A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 30 August 2020, the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Catherine Duce
Reading for this address: Exodus 3. 1-15
In the north east corner of Trafalgar Square is a statue of the British nurse Edith Cavell. Standing on her granite plinth with great determination and poise, Edith Cavell is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides of the first world war; an act of bravery that was to cost her life. On the eve of her execution in 1915, having received communion, Edith Cavell spoke these powerful words: “I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me, Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
A person of deep faith, Edith Cavell knew what she stood for. In the sight of great misery and suffering, Edith Cavell knew that no matter the land, no matter the nationality, no matter the humanity – the ground upon which she stood was holy and she was to stand for love.
I wonder what you stand for? I wonder what creed burns so strongly within you that you would risk life and limb to hold fast to its truth? Martin Luther King Junior once famously said: “If you haven’t found something you are willing to die for, you are not fit to live”.
In our Old Testament reading today Moses too is called to stand for a purpose. Interrupted from his shepherding in the wilderness, Moses is summoned by God to stand for God’s cause: to lead the struggle for justice and freedom of the Israelites into the promised land. By doing so, Moses is called to risk his own life and to place his future into the hands of eternity.
For each of these powerful witnesses– Moses, Edith Cavell, and Martin Luther King Junior– the summons of God was matched by a burning zeal of faith and curiosity that led these people to turn aside and to stand in awe of God. To stand in awe of God and sin not. By standing in awe of God, they were then able to listen to the cries of God’s people.
Four verbs spoken by God in our Old Testament passage are revelatory of the heart of God: “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt: I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I have known their sufferings: therefore I have come down to deliver them.”
I have seen. I have heard. I have known. I have come down. I want to look at these four verbs in more depth.
To discern what we too stand for we might learn to see God at work in our world through God’s eyes; our world that is so broken and hurting, our world that is so full of uncertainty and trauma. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and Moses turns aside to see. What if the real miracle here is that Moses turned aside to see? There is an old rabbinic saying that others passed by the bush whilst it was ablaze but only Moses turned aside to see. What if there are many burning bushes in world waiting to be beheld? This echoes Elizabeth Browning’s poem: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush is afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries”. There is much beauty to be observed in the cracks of our world. Even in the routine of everyday life – in marriages, parenting, work, friendships and church. Can you see the burning bush in your midst?
To see. To hear. And to discern what we stand for we too are invited to know deeply the sufferings of others in our world, as God knows our suffering. This is an intimate knowing. A non-judgemental knowing. A hopeful knowing. So that ‘We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness’.To discern what we stand for we are also invited to sharpen our ear to the cries of God’s people. What is the quality and shape of our listening? What is the quality and shape of our pastoral care? When did you last sit with someone whose views you disagree with? When did you last read a newspaper from a political viewpoint different from your own? It can be so easy to live in our ideological bubbles. Thereby losing opportunities to stand for God’s compassion and justice in places we wouldn’t normally go. May all our listening be grounded in a living relationship to God in prayer.
Each day on the Nazareth Community Whatsapp Group, Jamie from our congregation shares a thought for the day from Richard Carter’s book The City is my Monastery. Some words from this week really struck me about God’s summons for us to first be intimately known by God – to then share that knowing with the world:
‘If you surrender your freedom, you enter a greater freedom.
If you surrender your own heart you discover God’s heart.
If you see there is only one life, it is God’s life.
Finding intimacy with God is like going home, to all that we are and all that we long for. It is a return to the “I am”. Intimacy with God it is like crossing the line from separation to everything you have longed for’.
Finally, God says to Moses “I have come down to deliver the Israelites from their oppression, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey”, Lovely thinks Moses – so how do you propose to do that? God then drops the bombshell: “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But who am I? gasps Moses, to do such a thing. God delivers God’s people by sending Moses. And still today God entrusts us to participate in a purpose beyond our imagining with the most reassuring and five most powerful words in the Bible:
“I will be with you”. I will be with you forever.
“I have seen. I have heard. I have known. I have come down.”
So, what do you stand for? Do you have a curiosity that leads you to turn aside and to stand in awe of God? Curiosity is the starting point.
You might then like to join me in praying those beautiful words from St Martin’s favourite Iona chant: “Take O Take me as I am. Summon Out what I shall be. Set your seal Lord upon my heart and Live in Me”. When we are faced with difficulties and deaths – both great and small – on a scale in which we face today, may we, like Edith Cavell and Moses, live with eternity in view. May we be ready, as Sam Wells writes so powerfully in our Eucharistic prayer, ‘for a purpose beyond our imagining, a life beyond our deserving, a glory beyond our reckoning, until God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven’.