*This is a sermon, preached in context, with a specific audience in mind. Sermons are intended to be heard, so some of the grammatical choices are not always ones I would make if this was intended to be read only.
*There are many concepts presented here that can and should be explored more in depth e.g., what embracing a person who disagrees with you looks like — that it requires both parties to be participants, includes aspects such as confession and naming of sin and oppression, and does not mean that all opinions and ideas are morally neutral and do not cause harm (see: Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace for solid work on this concept).
All my love to Freedom and the House of Manna community, to whom I will be forever grateful for their embrace of me. Thank you for your work in the world.
To hear this sermon preached, Click here.
You might ask why I am not standing up in the pulpit this morning, and instead down here with all of you. I could tell you very easily that pulpit preaching doesn’t suit this particular passage well. While that is truthful, the greater reasoning here is two-fold. 1. Despite it being so high up in front of the congregation, it makes a really great spot for those of us graced with the task of a sermon to hide behind a traditional kind of authority. If you know me even a little bit, you’ll know I have little attachment to tradition for tradition’s sake, and most importantly I have never felt very much like an authority on anything, much less God. 2. While I grew up with a pastor in the pulpit, I was trained by pastors and those gifted with preaching who often weren’t. Their ministries weren’t about being up on a stage and giving you the Sunday morning performance, but about the work of the people and being among them.
In particular, I was given the opportunity to study for a year under a man named Freedom, whose worship space was the streets of the community he lived and worked and served faithfully. The services the church held were in the parking lot and the backroom of a community center. When I was invited by the community to offer the Word, it was without a manuscript, among the tables and the folding chairs while we ate dinner together. Let me tell you how very different that was than my mainline background and traditional seminary education taught. But at the end of it all, Freedom taught me that preaching and liturgy isn’t about my comfort, it’s not even about me. It’s about humbling yourself at the feet of God to be a conduit. It does not grace you with any more holiness than working the cash register at the McDonald’s up the street. So today I offer this Word here, on the ground.
I was reading a book in seminary about homiletics, more commonly known as the art of preaching, and the advice the author gave was essentially that you shouldn’t divulge the point of the whole sermon before you preach it. He gave all kinds of reasons from holding the audience’s attention to ensuring people remember. I wasn’t much convinced by that particular gentleman’s reasoning, or his thoughts on what a sermon should be doing, so I’m going to offer you the big reveal now. So, if you really want, feel free to leave after this. (Kidding. Kidding of course).
God calls us to a ministry that is not about us. God calls us to a servanthood that is barefoot, stuttering, and messy among the people. God calls us beyond ourselves and our idea of who God is. God tells us if we are patting ourselves on the back for a job well-done then we have not done enough, and if we are so fearful that we can’t do it that this is when we should jump right in.
The passage we will read this morning is from the book of Exodus. The whole story of this person is one of a flawed leader of people who are persecuted. Throughout his journey our main character experiences incomparable privilege and learns humility. His is a story of unbelievable miracles and desperate struggle and wandering with no end in sight. It is a story that, spoiler alert, does not end well for him, and he does not get to pat himself on the back or see the fruits of his labor. Today, we will hear about his call. Listen now for the word of the lord.
Moses at the Burning Bush
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 he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He 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.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He 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 his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He 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,[b] 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. Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ They will listen to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; let us now go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians.”
Then Moses answered, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” 3 And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail”—so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand— “so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the Lord said to him, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous,[a] as white as snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back into your cloak”—so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body— “If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”
This is the word of the Lord.
So Moses has, up until right before this point, grown up in the lap of luxury in the Pharaoh’s palace. He acts out of anger and kills a slave driver, and then when things got scary he fled to the desert to be a shepherd thinking he’s escaped and able to ignore his past and also the plight of the people he’s come from. But wait. Boom. Right when he gets comfortable and settled — this…bush… on literal fire confronts him. A talking burning bush, no less, who gives its lineage and demands Moses take off his sandals and get grounded in a space that God has called holy.
“I am” it says. It tells him that he is destined to be a great leader, that he is going to travel across the desert to bring his oppressed and enslaved people to the land of milk and honey, and that God will stop the Egyptians in their tracks. This burning bush is completely whacked. There is nothing normal about this by any means and while the text says “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” I am gonna just guess his reaction was probably a bit more visceral than that.
