Archive for September 2011

The Grace of Giving: 2 Corinthians 8:16-24, 9:6-15

September 29, 2011

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC on Sunday, Sept. 25 for the church’s annual Pledge Sunday

 

Finally today is the day. It is here. We have arrived. Yes, of course it is pledge Sunday, but that is not exactly what I am talking about. We can all clap our hands, say “Amen” and shout “hallelujah” because today is the last Sunday I have to preach about tithing, money, giving and stewardship until next year—and traditionally every pledge Sunday is a shorter sermon day, so can we get a few hallelujahs and amens?

I’m just kidding—not about the short sermon part—I am going to try to be brief, but I think part of being called to preach is to preach on the hard stuff, and money and giving and even service are some of those taboo subjects that make us all shift in our seats and make us all a little uncomfortable, but it hasn’t just been you perhaps tired and uncomfortable with all this stewardship, giving and money talk; it has been a challenge to preach on for four Sundays in a row. But we have to talk about uncomfortable subjects as uncomfortable as they may be. I have to ask myself every Sunday WWJD—how would Jesus preach, and I know in my heart from reading the New Testament that Jesus did not skirt those hard-to-talk-about subjects, but he directly faced them. So, too must we as his followers.

Dave Ramsey who started the Financial Peace University program for churches says that there are over 800 individual scripture references in the Bible to finances and money alone.[1] And that doesn’t even take into account all those verses about stewardship of other kinds—stewardship of our time, talents, service and witness. Since the bible has so much to say on stewardship of money to the way we use and give our time to the way we are present in one another’s lives I think it must be important and we ought to talk about some of this hard to talk about stuff at church—and not only talk about it but put it into practice, or as that cliché goes: “Put our money where your mouth is.” That is what today is about. That is what Pledge Sunday is all about. It is about recommitting ourselves to our relationship with God, this church and the world all around us.

I think after these four Sundays of stewardship campaigning I have learned that stewardship is really a very broad subject…that a life of stewardship is the foundation of the life of a Christian—both individually and as a community of faith, as a church. Dr. N. Scott Cupp, a pastor of a Presbyterian church, once said, “Calling a church’s annual bid for financial support a ‘stewardship campaign’ is a misnomer. Stewardship is everything we do after we say, ‘I believe’…Stewardship is what we do—with all our life for the glory of God—and that involves ALL of our resources.”[2]

We were reminded of this in 1 Timothy 6 on the first Sunday of this month…that stewardship is not only about your money, but your time, your presence, your gifts, your talents and your witness. A life of stewardship is about faithfulness to God with all the resources he has given you in the here and now. So, stewardship month and especially today is about remembering and renewing our baptismal vows to support the church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

For the past two Sundays we have been in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 where we have been reminded that we do not live under the law, but under grace…God’s grace and that “all generosity begins with God, the ultimate generous giver…God gave first; God always gives first” and it is our response to and life in God’s grace that moves us to give.[3] We asked three questions over the past two Sundays that I challenged you to think about during Stewardship month. First, “Are you aware of God’s grace at work in your life?” Second, “How freely do you give back to God?” And finally, “What kind of attitude or tendency characterizes your spirit, and how is that manifested in how you live and how you give?”

I don’t think these questions are just questions for us during our Stewardship Campaign, but these are questions we are called to ask ourselves everyday as we strive to live for God in all we think, say, do and give. Today we continue in 2 Corinthians 8 and move into chapter 9 where we have the very well-known verse about God loving cheerful givers. Paul says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work… You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” Again…we come back to attitude and the “disposition of the heart” we talked about last week. But please do not misunderstand Paul. He is not preaching a prosperity Gospel. He is not saying that if you give to God, God will bless you in material and financial ways. God gives on a much deeper level than meeting the needs or wants or desires of our physical demands. We don’t give so that we might be rewarded for our gift; we give, remember, as a response to and a life in grace.

