Sermon: Live the Verbs
It’s hard to read this morning’s passages and not notice all of the verbs. I’m not a grammar expert, but people who are tell me that the Romans passage alone contains upwards of 30 separate imperatives.
- Hate what is evil
- Hold fast to what is good
- Love one another
- Outdo one another in showing honor
- Do not lag in zeal
- Be ardent in Spirit
- Serve the Lord
And that’s just the first three verses.
Prior to this morning’s passage, Paul has spent the past eleven chapters hammering home the truth that God’s grace extends to everybody—in the case of the Romans, Jews and Gentiles alike—and now, in chapter 12, he turns to the implications of this truth. It is the Therefore of the passage. God loves each of you and extends grace to each of you. Therefore …
And Paul begins to innumerate what the Christian life, and more specifically, the church’s life, is to look like. And it is no short list. And, fortunately, or unfortunately for us, Paul’s description is timeless.
In many ways, we are in a more challenging position to live into Paul’s vision that the church in Rome was. The early Christian communities knew from the beginning that they were called to be alternative societies. The Greek word for testimony is ‘martyr.’ Roman Christians in Paul’s time knew that to associate with the church was to risk martyrdom. And there’s no reason to risk martyrdom simply to uphold the status quo. Yet despite the challenges and risks facing the Roman church, Paul does not go easy on them. Survival isn’t sufficient. Rather, the church is called to act. And not just the church, but the individuals who make up the church. Called to love, to serve, to give, and 27 other verbs that Paul crams into a mere 12 verses.
Yet Paul does not hold the monopoly on verbs this morning. In the passage from Exodus that Jennifer read this morning, verbs play a crucial role. When the scene opens, we encounter Moses in Midian. This is the same Moses who was saved from Pharaoh by the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and then placed in a basket and floated down the Nile river, where he was plucked out by Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him in the palace. Born a Hebrew slave and raised an Egyptian prince, Moses has had to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian soldier and being scorned by his fellow Hebrews. He has fled and he has found himself in Midian. Midian, which is approximately a hundred miles east of nowhere. And what is Moses doing in Midian? A whole lot of nothing. How do we know? The verb. Moses is keeping a flock. It’s not even his flock. He’s keeping it for his father-in-law. As preacher Anna Carter Florence likes to point out, there’s nothing flashy about keeping. It is a maintenance verb.
The verb not only tells us what Moses is doing, where is he in his life, it also one point of connection between ourselves and Moses. We, too, know what it is to be in Midian maintaining things. Keeping appointments. Keeping an eye on the kids. Keeping the budget. Keeping up with technology and trends. Keeping the peace, at dinner, at council, among friends. Keeping an eye on social media and the news. We know these things because these are things you do when you are a responsible adult in the midst of life, work, and ministry. In the middle of Midian. You keep things. You keep them going. That’s your job.
But then the verb changes. Moses is keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro in the first half of verse one and then there’s a shift. And Moses is know leading. He leads his flock beyond the wilderness. Which is kind of an odd place to go. Some translations say, he took them to the edge of the desert, of the far side. But I like the translation Jennifer read. Beyond the wilderness. It’s pushing the limits of wild. Again, Anna Carter Florence says it well, “whatever wilderness means to you, this place is one step beyond that.”
And then he came to the mountain of God.
From keeping to leading. From maintaining to pushing the limits of what is safe and comfortable. A change of verb and a change of location and Moses finds the mountain of God.
And then, listen to the verbs that come next. Moses looked and the bush was blazing, but it was not consumed. And Moses said, I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up. Look, turn aside, ask why. How long was the bush burning before someone came along and noticed it was not being consumed? How much longer did it take for someone to not only notice that it was a rather hearty bush to withstand the fire for so long, but to actually ask why? Why is this the way that it is?
Look, turn aside, ask why.
Hold fast to what is good, love one another, show honor, rejoice in hope, be patient, persevere in prayer, extend hospitality.
This morning, because it’s our last Sunday outside, and because the texts seem to call out for it. I want to try something a little different. Recognizing that it was when he changed his verb that Moses was able to leave Midian and encounter God, and that it was when he actively turned aside and looked that God spoke to him, I want to offer you the same opportunity. A chance to turn aside for a moment, to look and listen, and see if you can’t hear God calling through the verbs.
Lectio Divina is an ancient practice that takes seriously the belief that God continues to speak to each and every one of us through the Scriptures. Rather than reading for information, Lectio Divina is structured to help us read for transformation. And while there is a formal process for doing it, I want to offer up a modified version this morning.
So here’s what I’d like to you to do. And I promise that there is no test at the end, I’m not going to make you share what you experience or turn to a neighbor and talk about it. And, it’s going to be short, so even if this isn’t your kind of thing, give it a try. I want you to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. I want you to feel your chair underneath you and your feet on the ground. I want you to hear the wind in the trees, the noises of people passing by …
And I want you to listen as I read the verbs from this morning’s scripture. And as you listen, I want you to notice if any of them jump out at you. Or if any of them catch your attention or shimmer just slightly. Just notice.
- Hold fast
- show honor
- do not lag
- be ardent
- be patient
- take thought
- leave room
- turn aside
- come down
- bring up
I’m going to read them one more time. Listen. See what catches your attention. Don’t worry if nothing does. Don’t worry if it’s something different. Just notice.
If there is a verb or verbs that caught your attention, I invite you to hold onto it lightly. See where it takes you.
The very first thing God says to Moses is “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Often we understand this command to be about reverence. About removing that which is between ourselves and the holy. And I think that is valid and true. And good advice. But removing our shoes is also about becoming comfortable. A survey done in Japan, where there is an entire etiquette around shoes and shoe removal, found that 81 percent of people surveyed identified two equally important reasons for taking their shoes off when they enter their homes. The first is cleanliness, which probably isn’t what God is concerned about in this passage. The second is so that they can relax and be themselves.
The verbs are important. They’re what help us get out of Midian and encounter God. They’re how we live out our calling to be a community set apart. They’re what allow us to move from maintaining and keeping the status quo to searching for something more. But equally important is each of you and the words that you hear. The verbs that catch your attention. Paul’s laundry list of things to do is a good one, and a great place to start. But God calls to each of us individually, And God calls us to remove our sandals, to be ourselves, to look and see what we notice. To ask why. To find the verb that is calling to each of us in this time and in this place.