Sunday, August 19, 2018

What about sky-writing? A sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, 19th August 2018

I wonder if I’m alone in finding it a bit frustrating, the way God seems to speak to God’s people in unmissable, unmistakeable ways right through Scripture – yet I can really struggle to hear God for myself, even when I’m trying particularly hard to pay attention.
Oh for sky-writing!” is quite a familiar cry, as I imagine how lovely it would be if God spoke to me the way God spoke to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – and Moses!

Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult for God to oblige.

After all, the Moses whom we encounter in tonight’s reading hasn’t exactly got top credentials as a super-spiritual man of God when our story begins. 40 years on from that promising start as the baby in the bullrushes,he has fled from Egypt, after losing his head entirely and lashing out in a rage that leaves an Egyptian dead. Brought up as a prince, Moses is now quietly shepherding his father in law’s flock. Absolutely nothing distinguished about this in any way at all…
He’s just getting on with life.
He’s not looking for a new job, not contemplating his own destiny, or that of his people.
Indeed, if you look at the start of the passage from Exodus, it seems God hadn’t been too concerned about them either.
Though we read Exodus with a perspective shaped by our grasp of the over-arching sweep of salvation history, there’s not much sense of that about the place if you read this passage in isolation.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

God remembered!!!

The God we meet in the Hebrew Scriptures is often very human.
He can be talked round (remember Abram bargaining with him over Sodom and Gomorrah).
He gets angry (there’s quite a lot of smiting about).
And, at this point as tradition has it, he has allowed his thoughts to stray (presumably the only way in which the Exodus story-tellers could account for the sufferings of Israel in Egypt).
Very very human.

Then suddenly, God is recalled to Godself by the cries of God’s people and determines to do something about it.

This may, of course, inspire questions for you.
If God heard and intervened then – why not at all the other countless times in history when people have begged God to act, and been apparently disappointed?
What about the Holocaust?
Or my dear friend’s cancer?
Or the flooding in Kerala?
Did we just not cry loud enough?

That’s one of the great problems of faith – and you’ll not be surprised to learn that I haven’t found a wholly satisfactory answer.
PART of it, though, might be hinted at a bit later in our Exodus reading.
We don’t tend to remember obscure ancestors who got everything wrong, and it seems to me that even in these early chapters of Moses’ adventure there's a constant impetus to redemption and hope so that we’d probably infer, even if we were hearing the Moses story for the very first time, that this story had a happy ending.
But I wonder if you have ever noticed how precarious his story really is.

Preparing this sermon I was brought up short by a phrase I’d never noticed before
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him..

Despite what we’d imagine to be an unmistakeable sign that God was up to something – Moses might have ignored that piece of flaming shrubbery.
I’m told that there is at least one desert plant that can spontaneously burst into flames – so that perhaps the burning bush wasn’t as absolutely extraordinary as we might expect.
He could have walked on by...

When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see...”
God had been waiting for Moses to CHOOSE to come close.
God wasn’t sure of God’s man.
Perhaps other potential leaders had already walked past, turning away from a starring role in history, and yet God still waited in hope for a response.
Moses had a choice...and he might all too easily have missed the moment.
Even sky-writing can be overlooked, after all.
Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh.

Only he who sees takes off his shoes…

Keep your eyes open.

God speaks to us in so very many and varied don’t close your mind to the possibility that something apparently ordinary, absolutely rooted in the rational, might still be a message for you.
Let me tell you a story.
It was, after all, something that we might manage to rationalise away to nothing.
Surely I’m not the only person to do that?
May I tell you a story – of God speaking in a way that was about as far removed from burning bushes and sky-writing as it’s possible to imagine?

Once upon a time, on a weekend course, I was sent out on a Franciscan walk without watch, phone or any agenda except attending to what God wanted to show me. Anxious but obedient, I set off down the drive, taking time to look and listen as I very rarely do. Having suffered all my days from a fair degree of short-sightedness, I tend not to be a very visual person, and it was good for me to learn to gaze without hurrying on to the next thing.
Normally, of course, I would never have met the spider.
As it was, I nearly missed him, as he span his line around an ivied tree.
He had one of those mottled grey-brown bodies that was very much at home amid the layers of autumnal leaf-mould. I watched him scurrying along the bridge he was building from his own body, hardly breathing for fear that I might damage the fragile work of engineering that was before me. But then the rain started…large, heavy drops, which shook the dying leaves around his workplace. The spider froze, midway between one twig and the next, stopped dead in the very midst, the very moment of creation. Perfectly camouflaged amid the dead twigs and bark, suspended on his own silken way, stretched, elongated, he looked nothing like a spider at all.. I waited.
And waited.
As time passed, I became desperate for him to move.
I began to doubt my own memory. Had there ever really been a spider at all, or had my eyes been playing tricks?
I longed to shake the branch again, to prompt him to move, to reveal himself.
I knew deep down that I had seen him, that what I now gazed at, willing him to move, to prove the truth of my experience, had only paused upon its delicate and dedicated course.
I knew, but still I longed for confirmation, for fresh evidence of a reality that should need no proof.
Then I heard God laughing.
“Kathryn” he said “You’re doing it again. Don’t you realise that you do this with me, again and again and again? We spend time together. I fill you with a sense of joy and awe at my presence, and you focus completely on me. Then the time comes for you to leave the mountain, and even as you head homewards the doubts crowd in. “Was it really God?” you ask. “Perhaps I just felt happy because it was a beautiful place and a special day. Perhaps I was bouyed up by the presence of loving friends.”
You will the moment to repeat itself, to confirm its truth.
That spider is a spider, even though its intricate work appears to halt, even though it seems to vanish, and merge into its own small world.
And I am God.
You may lose sight of me too, may wonder if you ever really glimpsed me here…but I have the whole created world in which to hide or show myself. You need not doubt the evidence of your eyes”

Only he who sees takes off his shoes...

God’s message that day didn’t involve a life-changing new direction, or some amazing act of spiritual heroism….but it did encourage me to pay attention – a revisiting the story encourages me again and again because God is still speaking – to you and to me.

We know what happened next in the Moses story, because he was attentive and obedient to God, albeit after a bit of negotiation.
We can’t know what might have happened otherwise – but we do know that Moses had a choice.
When God saw that he had turned aside – THEN God knew that Moses would work with God in leading God’s people to freedom.
And, then as now, history is lived forward, understood backwards – and you have a part to play in God’s work in the world.
So, believe me, - this is holy ground, right here and right now.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – and Moses too – waits for us to choose to turn towards him, to willingly involve ourselves in God’s mission in the world.

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