An Indefensible Life

Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-27

In the article, “Nothing to Say”, written in 1854,
philosopher Henry David Thoreau
comments on new technology.

Thoreau writes,
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,
which distract our attention from serious things.
They are but improved means
to an unimproved end
which it was already too easy to arrive at;
as railroads lead to Boston or New York.

“We are in great haste to construct
a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,
but Maine and Texas, it may be,
have nothing important to communicate.”

The last line rivets me:
We want so badly to connect by telegraph,
but what if we had nothing to say?

Now adays we might ask:
We want so badly to connect by
flashing screens, and a thousand devices,
but what if we have
nothing of value to express?

What would you profit, Jesus asks,
if you gained the whole world
but lost yourself?

I cannot stop thinking
about this question of
gains and losses.

What if we gain everything,
and then lose what matters most?

This question brings me to today’s story
of Moses encountering the Holy
burning in a bush.

When God calls Moses
to return home to Egypt,
this call demands a lot.

After all,
Moses comes to this fiery mountainside
because he killed an Egyptian
who harmed his people.

A criminal on the run,
Moses now lives faraway in Midian,
where he took a wife,
started a family,
and lives a safe, comfortable life,
watching sheep
for his father-in-law, Jethro.

Suddenly,
Moses has everything
he could personally want.

Then one day, looking for pasture,
Moses plunges the herd
into the wilderness.

As he mindlessly watches
the sheep nuzzle the grasses,
something catches his eye.

There, on the hillside,
a fire blazes in a bramble.

Alarmed, Moses knows
this ignition will likely set the rest of
mountainside on fire;
he prepares himself to lead
the sheep to safety.

However, as he mentally prepares,
he notices that
the wildfire does not move,
nor does it exhaust itself.

Anyone who has ever
tried to start a campfire knows,
fires require lots of fuel to stay lit.

Confounded by this curiosity,
Moses moseys toward the flame.
As he moves, a voice calls his name:
Moses. Moses!

Moses, who has spent years hiding
from himself, from others,
replies tentatively: I am here.

Take off your sandals, the voice replies,
you are on sacred earth.

Hushed, dazed, Moses obeys.

“I am the God of your ancestors,”
the voice reveals.

Fearful, Moses can no longer face
the burning brightness,
and buries his head low.

Moses has spent many year
stowing away: himself, and
parts of his life.

Now, at last,
all bravado crumbles.

God speaks,
“I have seen the affliction
of my people in Egypt;
I have heard their cries
under those who oppress them;
I have felt their sufferings ….
Now, go! I will send you to Pharaoh,
to bring my people … out of Egypt.”

His façade fractured,
Moses responds slowly,
“Who am I that I should go?”

“I will be with you,” God promises.

Still worried, Moses presses,
“But what shall I say your name is?”

The questions continue to pile on.

Later in this conversation,
Moses offers a mountain of reasons
why he is not the right fit:

I have a stutter, he says.
I don’t know what I will say.
No one will listen. I am afraid.

In each response,
I hear Moses say this:

Don’t pick me.
I have so much to lose,
too much really.

He’s right.

If Moses goes to Egypt,
he has to chuck his illusion of perfection;
he has to face the harm that he committed;
he does not know how the Pharaoh
– or the people – will respond to him.
He’s also not the best speaker.

Will he even survive the return?
Why would he return?

Right there in Midian,
Moses has everything he needs.

And yet …

what if you gain the whole world,
and lose your soul?

What if you gain all the comforts of life,
and lose your conscience?

What good is it?

I cannot stop thinking
about these questions
of gains and losses.

A religious friend recently pointed out to me
the problem with greatness.

They said,
People achieve greatness at the expense of others,
which is injustice.

People achieve goodness at their own expense,
which is holiness.

We see that over and over again
in the Hebrew Bible,
as rulers try to stack power and wealth,
and prophets come to them and say,
woe to you, you build yourself up
by tearing others down.

For, ultimately the message of God
is good news for the poor,
and if the people are suffering
for you to self-satisfy your ego,
or your wallet, God will cry out
against the suffering you create.
For that is an abuse of power.
That is evil.

We see the problematic
nature of greatness in the Gospels, too,
as a man with many possessions
approaches Jesus saying,
I love God and others, and follow
the rules. What else must I do
to have eternal life?

