Sermon for September 27, 2015

Exodus 1:8-14 and 3:1-10

Mark 12:26-27a

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching


Living Faith

Most of you have already heard the best sermon you are going to hear this week. Pope Francis spoke lovingly, deliberately and faithfully to record crowds of Catholics, Protestants and other faith traditions, inviting all to follow the Golden Rule as a way of life. “Do unto others,” the Pope said, “As you would have others, do unto you.” As you would have others do unto you.

Pope Francis sermon in New York this past week was based on Psalm 46:5. “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.”

         He called all who would listen to put love of neighbor into action. He said this, "In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no right to be there, no right to be part of the city".

"They are the foreigners, their children who go without school, those deprived medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edge of our avenues and our streets in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape that is more and more taken for granted in our eyes, and especially in our hearts."

But there is hope for them, and for everyone, Francis said. Our hope is our faith in God and our trust in the way of Jesus. Though as Protestants, he is not our Pope, I believe God has sent Francis as a prophet for our time to unite all people through faith and invite all people to participate in God’s hope for humankind.

Francis said: "Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is vitally a part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in a vast history of salvation, fills us with hope, a hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us toward isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city."

He implored the city's people to "go out and show that God is in your midst."

         It’s easy to say the Golden Rule. It is hard to go out and do it. Underneath every sweet inspirational story is a backstory of sacrifice. Fulfilling God’s purposes requires setting aside personal preference in order to serve others. How quickly Pope Francis moved from the Golden Rule to love with teeth in it. Today we read of such a story in Exodus 3.:

“There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed…When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” Exodus 3:2-3

This beautiful story provides the lead-in for God’s voice speaking to him out of the fire. “Moses, go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”

         A very long time ago, God spoke to this man whom the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh had adopted as a child. She had rescued him from the bulrushes where his birth mother essentially gave him up for adoption in order to give him life. The grown man lost his birth family, but he knew who he was and never forgot from whence he came. When he became grown, he murdered one of the employee’s of his adoptive father, the Pharaoh, for beating one of the Hebrew slaves.

Moses then fled the house of his childhood to escape the consequences of this crime he had committed, thus losing his second family. Starting over a third time, Moses married and created a new life in exile far away in the land of Midian. He tried to forget his birth family and his adoptive family altogether. But he did not succeed.

         God had a plan for his life. And God remembered him and God found him. The man’s name was Moses, and though he felt neither worthy, nor prepared, God called him, and sent him back to the suffering of his origins and to the people who had raised him, with news they would not want to hear and that he did not want to deliver.

         Serving God’s purposes required sacrifice. Moses had to set aside the comfortable life that he had finally established in order to serve a greater good. It’s a wonder Moses decided to go, isn’t it? In the next verses he does, in fact, try to get out of it. He reminds God that he has a speech impediment and he tries to persuade God to send his better-spoken brother Aaron. We know what it’s like to be called to do something that we believe in our heart is the right thing, but we don’t want to do it. We’re in good company. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah to do what God wanted done there, to say what needed to be said. Three times he tried to get out of it until finally, the story goes, he was swallowed by a great fish and spit out in Ninevah until he responded to what God wanted him to do.

         Noah at first didn’t want to build an ark. In our recent story about Abraham and Sarah, she laughed at the thought that she would have a child in old age. We can almost hear her saying, “Really, now?” And Jesus prayed to God that the cup of suffering would pass from him.

         It’s easy to distance ourselves from stories like this. We don’t expect to go to Ninevah in the belly of a whale, or build an ark, or run into God’s presence in a burning bush when out for our morning walk. But hear this. The golden rule to do unto others as we would have them to unto us is much less about how we solve world problems than how we get through dinner at home or a meeting at church. It’s not terrorists in far off places like Afghanistan that will do us in. It’s the betraying kiss of Judas, one of Jesus’ own, in the backyard garden.

         On Friday when John Boehner resigned as speaker of the house, he told reporters that he did so because he couldn’t get those closest to him to work together.

