Witness, Presence, Unconditional Love
Chilmark Community Church
June 18, 2017
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Perhaps about 15 years ago, after the birth of our grandson, our second grandchild, I had the experience of feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the love I felt for the two beautiful young souls who were being entrusted to their parents and to us for as long as we would have time to be in their lives. I hardly knew what to do with the feelings I had; what to do with the awareness of what an incredible privilege and responsibility came with being a conscious grandparent. So – I prayed for some guiding wisdom for how to go about the awesome task of loving these two precious beings and for how to be a strong and positive influence in their lives. In the deep silence of prayer, I heard “You are to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love.”
15 years later, I am still challenged with what these words mean, but I took this wisdom as my marching orders for grand-parenting. It turns out that they were marching orders for my life as well as they have continued to echo in my spirit over the years that I have been a grandmother. You are to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love.
On reflection, I think these orders are why I dearly love this story of Moses and his first encounter with God. Moses is so like us in so many ways – he works hard at his daily tasks of caring for his father-in-law’s flocks; he is curious about the world around him; he is in awe and trembling of the power of the Holy One; he is really uncertain about what God is asking him to do – – and yet, he says “Here I am!”
The story up to this point has Moses first persecuted by Pharoah under the decree that all the Hebrew baby boys are to be killed as soon as they are born. He is saved at birth by two subversive midwives, rescued from the waters of the Nile by the Pharoah’s daughter (who is a bit of a subversive in her own father’s court), raised in Pharoah’s palace. He is witness to an overseer abusing a Hebrew slave. He kills and buries the overseer. He is seen and accused of murder – runs for his life – and ends up in Midian, tending the flocks of Jethro and marrying Jethro’s daughter.
It is in his quiet time in the hills with the flocks that Moses encounters the God of his ancestors. We don’t know anything about Moses’ relationship with this god up to this point. Moses was raised as an Egyptian after all, without any connection to the god of the Hebrews.
But in this brief part of the story, we learn a lot about this god and how this god will be with those who listen and follow.
So, for a few moments, we might let our imaginations take over, and imagine Moses in the rugged mountains of Midian, keeping an eye on his father-in-law’s flocks – – maybe a herd of goats and a flock of sheep. The location is Mt. Horeb.
And there is a little bit of dramatic foreshadowing in the name of the mountain. Mt. Horeb means Mountain of God. It is sometimes used interchangeably with Mt. Sinai – the place of divine revelation. Moses experiences a revelation from God on Mt. Horeb and will be there with the people at the big one on Mt. Sinai.
I rather suspect that on the Mountain of God, just about anything can happen – and indeed it does. A messenger, an angel of God, appears in the midst of a bush that is in blazes – but does not burn up. In his curiosity, Moses takes a closer look to see why the bush has not burned up. As he does so, he hears the voice of God calling to him by name – “Moses! Moses!”
Moses answers with words that appear many times across both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Moses answers the voice of God , saying “Hineini” – – here I am!
And a pattern for life is set in motion. God calls Moses by name – Moses responds: “here I am” – – and God goes to work.
Moses has a lot of reservations, however. He is not completely sold on the idea of working with God. He is modest to a fault. He confesses that he stutters and can’t really be a public speaker and tries to convince God that someone else would do a better job. But the story isn’t just about Moses. It is more about God at this point – about God revealing the Divine Self to Moses.
And here is how God does it: God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry . . . I know their suffering . . . I have come down to deliver them from slavery . . . .I will bring them to a good land . . . .
In this small part of the grand saga that will follow, we learn that it is in the nature of God to witness what is going on in creation – – and it is in the nature of God to be an active presence in the midst of creation. A third clue to the nature of God in these few verses is not quite as obvious – and that is in the line where God says “I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
We learn from this that God is a God of unconditional love who cares for humankind from generation to generation – – whether we human beings measure up to our divine calling or not. We find this theme of steady, unconditional love in Paul’s reflections in Romans 8:38 – where he writes: ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God.”
The sacred texts tell us something of the nature of God – as Witness to our lives and to what we both enjoy and endure, as Presence in our lives and in the world, and as the source of Unconditional Love.
Way back in the 1st chapter of Genesis, we have the beautiful story of the creation of humankind – and the divine intention behind the beginnings of humanity: Genesis 1:26 and 27: “Then God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness…..so God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them, male and female God created them.”
And here’s where the rubber hits the road for us here, now, today. If we trust the intention of our sacred texts, we can affirm together that we, each one of us, and all of us together, are created in the Divine Image and Likeness of God. That’s the beginning of the story. As the story unfolds, more and more of the nature of God is revealed – – and we therefore get to know more and more about what it means to be created in the Divine Image. We know that God is creative. We know that God seeks human companionship. We know that God shapes the lives of people who respond to God.
In this vignette from the grand story of Moses and the Exodus, we learn about some of the more subtle attributes of God – namely that God is a Witness, a Presence, and is Unconditional Love. We kind of expect all that of God – no surprises there – – however – – being created in the image of God, these attributes belong to us as well.
These attributes lead us to a high calling in our life together as a community of the faithful, and in our life in the world beyond the walls of this sanctuary. The good news is that we are already familiar with these attributes. Indeed we practice them every day when we witness, we notice, we observe, we see. We witness one another’s lives in the joys and the sorrows, the challenges and celebrations, the fears and concerns, the illnesses and the healing that we go through together as a body. We witness the effect that life has on each other – and we learn empathy and compassion. This witnessing is what makes a church family hold together at the center. It is also what makes us more effective as we take our caring into the world.
When we are present to one another, we become Presence – Some times we are called upon to take action – to make a phone call in one another’s behalf, to check in when we haven’t seen each other for several weeks, to attend to one another when one of us is suffering. Sometimes we are called upon to be present to one another in profound grief when there are simply no words to be said. As Paul writes, “we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” We each have the capacity to be a presence in each other’s lives – whether through actual physical hands on help or through prayer, or through words of encouragement or comfort or celebration. Being a Presence means saying “Hineini” – – here I am – – my spirit and my energy are available to you – – I am part of your life. Being a Presence means being a little bit of God available to the life of another person.
And then there is the call to be Unconditional Love. We know from the long saga of God’s journey with Israel that God does not give up when the going gets tough. The scriptures are full of reasons why God could have just thrown up the proverbial divine hands and walked away in frustration and disgust – – but that never happened – – because the love of the Holy One for all of creation does not depend upon how faithful we are, or how good or cooperative or thoughtful or sensitive or caring or patient with each other we happen to be. Unconditional Love is just that – it unaffected by the conditions of our lives. Being created in the Divine Image, we have the capacity to love one another in the same way, through thick and thin – – even when we aren’t sure we like each other very much – even when we disagree about how things ought to be done, even when we hurt one another’s feelings. Being Unconditional Love means being in our holy center where we do not get shaken by the dramas and ups and downs of our daily interactions – it means being Love even when we don’t feel particularly loving.
The older I get, the more I am convinced that life together in a church community is a kind of practice room where we get to hear the wisdom for living that comes from our sacred texts -and we get to practice it with each other. When we are able to witness one another’s lives and to be truly present with each other, when we are able to hone our skills at being Unconditional Love – when we practice enough together to become skilled at these attributes, we are trained and strengthened for our role in the world beyond.
Jesus came among us to show us what the master of these attributes might look like. He Witnessed every part of human life as he lived it among us. He was and is a Presence with a capital “P” in the lives of those who elect to follow him. And he became the visible form of Unconditional Love on the cross as he offered forgiveness even to those who were in the process of extinguishing his life.
“You are to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love” – these are profound marching orders for our life together in community as we head into the future. May we be faithful in our practice together so that we may be a Witness, a Presence and Unconditional Love in a world that sorely needs us in its midst. AMEN