But God does promise he will take care of us; Paul assures us of this in these verses. It is not an assurance of material wealth or abundance, but what I think is the gift of a life of joy. The word “cheerful” can also be translated “joyful,” and I think when we give ourselves wholly and fully to God, God gives us joy, cheer and what I think is satisfaction and a peace with what we have…a deep happiness that is not swayed by what we do or do not have, but a happiness that is rooted in God.

Today many of us do not fully commit ourselves to a life of stewardship or a life of cheerful giving and because of that we are restless, searching, and dead. So many of us search for happiness and joy and desire to be truly cheerful, but we look in all the wrong places.

I couldn’t help but think about Charlie Brown when I read these verses. You may have seen and heard the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” One of my favorite songs from that musical is the “Happiness” song. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Sally and the other characters sing about what makes them happy. They are mostly life’s little simplicities that make them happy like finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, learning to whistle, two kinds of ice cream, and catching fire flies. But as the song goes on they sing that happiness is love, sharing and relationships with those you care about. Ultimately those little things like two kinds of ice cream and finding pencils and sausage on pizza are only good because of the people that they get to share with, their friends who surround them who make life meaningful.

I think as Christians we are kind of like these Charlie Brown characters. We start off taking pleasure in the small things, but then we come to see that God is in the small details of our lives and, like the kids in Charlie Brown, that leads us to want to share all we have and all we are with each other…and I think we can and should say we move to wanting and openly and willingly sharing all we are and all we have with God. Paul reminds us today in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 that true happiness and joy is only found in the Lord when we devote our entire lives to him—not just an hour on Sunday, not just in our monetary offering, not just on Pledge Sunday, not just on some once-a-year or once-a-month service project, not just using our talents, but everything, in every tiny aspect of our daily lives. God is in the small stuff, and we are called to see and put God first…even in all the small stuff.

So, as we come forward for offering and to give our pledge cards, I want to encourage you to come forward with a cheerful heart, knowing that God does not coerce you to give, but leaves it up to you…that each of us must make it up in our hearts and minds what to offer…not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully and joyfully as Paul says in our verses today. Your offering of your presence, gifts, service and witness is between you and God. These pledge cards and “offerings are not merely symbolic. Our offerings are meant to be substantial and to come from the very substance or core of our lives: our time and energies, money from our work, our lived-out values, priorities and commitments, all given in gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s love and grace already given to us.”[4]

But God and the church do not just stockpile or hoard your time, talents, and money—though at times it may seem that way. Rather as we offer our whole selves to God I think Paul makes it quite clear in 2 Corinthians 9 that our offerings—whether money, talents, time, witness or service—makes a difference in the lives of people all around us. Our offerings are a response to God’s grace and God uses our cheerful and joyful offering of ourselves to transform the world for the glory of God. You matter to the kingdom of God—your talents, witness and gifts of all kinds make a difference for God in the here and now. Our offerings are not empty, but have the power to change the world. Amen.


[2] Eric Diekhans, “What, Stewardship Sunday Again?, Chimes, November 2009, http://www.lakeviewpresbyterian.org/Chimes/November2002.pdf

[3] Betsy Schwarzentraub, “Basic Training,” Growing in Grace, January 11, 2011, http://www.gbod.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=nhLRJ2PMKsG&b=6079255&ct=9005725&notoc=1

[4]Betsy Schwarzentraub, “Offering,” Growing in Grace,  January 18, 2011, http://www.gbod.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=nhLRJ2PMKsG&b=6079255&ct=9033807&notoc=1

Advertisements

Giving from the Heart: 2 Corinthians 8:10-15

September 21, 2011

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden on September 18, 2011 at Wesley Memorial UMC in Columbia, SC

 

This whole month of September is stewardship month at our church, and I am preaching a sermon series on 2 Corinthians 8. Last week we read 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 where we were reminded that we who call ourselves the people of God do not live under the law, but under grace, and that it is our response to God’s grace that moves us to give—not just of our money, but of our talents, gifts, and time and presence at church and in service to the community and world. I left you with two questions to think about. First, “Are you aware of God’s grace at work in your life?” I cannot answer that for you, but you must look around, pray and answer that question for yourself, and I hope this week you were aware of God’s grace at work. The first question was followed up by a second question—which was, “How freely do you give back to God?” God freely pours out his grace upon all of us—whether we accept it, realize it, believe it or are hostile towards God’s outpouring grace; God’s grace is abundant and all around us. And we return somewhat to this question of how freely we give back to God this week, but this week’s verses 10-15 call us to use stronger words than merely how “freely” do we give, but how zealously, fully, willingly, joyfully and I could go on naming other adjectives to describe how God desires our giving to be.

