(a sermon for September 9, 2018, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost; first of a series, based on Exodus 19:1-8, 16-19 and 1 Peter 2:4-10)
It’s now three months after crossing the Red Sea, and the Hebrews have found themselves at the base of Mt. Sinai, setting up camp in the wilderness desert there in front of the mountain. And headed up the mountain itself is Moses, who is in the process of going to meet God; but in fact, God calls down to him from the mountain and says to tell this to the people of Israel: “You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure… a holy nation.” (The Message)
That’s the message from the mountain, and you gotta know that down in the desert, the people are more than willing to say yes to that; and yet, as we find out just a little bit later, when God comes to them in “a thick cloud on the mountain” and there’s a blast of a trumpet,” with smoke billowing and the very mountain itself shuddering for the sheer power of it, “everyone in the camp trembled.” You see, as we read it in the book of Exodus, Moses brought the people out of their camp so that they could meet God; but what the people got was an experience of the holy unlike anything they’d ever known before, a palpable encounter that not only reminded them of what God had done up till that point but which also served to reassure them as to what God had promised yet to do!
I don’t know about you, friends, but when I hear a Bible story like that, I’m convinced: much of the problem with us 21st century people of God is that all too often we have totally lost any sense of the holy!
The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, author, preacher and currently president of Princeton Seminary, has written that “since we are creatures made in the image of God, we all yearn to find holiness. It just comes in our wiring; it’s part of what it means to be human.
“When we go too long without [encountering] anything transcendent,” Barnes goes on to say, “or anything that inspires us, or anything that compels us to bend our knees in reverence and awe, our souls begin to whither inside us.” And while it is possible to walk around in this life for a long time with withered, dried out souls, we’ll never be really, fully alive in such a state. No, Barnes says, “we have to find holiness… it is living water for our parched souls. We have to have it to be really alive.”
Actually, I think I would have to say that – setting aside all the social and communal aspects of what we do here aside – what Barnes is talking about is ultimately this is the main reason that we all come to church, isn’t it? After all, most of us here are aware that in God, there is something, someone much bigger than ourselves, and we come to this place, this temple of God, in the fervent hope that in and through our worship we can somehow experience that “awesomeness” of the divine for ourselves, perchance have that transcendent moment in which our souls come alive. And oftentimes it happens, too: in a hymn or through prayer; in those nearly indiscernible ways that the Holy Spirit moves through our liturgies of Word and Sacrament; to say nothing of our very human mixture of silence and laughter and tears in which the Divine interacts. What happens here every Sunday morning at least has the potential of being a holy experience!
What concerns me, though, is how often – to quote Craig Barnes again – “we encounter the holy and we try to domesticate it into something unholy that we can manage.” It’s hard enough to get a sense of the holy these days, given all the competing voices that clamor for our attention in this life, but then we take what we know is holy and, to put it in secular terms, we market it, we program it, we try to make it user friendly by putting into a mold that we can embrace, and then we put God’s name on it even though inevitably, it all ends up looking more like our plans and preferences rather than those of God!
To put it another way, oftentimes we forget what it is we’re doing here: I love the story that Marva Dawn, a Lutheran pastor and author, tells about how one day in her church a man came through the line to announce to her in no uncertain terms that he did not care for the hymns they’d sung in worship that day. And to this, Marva Dawn simply responded by saying, “That’s okay; we weren’t singing them to you!” (I wish I’d thought of that!) Well, this is so often the problem: we try to make the experience of holiness fit us rather than the other way around!
Holiness, you see, can’t be made to fit into our pockets; it can’t be contained within an hour or so on a Sunday morning; and it can’t be tailored so that each one of us leaves here assured of feeling all warm and fuzzy inside! The fact is, holiness defies our human attempts to contain it, and that’s because the experience of holiness is about God, not us! Let me tell you something here this morning that I hope that you already know but that I’m truly afraid gets lost from time to time: our worship is about meeting God at the edge of the holy mountain, and it’s about letting God breathe life back into our dry, parched souls so that we might truly live. True worship is about remembering who God is and who we are; it’s about you and I remembering the past so that we might move to the future; it’s about affirming that the same God who has always carried us on eagles’ wings will continue to carry us home; and it’s about you and me, individually and collectively and as the CHURCH truly embracing the role of God’s “treasured possession,” becoming “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” through our own obedience to God.
