by Sharon Bartels
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21
Moses has a pretty good life at that moment. Happily married, working for his father-in-law as a shepherd, living his life. This flaming bush that was not on fire was a very curious thing. Naturally, he had to take a closer look. You can just imagine his surprise to hear God speak – the passage says he hid his face, afraid to look. Yup, that’s what I would do! Because you know what’s going to come next. God doesn’t ask someone to take on a project, really – who could say thanks for the opportunity but I’m not available right now – and Moses must have known he was about to be put on the spot.
“I’m sending you…” God says, a direction, not a suggestion.
What would your reaction be to this assignment? Probably similar to Moses’. He immediately objected with the ever popular “Why me?” We hear that he did not believe he was the right one for the job – not strong enough, not brave enough, not skilled enough, not influential enough. He had a history – his mother gave him up, and although he was raised in the Pharaoh’s household he was horrified by the treatment of the Hebrew slaves. In fact, he ran away after killing a slave for abusing a Hebrew slave, fearing that the Pharaoh would be angry. Who would listen to him now?
So he objects mightily. He uses every argument he can think of to get out of it. But that flame is mesmerizing and God’s call is powerful. The rest, as they say, is history…
I find it interesting how often imperfect people are called to do God’s work. Nelson Mandela is another who comes to mind. His parents sent him to live with guardians so he could attend a Methodist mission school. He attended church every week with this family and embraced Christianity. As a young man, he became politically active working first for class equality, and later fighting the racial inequality imposed under apartheid.
His story is fairly well known. As a leader of the African National Congress, he was accused of being a communist terrorist and supporter of violent tactics. He was repeatedly charged and jailed for short periods. Then in 1964, he and his colleagues were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. They admitted to sabotage, but denied any involvement in activities against the government.
Mandela and his allies used the trial to highlight their political cause. There was intense international interest and global calls for release of the accused. But Mandela and two others were deemed violent communist saboteurs, found guilty of all four charges and sentenced to life in prison.
We’re talking about 1964 South African prison. In his early years he was allowed one visit and one heavily censored letter every six months. We can only imagine how isolating that must have been. Naturally, he became a leader at the Robbins Island facility where he was held, forging relationships with political prisoners from other groups, creating a “University of Robbins Island” where inmates lectured on their own areas of expertise and debated hot topics of the day. In addition to attending Christian worship services, he studied Islam and the Afrikaans language in an effort to build mutual respect with his jailers and other prisoners.
In 1983, South African President PW Botha implemented constitutional reforms that deepened division on racial lines, escalating the protests happening around the country. Six years later in 1989, FW deKlerk became president after Botha had a stroke. He believed apartheid was unsustainable, and unconditionally released all African National Congress prisoners – except Nelson Mandela. There had been numerous attempts to negotiate a release over the years, all would have limited his activities, movement, speech, who he could associate with. Finally, Mandela was released in February 1990 with no conditions, and legal recognition of all formerly banned political parties was reinstated.
You know the rest – he worked tirelessly to prevent the civil war his beloved country was barreling toward. As an unofficial leader, he worked with a wide circle of multi-racial mixed gendered colleagues. Eventually serving as South Africa’s President, he focused his efforts on national reconciliation and the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy.
Clearly, God called Mr. Mandela.
And one more, closer to real life example. Sharonda Bailey is the principal at Sunland Park Academy, a pre-K through 3rd grade elementary school in Fort Lauderdale. You’re familiar with it – we collected books and supplies last year for Briget Nicholson’s 2nd grade class here. Mrs. Bailey took over at Sunland during the 2012/2013 school year, so last year was her first full year in the school. It is in the heart of one of the poorest areas of Ft Lauderdale, with all of the burdens and disadvantages that comes with. She hired an almost entirely new staff and set to work on her vision of a safe, warm and welcoming learning environment – a local artists’ group painted the walls with bright colorful murals, the floors were stripped and cleaned, and teachers were held to high standards. Ty Jackson’s visit at the end of the year helped them celebrate some success, and ignited a new enthusiasm in students and teachers alike.
Standardized test scores drive the school’s overall ratings, which were D’s and F’s for the last 10 years. Last year’s test results were published in July – Sunland Park earned an A rating! And the impact has been remarkable. Parents who previously didn’t give school a high priority are now making sure their kids arrive on time. The pride and hope that they feel is resulting in more respect for school staff and what they’re achieving. Mrs. Bailey was obviously called to make a difference in the lives of her students, and she is actually improving a whole neighborhood as well.
Paul wrote his letter to the early church in Rome to help settle the conflicts between the Gentiles and the Jewish Christians in this new church. He has come to understand that one group thinks the other is inferior. We heard the first part of chapter 12 last week where Paul outlines how the story of the life of Jesus transforms believers and how that transformation impacts behavior. Remember? He said take your everyday ordinary life and place it before God as an offering. Then he reminds them “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” By focusing their attention on God, he tells them, they will be changed from the inside out – totally transformed. Note that Paul never says they’ll be perfect…
With that in mind, the section that we read today sounds like an instruction manual. “Love from the center of who you are” he tells them. And if you’ve been transformed from the inside out, think how powerful that can be. When we rely on our core beliefs and faith to live our everyday ordinary lives as if they are an offering to God, we have the power to be the light. Get along with each other, make friends with the nobodies, discover beauty in everyone. Can he say any more clearly that love is an action, not just a feeling?
I will be the first to admit my failings and imperfections. Not one of us is perfect, which we should be grateful for. We had a guest minister here who encouraged me to embrace my mistakes because mistakes leave room for God and God’s grace. Just because we’re imperfect doesn’t mean we can’t hear and follow a call.
So what does that mean for our call? ARK’s call? If you have any doubt that we have one, just look at where we are! We’ll be learning more about how to put love in action when we begin our study series this fall. It’s based on the UCC Open & Affirming curriculum, which teaches about what it’s like to live in the margins. While it started with a focus on LGBT issues, it’s been expanded to include many who are invisible to general society – the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled. If we truly believe that everyone is worthy, everyone deserves God’s grace, and that Her love is extravagant and unconditional, then loving from the center of who we are should be easy.
So I will end as Debbie did last week, with a challenge. I challenge you to be open to the Spirit, be open to your story, to discover your gifts, to watch for the flaming bush placed in your path and be open to God’s call. I challenge you to “Be who you were created to be and set the world on fire.” We pray it will be so. Amen.
 St Catherine of Sienna