Verses 1-9 of 2nd Corinthians 8 are inspirational verses.[1] Paul reminded us of God’s grace to inspire our response and our giving. But today we get to verses that don’t seem as inspirational—though I would argue that all scripture is inspiration, but verses 10-15 seem to serve a more useful or practical purpose. Paul’s talk of God’s abundant grace in verses 1-9 should have inspired us to giving; verses 1-9 prepare us for verse 10-15 where Paul gets down to the nitty gritty of giving which has a lot to do with  how we live, our attitude, or what John Wesley called the “disposition of the heart.”

I think you all know by now that I have quite a love affair with Mr. John Wesley of 18th century England, so it shouldn’t surprise you that in my free time I love reading Wesley’s sermons for fun. This week though I read several for this sermon because so many of his sermons use this phrase “disposition of the heart,” and I thought that “disposition” is such an old-sounding word, and at the same time I had that thought I was reminded of advice from one of our members here at Wesley Memorial. He advised me every now and then to dumb stuff down for the ordinary folk, and I don’t think he meant that in a water-down, bad way, but some churchy language or theology concepts are hard to grasp when you listen, and the purpose of a sermon—no matter what people may say—is not to impress people with how much I know, or my expansive or lack thereof vocabulary, but the purpose, as Jesus showed us in his teachings and the sermons he preached, is that sermons are meant to make God’s Word come alive and make it relatable and relevant to our lives in the here and now, and so I thought that repeatedly saying “disposition of the heart” might sound like gibberish, archaic or irrelevant to you, and I didn’t want to start seeing blank, sleepy stares or wandering eyes that let me know I’ve completely lost you. Because I think this saying of John Wesley’s—this “disposition of the heart” is what is truly at the heart of our scripture lesson for today.

So, anyhow, as I thought about “disposition of the heart” I decided to look up “disposition” in my Webster’s Dictionary. “Disposition” is defined this way: “the prevailing tendency of one’s spirit,” or “characteristic attitude.” These are very relevant definitions for our scripture lesson. I think Paul asks us throughout 2 Corinthians 8: “What kind of attitude or tendency dominates or characterizes our spirits?” Think about it for just a moment. If you could use one adjective to describe the character of your spirit what would it be? If your closes friends, family and co-workers used one adjective to describe the character of your spirit, the spirit that informs the way you live, what adjective would they use to describe you? Think about it: What kind of attitude or tendency characterizes your spirit?

Notice in our verses for today Paul does not give us a specific amount we should give, and in fact there is no place in the New Testament that gives us a specific amount to put in the offering plate.[2] Remember that we live under grace not a binding and punitive law. God does ask us to support his holy church and his work in this world, but God is not the IRS who will come after you if you don’t give exactly 10%. God has put his Word in every single one of us, and the Holy Spirit is alive in our hearts and reveals what is right and appropriate in every facet of Christian living, and this includes giving.  When you look at what you give to the Lord the question isn’t how much should I give, but am I honoring God in my giving, or am I experiencing joy when I give or am I giving out of reluctance, obligation and fear?

We do not give out of obligation or even fear or even out of mindless duty or as an empty, meaningless ritual. Only an unholy spirit breathes such words into your ears in an attempt to discourage you and to dissuade you from giving to God, the church and the work of God in the here and now.  When we submit to false or worldly spirits, we give begrudgingly and selfishly. When the prevailing tendency of our spirits, or our character, attitude or disposition of the heart is not in sync, aligned or attuned to God we withhold from God what God has given to us. When such a spirit has a hold of our hearts, we do not experience or know joy when we keep for ourselves that which God would have us give. So, we have to constantly ask ourselves in all we think, say do and even give: “What kind of attitude or tendency characterizes our spirits?”

