Lay sermon delivered on June 27, 2010, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, NY
“’I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” ~ Exodus 3:6
“You will know them by their fruits.” ~ Matthew 7:16
When I learned that I would be giving the sermon today, I was excited. And then within a few days, I had a vivid dream. I was up here in this very pulpit, all ready to go. After looking out at the congregation, I looked down, only to discover that the papers I was holding were not a sermon, but a handful of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine.
Now, maybe my dream was telling me that I tend to take things too seriously and I need to lighten up. I’ve certainly heard this advice from many friends, not to mention my own daughter.
But in all honesty, I believe my dream was a clear reflection of a deeper hesitation, an ambivalence, about being here today. Yes, I was excited and honored. And I remain humbled and sincerely grateful to Reverend Yorty and the Worship Music & Arts Committee for inviting me to preach a second time. But with equal intensity, I’ve been reluctant about embracing this moment. I’m not sure why exactly. It hasn’t just been a sense of feeling ill-prepared to deliver a sermon, but a sense of feeling unworthy to deliver one. Especially on a day as important as this, when we gather not only to worship, but also to commission our Maine travelers.
My own faith journey has been a bumpy road, at best. It has taken me a long time to learn how to bow my head, for one thing, and I don’t just mean physically. When I was 10 years old, I wrote a letter to God and left it under my pillow at bedtime. The next morning, when I found it was still there, I was miffed. “See! He doesn’t exist.” God had failed my clever test. As a teenager, I was the least enthusiastic family member when Sunday morning rolled around. I still recall, with excruciating detail, the weekly battles with my mother over going to church. She wasn’t shy about yanking the covers as I lay in bed, and you can bet I wasn’t shy about raising my voice in bitter protest.
In the heat of our emotional exchanges, she would confidently say: “I don’t care what you say you don’t believe. God will never let you go.” It annoyed me to no end, to be going up against this woman who seemed so resolute. Yet deep down, I think I knew all along I was somehow never going to win the larger argument. It just took me 25 years to concede.
At the same time, this business of faith can get more complicated, not less, the more we talk about it. The more we try to pin it down, wrap it up neatly, the more elusive it can be. And maybe that’s just as it should be. God, after all, is not some genie we can capture in a bottle, and then let out when we want our next wish granted. God doesn’t belong to us; we belong to God. And God is far bigger than our human brains can imagine.
Moreover, faith is not just about figuring out what we believe, and how to proclaim it within the safe confines of a church. That’s only one part. Faith is also about living in the real world, being in tune with what feels right, and doing what we believe – even when our choice is unpopular. I also believe that faith is about carrying on with the task of listening, being kind and making the world a better place, even when we’re not quite sure if we believe anything at all.
In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is confronted by the curious sight of a burning bush. God could have used something much more dramatic to get his attention – another flood, perhaps – but he uses an ordinary bush, which just happens to be burning from the inside. If Moses had been a less observant man, he might not have noticed the flame and passed right by. But he does notice, and he stops. God calls Moses by name, and Moses shows appropriate reverence and takes off his sandals. When God identifies Himself to the Israelite, what does Moses do? He covers his face. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
The tension continues, as God explains to Moses what He wants him to do – and Moses responds by insisting he is not up to the task. God chooses a man who is not ready to be a disciple, let alone the leader of the people of Israel. A man who has plenty of excuses. A man who is initially a very reluctant disciple.
Aren’t we all like that at times? Scared, reluctant children of God, eager to offer up an excuse when He calls us.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a preeminent theologian of the 20th century, is perhaps best-known for writing the Prayer of Serenity. I first discovered him my freshman year in college through a course on religion and ethics. His book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, was one of many assigned texts. Away from home for the first time in my life, I was questioning many things about my life, including my religious upbringing here at Westminster. But even with all the doubt I felt inside, Niebuhr made sense. To me, he was one of those rare religious people who could cultivate a thoughtful faith by keeping an open mind.
I recently stumbled upon a 1958 TV interview featuring Niebuhr. Believe it or not, a link to it came across my Twitter feed, a most unlikely source if you ask me. The interviewer is a young Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” fame. During a 30-minute exchange, the two men talk about Catholicism, Protestantism, anti-Semitism, nuclear war, communism – this was during the height of the Cold War, after all – and the separation of church and state.
Toward the end, Wallace asks Niebuhr to explain his opinion on atheism. “What is your personal attitude toward atheists?” he says. Without missing a beat, the theologian invokes Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew – familiar words like Judge not lest ye be judged… By their fruits ye shall know them.
Niebuhr tells Wallace that in the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference to him if a person considers himself a believer or a nonbeliever. Niebuhr says, “I wouldn’t judge a man by the presuppositions of his life, but only by the fruits of his life.” In other words, our actions can speak louder than not only our words, but even our deepest thoughts.
Young people, tomorrow you, along with your adult advisors, will embark on another Maine mission trip. You will continue a Westminster tradition that began more than 30 years ago. I’ve heard stories from my daughter, who went last year for the first time, about being tossed into the lake, walking along the beach, eating lobster, and checking out the store in Freeport on the way home. I’ve also heard about the many projects that are as exhilarating as they are exhausting: chopping wood, hammering, scraping, painting, installing windows, replacing doors, fixing a ramp so a place is accessible to those in wheelchairs. That’s good, clean, honest work in the truest sense of the word, and it’s ample reason to feel tired – and proud.
Yet even as you pack up all your clothes, sleeping bags and bug spray, and look forward to a time of fellowship and fun, I suspect you’ll feel a few butterflies.
For a week you’ll be in a rural place that has no Wi-Fi and poor, if any, cell-phone connection. And there’s no Starbucks! The only creature comforts of home you will have will be each other. I think that’s pretty cool.
In preparing my sermon, I asked your advisors about some of the anxieties they might be feeling, based on past Maine trips. Debbie Katz responded: “I’m always aware of the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s child. I’ve learned more about ticks than I want to. Sharing the same living space with a group of senior highs and college kids is a challenge. Sleeping in a church and sharing kitchen and bathroom space and waiting to use one of the three showers in the public school requires an adjustment as we become a community.”
One of my Facebook friends, Marta Rummenie King, went on 16 Maine mission trips, and she says each time, she still felt nervous about getting lost during the drive there and back.
I also asked what your advisors most appreciate. Becca Ballard responded: “I have been impressed overall by the way the kids work, and work together. When given the opportunity, they rise to the occasion. This is the body of Christ and this is the body of Christ in action.”
The body of Christ in action. By their fruits you shall know them.
When you were confirmed, you each had to write a faith statement. Do you remember? I hope you also remember your teachers telling you that confirmation was not an end to something, but the first step in the lifelong journey of your adult faith. To that end, I think the most meaningful “faith statement” you can ever write contains no words at all. Rather, your statement of faith is reflected in the actions of your everyday life. This includes how you will serve the people of East Sumner, Maine, and how you will take care of each other in the week ahead.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you’
Jesus replies, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Have fun and work hard. Take care of each other. We can’t wait to hear all about this part of your journey when you return. And thank you for representing Westminster.