Not long ago I re-watched the Christopher Guest Indie comedy “Waiting for Guffman.” The film takes place in the tiny and fictional town of Blaine, Missouri on the occasion of Blaine’s one hundred fiftieth anniversary. As part of the anniversary celebration, the town’s community theatre troupe decides to present an original patriotic play entitled “Red, White, and Blaine.” Anyone who has ever participated in small town community theatre (and I might have played the part of Friedrich von Trapp in Paragould’s production of “The Sound of Music” once upon a time) recognizes how hilariously accurate “Waiting for Guffman” is. The characters—local travel agents; a dentist; an auto mechanic; and Corky St. Clair, the small-town director who supposedly once actually performed off, off, off Broadway—put everything they have into the show. And their expectations rise when Corky receives word that famous Broadway producer Mort Guffman plans to travel to Blaine to attend opening night.
It’s important to know that each of the community actors believes he or she is better than Blaine, Missouri. Each wants to escape Blaine and make it big in the world, and for much of the movie we hear vignettes from the characters about who they envision Mort Guffman to be and what his arrival will mean for them and their star-struck aspirations. Guffman will be their savior, on their side. The problem is, none of them (including Corky, really) has ever met Mort Guffman. In the absence of that experience, and with no reliable evidence on which to base their expectations, they choose to imagine the Guffman they want to meet and what he will do for them. As time goes on, their delusions of grandeur grow.
On opening night, with a chair in the front row reserved for the Broadway dignitary, the cast is bereft because Mort Guffman is late. His chair sits empty. Throughout the play, the actors are preoccupied staring at that chair, almost as if they can make the Guffman of their dreams materialize by sheer force of will. Finally, a man saunters down the center aisle and takes Guffman’s seat. Euphoria washes over the cast members, and when the show ends the presumptive Mr. Guffman is ushered backstage. But then it’s revealed that the stranger isn’t Guffman at all. He’s just a man in town visiting relatives, who wandered into the play. Hopes are dashed; the real Mort Guffman never appears.
The characters in Luke’s Gospel today similarly discuss with Jesus a God they’ve never actually experienced or met. And in the absence of actual encounter, they imagine a God who suits their needs and conforms to what they want God to be. They imagine a God who smites people who aren’t like them, a God who sometimes uses the brute force of government as his instrument and other times directly causes calamities such as collapsing buildings to punish some while sparing others. The people imagine God as they’d like God to be, but the problem is that they’ve never actually met God, and the irony is that they’re so convinced of the God of their imagination that they don’t recognize God in Jesus standing right in front of them.
There is danger here. We can be found both in the absurdly comic characters of “Waiting for Guffman” and in the crowd surrounding Jesus.
How often is our conception of God bound up in the worldly things we want God to do for us, in the heights to which we want God to take us, in the ways we want God to set us apart as exceptional among all his creatures?
How often does the image we conjure of God implicitly put God on our side, with the assumption that those others are the sinful, those others merit God’s disdain and maybe even punishment.
But God won’t be bound by our conceptions. When we quit staring so intently at the version of God to which we’ve long and subconsciously clung, we may find that the chair in which we think God sits is empty. We’ve never actually met the God who sets us above others and who sides with us against others. That God is not there, because that God is not God. When we encounter the real God, and not the God of our own making, the experience is wholly different. What is it like?
Today, Exodus tells us, Moses leads his flock “beyond the wilderness.” If the wilderness borders the edge of our expectations, then “beyond the wilderness” is outside anything we can imagine. And it is there, we’re told, that Moses quits staring squarely ahead and turns aside to see a flame erupt from a bush, but not an earthly flame, and the bush is not consumed. From the flame comes a voice that says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, Moses, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Then the voice of God—the true and real God—says, “I have heard the misery of my people, and I appear to you now because I will use you to free them. I will send you, and I will go with you.”
Moses realizes that everyone he meets will have his own notion of who God is, so Moses asks, “What name do I give them?” To which God responds, “Say that I AM…This is my name for all generations.”
In other words, God declares, once and for all, that God will not abide by the names we give him. God will not bow to our imaginings of what God should be and should do. God is I AM, bigger than and beyond all our categories. We don’t get to make God in our image. We don’t get to fashion a God who supports our views or follows our agendas. God will be what God will be, and ours is only to listen and respond.
And God’s message does not change through age upon age. God says through Jesus the Christ what he said to Moses millennia before, and God says the same to us this day: “I hear the misery of my people. I have come to free them, and you will be my instrument.”
As we walk through our lives, especially this Lent, do we ever travel beyond the wilderness? Are we willing to risk moving outside the realm of our expectations, where we might actually meet God? Will we quit staring so intently with blinders on for the God we want to see and imagine we already know, and instead turn aside—as Moses did—to perhaps catch a glimpse of the real God when that God discloses himself?
Of course, there is danger in that, too. Because once God has appeared, he refuses to be unseen. Once God has spoken, he will not be unheard. That is, I think, what Jesus is conveying in the latter half of the Gospel today. Once we have seen and heard the God of redemption—once that God has called us forth to his work of grace in the world—our course is set. We are become fig trees called to bear fruit. We are agents of grace. We are the ones to speak truth to Pharaoh. We are to deliver those in misery.
We are to cease imagining what God might do and be for us and instead imagine how we might live for God.
Even here, in this place, the ground is holy. God is in the candle flame and in the soaring music and in the Word spoken. God is surely in the bread and in the wine. We are beyond the wilderness here. Perhaps we should remove our shoes. Turn aside. Listen and look. I AM is here, and he is speaking to us. Amen.