Jesus responds:
Sell everything
and give the money to the poor.
Then, come follow me.

Jesus is asking,
Who is your life good news for?

Are you accumulating
goodness, or greatness?

Jesus is inviting them
to reflect with intention:

In your life, what are you losing?
In your life, what are you gaining?

Apply these same questions
to the stories of Moses and the Pharaoh.

In Exodus, we read that the Pharaoh
makes the Hebrew people make the bricks
without a day of rest, to store more:
more grain, more store rooms, more wealth.
For on this, the Pharaoh bases his worth.

What we see here is that
the Pharaoh is trying to save his life
at the expense of others.

What he loses is this: his soul.

Returning to Moses’ experience,
Moses has so many questions, and protests,
because Moses sees the inner work
required of him in order to return
to Egypt, a place that he has avoided.

This return requires of him growth,
accountability, self-forgiveness,
vulnerability and courage.

Moses’ self-sacrifice shows me that
holiness and morality cannot be bought.

They require you to shed the skin
of looking good, lying, false images,
hiding, blindness, and self-righteousness.

They require you to give up hoarding
and domination for your own gain.

This theme weaves through out
the entire tapestry of the Bible.

We see this theme epitomized
in how God, the Highest Power,
gives up all power,
and comes to earth
in the most vulnerable form:
a baby. Baby Jesus.

Clinging to nothing,
hoarding nothing,
Jesus grows up and gives up even life,
as Jesus confronts empire
and rejects evil.
Evil Jesus rejects even
until the dying breath.
Breath ragged,
hanging on an instrument of death,
Jesus breathes words of grace:
God, forgive them,
they know not what they do.

This future, Jesus predicts.
This future, Peter denies
as he tries to silence Jesus,
because Peter thinks Jesus
needs defending.

This surprises me, since just before this,
Jesus told Peter and the disciples,
I give you the keys to the realm of heaven.

I like to think of these keys as keys to a house.
The doors are never locked with Jesus.

Jesus lets us into all the rooms of the heart.
Jesus fired the guard.
Walk straight in, Jesus says.

Afraid to lose the one he loves,
Peter tries to save Jesus.

To which Jesus responds,
“Get yourself behind me, you Satan!”

Through this exchange,
Jesus is saying,

“Be totally open to the love
and presence of God
and the action of grace within –
let go of yourself, put up no defenses,
and, for God’s sake,
don’t take advantage of others
– and you will live.”

With Jesus’ words, I see now:
We are the ones with the defenses.

I think of my own inner moats, dragons,
draw bridges, and rusted gates.

Like Moses with his questions,
I find so many reasons not to let God in
and do what God does:
upend empires, upend lives
upend our desire to keep ourselves
locked away and safe, safe, safe.

In the end, Moses said yes.

I admire that in Moses,
and yet, am still loathe to participate.
Like Peter.

I drag my feet, as
something catches my attention.

There,
in a corner of my conscience,
a fire sparks as I awaken,

Confounded by this curiosity,
I draw closer to it as
it calls my name, “Joy.”

“Joy,” it speaks,
“what would your profit
if you gained the whole world
and lost yourself?”

Hushed, I take my boots off.
Fearful, I duck my face.

What if I had every means of comfort,
but had nothing that mattered?

What if I stayed safe
as people around me suffered?

What if I walled myself off
from everything I was afraid of
and never experienced
real life, real love,
or the real presence of God?

I think now, how,
when Jesus is arrested,
Peter desperately takes up
a sword and brandishes it
against the guard.

Even then, Jesus replies,
Put it down, Peter.

Put it down.

Love needs no defense.
Truth needs no defense.

Jesus says,

Come follow me.
Take up the cross.
Cross on the bridge.
Give out the key.

And take the trail
that sets all free.

Chose adventure,
not to lonely
castle towers,
but to holy
lives of liberty.

To you who look
with longing from
your guarded walls,
Jesus calls; calls
you home to hearth,
where flames of love
lick you until
fire for life fans
in your heart, and
passion for peace
piques, and blazes
of beauty smolder
in your soul, deep,
long after others
drift into sleep.

As your bare feet
nuzzle the ground
and drooping sun
softens late light,
Jesus repeats,

Will you come now,
give up your guard,
and follow me?

Amen.

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