On the one hand, we people of faith want to follow God, to say yes to God with our whole lives. On the other hand, we often find it difficult to do that very thing.
Moses was a faithful man. He wanted to follow God. When God spoke to Moses for the very first time, God said, “Moses! Moses!” and Moses replied, “Yes, I’m right here!” Moses did not hesitate. But when God explained the plan, and what God wanted Moses to do, Moses had second thoughts. He tried to convince God that he couldn’t do it—no one ever listens to me, I have this bad stutter. When God insists that Moses is the one to liberate the Israelites, Moses reluctantly agrees to help. After Moses says yes, and does what God has asked, God calls again with the next part of the plan. Moses goes through his whole argument again—you don’t want me, no one will believe me, how do you expect me to do that? But God does want Moses and God never stops calling. Again and again, Moses does his best to say yes, although the work is sometimes slow, sometimes difficult, and often thankless. As Moses grows in relationship with God, Moses gets better at listening, and better at saying yes, but it never gets easy for him. Even after God helps Moses free the people from bondage, Moses still balks a little when God calls the next time. This is Moses we are talking about here—a giant of the faith. And in the end, after Moses and God have walked and talked together for years and years, after Moses has seen God up close and personal, after he has worked with God to free the Israelites, parted the Red Sea, received the Ten Commandments—after all that, Moses still has difficulty sometimes saying yes to God. In fact, toward the end of his life, Moses says no to God—he disobeys God’s wishes—and as a result, Moses, having led the people all the way to the Promised Land, dies before entering it himself.
This portion from Exodus tells us many things about saying yes to God. One thing it assures us is, we do not have to be perfect to say yes to God. We can be reluctant, we can be shy, we can be argumentative, we can be slow. I can not tell you how many people I met in seminary who explained their call to ministry this way: “well, after running away from God for twenty years or so, I finally gave in—and here I am.” God’s time is different than our time. God can wait us out. And God sees far more in us than we ever see in ourselves. Moses saw himself as a man with a stutter, a man no one would listen to, a man who was nothing much to look at. God saw a great leader who could stand up to Pharaoh, and lead the people out of slavery.
This portion also tells us that once we start saying yes to God, we will probably never hear the end of it. We should expect to hear from God again and again.
I believe that God is calling all of creation all the time. Much of the time we don’t even hear the call. So often we are distracted, self-absorbed and oh-so-busy. But I know—both from the stories in scripture and from my own life—that we get better with practice. The more we practice listening for God, the easier we find it to listen to God. The more we say yes to God, the easier we find it to say yes.
Down in LA there was a neighborhood under siege from gang activity. The gangs were so violent that the older ladies from the neighborhood were frightened to go out of their homes. They were even getting scared to go to church on Sunday and to bible study on Wednesday. (PAUSE) Their priest heard their fear and said, “This is a big problem. Let’s pray together and see what God wants us to do.” The ladies objected—“There is nothing we can do—we are scared to death.” But he insisted, so they sat together in prayer waiting to hear a word. They waited a long time. Finally a very shy woman spoke up, “What if we just all went back to sitting on our porches in the morning. I don’t really understand it, but I think that is what I hear God saying.” Well, the ladies shook their heads, not sure at all, but they all agreed that every morning that week they would take their morning coffee out to their front porches and they would sit and they would try to take back their neighborhood. They did. And when the boys in the gangs walked by, the ladies said “Good morning.” Or “How are you?” And the boys said, “What’s up with that? Are these ladies crazy?”
