An Unexpected Hour

(Candidating Sermon August 15, 2010        Exodus 3:1-12; Luke 12:32-40)

Last winter, on a gloomy day, after an appropriate amount of procrastinating that included unloading the dishwasher and putting in a load of laundry, I sat down with my laptop and started working on my ministerial profile. In the United Church of Christ, we all fill out the same sections about our education and work history, and we check off twelve strengths from a list of 40 or so, and we ask our friends and parishioners and mentors to write references and do the check-off list, too. There is a similar profile for churches, too. In both cases, information is gathered and put into some sort of comprehensible form, aimed at helping a pastor and a church perceive a match. 

So on that gloomy day I opened the old version of my profile, and I looked at what needed to be updated and what needed to be recreated and what needed to be added. I got a pencil and a pad of paper, and I wrote down the names of my old references and made some notes about who I might take out and who I might add, to reflect more recent experience. 

And then I closed the document without changing anything.

I needed a little more time. I wasn’t quite ready yet. 

Part of what delayed me was the knowledge that whether they be settled calls such as the one you have been seeking to fill or interim jobs such as the one I was doing, there were no jobs open in the area for full-time pastors. Oh, I knew this one was coming! But I didn’t know when. 

I’ve been in ministry for eight years, first as a settled pastor and then in interim work, and each time I’ve looked for a position, I’ve prayed something like, “Dear God, please send me wherever you want me to go, as long as it’s within a 45-minute drive of my house in Portland.” This year, I knew I had to pray something different, because the opportunities simply were not there. 

I drew in a deep breath, and I exhaled, and I gathered up my courage and I prayed, “Send me.”

Just, “Send me.”

And then I tried to get my breath again.

The children at Vacation Bible School here this week learned a lot about our friend, Moses, including the story of his encounter with the burning bush…his encounter with The Lord. 

And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:6b)

As much as we may wish to hear directly from God, to have some tangible evidence of God’s existence and God’s interest in us, personally, we probably don’t want to get quite so close as Moses did there on the mountaintop.

And Moses certainly did not want to hear the message he received. He had done his utmost to get to safety, fleeing Pharaoh’s court, where he had been raised as a Prince of Egypt. He was in the worst kind of trouble for killing an Egyptian overseer he saw persecuting an Israelite slave. How could it possibly be a good idea to go *back* to the court? What good could he do for anyone? What about his new life as a shepherd, working for his father-in-law?

We may want God’s attention, but we don’t always want God’s direction, because once we hear where God wants us to go, how can we say no?

I went back to the Internet and read the United Church of Christ Employment Opportunities, a directory of available ministry positions, updated weekly. Each searching church writes a short ad which is posted along with a few particulars intended to help candidates decide whether to send their profiles to be read. And so we send our lives in paper form, deciding where based on a few lines of text, wondering whether we’ll ever get to know more about the churches.

For me, these churches, at the beginning, were all in other states, places that sounded as far away as Egypt.

“Send me,” I prayed, bravely.

And then I tried to get my breath, again, thinking I knew what to expect.

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Luke 12:40)  

Jesus is coming bumper sticker

Jesus, in our gospel reading from Luke, tells us to prepare ourselves, in a series of images that may make us, in my opinion, a little anxious, sort of like those bumper stickers that declare, “Jesus is coming; look busy!” The emphasis here is on the unknown and the necessity to be ready, ready, ready, with multiple exclamation points!!!

The trouble is, the instructions he gives, at least here, come in a set of shifting metaphors. Not that I would want to accuse Jesus of trying to confuse us; after all, someone else wrote it down later, and may well have decided to group these images together for emphasis whether they came out of Jesus’ mouth all at once or not. But this is not as straightforward as we might like. What did he have in mind when he told us to be ready? This passage and others like it inform some people’s thinking about the return of Jesus. Luke’s gospel was written forty or fifty years after Jesus’ death, at a time when people lived in anticipation of his immediate return. 

How do we understand him so many years later, when the dramatic reappearance has never come?

Maybe we still wish for it, sometimes, hoping it would mean the setting to rights of the world, the chance to hear whether we interpreted things correctly, or more particularly whether the people we disagree with got it wrong all along. And then maybe we think twice about the wisdom of calling down an apocalyptic ending to life as we know it. 

While I was in the midst of my search, talking to churches in Egypt and Timbuktu, approximately, one day I looked at the Employment Opportunities again, and I saw the listing for this church. And I thought, “Rats! It’s there, but it’s too late! There’s no way their process and mine will time out right!”

As an Interim Minister, wise in the ways of searches, I thought I knew what to expect.

So I kept praying, still fairly bravely, “Send me. Send me.”

I knew that there had been some hard work going on in this church, discussions about beliefs and practices and the United Church of Christ and what it means to be the church both generally and specifically. When the Search Committee sent your profile to me, much sooner than I would have expected to be likely, I loved how frankly they described all that had happened. They told the story of a burning bush moment, an experience of God’s presence in your family of faith, even in the face of being told by some that you didn’t believe things the “right” way.

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… (Luke 12:35)

Now, one of the beauties of our Congregational tradition is that we don’t have to see everything the same way. I hope if we go on to do ministry together, we’ll take some time to study what it means to have that freedom in our faith lives. But for now I want to say that what I read in your profile, what shone through for me, was the desire—a burning desire—to be Christ’s caring light in this community, for everyone who might be in need of aid or assistance. You show the kind of readiness that matters more than waiting for Jesus to come sweep us up into the clouds. You show a readiness to be in relationship with others on God’s behalf.  You show a readiness to love.

Moses, on the other hand, was not ready. Moses did *not* want the job the Lord had to offer. Going back would mean the danger of arrest and death. Some things feel like they will be too much for us. Sometimes we can’t even whisper “Send me” and mean it. Sometimes when we say it, we’re not sure we’ll get our breath back at all.

But God reassured Moses, in that unexpected hour on the mountain. Moses would not be alone. God said:

“I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you.” (Exodus 3:12a)

It was an unexpected hour for me when I came home from the movies on a Sunday night and found an email from Kristi Wright, telling me the Search Committee was “overjoyed to extend a call” to me. I think it took me 24 hours to believe it! Could it be that God could use me some place other than Egypt or Timbuktu or Tipperary? 

Could it be that God might send me to a church exactly 23 minutes from my house, door to door? (Unless you get behind a school bus on Route 9, that is.)

Because you see this is how my story is turning out, how *our* story is perhaps beginning.  After all that “Send me, send me” and all that willingness to go wherever God might send me, it seems God had something else in mind. 

We read about being ready and we’re too…ready to take it in a negative way. We immediately assume we are lacking something or misunderstanding everything instead of understanding that all we need to do be ready is to open ourselves to God’s love and trust it. 

We wait around for magnificent, obvious signs, wondering when we will see our literal burning bush. We blow the return of Jesus up into meaning the end of the world, when really he is coming to us all the time, in the small moments of grace and connection that show God is with us. 

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Do not be afraid, for really, what God wants for us is a widespread community of love and acceptance and forgiveness, a community where every need is met. Just as Moses would have to try, more than once, to teach the Israelites to live together and trust God, we must keep learning. Just as Jesus’ friends and disciples struggled to understand and live into his way, we still hash it out together today. The sort of self-examination we’ve undertaken, yours as a church and mine as a candidate, help open us to it.

It is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom. We may not know how to live in it, just yet. We may not know the time of arrival, or be able to predict the forms of Christ’s appearance in our lives. But when we make ourselves ready, we will recognize the encounters when they happen to us. The Son of Man will come to us in the glory of God’s love, lived out in this world. 

Whatever the hour, we can expect it. Amen.

12 thoughts on “An Unexpected Hour”

  1. “We wait around for magnificent, obvious signs, wondering when we will see our literal burning bush. We blow the return of Jesus up into meaning the end of the world, when really he is coming to us all the time, in the small moments of grace and connection that show God is with us.” Amen!

  2. Blessings on this church and community as the journey progresses from “burning bush moment” to the understanding that we all, always, everywhere, stand on holy ground.
    Blessings on you and your vocation as you strive to be an agent of God’s grace and transformative power in this particular time and place!!!

  3. Amen. Blessings on you and on your call. I am blessed to be able to read your messages and gain insight from them…still.

  4. What Deb and everyone else said. I add my prayers and look forward to hearing about where you land.

  5. Just beautifully written my friend. They are indeed so lucky to have “found” you.

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