, and living as Christians in community I'd like you to consider that we are also invited to share as active participants in Jesus' authority and teaching. While we might not be able to command unclean spirits, walk on water, or calm the winds, we can all have an amazing positive impact on the world walking a similar path of the disciples over the ages.
The original disciples were given special gifts to help Jesus solidify his ministry.
As time passed, other disciples have walked and continue to walk along side of Jesus
Christ though living out Jesus' Great Commandment that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30 –31). They used their gifts and talents given to them to build up Christ's church to create a community of sharing, love, charity and compassion much like the legacy created by the founders of The Church of the Saviour and what we do as we faithfully move our way through the pandemic and focus on our 4 year Plan of Faith through prayer, community, justice and joy.
My friends, we are called to live into Christ's new teachings and live into them
with the authority that Christ demonstrated through his 33 year ministry and shared
with his disciples and followers. We are reminded every Sunday on how we are asked to model and carry out our lives in love with grace and in service through our
“thoughts, words and deeds” and “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
Rev. George C. Wong's Sermon for the 10th of January, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord
A feast day that falls on January 10 is at peril of getting lost in the afterglow of Advent, Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. Yet, it would be short sighted to gloss over this day. It is a significant feast day inextricably linked with those preceding celebrations as a day on which we remember the Baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus transports us to the banks of the river Jordan. The river is more than an incidental backdrop for the Baptism of Jesus; that smallish river barely weighs in above a creek in status, yet was chosen to be the site of the pinnacle of John’s ministry and the place of initiation for the ministry of Jesus. In many ways the river connects with and highlights the larger mission of Jesus.
Rivers have always fascinated me, perhaps because I only knew a man-made version for many years. I grew up about 200 yards from a stretch of the Los Angeles River, which is nothing like a bona fide natural river. Fearful of its power to sweep away anything in its way during rainy season, the residents of Los Angeles lobbied the government to tame the river. The LA River long ago ceased to be a river; instead it is flood channel and an enormous engineering endeavor which literally shaped nature to fit the requirements of a sprawling metropolis. Built by the Army Corp of Engineers, the riverbed and its banks are an immense concrete channel which snakes fifty miles through the heart of downtown, the inner city and on into the sprawling outer suburbs. Occasionally a patch of weeds or shrubs will break through the concrete. Tires and shopping carts form part of the landscape down in the channel. In short, it is a bleak, industrialized picture of a river.
The naturalist and poet named Lewis Mac Adams starting off his loving elegy for the much maligned river with the words: “Where did it go?”
Even concrete rivers draw people. I went to school with a kid name Ron (not his actual name) who lived in a nearby neighborhood, also by the river.
A friend since first grade, Ron changed over time. Perhaps to compensate for his shyness, he began looking for ways to get attention. If I heard the occasional explosion in the riverbed, I guessed it was likely Ron throwing an M-80, essentially a super-sized firecracker, off the bridge into the channel. Ron loved that the boom of the initial explosion as it echoed off the massive concrete walls of the river. He never got in trouble, probably because he could pass for a choir boy maybe even a human cherub with ruddy cheeks, freckles and green eyes. I think being one of seven children with two working parents, he got lost in the shuffle of his large family. The choir boy and cherub on the outside was lost.
I will come back the desire to be noticed later, but I want to speak a few words about other aspects of rivers.
Most here know that the rectory sits less than 200 yards off the banks of the Rockaway River. I am glad that even though the Rockaway River has at times flowed over banks as it did during Sandy, that it hasn’t been paved over—which would be a huge loss to me and many I see walking along it and fishing in it.
It recently dawned on me that the Rockaway River and the Jordan River bear a surprising resemblance to each other. The Jordan is deeper and also murkier, but if rivers could be such cousins, they are. One particular thing about the Jordan river is that it runs along the border of Israel and Jordan. A checkpoint restricts access on the Israeli side; we had to wait about three hours on our bus during which time security boarded and scrutinized our passports and confirmed that we were on a religious pilgrimage.
Additionally, our amazing, seasoned guide from St. George’s College reminded us to not to make sudden movements on the banks and not to venture into the river too far. That could have been taken as trespassing into Jordan and we could be arrested or possibly shot by a jumpy border guard.