We have lots of stories in the Bible of contrasting dispositions of the heart. Jesus had lots of these kinds of stories with contrasting characters, or good protagonists and evil antagonists to teach us lessons and to cause us to question the character of our hearts and our motivations for what we do and how we live. Today we also read Mark 12:41-44, the story of the widow’s offering. It is hard to see the contrast of the widow and the religious leaders without reading all of chapter 12, but right before Jesus watches the poor widow put her two copper coins in the offering plate Jesus observes the way the scribes and Pharisees and religious leaders and devout and wealthy believers draw attention to themselves and give out of wealth, or out of disconnected obligation. The Pharisees and scribes give to be seen and as a sense of duty whereas the poor widow gives out of love and the desire to give to God.

I think it is also curious to note that in Mark chapter 12 Jesus gives the first or greatest commandment. He says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” Jesus follows up this command with two visual examples of what it means for the disposition of the heart, or what it looks like for believers to live this great commandment. The scribes or Pharisees did not give out of love for God; they gave out of abundance, obligation and to be seen and elevated within their faith community, but the poor widow who had nothing gave God her entire life, her whole being, all that she was and all that she had; she did not withhold from God.

The difference in gifts is revealed in attitude or the dispositions of their hearts.[3] Notice that in 2 Corinthians 8 Paul makes no reference to the grand monetary value of the Macedonian church’s gift.  Rather Paul is impressed by the love they have for God and the sincerity that they demonstrated in their desire to give even during times of severe affliction and extreme poverty. The Macedonian church was eager to give. Paul says, “They voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” And in our scripture lesson for today Paul says, “If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.” The Greek word used here for eagerness means zeal, readiness, inclination or spirit. I think we could translate verse 12 like this, “If the Spirit of the Lord is alive in our hearts and we zealously live for him, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.”

But I also think that the story of the poor widow and the Paul’s testimony of the gifts of the Macedonian church remind us that “poverty does not negate the role of stewardship.” Even though the widow was poor and the Macedonian church lived in extreme poverty they gave what they could out of love for the Lord—it might have not been much by the world’s standards, but out of love for God they gave what they could, and Jesus did not scold the woman for not giving more, but he was filled with love for her and he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

But sometimes when we have nothing or barely have enough to pay our bills, or we are going through hard times like so many people are during this time of recession we have a “poor me attitude.”[4] We find excuses not to give. We use our present situation to say that we don’t have enough to give to God, but stewardship in the church does not operate as a tax collection agency or the IRS; God is not the head of the IRS who will punish you if you do not give exactly ten-percent or whatever you think you ought to be giving.  Remember Paul tells us that our gifts are acceptable according to what we have, not what we don’t have. Biblical economics have more to do with the dispositions of our hearts rather than what we have or don’t have in our wallets and pocket books, or what we put or don’t put into the offering plate.

Let me remind you that we worship a God who can take two fish and three loaves of bread and feed 5,000 people; so often in the Bible and in many of our lives we see God take something perhaps small and insignificant and do great things with what seems so lackluster by the world’s standards.  And remember Micah 6 does not say the Lord requires us to give ten-percent or to do this or that or to live up to such and such expectations and standards; rather what that familiar verses from Micah 6:8 says is, “What does the Lord require, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Again it all comes back to the dispositions of our hearts, and when our hearts are in the Lord and we live by the first and greatest commandment to “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength,” then like the widow and the Macedonian church we can’t wait to give back to the Lord, we beg to be stewardship and ministry partners with God.

So, the question for this week as we continue to think about stewardship and as we continue to become aware to God’s grace all around us is: What kind of attitude or tendency characterizes your spirit, and how is that manifested in how you live and how you give?

 

Amen.

 

 


[1] Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, “Grace Giving, part III,” http://www.sljinstitute.net/sermons/new%20testament/pauls/pages/2corinth_25.html.

