I was asked to do the homily for March 3rd’s evening service at the church I attend here in Charlottesville. Now that it’s done (and I managed not to faint or run away from the podium), I thought I’d share it here.
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Luke 13:1-9
In today’s biblical texts, we can trace a clear progression. It has to do with human responsibility. But it’s not an obligation we place on ourselves. It’s one God has compelled us toward since his first meeting with Moses in the burning bush and maybe even before.
It’s a responsibility to personal growth that turns to action.
The Exodus passage begins with Moses going about his daily tasks. In the Old Testament’s typically understated fashion, the text tells us that Moses is suddenly quite curious about a burning bush that is not consumed: “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”
The commentary in the New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that the motif of Divine Fire is common in this period and that it: “arouses dread, for divine holiness is experienced as a mysterious power that threatens human existence.”
So we can assume that Moses approaches with some understanding of what he’s seeing. When God tells him, “You will set your people free,” he doesn’t need to waste time figuring out if it’s God; he doesn’t doubt. He knows.
And he is so in awe of the Divine that he is afraid to look at God.
Though many of us have heard this passage before, it struck me this time in that it shows an incredible measure of trust on God’s part. Though he has seen the pain and struggle of his people himself, though he has the power to show himself in a bush that isn’t consumed, he tells Moses that HE will do it. God, knowing that perhaps he is unsuitable to act as liaison to Pharaoh considering a general “DREAD” of the Divine, in a sense needs a human to implement his plan. And Moses doesn’t seem to be a random choice. He is the right person for the job.
The first step we take in living within God’s will is one we don’t take at all. It’s an acceptance to let the blazing fire – the passion – of God be kindled in us and the moral diligence to not let it be consumed by doubt, apathy, worry, or self absorption. It’s also the confidence that this passion will lead us forward in ways that suit us, even if not in ways that make us feel comfortable.
And that brings us to Luke.
In the first part of chapter 13, Jesus addresses our human tendency to turn a blind eye to those we perceive as the Other. He confronts a bias born of privilege, one that states that My life is good because I’m a good person and gets reiterated every time someone other than us or our loved ones suffer.
Jesus extends the work of his father in Exodus, who insisted that mere humans feel the passion of his people’s pain and DO SOMETHING about it. He says, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
You’re not better. You’re not more righteous. You got out for now, but you have to do something with that.
His parable ties it all together. God expects great things from us, but we’re just as led astray as a sterile fig tree. Jesus comes to us with grace. He gives us a second chance. He opens our eyes by coming not in the form of a burning bush that makes us turn away, but in the recognizable, comforting form of our own species. It had become clear that we were too consumed in fear to be consumed in God’s loving justice, so God became one of us to show us we could succeed. We see Christ and his mission and we don’t have to turn away – we can embrace it.
God came first with passion, with fury and movement and an impatient drive to protect his people. And he let one of us in. He gave us the power to do something and the motivation to do it. But, just like the disciples and Jesus’ listening crowds, we got lost again in our own concerns. And we saw suffering and only felt lucky not to be suffering, too. And we repeat the cycle daily.
But we aren’t better. We aren’t better because we’re Americans or Episcopalians or Liberals or Conservatives or Charlottesvillians or UVA students. We see suffering and do nothing. We aggressively consume products presented to us through slave labor – we ignore the bullying, prejudice, and apathy in our own communities and in our own hearts – and we consume ourselves in the process of curating and collecting things and experiences, gluttons to our wants. And we think it’s ok because we’ve told ourselves other people are worse than us. All the while, the burning fire God presented us with is burning out.
We know through today’s texts that we are no better than anyone else. We all come to this life as equals in both merit and guilt. We need this humility to see suffering and empathize with it. We also learn through Moses that God shows us suffering in the places where we have influence, where we can take action.
For instance, our lives as consumers have the power to change or destroy lives. Human beings – people like us – suffer long hours, poor wages, and poor working conditions in the futile attempt to make ends meet at the hands of American corporations fueled by American consumers. Instead of feeling lucky to be here, we should recognize that we aren’t better, that we are the same. And once that hits us, we should realize that WE have the collective power – and the moral obligation through the Bible’s teachings – to make changes to set the suffering free. We can only liberate ourselves when we liberate others.
If we shut down from the important moral responsibilities laid out before us, we deserve to perish. But we’re given a second chance because Jesus believes in us, believes that with a little prodding, we can bear fruit again, and stands by us as we turn away, as we deflate our egos, as we press on to equality and progress.
As Christians, we are tasked to do something with the fire of God in front of us, and through Christ, we can face it head-on and not turn away. We are commanded to “turn aside [from the things that distract us] and look at this great sight” of suffering on earth and change our habits, our minds, our hearts. To set the slaves of unethical values, consumption, trafficking, patriarchy, hatred, and false conceptions of God free. We can only do that if we see that we are all the same, and that God is with us as we move toward equality under the banner of Christ’s grace and love.
I encourage you to assess your values and priorities during the remainder of the Lenten season and to make positive, visible, DIFFICULT changes in your own life.