And, it is severely polluted, its natural flow mostly replaced by partially treated sewage water generated by all the occupants of the region. Like almost everything else in the Holy land, the River Jordan is both a source of life and also subject to complications and messiness borne of regional rivalries, geopolitics and the struggle for water and resources. In short, it is a thin watery thread of life that is perfect by virtue of being so ordinary and flawed.
2,000 years ago some of these political, and environmental challenges were not the same; but it was still a small, brackish, non-descript river. Remember the story of Naaman, the leper, who had initially refused to wash in the Jordan because it was not pristine like the great rivers of his homeland.
So, given that the Jordan river has such shortcomings, why did Jesus choose to be baptized in the Jordan?
Perhaps, by jumping into that murky river—the baptism of Jesus stands as a prime example of the willingness of Jesus to get into the muck alongside each of us.
We might like Ron feel down in the muck and lost in the shuffle especially these days in the midst of pandemic, social and political unrest. I think Ron was desperate for an Epiphany; no amount of misguided acting out or needy antics could substitute for a spiritual breakthrough—one that let him know he was loved and worthy of love. It has been many years since our days in grade school and I long ago lost touch, so I don’t know if Ron ever found the comfort and peace. I don’t know if he ever had an Epiphany.
But we are fortunate today, because today we celebrate of the Baptism of our Lord, one of the three Epiphanies of Christ. Perhaps it is something we have been hungering for as well. At the Jordan river, Jesus shows that he will plunge in with us; from the banks of the Jordan on that day, he showed that we are not alone even if it feels like it sometimes.
The Son of God descended from the heavens on high and stood in that murky, undersized river.
In process, as the fisher of men and women, he casts a net that is wide enough to catch all of humanity:
The poor and the rich
the black, the white, the brown, the yellow,
the able bodied, the disabled,
the sick, the healthy,
the wise, the uniformed,
the hurting, the successful,
the educated, the uneducated,
the young, the wizened
the ones who are ignored, the ones who are the center of attention,
the hopeful, and the discouraged, that is to say, all of us with all our better and more challenged dimensions.
God never fails to be there for us smack dab in the river of life—Jesus showed that back then, and it remains true today for all those who follow in his footsteps and for those who are led by the power of the Spirit Jesus left behind to guide us.
Let us then you and I go down to the river and wade in the water with Jesus, the one who came to gather up, console and make whole each and every one of us.
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
The 3rd of January 3, 2021
We recently experienced a conjunction junction. No, I am not talking about the catchy School House Rock “conjunction junction what’s your function. Hooking up phrases and clauses”.
School House rock holds a special place in my memory but I am talking about an even more impressive conjunction, a celestial conjunction.
This Christmas, astronomers said Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. That happens when the two planets orbit so closely together that they appear in the skies to be a shining star. It has been over 800 years since the conjunction has shown as brightly. The amazing thing is that it could be detected even with all the light noise present in our skies.
Apart from a few far flung, remote locations around the globe, we do not have access to the nightscape free of light pollution. So, even if you can detect something like a conjunction, no one can really know what the star of Christmas like 2,000 years ago in the pristine pitch black skies free from any man made lights to distort or distract.
We don’t have access to those kinds of skies but we can easily imagine that the Wise Men’s attention must have been captured by an exceptionally radiant star--its shimmering visible to eyes turned towards heaven. We have learned much about stars even within the last few years. Only recently able to do so with the help of new technology, astronomers, including some working locally at the American Natural History Museum, were able to calculate and confirm that there are billions of stars in the universe. But on that night, out of the billions of stars, one in particular illuminated the skies and the town of Bethlehem.
William Wordsworth described just such a divinely illuminated nightscape in the first lines of his poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
As learned scholars, the Wise Men would have been trained in the reqisite disciplines of the day, including astronomy. So, they would not have followed just any star but only a star which dressed the earth in celestial light. When they detect this impossibly brilliant star, they packed up some very precious gifts and supplies for a journey and began to follow its movement. They arrived at Jerusalem, at the center of power and prestige—quite the fitting place for things of great magnitude to occur. They make inquiries of the powers that be: “Where is the child? We have observed his star at his rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
The Wise men must have been surprised that there was not a gathering around the child in Jerusalem. Why did they not see the child anywhere in the city? Why was there no talk of the child on the streets? Christopher Smart poses a similar question in his famous poem about the whereabouts of baby Jesus:
Where is this Stupendous Stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise!
