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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Turning to Burning Bushes & New Truths

The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
Exodus 3:1-15, Luke 13:1-9

Today’s Gospel asks the age old question that we can never escape…why did this terrible thing happen? Was it some kind of punishment sent by God? I had a friend who asked for months after she was diagnosed with cancer, “What did I do that made God so angry with me? What did I do to deserve this?” The answer for her…like the answer for all of us, is nothing. You did nothing to deserve this. No one deserves this, and God would be the first to assure you of that. Stuff happens. It happens to the good and the not so good. It happens to the old and the young. Suffering it seems is an inevitable part of the human condition. And trying to make sense of human suffering is work that lies at the heart of virtually all the religions of the world.

The easy answer of course is to blame the sufferer. You somehow caused your own misery…if you had only been a better person, followed the rules, worked harder, done what was expected of you… none of this would have happened to you. But that just doesn’t square up with what we know about the world, about life, about how evil comes into the lives of those who have done nothing to invite it in.

Jesus knew and we know: Despots murder savagely. Towers tumble on innocent bystanders. Marriages that began with true love disintegrate. Good kind loving saints of the church get cancer. Responsible business women and men go bankrupt. Conscientious homeowners have their homes foreclosed on. Excellent employees get laid off, and yes even the youngest and most innocent may die needless tragic deaths. ….

But still there persists this gnawing notion that it must somehow be someone’s fault. So why does this idea keep reappearing? Why do so many of us who seemingly know better so often still have the feeling deep inside that we must have done something to bring this latest of life’s pains upon ourselves?

Perhaps sometimes it is because if we pretend we believe in a world where only the wicked suffer and the good are blessed, then we can shield ourselves from the near immobilizing truth of our own vulnerability. We can keep our deepest darkest fears about our own mortality and fragility at bay. We can pretend that whatever life may dish out to some, tragedy will not be visited on me and my loved ones.

Pretending that suffering is somehow the victim’s fault leaves the world tied up in a neat and tidy package where everything is knowable. Everything is explainable. Everything is within our control.

When those who had been following Jesus asked him to make sense of the evil that had touched them by retelling him this story about the death and defilement of their own people, did they expect Jesus to tell them that it was the sin in the lives of the victims that was responsible for their fate? Were they looking for assurance from Jesus that they were somehow immune from such a fate …or instead was there a scratchy gnawing feeling in their brains that the easy answers they’d been given weren’t true answers?

In AA there is a way of describing mental traps that take us to places of untruth and dislocation from reality. It’s called stinkin thinkin. Stinkin thinkin lets you build a make believe world that supports whatever you want to believe rather than facing into truth. Stinkin thinkin lets you hide from the hard truths of life so that you can keep doing whatever it is you’ve been doing without having to change.

Jesus proves over and over again that he has no use for stinkin thinkin….that what he wants from his followers is for them to adjust their worldview to fit reality, not remake reality to fit their worldview. That’s what repent means in the New Testament. It means to stop moving in one direction and turn and move in a whole new direction, because the call of Jesus is to follow the way, the truth, and the life –even when that means things will never again be as they have been. Even when that means that we have to let go of some notion that we are determined to cling to.

One of my favorite Christian posters is the poster of the mountain goat in mid leap between two high altitude precipices with the simple caption Faith under it. There is nothing to break the mountain goat’s fall if it doesn’t make it to the other precipice. There is nothing but air underneath for thousands of feet. And pretending that there is something underneath might just keep the goat from gauging the risks and putting all its strength into making the leap.

Faith is about taking those kinds of leaps and often for that kind of faith to become possible, we must first repent. We must first stop believing the world is as we wish it were and pay attention to the reality we see before us.

Repenting is like opening the curtain and finding the great and terrible Oz is not what he presents himself to be, and then deciding whether to believe in him or not. Repenting is being on the road to somewhere, cruising along happily in life and when you see a burning bush in the distance that shouldn’t still be burning after all this time…it’s saying “I must turn aside and look at this great sight” instead of saying “What an interesting optical illusion I just experienced. How curious. But let me press on to my destination.”

Did you notice that God chose Moses because he turned aside in curiosity and wonder and came toward the bush rather than denying what he saw or running away in fear?

Repenting is not so much about saying “I’m sorry I’ll never do it again” as it is about saying “Ah…you’ve opened my eyes. Now I see a better way. I will leave behind what I have known and loved and found comfort in to follow a different path.” Not because we want to, but because the truth demands it of us.

We live in a time of tremendous turmoil and upheaval in our society. What once was, often is no more. Every day I meet people in the church who desperately want things to be as they have been. They so want to believe that the world they once knew and understood and trusted is the world that still exists and that if only we would get back to doing things the way we used to, everything would be fine again. Our whole world is like that. Business people, educators, civil servants, parents, administrators, health care providers, grandparents…we all know people who just want the world to be the way it used to be. They want there to be simpler answers to impossible questions.

But you see, as much as we may empathize with them, …As much as we may be them many days of the week, God asks something more of us. God asks us to embrace the burning bush that cannot possibly be burning…to face into the hard truths of today…just as Jesus demanded that of his inquisitors from today’s lesson.

And what are we to gain by turning aside and facing into truth? What is worth the cost of shattering our safe comfortable worlds only to have to rebuild them? …What we gain is what Moses gained and what Jesus gained. We gain vision…vision to see and know and experience the holy ground of our todays… vision to see and believe that God’s hand can still be at work making the dangerous precipices of our lives into places to land on sure feet.

Whatever it is that tethers you to a day and a time that is gone and cannot be wished back into being, or a half truth that is easier to swallow than the whole truth that can set you free…let it go… let it go, turn aside and see this new great sight. This great sight is your life…a life that in the midst of great joy and inexpressible sorrow will always, always, be held within the loving, comforting, healing, restoring, inspiring embrace of our almighty God.

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