"How Something Is Made Out Of Nothing"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/29/1999
Matthew 16:21-28; Exodus 3:1-15
We recall how Moses was reared in Pharaoh's own household as one of his adopted sons. He was given the greatest education anyone in the ancient world could receive. He grew up surrounded by material prosperity and possessions that were beyond the wildest dreams of any child. Clearly, Moses experienced having the proverbial "silver spoon" in his mouth. How curious that in our Scripture lesson Moses appears to have developed few skills from his experience in the royal household. Just what had his life provided?
During his lengthy discussion with God at the burning bush, Moses said, "I am nobody. How can I go to the Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" Moses' poor estimation of himself did not end with that statement. He went on to support his self-analysis with further comments.
Beyond the scope of our lesson today he said to God, "Suppose the Israelites do not believe me and will not listen to what I say. What shall I do if they say that you did not appear to me?" Even after God answered these questions, Moses continued to resist.
Moses said, "No, Lord, don't send me. I have never been a good speaker and I have not become one since you began to speak to me. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant." God responded, "Who gives people their mouths? Who gives people their sight? It is I, the Lord! Now, go! I will help you to speak, and I will even tell you what to say." Moses continued, "No, Lord, please send someone else." (Exodus 4)
This dialogue between Moses and God sounds fairly familiar to us, doesn't it? Once a year the Nominations and Personnel Committee meets to select people to fill the leadership positions of our church. How interesting that frequently the reasons people offer for not serving are reminiscent of what Moses said to God.
Today we are likely to hear, "Thank you so much for thinking of me for that position. However, I have thought about it and between soccer practice, the demands of the PTA and my other responsibilities, my plate is really full." Then with a deep sigh, as if coming from a self-sacrificing martyr, the person will say, "It would not be fair to the church for me to say ‘yes.'" Or an even better line is this one, "I have been a part of this church for the past 25 years, and now it is time that some of these younger people assume more responsibility for making things happen at St. Matthew's."
If we enjoy the view from sitting on the fence or we consider ourselves unable to serve because of our age, we can all claim that Moses was our teacher. But we must remember, eventually Moses learned that he could do far more than he ever imagined by trusting God and doing.
During recent weeks, we have been considering both Joseph and Moses. When we contrast these two figures, something interesting happens. Both of them arrived in Egypt under very challenging circumstances. One was sold as a slave, and the other was rescued from the river. Joseph was accused of attempted rape, put in prison, and forgotten. Moses was reared in the royal palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh. Joseph developed the strength of spirit by totally trusting in God's faithfulness during difficult times. Moses had everything handed to him because of his life of privilege and had not developed any recognizable skills.
The result of this comparison not only should give us pause, but it should also clearly define the true identity of experiences we have labeled as "unfortunate," "the darkest moments of my life," or "extremely unfair and unjust." The episodes in our lives that have appeared to be the most cruel may have actually been the ones that made us stretch and mature in spirit.
Once we learn that what we fear cannot hurt us, the doors of understanding spring open and remain open forever. Those of us who have never been tested will always find ourselves struggling to hold on to our comfort levels. We fear change. We cling to the familiar. We are like Moses who would much rather tend sheep than become a liberator for his people.
Only Joseph was prepared to step into a position of high authority. He conquered his fears one at a time as each one presented itself. He learned to bloom in whatever circumstance he found himself. Having learned that, Joseph had nothing to fear. Moses, on the other hand, believed he possessed no courage and no skills to perform in the manner God was requesting.
When Moses made his shift away from his life among the royal family, we notice his lack of character. During his first recorded confrontation, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster. When he learned that there were witnesses, he fled from Egypt. There is definitely an object lesson here for many of us. Little within Moses had matured even though he had been given everything that most of us revere -- wealth and prosperity.
Many of us have heard the story about the young man who grew up in a church. Everything about his life had tracked extremely well. He had gone to the finest schools and was currently working on his Ph.D. All the doors to success were opened to him. Through his ability to network well, he had secured an excellent job.
One day while he walked along a rim that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, the unstable ground under his feet gave way and he found himself sliding out of control toward the edge of the cliff. Just before making the plunge to his death, he grabbed a small shrub that stopped his slide.
He found himself dangling in a very precarious manner. The shrub felt as if it had a firm root system, but he was not sure. His fear was overwhelming. There was no other place for him to reach to pull himself up. He was afraid to move. As he looked below, he saw the pounding surf crashing against the rocks. He remembered his days in Sunday School and how his teachers had taught him about prayer and the miracles that can happen when a person talks to God. It had been a while since he last prayed, but he tried it.
He said, "God, this is not the time for me to go over my life with you and discuss all my regrets for not coming to you sooner, but right now I need you more than any other time in my life. As you can see, I'm stuck here. I don't know what to do. Will you help me?"
Suddenly this very strong yet peaceful voice said, "Yes, I will help you. What you must do is let go." The man said, "Excuse me?" The calm, reassuring voice said once again, "You must let go of the little shrub. You must trust me." The young man looked once again at the churning, rock- splitting surf below and said, "Okay, but first, is there anybody else up there?" It is challenging to trust when we stare danger in the face.