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
Alerted by these three foreign scholars, word of the birth of the child sends the chief priests and the scribes into a frenzy because they know the prophet Micah had long ago written that Bethlehem would give rise to the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.
Herod knows he cannot possibly hold a candle to this Messiah. So he seeks to extinguish the life of that baby boy, by trickery and lies and by any means necessary. Only by virtue of a dream, are the wise men led away and thus avoid leading Herod to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The light and the baby that the light pointed towards stirred up much action even commotion. The Wise Men left Jerusalem, having understood what they were looking for was elsewhere. They recalibrate and move towards Bethlehem to find the promised One.
For his part, Herod seeks the baby to eliminate a potential rival and to suppress any and all competition.
The contrasting reactions of the Wise Men and Herod demonstrate something very important about the birth of Jesus.
In a way, the birth of Jesus and Epiphany is a time of decision. Which way do we turn?
We can like as did the Wise Men scan the horizon and take notice of the signs of wonder pointing towards Jesus.
We can follow the star of Wonder, the star of night.
We can bring and offer Jesus the best of what we have in paying him homage.
All of these would be to recognize that Jesus has come to be our star, to be our light. A light which lifts us out of the abyss that surrounds us.
Or we can do the opposite like Herod and react in fear.
Or, perhaps liking neither of those options, we can do nothing.
The grammatical conjunction helps illuminate what is possible and not possible because the one thing we cannot do is to turn both towards Jesus AND turn away from Jesus—that conjunction does not work in life, at least not at the same time.
On the matter of this kind of choice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote in an essay called the “The Two Ways” that we are invited to decide if Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or not.
And Williams writes further, just as God was free to send his Son to be with us in the guise of a baby boy, we are free to choose Jesus. During the season of Epiphany and at many other junctures, we are given signs to help point the way to Jesus whose life began in the most humble, unassuming way possible in that manger. What might we decide?
The decision changes everything because it impacts the entire arc of our journey from that point on. It is important to remember that the Wise Men started with Bethlehem, but it was just a start.
Epiphany continues that celebration started at Christmas and draws us towards Jesus. Arriving, we find the light that has shone from the beginning of creation, but which was revealed to us in Jesus.
May we in the words of the refrain of our sequence hymn, We Three Kings, find ourselves moving towards Bethlehem always:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light
And this season may each of you bask in the warming, illuminating, transforming, energizing, life-affirming light of Christ!
The Church of the Savior
The Reverend George C. Wong
June 10, 2018
“A Seat at God’s Table”
Mid-week, I attended a preaching conference held at the Episcopal Claggett Center just outside Frederick Maryland. Google maps guided me across Central Pennsylvania through a sea of crops, content dairy cows and soon to be open and expectant produce stands.
As I was driving home, I was shocked and saddened to hear on the radio about the death of Anthony Bourdain’s in Paris. Almost immediately, I pictured his lanky 6’ft 4” inch frame bounding across Pennsylvania farm country walking into diners sampling the best rhubarb pie or BBQ pork or the local specialty. Raised in suburban New Jersey, he would eventually explore over 100 countries, basically eating around the globe. He seemingly traveled everywhere in his ongoing quest, so I could imagine him in rural PA as much as any other place around the world he traveled.
If you have not heard of Anthony Bourdain, he was the author of a number best-selling books on the restaurant industry as well as the host of several long-running travel food shows including No Reservationsand Parts Unknown. If he wasn’t in Buenos Aires, then he was in Burma. If he wasn’t in Paris, he was in Phuket, or Pamplona. He was intrepid when it came to sampling all manner of foods, he seemed to authentically appreciate and embrace foods that nourished and fed others often with great joy.
People responded to his openness and curiosity about their cuisine and lives by treating him like a visiting ambassador. In many ways, the world was his oyster.
He made his name in great part by allowing millions to tour the world of food. But, he was much more than a passing tourist or gawking visitor. Bourdain exhibited a deep curiosity, respect and fascination for the places and about the daily lives of the people he visited. When he visited Burma, he spoke with a local chef about both food and the softening of the brutal decades old Burmese regime. He insightfully commented upon how the Burmese share a meal but allow each person to tailor their meal with an abundance of side dishes, sauces and toppings. Everyone at the table starts with the same dish, typically noodles, then made very much to their own taste.
That made sense to me because the perfect meal may be the kind of meal you tailor to your own liking while in the company of ones you care for, who also get to eat the meal they enjoy. Whether it is Burmese soup noodles or a burger cooked just the way you like it with all the fixings you like, there is a joy in having it your own way all in the company of others who are similarly fulfilled by their own culinary creations.
Even though I was not a frequent viewer of his shows or a reader of his books, there was a strange comfort in seeing him amble around as a kind and gentle ambassador of food and culture. I have found myself thinking a lot about his death since I heard the news. I can’t know for sure, because I only knew of him from afar, but I believe that he hungered for something that could not be served up on a plate.
In a telling 2016 interview, he confessed that while his job involved communicating that he felt isolated and alone when not working. His fame, fortune and success mean that some were bewildered by the fact that he seems to have taken his own life. I have noticed comments on social media to the effect that Bourdain was selfish, weak and one who led a privileged life and who therefore does not deserve any compassion in the aftermath of his passing.
Those kinds of comments are callous because they do not attempt to understand what might have actually led to this man’s depression and death. From what I have read, I don’t think his despair and hopelessness was so much the result of a personality defect, or character flaw or weakness; rather, his desperation pointed to a deep hunger. The irony may be that Bourdain was literally surrounded by food yet he died from starvation. He was surrounded by people yet was desperately alone. His long-suffering and depression suggest that he was not getting all that he needed to thrive in life, in spite of his talent, fame, money and success.
Bourdain’s experience shows that even if one could travel the whole world sampling of all the most interesting, most savory, most exquisite cuisines…even if one could mix in ample portions of fame, monetary gain and an audience of millions, one might still experience the pain and isolation of spiritual malnourishment. In the end, his soul starved for something more than the experience of great food, interesting people and places and acclaim. He searched the world for that which would satisfy his hunger.
This is not a new challenge or quest for humanity. Our Old Testament reading today reminds us that looking for food to make us complete can result in disastrous consequences. Adam and Eve ate the apple believing that there was an earthly meal that could feed them eternally—separate and apart from God.
We can no more find a meal (or anything else) that completely fills us than did Adam and Eve. We might search the ends of the earth and still come up empty. But there is good news. That is that God offers us the sustenance we need when we gather for the Eucharistic meal. At each service of Holy Eucharist, we gather together to be fed spiritually by the Body of Christ.
Jesus offers us the gift of the bread of life which we take together in the community as the Body of Christ.
We need not search the world for the meal that fills us, because it is here in the bread.
Whoever eats this bread is transformed by the real presence of Christ.
Whoever eats this bread is fed not just in the moment, but for eternity.
Whoever eats this bread is given both a taste of and a hunger for justice, mercy and compassion.
Whoever eats this bread is filled with a peace that overflows from us into the world.
Let us break bread together today and become the sacrament that we eat.
May God bless us and those who are no longer with us at this meal whom we pray are gathered at the eternal banquet table.
The Church of the Saviour
The Feast of Christ The King
November 26, 2017
The Reverend George C. Wong
“The King of Hearts”
The soaring cathedral, finely tailored robes and gowns, a full choir accompanied by exquisite brass and stately pipe organ and the crown and scepter. The pomp and circumstance of a royal procession grab my eye and my imagination.
Like me, many on this side of the pond are also drawn to the splendor of official royal proceedings. At the same time, we remain suspicious of royal trappings, so our national ceremonial life reflects a much simpler and less exalted way of installing our leaders. Our presidential inauguration ceremonies are intentionally drab by comparison, presided over by participants dressed in black suits and a justice in black robes. Maybe because we lack public rituals filled with pomp and circumstance or maybe because the royal festivities are almost fairy tale like, most Americans who normally don’t care follow international goings on cannot resist the dignity and majesty of royal pageantry—especially when it comes to a royal wedding or coronation of the British monarch.
Many of you may know that the Church of England is the state church of England and plays an integral role in the coronation ceremony of a British monarch. As Episcopalians, we would find much familiar in the coronation service which is held in Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. The words of the last coronation which was the service for Queen Elizabeth resembled something we would hear during one of our own ordination or installment services.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Commonwealth according to their respective laws and customs?
The Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?
The Queen: "I will."
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?
The questions posed by the Archbishop ask the monarch to be enthroned to affirm that he or she will govern with mercy and rule with the gospel in mind. The words express the hope that monarch will govern in a wise and benevolent manner-- in a Godly way.
