Christ Church Greenwich stained glass window detail

A Mystery, a Love Story, and a Thriller

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, August 30, 2020.

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s sermon concludes my trilogy of Old Testament sermons for the month of August. You may remember the first one I preached about Jacob wrestling with someone in a dangerous and mysterious area during the night. I referred to the biblical passage as a “great mystery” story. We had to examine the clues to figure out exactly who was Jacob’s wrestling opponent. The moral of the story is that sometimes we have to wrestle with God and afterwards, we may feel the effects. Part Two of the trilogy was about Joseph, his unbelievable forgiveness of his brothers’ horrid act of selling him into slavery, and his overwhelming love for his brothers. I referred to this piece of Scripture as a “love story.” Our love for others is measured by our willingness to forgive, even the most grievous offenses. Today’s lesson is about Moses and the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, hence, I am referring to it as a “thriller story,” thanks to my husband, Patrick. When I described the events in our Old Testament lesson, Patrick said it reminded him of when you saw a suspenseful movie and put your hands over your eyes but spread your fingers so you can get a glimpse of what is happening. You want to see what is going on but are afraid to look wide eyed. Hence, Part Three of the sermon trilogy is a thriller. Isn’t reading the Bible exciting?

Our story begins with an angel of the Lord appearing to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush. Moses, aware that something extraordinary was happening, that he was in the presence of the Divine, turned aside and looked at the bush. God calls Moses and tells him to come no closer. He is to remove the sandals from his feet because he is standing on holy ground. I want to reflect for a moment on why it was necessary for Moses to remove his sandals. By removing his sandals, Moses is metaphorically removing any barriers between him and God. This is a key point. When the natural and the supernatural interact, barriers have been removed. In other words, we are open to the experience we welcome it. Next, God identifies himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6) and tells Moses that he knows of the suffering of his people. God understands their pain, their sorrow and he has come down to deliver his people from their oppression and to bring them to a “land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). The supernatural is aware of our suffering and delivers us from our sorrow into a haven. God comes to us when we are in need.

My dear friends, how does God manifest himself herself in your life. In what ways does God make himself or herself known to you? Over the years, a few people that have shared with me they felt the presence of the supernatural in difficult times. They felt God’s presence in the natural world, in God’s creation, in animals, in angels, and through people. There were two important aspects of their encounter with the supernatural that aligns with what we know from Scripture. First, they were open to the encounter. They had removed the sandals from their feet and there were no barriers between them and the Divine. Secondly, God in some manifestation, appeared to them when they needed it. Our Scripture this morning specifically tells us that God knows of our suffering and comes to us when we are in pain. I take great comfort in knowing a God of compassion. A parishioner shared with me that when she is sad and missing her son, God manifests himself in nature and she feels his presence. The supernatural comes to the natural.

I had the privilege of officiating at Mary Sue Saltsman’s graveside service this week. Bill and his children and grandchildren planned a beautiful celebration of Mary Sue’s life. Throughout the service, I felt the supernatural and the natural were connected to one another. During the Commendation, a beautiful Monarch butterfly suddenly appeared and we all watched her fly away from us. I believe that that was Mary Sue’s spirit among us. After the service, members of the altar guild and several family members remarked on this extraordinary experience.

As we continue with our lesson today, whenever the supernatural interacts with the natural, there are expectations. God tells Moses that he must confront the oppressor. He must do something. He must go to Pharaoh in order to bring the Israelites to freedom. Can you imagine how Moses must have felt. He has an encounter with the Holy One only to learn that he must be strong enough, have the courage to confront his worst nightmare and trust that God will be with him. What’s Moses’s response, “who me?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Isaiah 3:11)?” I don’t know about you all, but I can totally relate to Moses’s trepidation. Often when God speaks to us, we are asked to go beyond our comfort level, to stretch beyond what we think we can do. We want to say yes, Lord but we are afraid. We cover our eyes with our hands but spread our fingers to peak. In moments like this one, when I feel called to do something beyond my capability, I pray or sing that beautiful and encouraging passage from First Isaiah, “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my stronghold and my sure defense, he will be my Savior (Isaiah 12:2). I need to be reminded that God is my stronghold and my sure defense in whatever I am called to do. Moses, then says, if I go to the Israelites and tell them that you sent me, they are going to want to know your name. Do you all remember this from Part One of our Trilogy of sermons? Before Jacob will let go of his hold on “the man” he has been wrestling with all night, he asks for his name (Genesis 332:29). It seems that we always want to have proof that we are in the presence of God. Why is this the case? Why are we hesitant to believe in the presence of the supernatural, to believe that God really does speak to us today? It may be because it forces us to act differently, to be a different person. My friends, when we were baptized in the Christian faith, we became a new creation. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, he says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17)! Paul ends this verse with an exclamation point. He is explicitly telling us that we are different. In Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, he says, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). Paul is telling us to seek the supernatural in our lives and be open to whatever manifestation appears to us.

God’s response to Moses is classic! “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). God’s response may seem to nebulous but it’s really not! “I am” is from a root meaning “to be.” God’s name has a verbal rather than a noun form. This is important because we know that a verb is word used to describe an action, a state, or an occurrence. God is a God of action. God is a God of presence. In other words, God is about movement and presence. Just as we had to look at the clues in our Jacob story, so too do we have to read the clues in this story to understand its fullest meaning. Friends, I believe this story about Moses and his close encounter with the supernatural is telling us that God does appears to us when we are open to the encounter and when we are in need. When God manifests himself or herself to us, we are called to action, to respond to God’s call. We need not be afraid because God is our stronghold and sure defense. It may seem weird or unusual when we feel God’s presence, but make no mistake, it is real. You are not imagining it. As we venture forth, let us pray that we would be open to God’s presence in our life and let us be a person of action and response. Amen.