I don’t know about you but I have never experienced a burning bush in my life. I have never had an experience of wind or inanimate object speaking to me or even experienced a still small voice like Elijah. I have always questioned and been unsure of where I’m supposed to be and if what I’m doing is the right thing. Someone put a name on it for me once when I told them I constantly feel like I don’t belong. Imposter syndrome, she called it, or “fake it until you make it”. It turns out this is a real thing, where one experiences chronic anxiety about their abilities and their strengths. Some of this has been cultural conditioning rooted deeply in our society but sometimes this is also healthy doubt gone awry.
Moses immediately jumps onto this imposter syndrome train. He is sure he is not called to this task. Certain that he is in no way equipped. He makes excuses
“They won’t believe me”
“I will help you perform miracles” says God.
“I stutter, God, I cannot speak eloquently”
“I am the one who gives speech and sight. I will give you words” says God.
“Please God, please send someone else”
I hope you caught all that.
Moses doubles down, triples down. He stands at the feet of God and says, “I know better and I am not ready.”
There is a cliche phrase that goes around in Christianity any time we talk about call. “God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called”. And, while that just sounds so lovely and succinct and easy, I think we need to push back on that a bit.
Thomas Merton says “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our life, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”
It’s not just about God knows best. It’s not about if we are equipped with the right strengths and abilities, it’s not that God is going to provide us with mystical superpowers to convince the world about us. It’s that there is something at the core of us beyond our own ability to access that names us already as able. God was calling to that in Moses.
God calls to that in us. God is in, with, through, and beyond us. And God is in, with, through and among others too.
Because it’s not just when we think we are unable. It’s when we think we are too able, when we are so certain. Do you know the rest of Moses’ story?
At this point, the Israelites have been whining and nagging at Moses for 40 years. There’s no water for them or for the animals. They have been wandering and have not yet found this haven they were promised and are starting to doubt him and his brother Aaron. Moses is not only frustrated, but one could assert that he himself is doubting God and starting to only trust himself.
Numbers 20: 8-13
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah,[a] where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.
Moses does not do what God asks. There are many reasons that could be why. Maybe he’s not sure that he can speak this command, maybe it’s that he trusts himself and his staff more than God. Maybe. We can take a lot of guesses at this, but we don’t get his thoughts, only his actions. And he doesn’t do what God asks. And it doesn’t end well. Moses dies in the desert.
This isn’t to say that our disobedience is going to mean God’s punishment. The death and resurrection of Christ is the hope and the promise of Grace when, not if, we screw up. But sometimes, we don’t get to see the fruits of our labor. We don’t get to know if everything turns out okay. Sometimes. It just doesn’t turn out okay.
When I think of the story of Moses I am reminded of that pastor who taught me about ministering with, not to, people. Eugene “Freedom” Blackwell would be the first to tell you that nothing, not his journey from the streets of Chicago and the temptations of power, to being called to and doing ministry was about his own abilities or strengths or empowerment. He put everything on God.
When I was working and learning with Freedom and House of Manna they were preparing to move into a building across the street. The building was the shell of a Family Dollar that had never been, now just an empty practically new building. Another symbol of broken promises to the community of Homewood. Well, Freedom knew that God was giving the community that building. It had been repossessed by the bank, and he was going to get it donated. And he gathered folks invested in this community vision and they walked into a meeting with that bank and walked out with a donated building. Every time I was certain of something during that year I studied under him he would encourage me to think about it differently. He got me to show up at a branch campus of an evangelical mega church for several weeks and participate in their ministry, he taught me about crossing every boundary and wall that there was. He, a black man, and the black community that he ministered with that is affected by the systemic racism, that white supremacy and every action I do not take against perpetuates, welcomed in a relatively privileged white girl to do ministry with them. They didn’t just welcome ME in. They had many mostly white congregations every week coming in with food and prayer and community and they were welcomed. Let’s be clear that they were not just invited to sling hotdogs or serve Pizza but intentionally welcomed to be a part of this thing growing in the back room and parking lot of a community center. They are still actively doing this work, and have a great Facebook page where they post their services if you need an extra jolt of worship I highly recommend it.
