Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tell Me Your Story: Of Burning Bushes, Paris, and Love


Romans 12: 9-21, Exodus 3: 1-15
A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
August 31, 2014

It’s a beautiful passage of scripture, isn’t it?  Did you hear Paul’s words?  Paul thought the message important enough that he chose to write it down for at least two groups of people—the Corinthians and the Romans.  “Let love be genuine, serve, rejoice, be patient, contribute, live in harmony, overcome evil with good.”  The passage of scripture is a sermon in itself.  But I beg of you, don’t leave, let’s not be finished yet!  We have an Exodus passage to incorporate into our lesson today.

Let’s look off to the side and be curious about that bush on fire.  No, Moses, we can’t leave you behind today.  Last week, we found you in a basket in the water and this week we find you in the wilderness and we are as drawn to you and your story as you are to that burning bush.

I am drawn to Moses and I don't believe that I am the only one who finds him compelling.  He is introduced as a sympathetic character, a baby who loses his mother.   Also, he is an identifiable character—he has fire in him, a temper, and he struggles with his speech.

Moses is a man with no home.  He is forced to wander, to leave home four times:  first, as a baby who is taken from his mother by an Egyptian; next, as a young man who has to flee Egypt; a third time as a family man and shepherd who is sent back to Egypt; and finally, as the shepherd of the Hebrew people, away from Egypt and back into the wilderness.

He is a man of faith, but he doubts and argues.  In fact, for a man who has trouble speaking, he gets into a lot of arguments!

Moses is a character with whom we can identify, and in this interaction with God in our verses today, we learn something else about Moses—Moses has forgotten who he is and who God is.  In the beginning of this passage, God calls Moses by name (I know who you are!) and God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” 

In those opening moments, I wonder if Moses’ imagination took him back to Egypt.  I wonder if he recalled stories and lessons from his clever mother of what it meant to be Hebrew and of the God who was ruler above the Pharaoh.

This is a scene of calling, but it’s also a scene of binding.  God binds Gods-self, the great “I Am” to Moses and Moses is therefore bound to God—they are anchored together first because of heritage.  God says to Moses, “These are my people in Egypt and they are suffering.”  But God also says to Moses, “These are your people too!”  The Divine and the human are also bound together by a mission.  God will go with Moses from the wilderness into Egypt and then back into the wilderness again.

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Paris was again cool and rainy and yet it still felt like it might be one of the best places in the world a person might be.  Carrying no umbrella, I repositioned the scarf around my neck to cover my head a bit more, flaring it out to its widest width, appreciating its soft cotton.  I walked briskly with my group of friends which included my future husband; our tourist experience for the day was the see the more easily tackled of the Paris museums, the lovely MuseĆ© D’Orsay rather than the Louvre.

A block of sidewalk left to go, we passed by an old woman who was headed in the other direction, her back sloping slightly, hunched with age, her black and silver hair matted to her face.  I felt my attention narrow, turning to focus only on her, blurring out the silhouettes of the hundreds of people around us, turning the peripheral view of the Seine out of my sight, and in what were only seconds, I memorized her stature, her appearance, and made up a storyline of her life.  Nonetheless, I kept walking towards my destination.

My friends and I entered the lobby of the museum but my focus could not be diverted from the memory of her face.  Beautiful works of art were awaiting my view, but I could not shake the feeling I had of wanting to leave and find her.  So I touched Jesse’s shoulder, told him that I would be back, and returned to the rain.

She was easy to catch up to—her pace determined by the slow shuffling of her feet—and as I reached her side, I stepped into her view.  Without words, I took the scarf from around my neck and head and wrapped it around hers.  She looked into my eyes and they smiled with gratitude and understanding.

I share the story with you not for my own flattery’s sake, but for an illustration of what I believe God’s call to be like.  The moments of prodding and urging that I felt in the museum’s lobby were not casual, “go be a nice person,” pushes.  They were deep, they bothered me, and all the while, a voice was encouraging me to move my feet in an unintended direction.  I didn’t know what to expect, I had no plan, but I knew that I was being told to go back outside. 

