The Israelites, My Bros & Sises

Deuteronomy 5:23-27

23When you [Israelites] heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me [Moses], all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24and you said, ‘Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. 26For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.’

The people feel like they can’t bear to listen or to be near to God’s voice.  They’ve got a healthy respect–even fear–of God, which is sometimes missing from our modern understanding of the Creator of All That Is.  They’re convinced that God’s presence will consume them, burn them up.

Isn’t that what we should desire?

And yet, I feel just like the Israelites–“let me have my little life in my tent at the bottom of the mountain (Deut 5:30), leave me alone to my regular, everyday stuff; don’t upset everything I know now by the all-consuming flames that are part of experiencing you, God.  My reality right now is bearable, I don’t really want to know what would happen if it was all burned up.  I don’t even really want to know what would happen if it all rose from the ashes again.”

They ask Moses to go and listen for them, so that God’s presence and voice isn’t quite so close, so that they themselves don’t have to go through the agony of truth and transformation–someone else can do it for them.

We see and know from Scripture as well as our daily lives that no one else can transform for us–we’ve got to go through the changes ourselves for them to have any real power in our lives.

Shouldn’t we want God to be near?  Shouldn’t we desperately desire for the transforming heat to melt away the extraneous parts of our lives?

The problem is that when the heat comes close, when God starts burning things away in us, it’s uncomfortable.  Any time something hurts, whether it’s stretching us, or poking us, or singeing us, there’s an opportunity for growth.

Though I want to close my eyes and hum real loud and drown out the invitations to grow, the only way to be close to God, to be transformed, to get out of the little, narrow, grey everyday lives we live, is to let the difficulties wash over us, to let  God come close to change us and to pour his strength into us–that’s what Moses let happen to him.

The Glory of These Forty Days

May we join our brothers and sisters throughout time and space in the holy journey of Lent, inspired, perhaps, by this poem composed by our great brother, Gregory:

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by Whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God Who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lions’ might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s Name.

Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with Thee;
Our spirits strengthen with Thy grace,
And give us joy to see Thy face.

O Father, Son, and Spirit blest,
To thee be every prayer addressed,
Who art in threefold Name adored,
From age to age, the only Lord.

– Gregory the Great, 6th Century

Hymnal 1982, number 143; (


The Original “Lean In”

Sheryl Sandberg has stolen from Jesus.  As usual, Jesus is pretty gracious, and as far as I know, Sheryl hasn’t yet been struck dead, but you hear the words of Sheryl’s best-seller in our Gospel text for this morning: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 8:41).  Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean In.”  Her message is more specifically about women in the workforce and in society, but she’s tapped into something much larger, deeper, and more important than how to narrow the gender gap in Fortune 500 companies.

Part of what made her words so popular is that they don’t quite line up with the messages that we’re used to hearing from secular sources.  She challenges her readers that when doors start to close, you should stick your foot in them before they shut completely, when someone won’t answer you, knock harder instead of walking away.  Women throughout history have been known as the necks that move the heads of state; gaining ground through unofficial back channels–there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament alone.  To face problems head-on and refuse to back down is how Sheryl asserts women should tackle the last hurdles toward gender equality.  This is not the way that most women have been taught to respond to resistance; giving away a shirt is not the way most people have been taught to respond to someone who demands your coat.

Of course her audience is women in the workplace, and the dogged ambition that motivates the message might raise some concern, but I wonder why we don’t approach God’s message with the same ruthless determination.  Through Jesus, God teaches us a new kind of math in this Sermon on the Mount: meant to awake in the hearer the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai, Jesus gives a new summary of the law here in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  You hear again and again the refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”  Jesus is painting the picture of the Gospel as clearly as he can: when someone wrongs you, lean in.  When someone steals from you, lean in.  When all sorts of evil comes your way, batten down the hatches, turn your face toward the rain, and let it do its worst.

The strength to face these trials comes not from ourselves but from God, through the Holy Spirit.  It is only when we’re leaning on God that we can lean in to the kinds of lifestyle that Jesus is outlining for us in the Gospel lesson today, and that’s what the whole of Scripture is about.