Though the role of the British monarch is largely ceremonial, the coronation ceremony remains important as a way to enthrone Britain’s monarch with great pomp and circumstance, while also asking the monarch to live up to the highest of secular and religious values.
Historically, royals in Great Britain and in many countries have not always acted in ways which reflect the best of religious and secular values. Coronations have more often initiated the reign of one whose power is absolute and unchecked. Subjects have often found their fates hanging on the whim of the King or Queen. Kings and Queens have not always been leaders who care for and protect their subjects.
If royalty has so often fallen short of expectations and hopes, why do we call this day the feast of “Christ the King”? A helpful hint comes from the complete title of the feast day, which is “Christ the King of the Universe.” This suggests that we need to think bigger. This King is the ruler of all space and time, not of one kingdom or even an earthly empire. Even the very best and most caring of human kings do not fully capture the reign of Jesus.
In today’s readings, we are offered a more expansive and dynamic vision of the Christ the King.
First, the reading from Ezekiel presents us with the image of the King as a shepherd. The people of the ancient near east frequently spoke of a type of shepherd King who would not stay safely on the throne in comfort, apart from his flock. Instead, the Shepherd King goes out into the world. When any of the flock is lost, the King is not afraid to search for his them. He brings them home, he feeds them, he binds up the injured and nurtures the weak. Concerned about justice for those who are vulnerable, the king will punish the fat and the strong who have taken advantage of others. The Shepherd King knows, cares for and protects each of his flock even when that puts the King in danger, even to the point of risking his own life for his flock.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 25 is a perfect counterpart to the OT reading extending the beautiful imagery of the Shepherd King in Ezekiel.
First, we read that Jesus will come again in glory. Jesus will sit with all the angels of heaven around him while he sits on his throne. At first glance, the setting described reminds us of the glorious setting of coronation service.
But, then the gospel text shifts away from Jesus’ glorious kingship turning towards the pastoral image of Jesus. As the Shepherd King, Jesus is not focused on the palace or throne, but on the well-being of the members of his flock. Jesus has a particular concern for certain members of the flock. They are: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Jesus invites us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, the take care of the sick and to visit the imprisoned.
In the fullness of time, Jesus on will sit on the throne and ask us to examine our hearts for times when we helped the most vulnerable among us, the fellow members of the flock, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The loving Jesus will ask us how we have loved in His name.
Jesus links his reign in heaven to the very least of these. This is a big jump for us to make because the Christ the King of Glory is telling us that his most prized subjects are certainly each of us, but especially, the least of among us. The message is simple, but hard to follow because we resist those Jesus directs us towards. If you are like me, these are the people we scurry past, or, as a society, we put away out of sight. If you are like me, on most days, I am just so focused on getting the next thing on my “to do” list that it is sometimes easy to avoid the faces of those in need around me.
But Jesus knows this and reminds us that we will find his glory in the faces:
Of those in soup kitchens.
Of those pushing shopping carts on the streets
Of those in homeless shelters.
Of those in drug rehab meetings.
Of those in nursing homes and hospice care.
Of those who have lost hope and are suffer from depression
Of those in maximum security prisons.
As the new church year starts, we will begin it by waiting in the season of Advent for the birth of the infant in whom love shines completely. Even if Black Friday alerts and ubiquitous ads tell us this is the time to cast our eyes upon irresistible, bright shiny bargains, the Advent season is an ideal time to look inward at our lives. It is an ideal time to quietly ask ourselves where we have found the face of Christ? And, the good news is that Jesus told us exactly where to look. Christ is all around us, and if we look, we will see in each other the unexcelled Glory of God.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
November 19, 2017
Accounting in the Kingdom
-Over the years, I have heard many informed people say with certainty that the Parable of the talents is one of the most straightforward parables.
-Over the years, I have also heard many other informed people say with certainty the Parable of the talents is one of the hardest to understand of the parables.
What might explain the difference in the “accounting” of the Parable of the talents? The reason likely stems from the way parables incorporate customs and situations from everyday life in ways that catch the attention of the listener. In the case of the parable of the talents and its cast of characters, people in Jesus time were familiar with stewards who watched over the land and property of rich people. Because parables tell stories using real life situations and people they can appear simple at first glance. But while the familiarity gives us sort of certainty and a feeling that we have got the parable “right”, we need to be alert, because there is almost always something deeper going on beyond the obvious surface. There is usually a surprise lurking when you scratch beneath the exterior of parables. We might seek the comfort and resolution of one interpretation, but there is often much more to be considered.
