I am not sure what it was like where you grew up, but at South Columbia Elementary School, just before the bell would ring to end the school day, the game of choice was "Heads Down, Thumbs Up."
The teacher would choose seven people to stand at the front of the classroom, and she would say, "Heads down, thumbs up!" Everyone would place their heads down on their desks and then put their thumbs up to be picked. The seven people would wander around the room, trying not to bump into the desks, in order to select one student by pushing down his or her thumb. Then the teacher would say, "Heads up, seven up!" The newly selected students would then stand at their desks, and they would try to guess which person was guilty of choosing them.
They would stare at the chosen seven by the teacher and size them up. Who looked guilty? It was like looking into a crystal ball. Everyone tried to read people's faces and interpret their body language. If he looked you straight in the eye, did that mean he chose you? If she would not look at you at all, did that mean she picked you?
Everyone assumed it was someone they expected to choose them, for young kids have a way of choosing their best friends. It was like a code of friendship, and boys chose boys, while girls chose girls. No one wanted to be accused of innocent flirtation.
Then again, there were always surprises. It could always be someone you least expected, and since there was the element of surprise, many of the students found it easier to simply catch a glimpse of the person's shoes as he or she walked by your desk to push down your thumb, which eliminated the need to guess. All you had to do was refer to people's shoelaces to see who was guilty.
We all look down to catch a glimpse at people's shoes because we do not like to be surprised. We do not want to be caught off guard. We do not want to feel uncertain. We do not want to wait for what is coming around the corner. Although, no matter how much we resist, we have no way of foretelling the unexpected, predicting the unforeseen, or anticipating the interruptions that surprise us. No amount of insight or ingenuity can prepare us for the surprises in this life.
When Moses was walking through the fields of Midian toward Mount Horeb, shepherding his father-in-law's sheep, it was everyday work. He had laced up his old sandals that morning, worn by those walking on rugged terrain. They were his work boots. He had woken up that morning and taken inventory of the flock. It was ordinary work, so he never anticipated what would happen that particular day.
At first, he looks with curiosity at the burning bush, and then he hears his name called. Without thinking, he says, "Here I am!" Not knowing what to do next, he looks at the bush again, and the voice says, "Remove the sandals from your feet." Fully surprised, he took off the shoes of his work, and he realized that it was not going to be a regular day.
God then tells Moses to free God's people from bondage, so Moses is called to help the suffering of others. The surprise is no longer exciting, but also fearful. He reaches for every excuse that he can muster, but at the end of the day, it is not enough because God promises to go with him.
Moses learns that God is capable of surprise. Moses should have already known, but if he had forgotten, he was reminded quickly. God had never hidden the fact that the unexpected should be expected. For after six continuous days of routine work, God stops and rests. It was six days of predictable work, crafting the beauty of creation, but then, surprise!
Built into how we keep time is a weekly reminder that God is capable of surprise. We give ourselves to our projects and to our work, but every week there is a burning bush, which reminds us of the unexpected, as we stop and rest. It is six days of regular work and then an interruption.
We stop to remember that God is capable of surprise because the church is sustained by surprises. Not all surprises are good ones, we know that is true, which might be why we hesitate to embrace them, but the church is sustained by surprises.
The church is surprised by the interruption of worship, where we are met by the Spirit of God. The church is surprised by people's generosity, as individuals give their best for the benefit of others. The church is surprised by forgiveness, which can find us even when we harbor guilt. The church is surprised by God's faithfulness, as nothing can separate us from the love of God. The church is surprised by the young person who says, "I want to be baptized," walking in the ways of Christ. The church is surprised by the person who says, "I want us to reach out to the suffering of others."
We should not be surprised, but we are. God is capable of surprise, and the church is sustained by those unexpected gifts of grace. We do well to embrace the unexpected, to live with the knowledge that we do not know what will happen tomorrow, for we just may be surprised by the grace of God.
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