[3] Heiko A. Oberman, “Begging to Give,” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2710

[4] Ibid.

Giving: An Expression of God’s Grace (2 Corinthians 8:1-9)

September 13, 2011

preached during Stewardship Campaign 2011 on September 11, 2011 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC

 

Like many churches today, the ancient churches had their fair share of problems, and many times throughout his letters to the church all over the known world Paul uses churches as an example of how not to behave as Christians or what a church should not do. But this time in chapter 8 of 2nd Corinthians Paul is using the Macedonian church as a model of generous giving to teach and encourage the Corinthian Christians to be more generous. But I think there is something deeper in these verses besides Paul’s encouragement to give and besides his praise of past giving. I think these verses have something to say about God’s abundant grace in Jesus and God’s overflowing grace in each of our lives. I think these verses teach us that giving is an expression of God’s grace. But I also think these verses are about response-able grace, or our response to God’s grace, and how as the people of God or the recipients of God’s grace we are called to share and give back to God. These verses are about a relationship, a relationship of fluid receiving and giving, giving and receiving, a relationship of grace.

We worship a God who loves to give; giving is an expression of God’s grace. We worship a God who freely and lovingly pours out grace upon all of his creation, and to be Christian is to receive this grace. And to receive this grace is to be a channel of God’s grace through our prayers, our presence, our service, our gifts and our witness in the world. Grace is just like the manna from heaven in Exodus 16 that cannot be hoarded or stored up, and like one preacher said “just like gossip we cannot keep grace to ourselves. If the grace of Jesus truly resides in us, it won’t be able to stay there.”[1]

John Wesley said the regular practice of giving is a means of grace. Through giving we can come to know God’s grace deeper and more intimately; we come to know and see God’s grace at work in our lives because in giving we open ourselves up to trusting that all we have been given has truly been given to us by God and all we have is from God. Giving is a spiritual discipline that makes us more aware of God’s grace in our lives because we cease to become merely recipients, receivers and takers, but we enter a dynamic relationship with God, a two-way relationship, or a partnership. In fact in the following verses from today’s scripture lesson in 2 Corinthians, the word “to give” in the original Greek translation is not the usual “didomi,” but rather it is the word “koinonia” which partnership, fellowship, an intimate bond that comes through freely sharing.

Yes, the spiritual discipline of giving might first start off as an obligation, but gradually, overtime giving turns into a means of grace and our giving no longer becomes an act of obligation, or a religious burden, or a legalistic duty of Christians, but giving truly creates a koinonia relationship with us and God, and over time giving becomes an act of celebration and thanksgiving, an expression of our love, a joyful response to God’s grace.

But how can we respond to God’s grace, if grace is merely a word we say in church rather than a reality we recognize in our daily living? To be able to respond to God’s grace we must be aware of God’s grace at work in our lives.[2]

Each of us experience God’s grace to some degree—whether we are aware of it or not, whether we believe it or not, 
whether we call ourselves Christian or not. Just as a parent is involved in the work of loving a child long before a child is able to define what love is, or even say the word love, just so God’s grace…and God’s love is at work in our lives long before we are aware of the grace of God…long before we may even know God, or believe in God.

God’s grace is at work in great and small ways in our lives. Sometimes God’s grace is grand, big, and noticeable. Stories like Paul who persecuted Christians, but was blinded on the road to Damascus where Jesus completely made a 180 change of Paul’s life. We have these Paul stories today where God’s grace has the ability to bring people out of darkness, where only by the grace of God did we survive certain trials, struggles and sufferings of our past, and only in dark times did we come to truly know and experience the grace of God. We will sing “Amazing Grace” in a minute and I think that song perfectly expresses the kind of grace that is at work throughout our lives—in big and small ways. Though sometimes it is only in retrospect that we see God’s grace has been at work in our lives—and sometimes it takes us a long time to recognize that grace in our lives. But having an awareness of God’s grace at work in our past allows us to face all our tomorrows with confidence and trust that the grace of God will see us through. So, the question isn’t “Has the grace of God been at work in your life?” But the question is: “Are you aware of the ways God’s grace has been and is at work in your life?”

I think that is what Paul is asking the Corinthian church as he encourages generous giving. He asks, “Are you aware of the ways God’s grace has been and is at work in your lives?” Paul asks this question throughout his letters to the Corinthians, and in his letters he calls their attention to the ways God’s grace has provided and comforted and strengthened and nurtured them.

I think this is a question we each must ask ourselves. We should each ask, “Am I aware of the ways God’s grace has been and is at work in my life?” But it is also a question as a church body, as community of faith who is in ministry with and to one another and to the world around us. “Is Wesley Memorial aware of the ways God’s grace has been and is at work in the life of our church?”

Yes! God’s grace is overflowing in many, many ways—visible, tangible and intangible. I think the most obvious is our successful capital campaign, but there are other ways God’s grace has been made known to me. For example, we no longer have a “we’re dying attitude,” but there is an attitude of life, energy, hope, and even momentum—all that can only be attributed to God’s grace. For years people in this church and the district office thought Wesley Memorial would shut its doors, but there is new life budding in the lives of our members and that is making our church come alive. It is not to the credit of any one member, or any group of people in this church, but it is by God’s grace that Wesley Memorial is growing, transitioning and making an impact on our community.

But we can’t stop with asking ourselves and our church this question, and we can’t stop by recognizing the ways God has showered us with his grace. Yes, grace is free, but grace is also an invitation for us to respond. Grace moves us to put God first in our lives, and that is what stewardship season is all about. All we do here at church, in our families, in our jobs, in our lives is about God, not ourselves, not our neighbors, but for love of God. Stewardship season is a time in the church where we take a good hard look at where God’s grace is working in our lives and where and how God is calling to respond to his grace. Again, Wesley believed giving was a means of grace, and he didn’t just talk about monetary giving, but giving our whole selves to God, but Wesley and Jesus and the disciples who penned the Bible do talk about money, and as much as I hate to talk about money I don’t think I can preach on stewardship without being very direct about our financial giving.

1 Timothy 6:10 says, “Love of money is the root of all evils.” Notice it did not say, “Money is the root of all evils,” but “love of money.” Today so many lives are run and ruined by their love of money. Stewardship season is a time we reexamine our loves and who we are putting first. It is funny that on the back of our money it says, “In God we Trust,” but the last thing we want to give to God, or to trust God with is our money. Giving though flows out of God’s grace upon our lives, and responding to God’s grace is saying, “God, I put you first,; I trust you and to you I will give my first of all I have and all I am—but that is starting to get into next week’s sermon on cheerful giving. The point is this…God freely pours out his grace upon all of us—even those who don’t think we deserve God’s grace, and even those of us who turn from God, and even those of us who are hostile to God. The question for us this stewardship season is—how freely do we give back to God?  Amen.


[1] Daniel Harrell, “Pressed into Service (1 Corinthians 8:7-15),” June 27, 2006,  http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3410

[2] James Mayfield, “Responding to God’s Grace,” October 10, 2004,  http://www.tarrytownumc.org/sermons/sr20041010.htm

 

In prayer on September 11, 2011

September 13, 2011

This past Sunday was September 11, 2011–the 10th Anniversary of 9-11-2001. Our worship service was not centered on remembering 9/11. Rather we remembered this date of great tragedy in our nation by praying, and then we showed the following video during offering, a video we prayed would encourage hope, peace, healing and forgiveness. The song is “Beautiful Things” by the Gungor Band. It was introduced to me by a UMC clergy friend in Kansas, Adam Barlow-Thompson. I thank him for the perfect song for a day of remembering as we pray for continued healing, reconciliation, understanding and peace.