He indicated that while the timing for his departure from Congress was inspired by the Pope’s visit and words, his decision had been made previously, based on the growing contention in his party and pressure that he take a harder line in leadership. Regardless of our political affiliation, it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t the challenges of passing legislation on domestic issues like how to provide affordable health care, or foreign policy like American response to the Syrian refugee crisis that brought Boehner to tears. Rather, it was the ongoing challenge of getting people to work together who disagreed with one another. What makes it possible for human creatures to sacrifice what they want and prefer to serve a higher cause? Only through faith can we do unto others as they would do to us. For it requires a certain humility, compassion and sacrifice quite beyond us as humans save by the grace of God.

Boehner’s tearful encounter with Pope Francis was a visual sermon regardless of our political views. He recalled that as they were leaving the House after his speech, the Pope took his arm and pulled him aside for a moment. Boehner said, "The Pope puts his arm around me and kind of pulls me to him and says please pray for me.

“Who am I to pray for the Pope? But I did," Boehner said, struggling to hold back tears.

Boehner also drew on the Pope's words during his address to Congress on Thursday and said he hoped "we will all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule." He urged the leaders of our country to "find common ground to get things done."

This can only happen when we let go of our need to always insist on having what we want. The life God wants for us is not a Burger King logo, “Have it your way,” compelling as that message may be. It is simply true that not everyone can get what they want or prefer at every moment if we hope to build up a family, a church, a community, or a nation.

Like Moses standing before Pharaoh with a message unflinchingly clear, Francis offered our nation hope along side this challenge to sacrifice. He said, “Jesus frees us from … a life of emptiness and selfishness… He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters."

He convicts us in our selfishness with a gentle radiance that allows us to hear the truth in his words, and change our behavior towards one another.

         His “knock it off homily” was so filled with love that it would be easy to miss the meaning if we weren’t paying attention. We already know him as the faith leader who shares a message of forgiveness, hope and compassion. The power of God’s love communicated through him invites all people to let Christ make more of us than we know how to make of ourselves. Nevertheless, the invitation to love is coupled with a clear call to action.

         When God lights up a burning bush, appears through angels, or spits us out of the belly of the whale, God wants much more for us that simply getting our attention. God wants us to change our behavior.

While other faith leaders have settled for photo ops, Francis told us the truth in love, inviting a people alienated from the church and from one another, to move to higher ground. As more than 40,000 people gathered in the city of brotherly love to hear Pope Francis speak at the site where colonists declared their freedom from British rule, he spoke of the work we all share as people of faith.

In a nod to Pennsylvania's homegrown saint, St. Katharine Drexel, Francis recounted Pope Leo's words to her when she complained of the needs of the missions. Leo, whom the pontiff called "a very wise pope," once asked Drexel pointedly, "What about you? What are you going to do?"

"Those words changed Katharine's life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission," Francis said. "Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the lord's call to build up his body, the church."

Like Moses, we want God to pick other people, to send other people. We’re sometimes willing to do our part as long as everyone does it the way we want it done. If we’re honest we admit that sometimes we just want to be left alone. And then here’s yet another of God’s beloved teachers, telling us that the only hope for our world is that we actively and authentically engage in humble and sacrificial acts of service and compassion towards others. There is simply no other way to fulfill the Golden Rule.

Our forefathers and foremothers in faith encountered God in the midst of the ordinary when they least expected it: encountering God’s justice through Moses, urging Pharaoh to release God’s people to freedom; encountering God’s generosity through Jesus, feeding five thousand hungry people; encountering God’s mercy through Jesus’ healing of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned and the resident aliens of his land; encountering God’s compassion, including those brushed aside or forgotten in every generation to the welcome table.

 God set fire to a bush right here in York, you can be sure of it. God encounters us where we live as God always has done and invites us to participate in a plan greater than ourselves. We see signs of this everywhere. We respond to God’s call when we unload and sell pumpkins to support the work and outreach of our church, and the lives of the Zuni, Hopi and Navaho of New Mexico who grew them; we respond when we paint houses on a mission trip to Pennsylvania to encourage the unemployed or disabled person who has all but given up hope that life can be better than it is now; We respond to the burning bush when we prayerfully ask how we can support and build up our church and then do it: even when the direction before us is not what we would choose, with leaders we may not like or with pastors we do not prefer, at that church meeting that is sometimes too hot and goes on too long and accomplishes too little.

The world changes through the simplest of impossible words:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Please join me in a moment of prayer.

Lord, make us an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” Amen