One Sunday when I was the Interim Co-Rector at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco, I was doing a sound check from the pulpit prior to the service. St. Mary’s is an architecturally formal church, with a high, carved pulpit. At the time, the door between the Narthex and the Sanctuary was closed and there was a greeter in the Narthex getting bulletins ready for the service. Realizing that we were alone in this very solemn space, I leaned over to the microphone and, instead of saying, “Testing, testing,” I said her name. “Susan,” I intoned in my deepest and most holy voice. As I had predicted, she jumped about three feet straight into the air, clutched her heart and frantically looked around to see who had spoken to her. She didn’t notice me in my high perch. “Susan,” I repeated, “this is God. It turns out I was a woman after all.”
We don’t know if Moses actually jumped into the air when God first spoke to him from the burning bush, but we do know that once God identified himself to him, Moses hid his face – so I’m guessing he was pretty scared, and understandably so. This is God, after all – and, despite our frequent calls to God to come “down here” and help us, despite our complaints that God does not answer our prayers, and despite our willingness to make statements in God’s name, scripture suggests that human beings rarely get what we bargained for when God actually shows up.
In Moses’s case, God has appeared in response to the agonized cries of her people, to deliver them from their miserable lives of slavery and abuse, and to bring them to a land of abundance. Oddly, Moses’s response to God’s offer is less than thrilled. In fact, Moses objects to God’s plan not once but five times. First, he argues that he, Moses, is not qualified for this mission. “Who am I,” he says, “that I should go to Pharaoh”? When God assures him that he need not worry because God will be with him, Moses objects again. “Well then,” he wonders, “who are you” that your name will make people listen to me? Patiently, God responds by reminding Moses that he is the God of their ancestors. Nonetheless, Moses objects again, asking God to give him an actual name. God, who seems to be getting a little annoyed at this point, answers in a rather ambiguous (and Popeye-like) way, “I AM WHO I AM.” Tell them “I AM” has sent you.
This is not a satisfying response. We want God to tell us who he is in ways that we can understand. It’s not enough that God appears to Moses in the fire of the burning bush wanting to help creation – that God is present in the midst of their suffering. We want God to describe Godself in human terms – what she/he/them it looks like, what she/he/them/it knows about us, and, most importantly, what she/he/them/it can do for us. We want some proof that God is worthy of our trust. We can’t just put ourselves in anybeing’s hands. After all, it’s only fair that we get something out of it.
The idea that our relationship with God is transactional – meaning that if we do certain things for God we will get certain things from God- is common. It is present today whenever a minister claims that God gives them planes and boats and large estates because they need them to preach the gospel. It is there when we are told that God favors one nation, race, or political party over another because they are “better” in some way. It exists when we insist that our doctrines ensure that God is “on our side.” This is not only wrong, it is blasphemy. Arguing that any sect or individual human being can speak for God, or that we have the right to impose our will on others because we are acting on God’s behalf, insults and diminishes God. It makes God less than what God is. As Rob Grayson says, “Simply put, our attempts to fit God into a transactional mold will not work. The God who spoke the universe into being, who knows the stars and the sparrows by name, and who upholds the universe by the word of His power will not be reduced to an equation or a formula.”
Nonetheless, it is tempting to try to simplify a God who is beyond our understanding because we are afraid of things that we can’t understand. That’s why we put God into boxes –into buildings called “temples” and “churches” and “houses of God” – and then we work very hard to keep God locked up there. Because if we really believe that God is everywhere, that God sees everything, then we have to act accordingly – and no amount of incense burning, robe-wearing, or flower arranging inside a church building means anything if we walk out the door and drive past the indigent and abused people standing at the next intersection. There is nothing in scripture to suggest that God needs churches. God does not require us to sing for him to hear us. God does not care if I wear my chasuble to celebrate the Eucharist. Such traditions are for us – not God. God existed long before any of these things. God was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Do we really think then that God is keeping watch on our bank accounts, romantic partnerships, and property lines? No, my brothers and sisters. God is not concerned about what we have. God is focused on what we are. God is interested in what we can become.
This is what St. Paul is trying to tell his brethren in today’s letter to the Romans. If we wish to know God better we must follow the way of God’s son. “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor.” These are the characteristics of those who say they worship Jesus – but, let’s face it, these are not things valued by our culture. “When one considers the competitions most popular in our society, the competition to honor one another would not even make the list.” Christianity has always been countercultural. A political system that espouses the principles of empire – of wealth, power, conquest, and domination – opposes the values proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus. That means such principles are actually anti-Christian, as are arrogance, cruelty, and revenge. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves… do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Human beings don’t like these ideas. Paul was imprisoned because people don’t like these ideas. Jesus died because people don’t like these ideas. We want instead to believe that God not only thinks that when someone hurts you it’s okay to “go after them as viciously and violently as you can,” but that he applauds us for being “best.” We want to believe that as followers of Jesus we are exempt from suffering –except that scripture tells us that the opposite is true.
This is why Jesus gets so angry with Peter when he suggests that Jesus should not have to suffer and die. Jesus is trying to get his followers to understand that suffering is a necessary part of following him. It is a necessary part of atonement. He knows that it is God’s will that Jesus should die in order that humanity might be saved, and Peter’s well-meaning desire to save Jesus from suffering is at the least a distraction and at most an effort to circumvent God’s will. It is the same when we expect God to exempt us from experiencing the suffering that comes from being part of the human race – when we accept the lie that God wants some of us to be rich and fat and happy while others live in fear and anguish. Jesus tells us that following him is not about being safe or powerful or right and that pursuing such things is a “stumbling block.” Pursuing such things is sin.
Christianity is about following Christ – the Christ who is humble, patient in suffering, welcoming to strangers, and forgiving to all. This is countercultural. This is hard– but we need not be afraid. We are not alone. God is, just as God always has been, just as God always will be with us. Give thanks to the Lord, the great “I AM.” Search for and continually seek God’s face. Take up the cross of Christ and you will find not an empire of men, but the kingdom of God. AMEN.
Rob Grayson (August 31, 2017), “Transactional Christianity,” in Faith Meets World, the blog of Rob Grayson, https://www.faithmeetsworld.com/transactional-christianity/.
2Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.
Donald Trump, (2004), How to get rich.