 

Standing on Holy Ground: Exodus 3:1-15

September 4, 2011

preached Sunday, August 28, 2011 at Wesley Memorial UMC

 

Looking around our church and knowing most of you pretty well, I think I can safely assume that one of the things that comes to mind when we read these verses of Moses in Exodus 3 is a young, handsome Charlton Heston approaching that burning bush in Cecil DeMille’s 1956 movie The Ten Commandments. Even though DeMille’s famous movie came out well before I was born, it is a classic and I, too, can’t help but think of Charlton Heston and God’s deep, smooth voice, booming “I am who I am.” (to refresh your memory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtikVviiK8g)

Sometimes I wonder if DeMille’s Moses story would have the same kind of success as it did in 1956. The story of Moses in Exodus is the kind of stuff movies are made of after all. It is a story of violence, desperation, deceit, betrayal, murder, love, return, and escape. Remember Moses was born into a world of violence to Hebrew parents who were slaves in Egypt, and where the Pharaoh commanded every newborn Hebrew boy to be killed. But you might also remember that Moses was spared because his mother and sister put him in a basket and floated him down the river into the hands of the daughter of Pharaoh who took pity on him and the plight of the Hebrews and raised Moses as one of her own children. The Hebrew boy grew to be a Prince of Egypt, and he had all the luxuries such a life was entitled. He was educated and sheltered from the violence and cruelty of the world outside the palace. But then one day as he walked the streets of his kingdom his eyes were opened to the oppression all around him, and in a moment of instinct he protected a Hebrew man who was being beaten and he murdered an Egyptian. Now, Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses, so Moses fled to the desert where he took up shepherding, fell in love, started to raise a family and that brings us to our scripture lesson for today.

I’ve heard this story of Moses since I was a little girl, and since then I have read it many, many times, and I have watched and re-watched DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt –a modern animated telling of Moses’ story. There are a lot of lessons to glean from Moses’ story. But this time as I read through Exodus what struck me was God’s command to Moses to “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Specifically the holy ground part… I bet that was the furthest thought from Moses mind. Moses was out shepherding his sheep, minding his own business, just like any ordinary day when God got Moses’ undivided attention and called him to pause, to take a look around because he was standing on holy ground.

I think Rosewood Baptist Church down the road must have preached on these verses a few weeks ago because the sign outside their church says, “The first road sign was the burning bush.” The burning bush calls our attention to the holy ground we are standing on. The ground Moses stood on never stood out to me before, but this time I couldn’t help but think about it and that Moses isn’t Charlton Heston or some animated Dreamworks character from a movie. But this attention to holy ground made me think that Moses is just you and me. We shouldn’t think of characters in a movie when we read this story of Moses, but we should think of how God meets each one of us in our ordinary lives—how God calls ordinary people like me and you to do the extraordinary. How at any moment in our lives God will call us to recognize that the ground we stand on is holy ground.

What comes to mind when you think of holy ground? I think many people would say churches are places of holy ground; we certainly hope they are. I think it is so funny to overhear people talking in a church. You hear things like, “Oh, you shouldn’t say or do this or that because we’re in a church.” Churches are certainly places of holy ground, but they’re not the only places. I think in today’s world there are places outside of church that people consider more holy ground. In 6 days the 2011 football season will officially be underway for USC, and I think for many in Columbia Williams-Brice Stadium is holy ground. And now that Carolina captured back-to-back titles in baseball I think the new Carolina Stadium is also holy ground for many Gamecock fans. But there are lots of places people travel to each year because there is something special or holy about that particular place. Maybe you have such a holy place.

I don’t think football or baseball stadiums or schools or even churches are the kind of holy places Moses’ story means by holy ground. I think what the story of Moses teaches us is that God’s holy ground is not limited to the walls of the church, or to one single place. God meets Moses in the middle of the desert while he is working. Last week at our mortgage burning service we read Psalm 24 that says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded the seas and established it on the rivers.” And in Genesis God creates the world and calls it “good.” God, our Creator and the Creator of all things, has made all things good…all things holy. Moses’ story in Exodus 3 teaches us that holy ground can be and is everywhere, and that God meets us where we are in the middle of our ordinary, everyday lives. So, maybe Rosewood Baptist is right, the first road sign was the burning bush, and as God’s people we should expect to encounter burning bushes in our everyday lives. I think Moses’ story teaches us to be watchful and curious about the world around us. God could be calling us to recognize that we are standing on holy ground.