In our Old Testament reading today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18), we hear about the ways that God set out for his people, the Hebrews, to behave.  They were to avoid corruption and deception, they were to be generous and fair to each other, to the less fortunate, and to the strangers in their midst.  At the end of each exhortation or law, there is a refrain, “I am the LORD.”  It refers back to the beginning of the passage, where God says to Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).  It’s a sort of shorthand, you see–every line, every law that’s being laid out by Moses to the people on God’s behalf is about holiness.  It’s about living in a way that imitates God, that makes the world holy like God is holy.  That’s what being “sanctified” is–being made holy.

Even back in Leviticus, God knew that we humans weren’t quite capable of being holy on our own.  God says that his people will be holy because of his own holiness–the promise that God made back in Leviticus came true when Jesus arrived on the scene.  That’s part of the reason why Matthew’s gospel draws so many lines back and forth between the Old and New Testaments–he wants his readers to see clearly that God is fulfilling his centuries-old promises in the person of Jesus Christ.

So, how do we live these words that God has given us today?  How do we “lean in”?

The truth that we know deep down, that we see witnessed to in the pages of Scripture, and that we hear in our prayers every Sunday, is that we can’t “lean in” on our own.  We can’t make ourselves do any good thing apart from God’s power through the Holy Spirit.  We’re helpless to our selfishness, our desire to keep our coats, to do the bare minimum required, to ask for our possessions back as soon as we lend them out.

And so, we pray.  We use the words that God himself taught us through Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, we use words that faithful people throughout time have used in our Book of Common Prayer, we use our own words, offering up our souls and bodies to be used by God.

What does God do?  He sent his son, our Lord Jesus Christ; we disciples take this gift into our own bodies in the Eucharist every time we gather here together.  He sent the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people, to give us strength to lean in when we have got nothing left.  From the beginning of God’s relationship with people, he’s always told us that he is only as far away as we push him; he’s always standing just as close as we’ll let him, ready to give us the strength we need to face whatever evil may throw at us to try to destroy us.

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).  No matter how hard evil and violence push, God pushes back with peace and love.  Through his strength, which we gain in prayer and in our sacraments, we can push right back, too.

We have learned through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that when death–the greatest evil–does its worst, God’s power is still stronger.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; this is the truth upon which each of us may stand–and when we do, even the gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:16-18).


Fake It Till You Make It – Third Sunday in Lent – Church of St. Michael and St. George

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In the St. Michael School chapel this year, I’ve been telling lots of Bible stories.  The windows in St. George’s Chapel, where we meet, provide vivid images and reminders of God’s history with his people, and I’m grateful for the cheat-sheet!

On our first day back after Christmas break, I was inspired to tell the story of Moses and the burning bush.  I’d been trying to think of a gentle way to talk about reverent behavior during chapel time.  You see, I don’t have any children of my own yet, so I’m still under the false impression that anyone under the age of 15 can sit still and listen for a full five or ten minutes together.  So, I hoped that telling them about the way that God told Moses how to behave around him might stick in their brains the idea that they should behave differently around God’s house, too.

I told them about how God called Moses by name, and how he told Moses to take off his shoes.  To really drag the point home, I tore my heels off in front of them, right in the middle of the chapel.  We talked about what it might be like for us to take off our shoes—not literally, the older children realized, but what a sort of analogous thing might be in our culture and in our way of worshiping.

I asked them what it might mean to take off our sandals.  One child, who has clearly heard the story before, quickly raised his hand and said, “it means respect!”  …As he realized the import of his answer, he sheepishly took off his baseball cap.  Further, he suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t run or yell in the chapel.  Another child said, “Well, the bush told him to!”  She hit on an important point—sometimes we don’t know why we’re asked to do what God says, but being faced with a burning bush, being faced with God’s presence, we can sense it’s something we shouldn’t question.  Like when our parents told us as young children to get down in the basement because of a tornado warning—we may have questioned them about what to wear to school in the morning, but in a moment we know is danger, we simply trust.

I closed by asking them to imagine whenever they came into chapel that there was a burning ball of fire right over the altar—a frightening image that I hoped might help them remember that God’s presence was in chapel with them, and though God’s presence is exciting and wonderful, there are also ways we should honor the place we worship God.

Judging from the running and yelling that went on this week after so many days off of school for snow, I think we still have a ways to go in teaching the children what it’s like to be in God’s presence.

Telling the kids the story of Moses and the burning bush made me think closely and seriously about the ways that we figuratively “take off our shoes” when we come near to God, and what it means for us to “take off our shoes” or to be changed when we enter into God’s presence.  We have to learn how to behave, of course, we don’t do it instinctively, just as was revealed by the children’s responses to my questions.

