Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Sufficiency

Preached Sunday, August 15

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 3:1-12; 4:1-13
2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The people of God were about to set foot on the road home; but they didn’t know it yet. And they didn’t really know anything about home. Home was nothing but a story. Home was an old, old promise that had never come true.

For centuries they had been slaves in Egypt. They couldn’t have been at home there! And yet, perhaps, they had grown all too much at home in Egypt.

They had allowed themselves to grow comfortable in a place where they did not belong. They had allowed themselves to grow comfortable in a place, and in a way of life, where they could never hope to be the people they were created to be and called to be by God.

God’s people knew nothing about home. But they were about to set foot on the road that would take them there.

The key to understanding the meaning of home and the road home are the promise of God. Home is wrapped up in the promise God gave to Moses, “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3:12) Our home is the presence of the God who created us and knows the purpose of our creation; the God who knows us through and through; the God who saves us and sets us free; the God who calls us by name.

The truth is that God is our home. That is why heaven will be our home. That is why the new heaven and the new earth will be our home. And that is why we can know what it is to be at home right now.

Life for us, here in this world, is the road home, and home is where God is. But God is here with us on the road: so even the road is our home.

The reason for this is that home is a relationship. Home is a whole network of relationships, but there is a center to it all. The center makes it possible for that whole network to hold together. The center is God, because we are children of God.

Perhaps because I have never been married I see the central relationship of home as parental. I am told that parents never stop being parents to their children, and children never grow out of being their parents’ children. And from my end of it I believe that this is true.

I think about times long ago; of being at home on the road. When I was a little kid, before we moved away from Southern California, my family would go camping for a week or two up north every summer.

My parents would put us kids to bed dressed in tomorrow’s clothes, and wake us up in the dark, and carry us or lead us, bleary eyed, out to the car we had packed the day before. Once in a while I would open my eyes and see the lights on the freeway as we drove north, or the darkness of what they called “The Grapevine”; the winding highway that would take us up into the Central Valley.

It was getting light before we got to Bakersfield, and there, out in the middle of nowhere, is where we stopped for breakfast along the road. There was no freeway there, in those days, and no rest stops.

We used the bushes to go potty. And my mom would open two thermoses and a package of doughnuts. One thermos had coffee for my mom and dad. The other had hot chocolate for me and my sisters.

Somewhere along the way we turned east and started up the hills, and the hills changed from grass to oak trees, and the oaks changed into pines, and we went higher and higher, and the roads got scary because they were only two-lanes and they had no shoulders. You could look straight down for hundreds of feet down the steep sides of those mountain canyons.

Then the road started passing between giant sequoia trees. We were almost there, and then we were.

We chose our spot, and there were sleeping bags to carry, and ice chests to carry, and lanterns to carry, and the box with the tent to carry and set up, and water to fetch and to carry. There was a lot of carrying; a lot of work. We kids worked, and whined, and our work probably wasn’t worth very much; and we were more work than help, for our parents.

Long, long childhood days passed, and it came time for the road again; the real road home. But camp had become our home and we didn’t want to go to our real home.

What a surprise it was when we finally got home and found that we were glad. There were our rooms, and our toys, and our friends. But home was work too.

That old summer road was always home, from the beginning to the end. It was all about freedom from oppression. It was all about my family living at our very, very best together. In spite of us children whining, we were at our most alive on that road. We were in the place where we were at our best creating good memories.

So what do we say about home? It fits the way the Lord described it to Moses. “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8)

The land of the sequoias, and the King’s Canyon, and Cedar Grove where we camped, was that good and spacious land for us. It was the end of slavery, but not the end of hard work, and being of help, and caring for others. It was hard beds, and roasted marshmallows, and campfires, and singing. It was the wonders of God’s creations around us. It was the amazing easiness of waking up and getting up, so eager and ready to go, so much earlier in the morning than we ever did at home.

God talked to Moses about home. It was talk about room and freedom, the end of slavery and oppression. Home would flow with milk and honey: not silver and gold, not time-saving and labor-saving conveniences, not games and entertainment, not thrills or pillows. The goats would give lots of milk, but those goats would have to be milked. There were lots of flowering things to feed the bees and give those bees something make their honey with; but the honey would have to be found, and the bees would have to be dealt with.

With Jesus our road home is also about freedom. The love of Jesus gives us the freedom to cross over into the life that we have been created for. Grace makes our lives into a spacious land where we can put our slavery behind us; our dysfunction; our hardened, and broken, and worn-down hearts. But this is work for us, too; to will it and to carry it through.

My old summer road would often make me forget the work that went along with it. Most of all, it took a lot of work on my parents’ part. Being at home on the road was their grace at work for us: it no lark for them.

