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"Live the Verbs" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on August 30, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Live the Verbs

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” God said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”

God said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’. This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Romans 12:9-18

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Live the Verbs

It is hard to read this morning's passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans and not notice all of the verbs. I'm not a grammar expert, but the people who are tell me that this passage contains upwards of 25 separate imperatives.

  • Let love be genuine
  • 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
  • Rejoice
  • Be patient
  • Persevere
  • Contribute
  • Extend hospitality


And that’s just the first five verses. It’s a regular laundry list of moral imperatives. Prior to this morning’s passage, Paul spent the first 11 chapters of his letter to the Roman church convincing them that God’s grace extends to all people (not just the Jews but the Gentiles as well). Chapter 12 then, is a turning point in the letter. Having made his case for the wideness of God’s love and grace, Paul now turns to the implications of this truth for the lives of believers. Chapter 12 is Paul’s “therefore”—God loves each and every one you, therefore …

And Paul begins to innumerate what the Christian life should look like. And it is not a short list. And, fortunately (or unfortunately) for us, Paul’s description is timeless—it is as applicable today as it was for the early Roman church. And equally, if not more, difficult.

In many ways, those of us in the church today are in a more challenging position to live into Paul’s vision than the church in Rome was. The early Christian communities knew from the beginning that they were called to be alternative societies. Joining a church was more akin to joining a protest movement than it was to joining a country club. The Greek word for church is ecclesia, which means to be called out or set apart and the word for testimony is martyr. Roman Christians in Paul's time knew that to associate with the church was to set themselves apart from society, to consciously choose to be different, and in doing so, there was a risk of martyrdom. And no one risks martyrdom simply to uphold the status quo. And so, even before Paul’s letter arrives with its laundry list of moral imperatives, early Roman Christians had already made the unpopular and risky decision to associate with this new, revolutionary church. Yet despite the 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 as a body, but the individuals who made up the church. Called to love, to serve, to give, and 22 other verbs that Paul crams into a mere 9 verses.

Yet Paul does not hold the monopoly on verbs this morning. In the passage from Exodus, verbs also play a crucial, if less obvious role. Last week we heard the story of Moses being saved by the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, his mother and sister, and eventually by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Since that passage, Moses has grown up. And, he has become a fugitive, on the run from Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian guard who was beating a Hebrew slave. Yet, despite protecting a fellow Hebrew, Moses is also an outcast among the Hebrew community—having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, he is seen as one of the oppressors. Cast out from both the Egyptians and the Hebrews, Moses has run away and has ended up in Midian. Midian, which was approximately a hundred miles east of nowhere. And what was Moses doing in Midian? A whole lot of nothing. How do we know? The verb. The very first verb of the passage tells us that Moses was keeping a flock. And it wasn’t even his flock. He was keeping it for his father-in-law. As preaching professor Anna Carter Florence points out, there’s nothing flashy about keeping. It’s a maintenance verb.

And it’s a verb many of us are familiar with. If you look past the specific historical context, we, too, know what it is to be in Midian maintaining things. Keeping appointments, keeping up with friends, keeping an eye on the kids, keeping abreast of what is happening in the world, keeping the budget, keeping the peace at the dinner table, keeping an eye on the news, keeping ahead of the ever-growing pile of laundry. We know what it is to keep these things because these are the things you do when you are a responsible adult. You keep things. You keep them going. That’s what life requires.

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 suddenly Moses is leading. And he leads the flock beyond the wilderness, which is an odd place to go. Some translations say, he took them to the edge of the desert, to the far side of the wilderness, but I like the NRSV translation that we heard this morning, “beyond the wilderness.” It’s pushing the limits of wild. As Anna Carter Florence puts it, “whatever wilderness means to you, this place is one step beyond that.” And that is when Moses first encounters 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 comes face to face (so to speak) with 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 that bush burning before someone came along and noticed that it was not being consumed? How much longer did it take for someone to not only notice, but to stop and become curious enough to ask “why”, “why is it that this bush is not being consumed?”

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.

The verbs are important. They’re what help us get out of Midian and encounter God. They’re what allow us to move from maintaining and keeping the status quo to searching for something more. They’re how we live out our calling to be a community set apart.

In the midst of a pandemic, when the news is blowing up around us, the temptation is often to find a way back to normal, to figure out the fastest way back to the way things were before. Because surely before was better than this. But living a life of faith isn’t about going back to what was, it isn’t about maintaining the status quo. It’s about looking, turning aside, and asking why: why are so many black people being killed by police in this country? Why are so many people of color insisting that we look, that we stop, that we ask why? Why are we imprisoning people at the border who are seeking asylum—freedom from lives over poverty and violence? Why are our prisons so full and our schools so underfunded? Why do some people have so much and others almost nothing?

When this pandemic started, there was quite a bit of talk about apocalypse. Not apocalypse as Hollywood depicts them, but apocalypse as the Bible defines it: an uncovering, a revealing of what is true. In the Bible, apocalypses are vehicles of hope and transformation, they are opportunities to relearn how to live, and move, and have our being; they are opportunities to relearn what it is to live as God’s people in this world. But that doesn’t make them easy or enjoyable. But a life of faith, membership in Christ’s church isn’t about being comfortable, living the good life, or upholding the status quo. Being a part of Christ’s body means associating with the lowly, weeping with those who weep, loving one another, and extending hospitality to the stranger. It requires that we stop keeping things they way they are and start looking, turning aside, and asking why. And then, as if that weren’t enough, it requires us to work until all God’s people are free and valued. Amen.

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