That, as I’ve said, is true worship; and friends, the thing is, what that’s going to involve is the shaking of the mountains around us and the trembling of our own hearts within us! But may I just say right now, if that’s what it’s going to take to give us a true experience of the holy; if that’s what will bring us closer to God’s presence and purpose for our lives, then I think it’s worth some fear and trembling.
I think that the point of the Exodus story is that the God of holiness and righteousness is asking of each one of us to bring that holiness and righteousness into our lives and living, and to be honest, I think that the very thought of that ought to be causing us to tremble, even us here at East Church! For you see, as God’s people what makes us a “a treasured possession out of all the people” – what The Message refers to as God’s “special treasure” – is not based on how many people we have sitting in the pews, how great our time of worship happens to be or how much money we make on a bean supper. Ultimately, it has to do with our faithfulness and obedience to God; this is what makes us, in the words of our epistle reading from 1 Peter, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
At the end of the day, folks, it’s what we do, how we live that matters. Like the Hebrew people before us, we too are called to obey God’s voice and keep his covenant; to do “everything that the Lord has spoken.” That means we are to adhere to God’s laws and precepts over the worldly and all-too-human standards that so often rule the day (it’s no accident, by the way, that right after the scene from Exodus we’ve shared today, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and brings the people the ten commandments); but, lest we think that this is exclusively Old Testament thinking, as Christians forgiven and saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, we need to remember that there is the added element of taking on Christ’s holiness as our own: in short, if we are truly, as 1 Peter puts it, to be “built into a spiritual… offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” then we need to work at loving one another as Christ has loved us; to ourselves be the kind of spiritual house that God intends us to be.
What that means, friends, is that we have to do more than talk a good game here: we have to model the love of Christ, beginning in our relationships with each other and expanded to include the community as a whole. Friends, believe me when I say to you that we cannot be “a holy nation,” in this church or anywhere else, and might I add, we will never become the people God wants us to be if we allow ourselves to be consumed with words and actions that hurt and divide, rather than that which creates an atmosphere for healing and unity. To live in holiness and righteousness as God calls us to live can never happen in tandem with treating those around us – all those around us, whether they happen to agree with us or not – with any less compassion, care and respect than that shown unto others by Jesus; and we all would do well to remember that.
But the good news today is that we can remember that; for truly, as our scripture today tells us, remembering comes in the experience of holiness; and the experience of holiness begins in “the act and attitude” of worship. As the song (and the name of this sermon series!) suggests, you and I are “made to worship” so that we will always remember what God has done and be wholly aware of what even at this moment God is doing in our midst! And when what we do here as a church is centered on that – when what you and I do here as persons of faith is centered on that – then everything else that we hope and pray for will follow; even the fear and trembling we experience cannot help but become glory in the light of God almighty.
Now if that imagery seems a little too dramatic to you, then think of it this way: anyone here has ever had much to do with music, particularly with musical instruments has probably seen one of these. It’s what’s known as a “tuning fork,” and its primary purpose is to offer a true tone (a concert A – 440) by which other instruments, primarily pianos, can be tuned. It’s an ingenious piece of hardware that is actually and delightfully very low-tech: you strike the fork, it makes this tone, and based on that pitch, piano tuners can begin the laborious task of making sure every note on the piano relates properly and harmonically to one another. But here’s the beauty part: if we were place put 50 grand pianos side by side in this sanctuary, as long as those pianos were each in tune with this single tone emanating from this tuning fork, all those pianos would automatically be in accord with each other! And while it might be a little crowded in here for all the pianos playing, what a sound that would make when those pianos are in concert with one another!
Well, folks, God has given us that tuning fork, and Christ is the single note to which each one of us is tuned; he is the one standard that keeps us at perfect pitch always. When we are in tune with the holiness of Jesus Christ, we have what we need to let all our melodies and harmonies soar; we can serve God with gladness and in unity, using all the many and varied gifts we’re given to play any given song that’s before us. But friends, here’s the thing: as any musician will tell you, before you start to play you’ve first got to be in tune; and so it is for you and me as God’s people. You and I are made to worship, but even more than this, we need to worship to be in tune with the holiness of God!
And it starts, friends, by standing at the edge of the mountain; embracing this sacred moment of worship that we share here this morning, opening our hearts that God might breathe life into our souls and give to each of us an experience of the holy; so that, in turn, each one of us can move into the future, wherever that might lead us, doing “everything that the Lord has spoken.”
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry