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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON MARCH 3, 2019 Roughing It for the Lord Exodus 35:20-36:1; Luke 9:28-36 It’s one of the more patronizing comments you’ll find in the Bible. Luke offers an opinion about Peter’s reaction to the glory, there in the presence of Israel’s greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah, appearing from the dead. “Master, it’s a good thing that we’re here. Let’s make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Luke says patronizingly, “Peter didn’t know what he was saying.” I take some comfort in Luke’s remark. If Peter, the first and greatest apostle, could stand in the presence of Jesus and say something apparently stupid, there is hope for me and for you. There is hope for us who have plenty of moments in our lives when we, with pure intentions and great zeal, just don’t know what we’re saying, or doing. I read recently about some monks in Syria in the earliest centuries after Jesus’ resurrection. They were called the holy wanderers, and they believed that the holiest life a person could live was a life without work. So they dedicated themselves to a nomadic lifestyle, modeled on a passage from the Gospels in which Jesus sends his disciples out without purse or bag or sandal, relying upon the hospitality of strangers. They called themselves the “holy poor,” and they offered advice, prayer and spiritual blessing in return for being entirely supported by the “earthly” offering of daily provision by others. They adopted a beggar’s lifestyle and presented it as holy, the holiest way of all to live. I would say, trying not to be patronizing, that the holy wanderers didn’t know what they were doing. They were working out of scripture, for sure. They had the best of intentions. But they didn’t know what they were doing. Imagine if, in our own place and time, the belief existed that the only true ministry to be done would be ministry with and among the poor. Imagine if such a ministry depended upon the generous offerings of Christians who had not made such a choice, but who did other kinds of work, and from their income shared with the poor. With the best of intentions, such holy wanderers would make a distinction between themselves as true followers of Jesus and worldly followers of Jesus. In other words, the true followers of Jesus would be those roughing it for the Lord, and the rest, in relative wealth, would not be true to Jesus. Two things made me think about those holy wanderers: the first is our lesson from Exodus. It recounts how the Israelites outfitted the tabernacle, that tent of meeting in which the Lord would make himself known to them. Moses issued the invitation: “Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring to the Lord” the finest things. In essence, it was a good thing that the Israelites were there, and it was a good thing that they possessed fine things, and it was a good thing that those of generous hearts gave their gifts. But as good as those things were, there was an even better thing: the Lord accepted their gifts. The Lord did not sneer at their gifts, did not consider it beneath himself to dwell within a tent, did not adopt some super-spiritual attitude whereby there was nothing about the Israelites or their life that the Lord would embrace. The Lord willingly made himself known to them in the wilderness, in a tent of all things. In other words, it was a good thing that the Lord was willing to rough it for the Israelites. I think most of us could profess, in looking back at our lives through the lenses of faith, that the Lord has been willing to rough it for us as far as our eyes can see. From our parents or our Sunday School teachers teaching us to pray – to fold our hands and bow our heads and speak to God – most of us could profess, in looking back, that the Lord proved to be faithful, showed up in our lives, even if not giving us exactly what we asked, but doing something to show that he was with us. Even when we were younger, even when we were wandering, even when we were selfish, even when we were stingy. It is a good thing that the Lord is willing to rough it for us. The Lord does not sneer at our lives, adopt some super-spiritual attitude by which there is nothing about us that he would embrace. If you’re like me, that’s a big reason why you continue to offer your gifts. It’s why I make my pledge, even though it’s not the largest one in the congregation. It’s why I come to work each day, even though there are better ministers around. I’m like an Israelite in the wilderness, having witnessed an Exodus, a deliverance, God’s redemption. Moses issued the invitation and so I bring what I have. And God keeps showing up, keeps sanctifying my gift for his own purposes. Craig Barnes, who is president of the seminary that Sarah Bird and Josh and Adam attended, tells of an experience when he was a student there. He says, “I took a class from Bruce Metzger on the book of Revelation. One day while he was lecturing on the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ, he looked up from his notes and said, ‘I hope that when you leave here and become pastors, you will get on your knees every morning and thank God that you are not necessary.’” Barnes goes on, “I remember this aside better than anything else Metzger taught us. It really stuck in my craw. For the first five years of my pastoral ministry, I maintained an argument in my mind with his counsel: ‘Surely we’re all necessary. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.’” Honestly, I believe that God doesn’t need our gifts. God didn’t need a tent, and so God didn’t need fine fabrics or precious metals. Do you know who did need the gifts? The Israelites. They needed God to be with them. They needed something real, something tangible, even if it was only a tent. They needed to contribute to it, to offer something for it, to be part of that visible, tangible dwelling place of the Lord as they wandered through the wilderness and learned what it meant to trust God with their very lives. We are not necessary to God, but God is necessary to us. It’s a good thing for us that God is here. It’s a good thing that God does not sneer at us, consider it beneath himself to dwell with us, does not reject our gifts. And every church can make that same profession, the wealthiest church and the poorest. Each church: the one filled with movers and shakers or the one filled with the weakest and most vulnerable. None of us is necessary to God, but God is necessary to us. And we need to contribute to the church, to offer something for the church, to be part of a visible, tangible dwelling place of the Lord as we wander through this wilderness and learn what it means to trust God with our very lives. The second thing that made me think of the holy wanderers is our installation of Sarah Bird. We’re inviting her into ministry in our midst, and one thing we are not asking her to do is to rough it for the Lord. We live under no pretense. We make no claim that it is only the holy wanderers who are true followers of Jesus. Neither do we claim that God loves us more if our gifts are more impressive. We simply make the same claim that all pilgrims make: God has shown up in our midst. We have witnessed our share of Exoduses, of redemptions, of deliverance. We hear Moses’ invitation to bring what we have. We invite her to join us – to contribute what she has, to offer something for this church, to be part of this visible, tangible dwelling place for God. And we do so because we believe not that God needs us, or even simply because we need God, but because – and here is another thing – because the world needs the church. The world needs a priestly kingdom and holy nation. The world, which can look mighty desolate, needs that tent traveling around, offering something different, something set apart, something one might actually call holy. That, frankly, is what Peter stood before in such blazing glory that it nearly blinded him and left him muttering stupid phrases. He stood before holiness itself, before God in the flesh, God without the covering even of a tent. Of course such a vision would make him stutter and stumble. Of course he would want to bring something. Did you ever receive a gift from a child – a sincere, simple gift that you had absolutely no use for? Maybe a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift? And though you had no use for it, there was no way in the world you would think of rejecting it? It was a piece of pottery or a t-shirt or maybe a hand-painted tie? And why did the gift matter? Was it because you needed it, or because someone needed to give it? Someone needed to say, “I can’t imagine life without you. I have to offer something tangible, something that says, ‘I’m so glad that you are with me.’” Now that I think about it, even though Luke spoke patronizingly of Peter’s offer, Jesus didn’t. In fact, Jesus didn’t say anything. While Peter was still speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them, just like a cloud would follow the tent of meeting in the wilderness as the Israelites journeyed on their way to the promised land. And from the cloud there was a voice, and no one had to ask whose voice it was. It said simply, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Those words are what makes the story of the Israelites our story. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the One who makes Israelites of us all, who makes sense of our own wanderings, our own Exoduses, our own need to give something to God, our own callings to be a priestly people and a holy example. Without Jesus, the Word made flesh, the story of Israel is just someone else’s history. Because of Jesus, we are all children of God, painting pottery or neckties and giving them to God, because we can’t imagine life without God. We have to offer something tangible, something that says, “I’m so glad that you are with us.” Craig Barnes says that a few years after he graduated from seminary, he returned for an alumni reunion. “I found,” he says, “my old professor walking across the quad. I asked him if he remembered making that statement about thanking God we’re not necessary. I was hoping he would maybe take it back. But he smiled and said, ‘Oh yes, you’re not necessary.’ Then he gave me the second sentence I wished he had added five years earlier: ‘You’re too important to be necessary; you are cherished by God.’” The Lord doesn’t grade us according to whether we’re roughing it for him; the Lord roughs it for us. God comes to us. Jesus is the seal that God is not too spiritual for us. It is not beneath him to dwell in our midst, to accept our gifts, to travel with us through the world, even through us to invite others out of desolation and into life; because through Jesus, we are cherished, the very children of God.
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