This is the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 29 August 1999. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Romans 12: 9 – 21, and Matthew 16: 21 – 28. I added the picture of the Cades Cove Methodist Church on 25 September 2011.
During the summer of 1969, my family and I were on our way back from North Carolina to our home in Memphis. We had planned our return so that we could go through the Smoky Mountain National Park and camp there. But as we passed through the Newfound Gap, we discovered that it was quite literally “wall-to-wall” people. We, or rather I, had hoped that we would camp that night in the Cades Cove section of the park but we discovered that it was one of the more popular sections and that unless you had made reservations and gotten there early, you wouldn’t get it. Though it is some thirty years later, it is still pretty much the same today.
I was disappointed because I had read about Cades Cove and really wanted to see this section of the mountain South’s past. I don’t remember just how I felt that summer some thirty years ago but I knew that I wanted to come back there some day.
In March 1988, I drove from near Toledo, Ohio, where I was teaching and living at the time to Jacksonville, Florida, to participate in the American Bowling Congress tournament. On the way back, I decided that I would go through Newfound Gap and make that visit to Cades Cove that I had wanted to do many years before. As I came to the gap, I discovered that there was no one there. What I remembered as being filled with people was amazingly empty. But then again, it was an early spring morning and not yet the peak of the tourist season. So it was that I was able to visit Cades Cove and see the old Methodist Church and get a sense of what the world was like in rural Tennessee and North Carolina some two hundred years ago. The Methodist Church was interesting, if for no other reason that it had one door through which the men entered and another door for the women and children to enter through.
And this trip proved to be more prophetic than I might have thought because the path that I took to get to Florida took me within 15 miles of Whitesburg and Neon, Kentucky, where I was living last year before coming here to New York. I didn’t realize that I had gone that way until I had time to look at the path because the road had been dramatically altered.
So the view that I had, both of Pound Gap in Virginia and Newfound Gap and Cades Cove in Tennessee, was an entirely different one from the one I remembered. How we view things depend on the time and the place where we are.
In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he was “introduced” to God. I am sure that Moses had seen burning bushes before, perhaps as a result of a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. But the burning bush that Moses saw that afternoon was a far cry from what he was prepared to see since it was not consumed by the flame.
God often presents himself in a way that challenges our view of the world. We live in a world that we can taste, touch, feel, see, or smell. But the problem with living in a world based solely on physical evidence is that we find ourselves relying only on the physical world to supply all of our needs. And when that happens, God becomes a God that we only read about or hear someone speaking about. When this happens, we push God to the edges of our lives, only to be called upon in our moments of weakness.
We must see God not as One who only comes to us at the edges of our lives but as One who is a central part of our live. God is more that simply a god of convenience. “I am who I am”, the way that God was to be called by the Israelites, is a name which means faithfulness and dependability. God indicated that He would always be there, not just as times of stress and turmoil. But this name also meant the Israelites give Him their full trust as well. To know God, we must see him in a different view.
When Jesus told his disciples of his impending death, Peter’s response that it would never happen showed that he was still thinking in terms of the world being the center of life, not in terms of a life with God at the center. But what good is a life in which God is not the center?
Jesus spoke to his disciples about this when he said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” A world in which we see God as the center is, admittedly, a difficult one for us to see. It requires that we give up our focus on secular things; it requires that change the path that we walk.
And that, I think, is part of what Paul was telling the Romans. Everything Paul said in the Epistle reading for today runs counter to what we ordinarily do.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Some people are not willing or ready to give up the secular world because it is too much of a challenge. But we do not have to give up the world; in fact, we cannot give up the world. But we can change the path that we walk. All we have to do is change the focus of life, to take God from the pages of the book and make Him a part, the center of our life.
At the climax of Job, Job exclaims “My ears have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job saw his life no longer through the eyes of the world around him but through the eyes of faith and spiritual understanding.
Will we continue to see the world based on that which is around us or will we see it from a view of God as our center? Do we want a live of anxiety or a life of peace and trust? Some day we might be walking along when we see the burning bush? Will we know what we see?