When I visited our newest parishioner a few weeks ago as a one-day-old baby in the hospital, I quietly knocked on the hospital room door, I slowly and calmly opened the door, I tiptoed toward the new family, and gently asked after their health.  When the moment came, I very carefully took the little baby boy in my arms and spoke to him quietly and soothingly.  This picture is very different from the first time I met my baby brother when I was two and a half years old—my parents had to tell me, “Emily!  Don’t poke his eye out…  Please be gentle!  Don’t scream, speak softly!”  I had to be taught how to behave around a little baby, just as Moses had to be told by God how to behave in his presence, “Moses, take off your sandals.”

We “take off our sandals” by standing when we hear the Gospel proclaimed to us, by kneeling to pray—in a few moments, we will stand together as the celebrant invites us to “lift up [our] hearts unto the Lord” as we begin the Great Thanksgiving and enjoy Communion together.

The game changes when we get close to God—our lives are changed. This is a strange, unnatural, uncomfortable thing, just like it was unnatural for me as a toddler to be quiet and calm and gentle to my baby brother.  It’s become a natural way to behave around little babies, but it wasn’t, at first.  Of course, we’ve learned from the Bible that God isn’t particularly concerned with comfort, he made Moses take off sandals in the middle of the wilderness, for heaven’s sake!

At my last church, in Cooperstown, New York, I met with a parishioner in the local coffeeshop one afternoon.  He was a doctor by trade, but had been very active in the local theater company for decades.  We started talking about all these various actions we take during church services and all the prayers we say every week.  Most of the language is the same week in and week out—how did it help us at all to say the same things over and over?  Drawing in his experience with preparing to play a part in a production, this parishioner wondered if our worship on Sunday mornings was sort of like rehearsing for a play.  He said, “During the last weeks right before performing, you’re practicing your part so often and so fully that the line between your identity and part you’re playing starts to blur.  You take on this person’s mannerisms, attitude, and perspective, you start to become that person.”  The process is uncomfortable at first, it’s not natural, because it’s not who you are, but soon enough, you become comfortable with that character, and it becomes very easy to join in the play.  The result is that when you know the character so well, if something goes wrong on opening night, you can still stay in character because you’ve become that person, and that’s when the fun begins.  When you have practiced so long and so hard, you have become what you’ve practiced being, and you’re able to play.


On Idol Worship

Images of golden calves, or the thought kneeling before stone altars with animals killed on them have never struck a chord with me.  I easily gloss over the temptations of the Israelites to make up their own gods and the devotion to little wooden or stone carved beings.  Who can commiserate with such strange, ignorant people?  How are we to understand ourselves as parallel to these people who would take a tree trunk and make it into a “god”?

This morning I realized that idols are a way to try to control our lives–it seems that idols, or for example the ancient Greek or Roman gods and goddesses, would scratch your back if you scratched theirs.  We rule-loving people could do the right things (give this amount of money, or offer that sort of animal) and we could expect to be safe from this disaster or to receive that blessing.  Idols are predictable; they help people feel like they have some power, a few cards to play.

Understood this way, idols have a lot more resonance for me.  Imagine the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai after they’ve left their homes in Egypt.  Sure, the conditions were bad in Egypt, but at least it was familiar, at least there was a status quo, a stable lifestyle.  Abandoned in the shadowed valley of the Mountain of God, the Israelites clung to anything they could get their hands on.  Perhaps they thought, “This God that Moses says is ours is all well and good, and we’ve even seen his great work in the Red Sea and in the twelve plagues, but he hasn’t given us the game rules–we don’t know what he wants of us.  We know that we can gain some semblance of order if we just solve this problem ourselves, now, by setting up our own life schedule and making our own rules of life.  It can’t be too hard!”  And they do–they set up their own way of understanding the world and of understanding power, and they even begin to form their lives around this new philosophy they’ve created.  Then, of course, Moses comes down from the mountain, literally shining from the time he’s spent with God, full of the Spirit, burning to share with the people the love that God has for them and the plan that God has for them to be able to live well together.  And then, of course, more trouble begins–the people aren’t so interested in this demanding, totally transforming, difficult, somewhat obtuse way of living, a way of living that is purposely not status quo and purposely not just a set of rules or boxes to check off.