Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 115; Romans 12:9-21; Matt 16:21-28
A quiet but helpful member of the form. That was how my teachers generally described me in my school reports. As a teacher I now know that it means I never opened my mouth, but I did help tidy the classroom! And so, when at training college I actually did open my mouth to answer questions or put my point of view – mainly because we were all sitting there a little nervous of speaking out so someone had to – I did feel as though I was stepping right out of my comfort zone. Speaking my view on something theological or ministry-based seemed presumptuous. And I am sure we’ve all been there. Stepping forward, into an unknown situation, into the unknown. It’s scary. No wonder Moses asks God, what really, me? Are you sure? It’s a feeling those who have sensed a call to ministry often feel. What, me, Seriously? Moses felt unworthy of the call, of God’s trust in him, felt it called him into the unknown, out of his comfort zone. And many who are called to step outside their comfort zones feel like Moses, unworthy, scared. But, like Moses we step into the unknown because God says: I will be with you. However, it doesn’t start with this sending, it starts earlier, when, like Moses, we respond to God’s presence – even if we don’t initially recognise it as God. Moses saw something, turned aside to see what was going on, and found God. He saw God was there, responded, and God spoke. It is then that God takes him out of his comfort zone of life as a shepherd, and sends him out to speak for God’s people, pushing him into a life of service: whom shall I send?(a). The God who hears the people cry, who sees their pain, responds to them by calling Moses and working through him to bring salvation, to speak God’s word to them and to those who oppress them.
Calling and response and stepping beyond. Quite appropriate for a day of a baptism. Because God is calling our candidate today, tiny as she is, out of her comfort zone and into a life lived by God’s ways. And it is no small undertaking. It will take her, as it takes us, out of our comfort zones. In our Gospel, Jesus himself tells us what being Christian, following Christ, really means –: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Jesus calls us to step outside what we know, where we are comfortable and listen to him, follow him, do what he does: “take up your cross and follow me if thou wouldst my disciple be.” Take up the cross, with its weight and shame and “calmly ev’ry danger brave”(b). That’s quite something to be asking of our candidate today. It’s quite something to be asking of anybody. But this is what we are called to do. But it is not something we are called to do on our own. Thankfully ,as we heard in our hymn, there is comfort, there is more: “his strength shall bear thy spirit up”, “’twill guide thee to a better home”(b). God’s steadfast love and faithfulness will support and guide us.
But what is it we are called away from the comforts of our safe lives to do? How are Christians supposed to live? And here we have the template set out by Paul, and what a template, what a challenge. Love one another – ok, that’s sort of achievable – hate what is evil – yes, again, ok. Bless those who persecute you – er, what? Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never avenge yourself, and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The whole of the passage from Paul is challenging and takes us out of our comfort zones, the ways the world expects us to behave, the ways we are used to. It asks something more of us: love for all, even our enemies; forgiveness of others, and humility. To bear persecution and not repay evil with evil. These are easy to say, but not so easy to do. They challenge, they ask much of us, and run counter to how we are taught to respond by the world around us.
But. But, what if we could do these things? If we could step outside our comfort zone and offer love instead of hate? If we could “heap burning coals on” the heads of our enemies by returning their evil acts with love? To act in ways which the world would ridicule? These are “long-haul virtues”, requiring constant work, and which won’t result in praise from the world around us (1), but if the world can be persuaded, can be shown through our actions, that they are good, that they are things to aim for, then what a world we would live in!
“Take up thy cross, the Saviour said, if thou wouldst my disciple be. Deny thyself, the world forsake and humbly follow after me.”(b) These are weighty things. It means living a life that challenges us, takes us out of our comfort zone. And as followers of Christ, we are called to take up our cross, step out of our comfort zone and put ourselves where Christ is. And, as Rowan Williams explains, “being where Christ is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks”: the excluded, disreputable, wretched, self-hating, poor, diseased (2). But thankfully, as Moses found out, stepping out, doing the will of the Father, following Christ and going where Christ is, is not something we do alone: God said: ‘I will be with you’. Jesus guides us: “his strength shall bear thy spirit up, and brace thy heart and nerve thine arm,”(b). We have the gift of the Holy Spirit – the “rushing burning wind and flame of Pentecost”(c). And we have each other. We are never alone in our calling. If we step aside, respond to God at work in the world, then God will be with us, work with us, through us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is a comfort to us. We are not alone, we have each other to support us, love us and strengthen us, and we have the love of God to support us, love us and strengthen us. The Lord who “the Cross endured”(b), and who lived to show us how to live. So, let’s step forward together with God, out of the comfort zone of the world’s expectations, take up our cross and follow Christ by working on those virtues that Paul speaks of, supporting each other, and trusting in God, the faithful and steadfast God, and let all our actions, our doings be for God’s glory, not claiming to be wiser, or being superior to others, but humbly following the example of Christ.
Not to us, O lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
The Revd Jackie Sellin