Not long after I left as a ministry intern there, Freedom was diagnosed with cancer in his leg. It was amazing though, he beat it and did not have to have an amputation as is common with this type. I saw him not too long after he had been signed off as cancer free. He was a big man. Tall and imposing but so gentle, even in the way he moved. At this point, he had lost a ton of weight, his dreads were gone, and he was cruising around on crutches. But he was still moving “by the grace of God” They were moving into their building. It wasn’t finished yet, but when I talked to Freedom about it he reminded me then about “God’s work in His time.”
Cancer returned, and it took his leg, and a year ago this month, him too. He was 43, a husband, a father of young children, a leader in the community. He will not, on earth, see the ending fruits of his labor. I do not know why. I do not have words of comfort for you about why bad things happen. I don’t know why people get cancer. I don’t know how to solve the pain of this world. I don’t know why children are abused. I can’t solve homelessness and addiction and I can not promise you that these things will heal or that it will feel better with time, or that God will keep us safe from a world that is sinful. I don’t know. We can’t know. I am not saying that this is an easy place to be. To have doubt is uncomfortable to us. We want to be secure, be ready, have the rations prepared. But most often, we aren’t.
James 4: 10 tells us: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord, and you will be lifted up.”
When Moses finally got it together and went to get his people out of the land of Egypt, he practiced the humility of coming before God. He accessed that point of purity that was beyond him and what he understood of his own capabilities and went. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t always look like this. It isn’t always about being the leader of the pack. Jesus, our ultimate example of servant leadership bent down and washed the feet of his disciples.
Sometimes this might look like centering the voices of other people and taking a step back. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might look like taking on a new task you are not confident about doing. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might look like confessing your sins of racism or transphobia and acknowledging your privilege. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might look like embracing someone with which you disagree. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might mean listening instead of talking. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might mean not taking the extra hours at work and practicing self-care by reading, or watching a movie, or spending time with your family. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might mean sitting with a friend who is hurting, or who is sick and not offering them a stitch advice. Humble thyself.
Sometimes, as a church community, it means not doing the easy thing, or the fun thing or the thing that feels best, or the thing that we’ve always done and instead examining our impact on the community and world. Humble thyself.
Sometimes this might mean standing in the protest and protecting those at risk, even if the cause scales back some of your own privilege. Humble thyself.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish activist and scholar involved deeply in the Civil Rights Movement said: “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”
We are called to humility on holy ground. And, I’ll give you a hint, holy ground is not just the floor of this sanctuary or within the walls of this building. It is not just the other “thin places” where we think we feel God most — churches, camps, conferences, prayer. And those thin places, they are not universal. Not every person experiences God most here, or within the walls of a church, or singing vespers over a campfire. The reality is that Holy ground is on the sidewalk out there and on the slide at the park next door, and in the community you feel uncomfortable by yourself in at night, and standing next to the person you disagree with. When we think we know better. When we do things not because God calls us to them but because they are easy. Because it sounds good, because it FEELS good…that is selfishness. That is sin.
Each of us and every person, even the ones we think the worst about, have that purest point of God within them beyond our understanding that Thomas Merton talked about. We don’t just have a call, but a duty to lift that up. It goes beyond tolerance. It is the example given to me by House of Manna, who welcomed in each person whether they had a million dollar mansion or planned to sleep on the bench at the bus stop that night. It is the example of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, it is Moses following his call, it is Jonah warning the citizens of Ninevah who had persecuted him, it is us when we do the thing that is very hardest. It is Jesus not just speaking to the Samaritan woman but expressing kindness and dismantling the barriers of society that keep her out. It is not just standing next to the person you disagree with or even shaking their hand, but embracing them.
Miroslav Volf puts it like this: “I don’t think we need to agree with anyone in order to love the person. The command for Christians to love the other person, to be benevolent and beneficent toward them, is independent of what the other believes.”
God calls us to tough stuff. To ministry that is barefoot, stuttering, and messy. To ministry that doesn’t just invite, but welcomes. To ministry that calls out injustice and questions authority. I usually remind myself that when it feels easy, something isn’t right. If you aren’t squirming in your pew yet, I ask you to think about what makes you squirm, what conversation do you want to avoid, are you, am I, are we as the community of Waverly Presbyterian Church humbling ourselves before God? I don’t know about you, but I have some shoes to take off and a lot of work to do.