Parables are like one of those pictures made up of geometric patterns. Viewed one way, we clearly see a recognizable object. But then we view the picture from a different angle, then other images mysteriously pop out of the 3d space. I found out there that people even study how we view these pictures with different optical references, which produce different recognizable forms.
As we revisit the parable, I wonder what might emerge. The first two slaves took the money entrusted to them by the Master and by their trading doubled the money. When they each accounted their investment returns to the Master, they praised by the Master and then put in charge of more things. The two successful slaves were then allowed to enter into the joy of the Master, meaning they moved up higher in the Master’s organization. This is a vision of a three-tiered world: the Master, his domain and the good and bad slaves, and his subjects.
The apparent simplicity of the parable has lent itself to an initial glimpse and resulting interpretation which goes something like this: The talents those ancient units of currency, are interpreted as the gifts that the Master, that is that God gives to all of us. The parable is then held up as an example of an individual who did not make good and faithful use of their gifts. You might have heard that the parable means that “you need to use what God has given you or that you will lose the money and perhaps much more.” In this scheme, all the players are assessed by a strict and unforgiving measurement system. At the heart of the measurement system is fear of one kind or another.
Like the slaves, if we have been an employee or a subordinate, we understand how fear is a part of working in any organization—the fear of demotion, the fear of having the high profile assignment taken away, the fear of being berated by superiors, the fear of a reduced or no bonus, and finally, the fear of being let go. We tend to want to read the parable in a way which makes sense to us, so we might tend to want see this parable through the lens of organizations we have been a part of in our own lives. One of the main problems with that kind of reading of the parable is that it casts God as manager who will abandon us and cast us out onto the street if we fall down. In fact, some would say that is God’s job. I am challenged by this take on the parable because a God who kicks us when we fall down doesn’t sound very much like our God.
Does this reading of the parable and the corresponding image of God as a high-powered manager sound like Jesus as described in the gospels? Think about who Jesus associated with. He had fisherman as his inner circle, his posse. He ate dinner with tax collectors and other outcasts, not the successful and wealthy elite of Jerusalem. We might reflect on how Jesus interacted with those who had money. Remember he told the young rich man that he had to give up all that he had to be one of his followers. What did Jesus way of living say about the important of returns, and the accumulation of things material? Jesus lived hand to mouth as an itinerant preacher in the backwater of Galilee. For these reasons and many others, I find it hard to imagine Jesus thinking about quarterly fund returns versus comparable funds and benchmark indices. Jesus would not have had much interest in tracking “interest,” or the return on investment.
If Jesus is ill suited as the corporate manager type, it turns out this parable might not be so simple. Maybe another view emerges which is less obvious. Could Jesus be making the point that the world operates in a very different way from God’s kingdom? Our worth is almost always judged on the basis of clear metrics, returns, performance, connections, looks, pedigree and power. To those few is given more. By contrast, God’s gifts are given freely to all with no performance clauses and returns minimums attached. Still, there is some hope for those who like a bit of structure and order; fret not because Jesus does have expectations about how we are to use our gifts. Jesus reminds the rich that they must not neglect the poor and the marginalized. He reminds them that they can’t take it with them, so why not share what God has given them in the first place—not in order to earn a reward, not to get more love from God, but out of desire to be more like God, who is abundant in love.
Jesus reminds the poor that God has a big heart for the meek, the humble and the oppressed. He urges them to persevere and to know that they are not alone. He blesses those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Beatitudes suggest that Jesus never linked God’s blessing to possessions, achievements or investment returns. God’s special blessing falls on those, which the world would not expect to be blessed.
This leads me back to the idea of certainty and expectations. In the immediate years following Jesus death, some prominent Christian communities were certain that Jesus was coming back in their own lifetimes. Understandably, they wanted advice about how to be ready. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know with certainty that we cannot be so certain about exactly when Jesus is coming. We just know that he is coming and that we must prepare. The best way to prepare for Jesus coming is to be invested in participating in this world and in always using our “talents” make this world a better place. While we wait for the coming of Jesus, what is certain is that we do not need to operate either out of desire to earn God’s blessing by our worldly success or burying our gifts and treasure out of fear.
Instead, I pray that we let our lives be accounted for in units of love and measured in mutuality.
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