Moses would have given anything to have someone else do what only he could do. However, to secure the release of the Israelites, Moses was the only one who could do it. Moses would be negotiating with a man he knew all of his life, his step-brother Rameses. This fact alone may be why Pharaoh did not kill Moses immediately when troubles with the Hebrews began.
Everyone in Pharaoh's court knew Moses. He had grown up in their midst and they loved him as one of their own. Thus Moses was the only person who had the knowledge and the rapport with Pharaoh to make the impossible happen. What he had to deal with was his own doubt.
Most of us identify with doubt. Unfortunately, it is something that most of us choose to live with and tolerate. Far too many of us talk about our faith while taking few risks. The truth is that it takes no faith at all to remain as we are. Faith literally translated means trust.
How willing are we to take the risks that having faith implies? Wanting our faith to increase means that we are constantly striving to conquer, to rid ourselves, and to stop being dominated by things that make us afraid. Faith and fear live in two different universes. Joseph lived in one and Moses, at least initially, lived in the other.
As the story of Moses at the burning bush continued, God decided to demonstrate to him some extraordinary abilities. According to the author, God turned Moses' walking stick into a snake. Next God demonstrated how Moses' hand could become instantly diseased with leprosy one minute and become healed the next. Next God said, "And if people still do not believe you, pour some water from the Nile on the ground and it will turn to blood."
Even after such an impressive display of what God could do, Moses still said, "No, Lord, please send someone else." (Ex. 4:13) The problem for us is never with what God can do. What God can do surrounds us everyday. Just looking at a Monarch butterfly will tell us that. The central issue for us is whether or not we can stand forth confidently in our knowledge of what God can do. According to what God told Moses, God is willing to do it all. All Moses had to do was show up.
Our minds tell us that God would never allow anything serious to happen to us, but are we willing to let go of the root we are clinging to? Are we willing to leave the job that has become a dead-end street, that is suffocating and destroying us? Are we willing to forsake security and comfort for the adventure of the unknown? Do we have the courage to face our self-doubt and do something we have never done before? Think about these questions! What will it take for us to deliberately choose to move on from where we are and trust God as we stand before Pharaoh -- whoever or whatever that might be?
All of us know that today is the last day for our summer services in the garden. I may never have told you this, but for me, it was like standing before Pharaoh when those services first started. Before coming to St. Matthew's, I had never stood before a group of people and talked without any notes. I wanted to learn how to do that.
How can anyone learn to have confidence at anything without first doing it to see what happens? I remember the Saturday night before that first service three years ago. I did not sleep. I watched that clock all night and lay there thinking about everything that could go wrong. The morning came and rather than the 10 to 15 people that Patti and I anticipated at the 7:30 a.m. service, 75 showed up.
When I stood up to speak, my mind went blank. I could not even think logically about the Scripture lesson that I had just read. There was an instant when I did not think that anything was going to come out of my mouth. My heart was racing. The problem was that I had chosen to remain dependent on my printed manuscript for 30 years prior to that morning and now I was on stage without any cue cards. But I got through it. And each successive Sunday since, I became more relaxed.
This is the way it is for all of us when we try to do something we have never before experienced. Maybe it is dealing with a youth group, or being more generous to the church with our money, or helping with some committee work. This is what stretching means. Moses said, "I am nobody. Please send someone else." And because he stood forth trusting God for every step, Moses gave God the opportunity to demonstrate how trustworthy God can be. Will God be any less for us?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that you created us with the capacity to face the experiences of life with courage. At first it is not easy to live the values Jesus brought, until we understand that no other values truly serve us. It is challenging to view all experiences as stepping stones toward refining our discipleship, until we understand their role in making our love more visible. It is difficult to withhold our judgments of other people, until we learn how others teach us to bring forth kindness, forgiveness, and opportunity to reveal who we have become. O God, help us to see ourselves as you see us. Enable us to become teachers whose lives reflect the message of wholeness, whose words invite healing, and whose understanding always extends friendship. May we learn that with you, we can create a world where peace and harmony have no boundaries. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, O God, for these moments when nothing is expected of us. As we sit here in our pews, enable us to lay aside those things that have preoccupied our minds this week. Help us picture ourselves using a large wet sponge to erase the blackboard that contains all our distractions, our worries, and our frustrations. We let them go so that we can spend these moments of prayer with you in total communion.
Why is it, Lord, that we prevent small hurts from healing? The more we think about them, the larger they become. Why is it that we allow the words and actions of others to muddy our waters? Are we that fragile that we can so easily be persuaded to discard our peace and our enthusiasm for living, by the tyranny of little things that can daily cross the stage of our experiences? We cannot stop them but we can accept them with gracious spirits that know that such things provide us endless moments to practice patience, kindness, forgiveness and peace. Without the storms, O God, we develop few skills.
As we face the Fall months just ahead of us, may we do so with the resolve to bring who we have become into every moment. Spare us from looking to others for help when a need stands before us. Spare us from selecting comfortable choices that require little from us. Spare us from refusing to grow because of our need to be right and in control. May we so live, O God, that our discipleship shows. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .