Proper 17A: An Ordinary Incarnation


Moses and the Burning Bush, Gebhard Fugel, 1920, Public domain
Moses and the Burning Bush, Gebhard Fugel, 1920, Public domain

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 3: 1-15

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

Moses has grown up in Pharaoh’s house but after killing an Egyptian for beating one of the Hebrews, he is forced to flee. He flees to Midian on the Sinai peninsula and marries Zipporah, daughter of Jethro. Time has passed. The Pharaoh who sought his life has died and the conditions of Israel’s slavery has become more and more oppressive.

The passage says that he is shepherding “beyond the wilderness”, a mysterious (and virtually unknown place) beyond normalcy and what is expected. This is Moses’ commissioning. The Holy Ground is dangerous but Moses seems naïve’ and unaware of what it is. This is the interplay of divine power and human innocence. The innocence manifests in a total dependence upon a God who would mingle with Creation. No longer is God inaccessible. The bush is, in essence, “God incarnate”. We Christians speak of the Incarnation as God’s coming to this earth in the form of Jesus Christ and, yet, this, too, is an incarnation, God manifest in this world. The name YHWH (translated, here, “I am who I am”) was finally revealed as God’s name. In respect, this name was only spoken in worship. Slowly over time, the name was spoken only by the priest, then the high priest, then not at all. Hebrews believed that naming something revealed the power of that thing and shifted power to the one who held the name. So when Moses asks for God’s name, he seeks power over God. But when he heard the name, he was changed. God changed Moses; Moses did not change God. In fact, notice that (contrary to the way we often see this story depicted), the bush did not appear right in front of Moses. Rather, Moses had to turn aside from himself, from his own life, to see the bush. He actually had to go a little out of his way, a little off the path on which he stood, to look more closely and discover it.

It is important to note that the bush was not consumed. God does not destroy, but rather enkindles. In The Life of Moses, 4th century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, says that “from this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth. That light teaches us what we must do to stand within the rays of the true light: Sandaled feet cannot ascend that height where the light of truth is seen.” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, p. 59) God does not destroy; God reveals. Essentially, our souls must be bared to encounter God, to enter that incarnation and to become who we are before God. God changed Moses; Moses did not change God.

There is an Hasidic tale about Rabbi Zusya. When he was an old man, he said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?'”ıı Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Surely it is true that God who created the heavens and the earth would have found another way to speak even if Moses had not stopped. Yet, there is a clear sense in this story that Moses’ turning aside brought forth God’s speech… But here, God did not speak until Moses turned aside. It is one of God’s great inefficiencies, this waiting for human beings to turn aside. “Immortal, invisible”…inefficient. Story after story in scripture points to God’s inefficiency. It is an inefficiency born of relationship. Bound up in the very nature of God who longed not only to be, but to be with.

Could it be that if we turned aside more often God would speak more often? It is my calling as a pastor to spend time thinking about God, teaching scripture, praying with people in the hospital, comforting those who mourn. But I can tell you how very hard it is to turn aside, to find some time each day not only to think about God but to come into the presence of God in silence. To take off my shoes believing the place where I stand is holy ground. My days are consumed by my red “Minister’s Desk Calendar” rather than turning aside. It must be harder still for you. At least my job description includes reading scripture; most likely, yours does not.

But what if we turn aside and God doesn’t call to us? What if we hear only the sound of our own breathing? What if we don’t know if it’s God or our own imagination speaking? “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people and say that God has sent me, and they ask, ‘What is his name”‘ what shall I say to them?” Or we might ask: if I turn aside and believe I have come into God’s presence, how can I talk about that–not only to someone else, but how would I talk to myself about the experience of God’s presence? What words would form? What images or sounds? In a sense, there is no way to talk about it, to find words, to make the sounds.

“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’…thus you shall say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.” I am who I am. It is the mysterious name. The name framed by Hebrew letters which have been translated as Yahweh in some Bibles. But this name is never spoken aloud by the Jewish people. It is too holy to ever be spoken aloud. In that sense there is no way to make the sounds, to form the words. Yet, this human limitation does not mean that God is absent. We can sense that God has spoken even if we cannot say the words or name the name.

But mystery is not God’s only proper name. Transcendence is not God’s only way of being. After giving Moses the great mysterious name, God went on: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob–has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” God is not only beyond all words; God’s name is attached to human names: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King. The God of Barbara. And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name. You see, God has a very long name and by this name God will be known forever. Mystery and revelation. Majesty and earthiness. Immortal, invisible, and inefficient–the Holy God waiting for you and me.

And when God saw that we had turned aside to see, God called to us…It’s enough to give you goose bumps, or at least to stoop down and take off your shoes. (Rev. Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside”, available at, accessed 27 August, 2008.)

So, let us go and see this thing that has taken place. (paraphrasing Luke 2:15—those were shepherds, but I think you get the drift). That’s the whole point. Incarnations are not part of our usual way of life. We do not always encounter God in ways or places that we expect. We generally have to travel a little beyond the wilderness and see and hear those things to which we often do not pay attention.



  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about the idea of God calling individuals?
  3. How do you feel about your own “calling”?
  4. How would you answer the question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 12: 9-21

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In a nutshell, this is the ideal. This is the passage that you put on your bathroom mirror or perhaps develop some new “app” for your iPhone. This is what it means to live a righteous life. But, as this passage also implies, righteousness is not lived out as an individual. Being “Christian”, being who God calls us to be, is not something that we can just put on a T-Shirt like a badge of honor; rather, righteousness is lived out in community. Righteousness is not something you achieve; it is something that you live. It is dynamic as it weaves its way through your life and your relationships. And if you look at this passage, everything here has to do with relationships—relationships within one’s own community, hospitality to strangers, blessing of one’s enemies, and peace in every relationship and interaction that our lives hold.

Paul is probably not merely addressing specific problems in this one Roman community. Even though this probably is at least partially a critique of the culture in which he lived, there are just too many admonitions here—more than 30 in some translations. Paul is laying out a pattern of life that represents a calling to all of us. This is what life in Christ looks like in community. It is not vague or sentimental. This is what the Kingdom of God is—really is. This is not a moral judgment statement. It is an ideal. It is different from the culture in which we live.

And you can’t help but notice that there are no distinctions in this passage. It is directed to all and for all. In fact, there is a real sense of humility present here. Being righteous has nothing to do with stature or membership; in fact, being righteous is probably in spite of these things.

But, get real. We all know that ideals are hard to achieve. In fact, recognizing that one has “achieved the ideal” is less than ideal. But it is a challenge to the community to become something that they are not, to look toward this ideal, and to realize that God’s vision of what is good and righteous is at the very foundation of our being. In this vision, there is no room for exploitation or shame. There are no divisions of any kind. There is no one who is better than another. There is no one who is excluded. There are no winners and no losers. There will still be conflicts and disagreements. That is part of our working through our own understanding of God. But peace abides. It is genuine.

So this is, really, even more than an “ideal”. This is the way that God becomes incarnate even in this life and in this world. But, again, we have to pay attention. We’re really meant to take off our sandals and step into it. It’s pretty overwhelming. How can we do and be all these things? I don’t think that that is where God is calling us. God is not sitting in some far off place waiting until we check all of these off our list. God is in our midst, lighting bush after bush, one at a time, so that we may live into who we are. That’s the ideal.   

Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage in The Message:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil, hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply, practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out, keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Which of these ideals stands out the most for you?
  3. What is the hardest for you?
  4. It is an overwhelming passage. Think about where God might be calling you to start. Which bush is burning for you? 



GOSPEL: Matthew 16: 21-28

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Just before this, Peter had responded to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had confessed the famous words that Jesus was the Messiah. But just when he feels closest to him, Jesus rebukes him. Peter wanted to hold on to what was good, to hold onto life as it was. But Jesus reminded him that he was getting wrapped up in material, human things and losing sight of what mattered.

This, too, is overwhelming. Following God is not comfortable or easy. Following God’s call is hard work. It is to do what is not expected. In fact, sometimes, it means you have to encounter burning bushes. Disciples are witnesses. They speak what others do not want to hear and name evil for what it is. And sometimes they get burned. The way of the cross is the way of faith. It is the way of claiming truth and life in the face of what the world says we cannot do. It is not martyrdom. “Bearing one’s cross” is not doing something that is counter to who we are. And it’s not doing something just to prove that we have the substance to do it.

It’s been a long time since someone asked when I “found Christ”. Was he lost? It’s an odd question. And when you read this, getting “lost” seems to be what we are actually called to do. It’s not a call to find religion or find spirituality or even find Christ. It’s a calling to lose oneself in the ways of God, in the very being of God. It is not a calling to save ourselves, but to let ourselves get lost. It is completely counter to the way that our society tells us to live.

Jesus is foretelling his own death and resurrection. There is trouble ahead. He is also giving the disciples a taste of the Kingdom to come. But there is more to come. But if one holds tightly to what one is losing, one cannot receive what one is being handed. The Kingdom is now. Pay attention. The directive to “take up the cross” is not really an invitation; it is the way to put down what you’re doing now and turn aside and see the burning bush. We can make the choice to follow or we can go on our merry way living the life that we’ve carved out. Jesus had the same choice. (And look what happened to him!) It’s not an easy one. And it’s not really the “right” one in terms of right and wrong. It is doing what we’re called to do; it is doing what we’re created to do. It is being who we must become if we will only be honest with ourselves. Maybe living a life of faith is as much about being honest with ourselves and with our real being than it is about anything else. But first we have to take off our sandals.

The “called” life is one of tensions and convergences and wonderful coincidences that God melds together into a wonderful journey of vocation. It seems that God is continually calling us into places and times that we’ve never been, constantly empowering us to push the limits of our “comfort zones”, to embark on a larger and more all-encompassing journey toward a oneness with God. It seems that God always calls us beyond where we are and beyond where we’ve been, not to the places that are planted and built and paved over with our preconceptions and biases but, rather, to places in the wilds of our lives with some vision of a faint pathway that we must pave and on which we must trudge ahead. Thomas Merton says that “there is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.” It is the image of God in each one of us that must be reclaimed and nurtured so that we might take part in bringing about the fullness of Creation, in bringing the Reign of God into its fullness. Perhaps, then, the meaning of vocation is not one in which we launch out and pursue a new life but is instead one that brings us to the center of our own life, one that brings us home. T.S. Eliot says that “the end of all our exploring… will be to arrive where we started…and know the place for the first time.” (Shelli Williams)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the call of God mean for you?
  3. In what ways is a “calling” from God misunderstood in this world?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty if waiting in every crumb. Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels, but this can happen only if you are willing to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough to harvest its treasure. (Macrina Wiederkher, A Tree Full of Angels)


Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)


Suppose your whole world seems to rock on its foundations. Hold on steadily, let it rock, and when the rocking is over, the picture will have reassembled itself into something much nearer to your heart’s desire. (Emmett Fox)




Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in this holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead as if innocence had ever been and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is not one but us. There never has been. (Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm)

And so let us seek that thread that we are in the tapestry of creation. There is no one to send but us. God is counting on us; calling to us to, to become the servants only we can be. May God grant us a taste of understanding and may we respond with all that we are. Amen.

Easter 4A: To Know the Shepherd

shepherd-sheep-10OLD TESTAMENT: Acts 2:42-47

To read the Lectionary Acts Passage, click here

The early chapters of Acts include several important summaries of the community’s life and mission in Jerusalem. While many would say that the primary purpose of the Book of Acts is evangelistic mission to those who are not part of the faith community, the primary purpose of these summaries was probably more focused on nurturing the Christian community into being the Christian community. Here, believers who share a common geographical address should also share a common religious life, including teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. “Fellowship” (koinonia) is used only here in Acts, but Paul used it repeatedly as an important part of the community.

Commonality suggests a transforming presence of the Spirit of God. The phrase “all things in common” implies friendship, which means that “fellowship” is more than just being similar to each other; it means having a deep and abiding regard for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being. The religious practices laid out here bring about a steady and lasting obedience to God through the faith community. And the most distinctive act of the community is the sharing of goods. The assumption was that in order to achieve lasting unity, no inequality can exist.

There is some speculation that this portrayal may have been idealized a bit. Surely the first century believers had similar lapses in obedience as we do. The way of life depicted here would be positively awe-inspiring. Maybe, though, that’s the whole point. Maybe this is not an historical account at all but a goal to which we aspire. They had, in fact, probably as many disagreements and conflicts in their church as we do. They were real human beings trying to make their way through this journey of faith. And they were positively awed by what they had been shown. Maybe what is missing is a little awe in our lives—even a little awe at what we could become.

 Our story doesn’t have to say that we were perfect. We already know we aren’t. But someday, someone will tell someone else who needs to hear it, that [our church] strove mightily to live out the gospel. There will be stories about different people and the things that happened to them – not just the pastors but the many people who are this church and who work faithfully to live out the gospel message of love, justice, mercy and peace. The story will be about the people who started this church, and the way it reached out to the surrounding community from its earliest days. The story will tell about the openness of this church throughout its history, expressed even in the architecture and art and capabilities of this building. The story will be about the people who kept this church open through lean years, faithfully tending the fire of its mission and vision until its renewed growth and vigor in the later years of the twentieth century. The story will be about the children who came through these doors, hungry to hear good news in a hostile and dangerous world. The story will be about a courageous decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation, and a steadfast faithfulness to living out that commitment in every way possible. The story will be about struggles against the effects of economic injustice, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and greed.  
It will be a story about a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality. And if the world truly does survive another 40,000 years, the story will include efforts to tend this good earth more lovingly and responsibly than we have in the past. Thousands of years from now, the story will say that we prayed together, grieved together, worked together, celebrated together, learned together, comforted and challenged one another, shared what we had, and gathered together every chance we could to eat – to break bread in remembrance of Jesus, to recognize the risen Christ here in our midst.
(From a Sermon by Kathryn Matthews Huey, available at, accessed 11 May 2011.) 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does that relate to our world today?
  3. What of these practices do you think are the most difficult for us today?
  4. What does awe have to do with faith?
  5. How do you think our faith community would be described?

 NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Peter 2:19-25

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage from 1 Peter begins an excursus on living honorably in the household, which fits with our Acts reading for this week. The concern with the Christian’s “right conduct” before God reminds us of two things: (1) The eschatological hope that Christians’ behavior would convince unbelievers of the rightness of their cause and (2) The reminder that all Christian submission is undertaken not for the sake of the authorities, but for the sake of God.

The phrase translated as “it is a credit” is often translated as “grace” (or charis), although rather than it being the rich meaning that we find in Paul’s writings, it’s more a sense of it being “added to one’s account.” So, suffering for the sake of righteousness represents a credit with God. In this concern, then, for the approval of God, the sense of God’s immediate presence (the consciousness of God) and God’s final judgment (the visitation of God) sort of come together. There is also a reminder here that the status of Christian is not a decision but a response to a calling. They have been called to be who they are, written into a story by God.

Keep in mind that this is written in a time when it was not expected that you were Christian. There was no talk of this claim that they were living in a “Christian nation”. In fact, that whole idea would have been laughable at best and downright illegal and blasphemous at the worst. Suffering for one’s faith was an everyday occurrence.

Suffering for what is right, suffering for one’s faith is not about “proving” righteousness. And I don’t believe in a God who “only gives you what you can handle.” I don’t think God hands out suffering. Suffering just happens. Life happens. But God is there with us, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, and sometimes scooping us up when we cannot stand alone. In that we trust. Maybe suffering has more to do with trust than with anything else. 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What, for you, does this mean to be called by God to be Christian?
  3. What meaning does this hold for your life, personally?
  4. What would it mean to you to suffer for your faith?
  5. What does trust have to do with faith?

 GOSPEL: John 10: 1-10

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a familiar one to us. If we read this passage with just this image, we tend to get this image of God as someone that we should follow or emulate. If, however, we read it in conjunction with the image of the gate, we see Jesus as the Way to life, the Way toward God. Jesus is revealed through the relationship with the community and the identity of the community is then linked with the image and identity of Jesus. The passage indicates that the shepherd, Jesus (God) knows each of us by name. The “thief” or stranger warns us of dangers in our times, dangers that pulls us away from that identity with Jesus. (Keep in mind that sheep will not follow a strange voice.)

Jesus was anything but “pro-status quo”. So think what that says about how we follow. The pasture is the metaphor for life—abundant life with God. The abundant life, for John, is not one born out of fear but out of love.

But…why sheep? Most people agree that they’re not the smartest animals in the farmhouse. After all, all they do is stay connected to their flock and follow their master around. Hmmm…so, why sheep? Well, you see, sheep know who they are and to whom they belong. They do not wander off from the path down which the shepherd is leading them. Sheep know how to listen for their master’s voice. And, in turn, the shepherd knows each sheep by name.

Jesus was an incredible storyteller. In this relatively few verses, he both reveals to us the essence of his own being as well as the relationship that each of us is called to have with God. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who walks as we walk and leads us to God. But he also reveals himself as the actual gate, the divine. Both shepherd and gate, both human and divine. That is the essence of Christ. And at the end of this passage, Jesus dispenses with all of the metaphors of sheep and gates and shepherds and tells us once again who he is—the one that lays down his life for us and picks it up again. Jesus is the good shepherd leading us to the divine and the God that calls each of us by name if we will only listen. Because it’s who we are and it is who we are meant to be.

There is a story of a famous actor who was invited to a function where he was asked to recite for the pleasure of the guests. Having recited a few common verses, he asked if there was anything in particular they wanted to hear. After a moment or two, an older man asked to hear Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The actor paused for a moment and then said, “I will, but with one condition—that you will recite it also, after I have finished.”

The man was taken by surprise. “I’m hardly a public speaker but, if you wish, I shall recite it too.”

The actor began quite impressively. His voice was trained and his intonation was perfect. The audience was spellbound and when he finished, there was great applause from the guests. Now it was the old man’s turn to recite the same psalm. His voice was not remarkable, his tone was not faultless, but when he finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.

The actor rose and his voice quavered as he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I reached your eyes and your ears; he has reached your hearts. The difference is this: I know the Psalm but he knows the Shepherd. (Charles Arcodio, in Stories for Sharing, (1991), p. 71)

In other words, following Christ is not about learning the right words, or doing the right things, or meeting some set of rules or expectations on which you check off at least 80% or so to pass. Following Christ is about becoming, about knowing, about entering a relationship with God and God’s people. It is about being who God envisions you to be. 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What image of Jesus or of God does this bring about for you?
  3. What does that mean for you as part of the faith community?
  4. What gets in the way of our following Christ?
  5. What is the most difficult thing about it?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


An earthly kingdom cannot exist without inequality of persons. Some must be free, some serfs, some rulers, some subjects. (Martin Luther)


Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand it and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. (Scott Peck)


God is closer to me than I am to myself. (Meister Eckhart)



Close by praying with Psalm 23 (KJV—Grandmother said that you can’t read this Psalm from any other translation!)


The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.