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Exodus 33:12-23
What Story Would You Tell?

What story would you tell if I asked you about your glimpses of God? 
What story would you tell? 

I ask this morning, in part, because I’ve been reflecting a lot lately how strange it is that some of my deepest and most profound conversations about God--the God who shows up, the God of all Creation, the God who still speaks--are so rarely in church. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately how odd it is that some of the most searching, wondering, vulnerable, beautiful conversations I’ve had about the divine are with folks who haven’t stepped foot in the church in years, haven’t stepped foot in the church at all, and yet are compelled to explore this divine mystery however they can. 

I’ve found myself wondering why it seems the church is the last place someone would go to talk about the God who is born into history, the God who enters into our lives, the God who is wild and untamed, the God who cannot be domesticated or contained. Why is the church the last place people would go to talk about God, unless somewhere along the way, they’ve come to realize that those of us who reverence the comfortable pew have little room for the God of the wilderness, the one who leads her people by cloud and pillar of fire?

What story would you tell if I asked you about your glimpses of God? 

What story could you tell that leaves you reeling? That leaves you questioning? That leaves you wondering at the beauty, the strangeness, the mystery of it all? What story would you tell of the moment – or moments – when you have been so aware of God’s presence with you that it was almost overwhelming?

What story would you tell if you weren’t so worried that it was absolutely crazy, or what your friends might think (even if it was absolutely true, Even if it marked an important turning point? Even if it meant the world to you)?

It seems a lifetime ago that I stumbled into a hard-backed pew at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto. It was late one fall afternoon, and I had wandered in off the street. The doors were open, the sun shining, autumn breeze on my cheeks. The street trees were brilliant with oranges, yellows, and reds. The day outside was glorious, but that day I found myself drawn inside. 

Before the theatre-goers emerged from the matinee across the street. Before the afternoon traffic picked up again, I walked up the stairs of the old stone building, a monument from another time, imagining what it must have been like before the city sprang up around it. I knew nothing about the people who had come together to build this place to gather and listen for God’s voice. I knew little but that the building was still standing, and that the doors were open. I walked in, not knowing what I was looking for.

I had been working a downtown job after graduating university, but something wasn’t clicking. Something wasn’t right. I was busy, run off my feet, working far more hours than I was being paid for. But unlike many of my friends who graduated around the same time, I was working, and I was so deeply grateful for a job. If you had asked me then how things were going, I could have told you a lot about what I was doing, how busy I was. But I also would have told you that something was off. Something was missing. Something was wrong.

I walked into the empty church and found a seat at the back, light streaming through stained glass into the cavernous space. I sat in the glow of filtered light, thinking, wondering, overwrought and overwhelmed. Mostly just waiting in silence for God knows what. Outside the sound of streetcars, of passersby. Now and again, the scent of burning exhaust wafting in. 

But in that space, as my heart rate slowed, as I started to breathe deep and full, as my eyes marveled, wandering between stained glass images and vaulted ceilings, it was then, in that silence, that I was able to hear the whisper. 

Perhaps these words had been spoken many times before. Perhaps they had been uttered from the beginning of time. But it was only at that moment, having slowed down enough to listen, having acknowledged that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I heard the voice. The voice was audible, kind, and clear. “It’s time,” the voice said. “It’s time to go to seminary.” 

I looked around. There was nobody there. I looked back towards the stained glass, light pouring in, the dust dancing between here and there. I felt strangely warm. A tingle on my neck. While I could not explain it, I had an awareness that this voice was from outside of me. From deep within. This was a voice like the voice of God. 

So naturally, I repressed it and told no-one. 

This nonsense is crazy. It seemed better to tell no one than to have to contend with the implications of those words and how they made me feel. Once the story crosses your lips, it’s impossible to control what happens next. 

What story would you tell if I asked you about your glimpses of God? 

This week, in studying our lectionary texts, I have been particularly drawn to the story of Moses. To the story of the prophet who contends for his people. To the story of the one who, while regularly aggravated by their grumbling and incessant infighting, their lack of vision, their lack of trust, still defends them to a God who–at times–seems more caustic and jaded than Carla Tortelli tending bar on TV’s Cheers

And sure, Moses has his moments too. He’s always been more Lillith than Frasier Crane. When God’s people, wandering in the wilderness, liberated from back breaking labour, liberated from oppression and violence and fear, start talking up “the good old days,” it’s a wonder he doesn’t have an aneurysm. 

How quickly we forget. Ah yes, the good old days. Days of starvation, slavery, and infant slaughter.

How is it that we humans look back on the past with rose coloured glasses, wishing we could get back to the good old days that–if we thought about them for one second longer–had their fair share of troubles too? The human memory is a funny thing. 

Moses defends his people to God. Despite the whole Golden Calf debacle and the shattered tablets of the previous chapters, Moses says “consider too that this nation is your people.” He spends whatever currency he has, saying “If I’ve found favour with you, then you need to go with us.” God relents. Okay, Moses. I’ll do it for you. But only because I like you.  

