Let’s look at what the story we just heard about Moses has to do with questions people wrestle with today wherever faith is discovered or rediscovered. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When the history of Christianity in our time is written, this period will be recognized for its rediscovery of the ministry of all Christians. We are moving—irreversibly—out of a period when much of Christianity saw the laity as consumers of ministry and the clergy as the sole providers.
Increasingly, Christians are coming to see that we are baptized into ministry, that all the baptized are ministers of Christ, and that clergy function to unite, encourage, and equip the baptized for manifold expressions of ministry. The newest members of the Christian community may understand this best, while those of us who lived many years under a previous model of the church often struggle to appreciate this new approach.
It is no longer enough—if it ever was—to send people into the world with an understanding of Christian faith acquired in childhood or early adolescence, and expect that version of Christianity to last them for a lifetime. Nothing else in life today remains static, so we cannot expect our understanding of Christ to do that. Change, development, continuing education, the journey—these notions are everywhere, and so, just as all Christians have their ministries, so all of us must continue to grow and develop in our faith.
To be a Christian cannot be compared to a childhood inoculation that eliminates the possibility of some dread disease. Instead, Christianity resembles a healthy lifestyle that involves ongoing adaptation and willingness to take action when necessary. We need to stay as flexible as possible, responding continually to the grace God gives us, not only at an early age or whenever we enter the Church, but throughout all the days of our lives.
So ours is a promising time, when many discover or rediscover the excitement of living for Christ. With so much spiritual movement occurring, there is need for guidance, lest our journey become wandering, our adventure turn into disaster,
Many people, both veteran and new Christians, wonder about their sense of call. They ask questions like these: Is it really God I hear? What does God want of me? Where in the real world does my ministry lie?
To deal with these questions, we do well to consider stories of earlier people of faith, who in their time and circumstances wrestled with the same challenges. We can benefit from reflecting on their stories.
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One of the most memorable stories in the Bible is our first reading for today: Moses and the voice from the burning bush. Let us consider the story from three viewpoints: Moses, mission, and mystery.
First, Moses. When the story opens, he appears as an unlikely choice to be the liberator and lawgiver of a captive people. He agrees with this assessment of himself. When the voice from the midst of the fire tells him that he’s the one to bring Israel forth from their slavery in Egypt, like a shepherd leading forth a flock of sheep, his response is: Who am I to do this?
He is, after all, guilty of killing an Egyptian. For this he has run far away. He’s married a local girl, settled down, and now works tending his father-in-law’s sheep. There must still be a warrant out for him. Besides, he’s disconnected from the Israelites in Egypt; they would view him as an outsider, an alien. And he has no demonstrated abilities at leadership.
But maybe he’s not such an odd choice after all! He’s an Israelite who grew up in the palace, as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. So he understands both the Egyptians and the Israelites in a way that few others do. And it was hatred for injustice that drove him to kill that Egyptian; maybe that hatred for injustice can be put to more effective use.
Many of us, when we consider questions about our call and our ministry, end up in a situation like Moses. On the one hand, we feel inadequate to the task, unequipped and unprepared. On the other hand, we may recognize aspects of who we are that correspond to what the ministry asks for. God thus has something to build on. As an old saying puts it: The Lord does not call those who are fit, but makes fit those whom he calls.
Second, we come to the mission. There at Mount Horeb, the bush does not blaze, the voice does not speak, simply so that Moses and God can have a personal relationship. That relationship happens, and achieves remarkable intensity, but God has something for Moses to do. God has a ministry, a mission, for Moses. Moses is not to be a private friend of God and that alone, but instead the liberator and lawgiver for his people.
So it is with every Christian. Our gifts, our call, our ministry, are not for ourselves alone, but for a larger purpose, for the common good. Our relationship with Christ is not meant to be a mutual admiration society. Rather we are to share in the ministry of Jesus, the mission of the Church, which is nothing less than, in the words of the Catechism, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” [The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 855.]
In a world that trumpets individuality on every corner, it is easy to lose track of the corporate life God intends for us and all people. This corporate life is not superficial sociability, but a sharing with one another of our gifts, our joys, our brokenness, our sorrows, our prayers. It is a rehearsal for the life to come, when, by God’s grace and mercy, we will have helped one another into heaven.
Some lines from the poet and novelist Charles Williams describe this radical interdependence. He pictures the kingdom of heaven as a fancy dress ball where each guest wears borrowed finery. Here is how Williams describes it:
“This guest his brother’s courage wore;
that, his wife’s zeal, while, just before,
she in his steady patience shown;
a father borrowed of his son,
who was not there ashamed to don
his father’s wise economy.
No he or she was he or she
merely: no single being dared,
except the Angels of the Guard,
come without other kind of dress
than his poor life had to profess.”
[From “Apologue on the Parable of the Wedding Garment” (December 1940) in The Image of the City and other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (1958), p. 166.
So much for Moses and mission. Now let us consider mystery.
Do you hear mystery sound forth in the story of the burning bush? Moses asks the voice from the fire for a business card, an e-mail address, a name: anything that will identify
who it is that speaks to him out of flames that flicker and dance but do not consume. Moses is no fool. He knows that it will be hard enough to confront his people in any case, but he sees no chance of being heard unless he can identify the one who sent him.
What is he told? “I am who I am.” That is one way to translate it. Another is: “I will be who I will be.” This holy name does nothing to limit or restrict the one who speaks it. It points to sheer being, necessity. This is the one self-revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but there’s not the least trace of provincialism. The name “I am who I am” amounts to a warning: this one cannot be captured in language, domesticated by worshippers, or imprisoned within creation, so don’t even try.
The one who calls to Moses from the burning bush is the same one who calls to us from within the contradictions and peculiarities of our lives. This one calls us, makes us fit, blesses us through the gifts of others, enables us to bless, but remains always larger than anything to do with us.
This holy one is pure mystery, and there are two aspects to the mystery. First, the one who calls us makes himself known, in scripture and sacrament, in fellowship and solitude, in proclamation and service, and in a thousand other ways. Second, this same one reserves the right to remain too deep to be mastered, a God who stays forever wild and free, and unsettles every boundary marker we may choose to set.
The holy God calls us as he called Moses, building upon what we are, changing us because of what we are not yet. We are accepted, affirmed—and transformed.
We are entrusted with a mission, not for our private satisfaction, but to help heal the world, even as others help to heal us.
We are called by one who remains a mystery, who pulls us out of little lives into the ocean of his own reality.
Is it really God I hear? What does God want of me? Where in the real world does my ministry lie? Questions for life. We struggle with these questions, and it is good to do so.
Give thanks for the blazing bushes that force us to find our ministries, our selves, and the mystery we refer to as God.
I have spoken to you in the name of the one Moses met at Horeb and who calls his people still: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Copyright 2008, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.