But what does all that mean? What does it mean to be standing on holy ground? How do we know if we are standing on holy ground?  Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we see that we were standing on holy ground. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we, like Moses’ ancestor, Jacob, look back and say, “Surely God was in this place.” From Moses story I think there are three main things we discover when we are standing on holy ground.

First, we discover and experience God’s presence and promises. God reveals himself to us; we see a compassionate, loving God who is in tuned with his people, a God who hears the cries of his people and sees their suffering, a God who not only hears, but responds. On holy ground we truly experience God as Emmanuel, as God with us. On holy ground God draws us out of our ordinary lives; God draws us into his loving presence and God speaks promises for our lives and in this holy-ground moment, standing before God we stand in awe and we behold the living, active God working and moving and transforming our world.

In these verses God promises Moses that wherever he goes, God will be with him and promises to equip Moses for the task God has called him to—even though Moses doesn’t feel like God has the right guy to lead God’s people from the hand of pharaoh, God reassures Moses that God knows him and has made him, that God has plans to prosper him, and to not harm him, plans to give him hope and a future. These are the same promises God has for us when we find ourselves standing on holy ground. When we find ourselves on holy ground we discover God’s presence and promises—a place of comfort and peace and safety.

But before you get too satisfied on that holy ground in the presence of God I think Moses’ story teaches us that holy ground can be a dangerous place.  So, the second thing we discover when we find ourselves on holy ground is that holy ground is dangerous. How can it be dangerous if we’re in the presence of God and God has spoken his promises to us? God is Emmanuel which means God is relational. God wants to partner with us and use us—even the most unlikely of us. Moses was a murderer, a refugee, and God called him and used him in powerful ways. Wesley always said, “The God who created us without ourselves will not save us without ourselves.” “Ok, so what?” you might be thinking. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? But think again. Look at what God was calling Moses to do. Moses was called to return to confront Pharaoh—a man he once called brother, a man who is now his enemy and who wants Moses dead. Not only does God want Moses to confront Pharaoh, but God wants Moses to lead the Hebrew people who have only known him as a Prince of Egypt. God is calling Moses into a dangerous place. Holy ground is a place of calling and when God calls us it is not always comfortable, pretty, or easy—that is what we discover when we are standing on holy ground.

And that brings us to the third discovery on holy ground. When we find ourselves on holy ground we cannot leave that place the same people we were before we stumbled onto holy ground. Our eyes, ears and hearts have been opened and tuned into God during our holy-ground moment. We discover that holy ground is a place of transformation. Holy ground is not a final destination, but it is a launching point; it is a spring board; it is a place of commissioning and calling from which we are sent forth. Holy ground is not a sanctuary from the world, but it is a place that calls us into the world to witness God’s love, mercy and grace to a hurting, suffering, dangerous, violent, self-absorbed world.

Holy ground is all around us. The streets of Columbia are holy ground if we but open our eyes and ears to God calling our name as he called Moses’ name. If we but open ourselves to God, allowing ourselves to be drawn onto holy ground we will surely encounter God’s presence and promises…and in that assurance of God’s presence and promises of hope and a future we might discover that God is calling us into dangerous waters. And so when we are on holy ground we have a decision to make.

One, we can stay in our comfort zone, loving God in our own way, not being challenged or stretched or not using the gifts which God has equipped each of us; we can stay in the comfort of our own church and our own pews, worshipping on Sunday and keeping to ourselves. We can be what John Wesley called “Sunday Christians”—which he also called “honest heathens.” Or…or, we can say like Moses, “Here, I am.” We can open ourselves up to God, to hearing and seeing God in our world and allowing God to lead us, and with such a response we discover that our time on holy ground is a time of transformation where God is preparing us to be sent into the world in his name and for his purpose.

So this week I want to challenge you…when you find yourself on holy ground what decision will you make? Amen.