Laboring for “I AM”
Based on Exodus 3:1-15, Mt 16:21-26, Romans 12:9-21
Here we are on the day before “Labor Day”…seems like only yesterday we were celebrating the end of school and Memorial Day. Time does fly when we are having such fun together! Don’t worry, summer’s not officially over until September 22nd, but the unofficial end of summer has traditionally been the first Monday in September. Therefore, let’s turn our attention to Labor Day.
You may be aware that Labor Day has been celebrated as a national holiday since 1894, and was first celebrated in New York City in 1882. It is important to stop and say thank you to all those who perform work in whatever capacity. Because without that $19 trillion Gross Domestic Product, the Country couldn’t survive and certainly not thrive. It is also important to acknowledge, however, that we have a country where many people are working but not paid a living wage; that there are employers who are not paying benefits; that on average a woman still make only 81% nationally (78% in VA) of what a man gets paid. Of note, The United Methodist Church has made great strides and is now up to 93% on female versus male salaries. On this Labor Day, let us stop and be thankful for what we have, but also to ask how we might reach out to those who are not paid equitably or well enough and seek justice for them. Please join me in prayer…
Our scriptures today speak to us on many topics, but the one that I want to lift up to you is that of working for God, or as I have titled it, “Laboring for I AM”. Working for God is really what it is all about when we take on the title “Christian”. After all, what good is it to say that we are Christians if that noun only denotes a group of people who coalesce around a religious figure? No, as we hear quite clearly in God’s call to Moses, once we acknowledge that there is indeed a God of the universe, it is then that that very same God seeks to put us to work to bring God’s plan to fruition. Granted, we are not all called like Moses, but be sure that we are all called to use our God-given gifts and talents to do God’s work in this world. Now, the Almighty has to convince Moses to take on this task – and little does Moses know that he will end up spending the rest of his earthly life wandering around in the wilderness with a pretty unruly bunch of extended family. Freeing a people is a huge and overwhelming task for any one human, but note that God says, “I have come down to deliver them” and “I will be with you”. It takes Moses quite a while to realize that he does not have to do this miraculous feat using only his mortal powers.
It is a similar disagreement that Jesus is having with Peter in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is letting His disciples know that in order to fulfill God’s plan for him (and for all humanity) he has to be crucified and then resurrected. Peter, who just told the gathered disciples that Jesus was the Son of the living God and the Messiah, is interpreting what Jesus is saying as nonsense. It is nonsense to Peter because he is evaluating what Jesus is saying as a human reality rather than divine reality. Peter knows that when humans die, that is it – end of the story (even though in Chapter 9 Jesus revived the Synagogue leader’s daughter). Jesus knows that God’s plan for him is to destroy that human reality of death and replace it with one that is divine. Jesus knows that God not only doesn’t forbid this eventuality, God is actually counting on Jesus’ death so that God can work the miracle of resurrection and the salvation of humanity. In fact, Jesus goes on in verses 24 through 26 to state quite pointedly what it takes to be a “follower”.
Paul picks up on these attributes of a follower or “true Christian” and gives us an enhanced picture of what Jesus is talking about in Matthew. There are 23 attributes or “marks” of a true Christian listed from verse nine through verse 21. Unconditional love (agape) is what characterizes the list – it is a worldview that does not require a certain behavior or set of behaviors prior to acceptance. It is the kind of grace that God shows each one of us, and is what we are supposed to show the world when we pick up the cross of Jesus. See how it is that we are supposed to be in competition – “…outdo one another in showing honor….” (verse 10) When was the last time you saw two people engaged in outdoing themselves through honoring others? We’re told to be humble and to take on humble tasks; and to live in peace as far as peace depends on our thoughts and actions towards others. Has anyone seen these behaviors demonstrated on TV or in the movies, in politics or the public domain, on the Internet (outside of Hurricane Harvey response)? Seems like Christians may have forgotten a lot about what the Bible says about how we are supposed to act towards each other and the world at large.
I think that this comes from our mindset – and we can see how this gets in our way when we seek to be in service to our God. We have to just look at our scriptural examples from today. Moses is evaluating what God is saying in light of his human abilities. Peter is still thinking of Jesus in terms of a human Messiah. Paul is telling us, as he speaks through his letter to his people in Rome, all about what God has been trying to say throughout all the previous pages of the Bible. Reminding them and us that in order to be receptive to the leading of God (aka discerning God’s will), we have to have a totally different mindset. Remember in verse 2 of Chapter 12, Paul told us that we have to use our renewed minds in order to discern God’s will for us. This is amplified in Matthew, as Jesus says that we have to give up our lives for the sake of the kingdom in order to find our lives. What Jesus is talking about here is that we MUST confront the evils, sins and injustices of our world in order to discover how God is really calling us to be in the world. We know that God calls to us throughout every age because of the name God gives to Moses.
The Great “I AM” which is abbreviated “YHWH” or “LORD” in most Bible translations. Thus, the being we are created to serve, is a very present reality. The name is “I AM”…not I Once Was or I Tried To Be or I Have Been Known To Be, but “I AM” – here, now, today! God’s name that God gives to Moses literally means “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be”. God says that it is the very name of God from that time forward throughout all generations. It signifies that we labor for a God who is each and every day (from the beginning of time to the very end) creating, loving, and seeking relationship with each and all of us. A very present God who calls us to work with God and for God’s preferred reality – God’s kingdom here on earth.
Laboring for “I AM”…well it is truly and completely a labor of unconditional love. It is a labor that we do not and cannot do on our own. Our task can only be accomplished when we realize who we are in God, and thus die to our worldly selves. God calls us to labor out of our true selves – not as perfect people, but as imperfect people gifted and empowered by God. Grab your cross and let’s labor with our God, I AM, to create the future that God intends for us as individuals and as a church. AMEN!