“iDoubt: Questions of Faith” Sermon Series Continues

Date:  October 18, 2015

Title:  “You’ve GOT To Be Kidding!”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture:  Exodus 3:1-4:17

            Speaking at a college graduation ceremony to an audience filled with adults, Frederick Buechner asked an uncomfortable question – “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  What do you want to be when you grow up – if it wasn’t so awkward to ask, if it didn’t seem to hinge on the derogatory (as if you are suggestion I don’t have my life figured out already), if it wasn’t one of those questions prone to elicit self-doubt (maybe I don’t have my life all figured out!)… it is a question that could be asked repeatedly throughout anyone’s life.

What do you want to be when you grow up?  It’s an appropriate question to ask of a child, certainly.  But how about asking it when you turn 21, or at your 40th birthday party?  What do you want to be when you grow up?  Maybe it makes sense to ask it at your graduation exercises, but what about asking it at your retirement party?  Or how about asking it at your wedding reception, or your Golden Anniversary celebration?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is not simply a vocational question.  It is not limited to the work you do in the world.  It has much more to do with the kind of people we want to become, and the calling we will turn aside to see.  Poet Elizabeth Barret Browning seems to suggest we are all asked this question every day, when she writes:

Earth is crammed with heaven,

            And every common bush afire with God.

            But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

            The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

            Only those who see take off their shoes.  Apparently, Moses was one who saw.  You remember how his story unfolds.  Moses was a Hebrew who had been raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s court.  He had a good life, things were going well for him, until the day Moses lost his temper and killed an Egyptian he saw abusing a Hebrew slave.  As he tried to bury the body in the sand, Moses understood that his gravy train was coming to a crashing halt.  It was all he could do to run, praying that he would make it past Egypt’s borders before the body was discovered.

Somehow, Moses lands on his feet, and gets the chance to start life over.  As we pick up the story today, we see that Moses thought his life was once again well established, stable, and set.  Shepherding Jethro’s sheep, Moses holds a position that is low risk (he doesn’t own the sheep, after all), and works in a job that is low stress.  He doesn’t have to work with people.  He doesn’t have difficult deadlines to meet or tight time schedules to observe.  He doesn’t have to commute up Interstate 5 or along Highway 26 or 217 or 205 to get to his job.  He can, in fact spend weeks at a time in solitude, enjoying the beauty and blessings of nature.  Moses probably thought he had thoroughly answered the question What do you want to be when you grow up?. 

There he is, minding the flock, minding his own business, when something remarkable happens.  Moses encounters God in a common, ordinary place.  He was not sitting in the Chapel, or here in Collins Hall, or even in a construction zone sanctuary.  He was not being serenaded by choirs or called into prayer by clergy.  He was simply tending sheep.  God shows up while Moses is on the job and speaks to him from an ordinary bush.

This would be like God calling you while you are typing at y our computer, or checking your phone for text messages.  It would be like God coming to while you are teaching your classroom full of students, or when you are driving your car or cooking your dinner.  Like us, Moses valued low-profile respectability.  Apparently, God does not share the value!

So God launches into a lengthy monologue, all about the misery of the people enslaved in Egypt, and all about God’s plan to rescue them, and all about some new country God wants to give to them.  And Moses thinks “Well, that’s nice, but what has that got to do with me?”  Temporarily Moses wonders what the connection might be as unexpectedly, God asks, What will you be, Moses, when you grow up?

            I remember well the day Bishop Hoshibata called me into his office for a chat.  It was early February in the year I knew I would be leaving the Cabinet.  You see, I had been a District Superintendent for eight years, and eight years is, according to our Book of Discipline, the limit any one person can be in that position.  My time was up and we all knew it.  Way back in November the bishop had told me to think about two or three churches in the conference I thought I could serve, and let him know.  Now being who I am, I said to him, “Bob, let’s save us all a  little time.  I’ll just go ahead and tell you the one church you should appoint me to serve!”  And I named it – it was not this church – and then I began to dream about what I would do there and what it would be like to live in that community.  I even went shopping with a thought about things that would fit into my imagined new home.

But then Bob called me into his office and told me that Arvin Luchs was planning to retire.  I said, “Oh, that’s nice for Arvin… but why are you just telling me?  What has that got to do with me?”  And when he told me he wanted to appoint me here, to First Church Portland, I began to laugh.  Surely he must be kidding – me?!  And I kept laughing until Bob said “I don’t see anything funny here at all”.  He was my bishop, after all.

What will you be when you grow up?  It is at this point that Moses becomes a shining example for our sermon series “iDoubt”.  Wait a minute, God… what about these sheep?  What about my spouse, my kids, my mortgage, my car?  What about the kids’ soccer games, the dance classes, the community theater, the dinner group I said I’d join?  Wait a minute, God…what about my grandkids, my investments, my retirement?  You’ve GOT to be kidding!  There must be some mistake.

Moses comes up with not one but five excuses why he of all people should not go back to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery.  He cannot see his way to faithfulness when he is lost in the darkness of doubt.  Moses questions first himself (who am I to do this?); then he questions God (who are you to ask this of me?); he questions his lack of tricks (how will they believe me?); and his poor public speaking (I am slow of speech).  And then finally, he asks God to choose someone else – something he apparently had been thinking from the very minute the bush first started to talk!

Does it sound familiar?  How often do Moses’ excuses match our own self-doubt?  How often do we hear in them our own reluctance to act on behalf of a God we do not fully understand, or recognize in them our own heightened awareness of our limited abilities?  How often do we see in Moses our own fervent wish that God would simply find someone else?

And yet, as we stand next to Moses, with our shoes in the sand, turning aside to see what God is asking of us, all of our doubts, all our limitations and all our reluctance goes out the window when we hear God say I will be with you.  When we trust God’s presence – even temporarily – unexpected things can happen.  Things like the Goose Hollow Family Shelter which has been operating for more than 20 years in this church because people in this congregation all those years ago said it just is not acceptable for families to be out in the cold when we have the ability to do something about it.  When we trust God’s presence – even temporarily – unexpected things do happen.  Things like our Reconciling Ministries, which has created an open congregation where people are welcomed equally, valued equally, and cared for equally.  When we trust God’s presence – even temporarily – unexpected things happen. Things like a Sunday School even now bursting at its seams (praise God!), and a building used every day, every night for everything from Bible studies to pro-bono bankruptcy clinics, from high school classes to 12-step recovery groups, from music concerts to social justice lectures, and on and on.  Unexpected things and amazing things will happen, if we can get beyond our doubt long enough to trust God saying I will be with you.

Heather Murray Elkins once said:

When you walk to the edge of all the light you can see and are asked to take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen:  either there will be something solid for you to stand upon; or you will be taught to fly.

            “iDoubt”… if only there was an app for that!  Maybe there is.  Maybe God’s presence is the only app we need.  Either there will be something solid for us to stand upon, or we will be taught to fly when we take off our shoes, because we know we are standing on holy ground.  And we know that God is standing right here with us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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