The next Wednesday when the ladies met for bible study, they shared how the week had gone and their priest invited them into prayer again. They sat in silence, but not as long this time. Someone spoke, “The boys looked kind of scared when I spoke to them. What if we made them cookies and offered them some of our coffee?” So they did. And the next week they reported back that although the boys seemed wary, they had really liked the cookies. The ladies prayed together, and they decided to invite the boys to the church dinner for a good home cooked meal. The boys still thought the ladies were crazy, inviting them to church and all, but persuaded by the memory of the homemade cookies, they came to the church for supper. At the supper they all sat together and ate, and at some point one of the ladies said, “We are having a work party this Saturday. You see, we are having a real problem with graffiti—we know it isn’t you boys—but we are getting together to clean it up and we would love to have your help.” And the boys came. As they worked together that Saturday they got to know one another. The ladies discovered that the biggest problem for these kids was that they couldn’t get jobs. The ladies decided to help find good jobs for the boys. Eventually with the help of their Priest, Father Greg Boyle, they founded Homeboy Industries which today provides hundreds of jobs to former gang members, as well as counseling, caseworkers and job training. (PAUSE)
Once we say yes to God we may never hear the end of it, and God sees far more in us than we would ever have imagined was there.
Back to Moses–one final thing to notice from our portion is that while saying yes to God may get easier, it will probably be a life-long struggle. Even when we want to say yes to God, even when we long to be faithful and steadfast, we will sometimes fall short. Moses fell short, we will fall short. And even so God calls us and will call us. Over and over God calls, and we have the chance, again and again, to live our lives as a yes to God.
In our passage from Mark we have stories of the disciples who are also struggling to listen, and struggling to say yes to God. Peter, James and John are with Jesus, out walking after supper. No one in this crowd is very happy. Jesus has been saying some pretty scary stuff lately and even when Peter tried to talk some sense into him, Jesus insisted on coming to Jerusalem where he is in great danger. Then at dinner there was talk of betrayal and separation. They walk along, and Jesus confides to them how bad he feels. He asks his friends to stay with him while he prays, to keep a vigil. But they just can’t seem to do it. Three times Jesus asks them to do this for him, and three times they fall fast asleep.
This portion rings true to me. It is often hard to say yes to God. It is even harder when we are worn out, or worn thin with fear, pain, doubts. Jesus says to his friends, “Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.” Jesus is speaking right to me. Part of me is eager, wanting to live my life as a big yes to God. But part of me is lazy, makes excuses, falls asleep on the job. Part of me wants to give into despair, because things don’t look too good from here. Like the disciples, sometimes I don’t like what I hear, sometimes I get worn out and worn down, and sometimes I fall asleep on the job.
The last person in our portion who is listening for God is Jesus. For me, Jesus is the example of what it means to live one’s life as a yes to God. But even Jesus wasn’t perfect at it, even Jesus had to listen hard, and had to learn over time what it meant to be chosen and marked by God’s love, what it meant to say yes to God.
In our reading, a lifetime of saying yes has led Jesus to this place. And it is agonizing. And it is lonely. In this translation Jesus tells his friends, “I feel bad enough to die.” But even in this place, Jesus reaches out to God, and listens for God’s will. Jesus asks God, “Papa, can’t you get me out of this?” Then Jesus does an amazing thing. He asks to hear what God wants. He asks to do what God wants—even if it is this lonely and terrible thing.
A final detail I like from this portion is that Jesus prays this same prayer a second time. Knowing what God wants is not always obvious. Sometimes we have to ask and listen and ask again. Even for Jesus, discernment took time and prayer. So, I shouldn’t be surprised when God’s call is not immediate or clear. I should, like my teacher, be willing to ask friends to pray with me. I should be willing to ask again and again for God’s guidance. And then hopefully I will be able to say yes
Hopefully, I will choose the yes, and I will live the yes, even as I do not know how it will all work out in the end.
We are not Jesus. We are not Moses. God knows we are sometimes as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire. But our teacher calls us to wake up; Jesus tells us we have slept long enough. It is time to wake up, time to wake up and listen for God.
God sees far more in us than we could ever imagine, and God has work for us to do. It is time, my friends, to practice saying yes to God, today and every day of our lives.
originally preached at St. Paul’s UCC in Seattle, Washington, probably in 2008