The road home for the people of Israel was a big challenge: scary and a lot of work. It was about escaping from one of the strongest powers of their day. It was about crossing the desert, where there was no food or water, with thousands and thousands of men, women, children, babies, and livestock. It was about an invasion of the people who were living on the land that was supposed to be their home.

Paul was a servant like Moses; sent to call God’s people and lead them home. It was no lark. Many of God’s people in Paul’s time were slaves too. It was a world that worshiped such strange things: strange things like success, and wealth, and wine, and sex, and entertainment. It was a world that laughed at you and made things tough for you if you didn’t play along. It was a world like ours.

The home and the road that takes you there is a wonderful road, but it is not a lark. A week or two in the mountains takes a lot of work. But a life where there is real freedom for you to live in that network of relationships, at your best, and for others to live with you at their best is not easy.

And to really help others to find their way into that life of freedom is not easy either. We can live a holiday life for a holiday, but not for much longer.

And this brings us to the matter of sufficiency. Moses wondered who he was that he should be able to lead his people home to God’s freedom. (Exodus 3:11) There were so many reasons for him to fail. After all, he had failed at the start, when he was a young prince of Egypt and had tried to come to his people’s rescue.

When I perform a wedding, I wonder whether the couple who are standing before me are sufficient for leading each other into God’s freedom. Can they succeed in their mission to help each other to grow as free, and happy, and thankful children of God? Are they sufficient for rejecting all the temptations of self-righteousness, selfishness, unfairness, spite, the competition for dominance? Are we sufficient for this in our families? Are we sufficient for this with our neighbors and community?
And what about the church! Are we sufficient to lead our brothers and sisters in Christ into greater and greater freedom in the grace and love of God that is found in Christ? Are we sufficient as a church to reach out beyond ourselves? Are we sufficient to bring the good news of the road home to those who seem to have such different lives and such different purposes in living?

In this matter, the scriptures tell us “no”, we are not sufficient. If we were sufficient for these things, our message would be about ourselves and about our program for becoming the outstanding and wonderful and amazing people that we are. But we’re not.

The key is in the simple words of the Lord to Moses: “I will be with you.” There is no greater wisdom and no greater joy than to accept our insufficiency and to really understand God’s sufficiency for us.

Our lives are meant to be a living story of the grace of God. This is what the life of Jesus was for. This is what his sacrifice on the cross was for. This is what his resurrection was for.

It is all for us. It is all for grace. It is all for planting the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus in each one of us. The story is all about God whose sufficiency makes it possible for each one of us, and for all of us working together, to be the living proof of the power of the grace of God, in Christ.

Unbeknownst to himself, the Christian named Paul wanted to tell a story about how spiritual, and how holy he was. Then, instead of being a witness to Jesus, he would have become a witness to himself. Jesus took away Paul’s sense of sufficiency and, then (when this loss brought Paul to the edge of desperation), Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)

We don’t know for sure what Paul’s source of weakness and insuffiency was.

It may have been people problems. Everything would be going well in Paul’s work. He was guiding people into the new life of the road home. People were learning the new freedom and the transformation that come from Jesus. People were growing in their faith, and in their sense of calling, and their growing together in love. And so many times it would blow up in his face.

There would be people problems; fights, and rivalries, and desertions. People problems would come up and seem to spoil everything. It was enough to make him want to quit. These people problems were a thorn in his flesh.

Paul’s thorn in the flesh that made him feel so weak and insufficient may have been a matter of health. In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul reminded them of the state he was in when he first came to them. “I came to you in weakness, and in fear and in much trembling.” (1 Corinthians 3:3) Writing to the Galatians Paul wrote about the state he was in when he was with them. “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me…” (Galatians 4:13ff)
We all know people who have had something happen to them that makes them completely dependent on others. The longer we live the more we understand how very hard that is; how humiliating (at least at the start) and how frustrating.

There are thorns in the flesh that take all a person’s illusions away. And we are full of illusions about ourselves and our abilities. We are full of illusions even about the gifts of God. We are full of illusions about our sufficiency to take the road home and to bring others along with us, in the freedom of the children of God that comes through Christ.

The bush in the desert was a common shrub, like thousands of others, adapted with thorns and thin and leathery leaves to a life in a in a hard thirsty land. It is hard to see beauty in that desert shrub.

The presence of God in the bush changed nothing about the bush except to make it the center of God’s holy ground. This bush became a place for meeting the grace of God that was reaching out to a defeated man, a failed prince, and his enslaved people.

Our insufficiency is the place where God’s power can be seen. It is the place where the proof can be seen of how we can grow in the freedom of God’s children.
We can grow on our way home, and we can help others on the road with us. We can help them because we are really just like them: insufficient.

God is sufficient, and we can be the living and contagious proof that, just as we are, the presence of God can burn in us, and not consume us. The sufficiency of God can make us and our lives into holy ground.

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