This week I’ve been drawn to the story of Moses, the one who encounters God in the burning bush, the one in constant dialogue with God, the one who ascends the mountain to commune with the divine in the midst of fog and smoke, who experiences deep intimacy with God and who leaves each encounter changed.

Moses leaves each encounter changed, yet yearns for more. 

And truth be told, that resonates for me. This morning I’m yearning for encounter with God. For another signpost in the fog. 

I don’t know how it is for you, but my desire is not only to know more about God, but to know and be intimately known by God. Like Moses who returns radiant from his mountaintop experiences, I remain hungry for more. “Show me your glory,” Moses demands. “Let me see you as you see me.” 

Sometimes when we have these encounters with God, we struggle to put them into words–these moments of divine encounter, of inexplicable grace. Perhaps they come as an audible voice when we’re at the end of our rope, when we have nowhere else to turn. 

Perhaps we encounter God in moments we have ministered to another person, coming alongside them, offering a helping hand, sitting in silence, or joining our hearts in prayer. Perhaps we encounter God through a person who is ministering to us. A neighbour. A fellow parishioner. A deacon or priest leading us to lay down our burdens at one of God’s altars in the world. 

Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is present, God is here. That God is still working in our lives, and in the life of this community. Even if we’ve only heard a whisper. Even if we’ve only glimpsed God’s back. And that’s good news, isn’t it? No matter where we are, no matter what we’re going through, God is present, God is active, God is loving us back to life.

We need that reminder and the world does too. As Christians, this is the ministry we are entrusted with in our baptism. Deacons lead this ministry visibly, often by inviting us into public-facing ministries of mercy and justice. And thank God for that! That is a gift so deep and valuable in this church.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the shifting winds for religious belief and participation. There’s a lot of hot air about church decline. And so some of us shift the deck chairs a little, playing around with our music, experimenting with the things we think we ought to do to get the young people to come. But on the whole, many of us are more drawn to the certainty of Egypt than the liberation of the wilderness. 

Which is why the people need Moses. Which is why God’s church needs people who listen deeply, prayerfully for the God who is present, alive, and on the move. Which is why we need each other more than we need to agree. Which is why we need people like Moses, why we need to be people like Moses who both contend for God’s people and call God’s people forward into an uncertain, yet promised land. 

In the face of all we are experiencing. In the face of the reality of this moment in the life of this congregation, God promises to travel with you and to give you rest, even as God calls all of us into the unknown. God reminds us that we are beloved. That we are not alone. God reminds us that this isn’t your church or my church. This isn’t Rev. Brian’s church or the Bishop’s church. This is God’s church. And God will lead us into the land of promise.

What we need is to listen. To devote ourselves to prayer. To devote ourselves not solely to our vision of the future, but to the fresh word of joyful liberation that God is speaking to us, and through us to others. We need to listen for the divine word that makes a new future possible, one beyond our wildest dreams.

As a church, whether we find ourselves in the wilderness or the promised land; whether in stability or in crisis, God responds when we cry out. This is a God who will neither leave us nor forsake us. 

Our God is a God who still speaks. Ours is a God who speaks in hushed tones and burning bushes, a God who calls you, me, each and every one of us by name. Ours is a God always at work seeking to free the people, a God who makes a way when there seems to be no way, a God constantly drawing people unto God’s self, even when it doesn’t look the way we expect. Even when it doesn’t instantaneously fill the pews. 

Because sometimes, well sometimes, God is sending us out, calling us to turn towards the world. God is calling us to turn towards a world that is yearning for love, a world that is yearning for care. God is calling us to turn towards our neighbours yearning to know–in the midst of all that is going on, in the midst of situations that argue otherwise–that they are loved with no exception. And so we love recklessly, because God first loved us. 

So how is God calling you, the people of St. John’s, to respond to your neighbours in love? While I can’t tell you exactly, I can tell you this. It has a lot to do with those places you are glimpsing God in your lives, and in the life of this congregation. It has a lot to do with the places that God is already bringing healing in and through you. 

I mentioned off the top how some of the most searching, wondering, vulnerable conversations about God have been with folks who haven’t stepped foot in the church in years. But somehow, on the walk to school, on the playground watching the kids, listening to a songwriter at the local pub, we talk. Out in the world. About the mystery of divine love and the healing that it brings. 

As a people, we are called to find out where God is at work in the world, and to join in. One of the ways we figure that out is through story. Through making space for people to share their stories of divine encounter, and as we do so, listening for themes and patterns. To what is God drawing our attention? Where are we being invited to go? 

All of which leaves me with this question. It's a question for myself, to be sure. But also for you. For all of us. As you go through this week, I want to ask you to dwell in this question:

What story would you tell if I asked you about your glimpses of God? What story would you tell? 

And when that story comes to you, who will you share it with? Find someone with whom you can share the story, wonder at it together, and ask one another: I wonder where God is leading me–I wonder where God is leading us–today.