It was not in those moments that I heard God say to me, “Stephanie, my child, you are to go to seminary, study to be a chaplain, and then go on to be a minister at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church of New Orleans.”  There was nothing specific about my calling that day, which looking back, could have been helpful and could have saved me some time, but rather, after some consideration of that day, I felt a calling to a pattern, an intention by which I needed to adapt my life. 

Simply put, I knew that God was calling me to notice and to take action when I was…not comfortable, but when I was able.  I may have given away a scarf that day in Paris, but the woman’s eyes gave me a greater gift—endorsement.

It’s not language that we use anymore, “God called me, God spoke to me…”  We don’t use it because the language seems outdated and because the phrases have been stolen; they have too often been abused for the sake of human power and control.  But regardless of the misuse, the theology is still true—God still calls us today.  The truth is that when we profess our faith in Jesus Christ we are as bound to God as Moses was with a purpose for our lives.  We are called.

God still walks alongside us today.  In a world that tries to make claims on us, it is easy to forget who we are and whose we are.  But God provides for us illustrations and interventions that help us remember.  

The choir has sung a reminder for us today from the prophet Isaiah:

 1Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
  2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
   when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.  Isaiah 43: 1-2

Somewhere off in the distance, or maybe close enough to us that we can feel the heat of the fire, something is drawing our attention. 

Somewhere, either in the wilderness, away from anything revered, or perhaps on already established Holy Ground, God is calling us by name to come closer and to listen.

This is where the merging of the Old Testament and the New Testament takes shape.  This is the part of the lesson when we need to listen again to Paul’s words in the Romans passage.  Hear again some of the passage translated a bit differently:    

9Love others well, and don’t hide behind a mask; love authentically.  Despise evil; pursue what is good as if your life depends on it.  10Live in true devotion to one another, loving each other as sisters and brothers.  Be first to honor others by putting them first.  11Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord.  13…take every opportunity to open your life and home to others.
21Never let evil get the best of you; instead, overpower evil with the good. 
Romans 12: 9-13, 21, The Voice translation

There it is—there is our calling, there is the pattern for our lives.  Jesus said over and over again to love one another and Paul picked up on that trend in his correspondence. 

I believe that this is a congregation of peoples who take seriously the call to love one another.  I don’t believe that it would have endured otherwise.  But I want us to consider sharing more of our stories—I want to hear the stories of how we came to be who we are today.  How and when has God called you and for what purpose?

I know that Raymond and Ezekiel have expanded the meanings of love and family, but I want to know why they chose to open the door of the Poliquit-Moore home. 

Nick Trenticosta, lawyer of the Center for Equal Justice, an office housed in our church building—I know that he works tirelessly to make sure that those in prison are well-defended and have been given fair trials.  I want to know how he came to start his practice.

I know that Flora Blackstock has, for a lifetime, sought out ways to help the marginalized; I know that Reverend Dick Randels cared deeply about a congregation and taught them well; I know that Mary Dan Kuhnle cared about a soon-to-be adoptive mother that she spent an hour on the phone with her, calming her down; I know that Annalee Abell cares enough about 8th graders to teach them math even though her degree is in history; I know that Tim brings smiles to faces when a smile seems to be the most elusive thing in the world.

I know that this place, this Holy Ground, is full of people who have heard a call and subsequently answered that call, and I want to hear your stories and I want you to tell your stories to anyone who will listen to them.

Our stories are important, our heritage is important, and it is as important to pass those stories down as it was for a Hebrew mother to sing the songs of her ancestors to her son.  The stories bind us all together.  And the telling of our stories keeps the larger story alive:  The story of truth and mercy, the story of peace and light.

The last thing I wish to share today is an actual picture, set on the altar.  It used to hang in my Dad’s office, but when he moved out of the Baptist Student Union, I pilfered it and have since kept it for myself.  But today, I placed it on the altar because, I admit, I need it to be there.  The simple story the picture illustrates is of a young toddler, a missionary’s child, holding a sick baby, her hand placed gently on his cheek.  But the picture also speaks to something natural and innate about humans—there is the capacity to care for and to love from the very beginning of our lives.

May we always have a story to tell.