[This message was given for the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY, August 30, 2020. The lead text is Exodus 3:1-15. A video can be found on their FaceBook page.]
Here! When I was in college, a long time ago, some professors took attendance by reading the names of the students. When your name was read, you would say, here. Some professors never looked up, they just read the names and checked as present those that said, here. A few of us in one class noted this and designed a plan to be marked as present while skipping class. It was in southern California, so the weather was usually boringly pleasant. Before the professor arrived, we made sure the windows on the side wall were opened. When class was starting, we were outside the classroom next to the windows, ducking so as not to be seen. When my name was read, I said, here, and took off with a few friends, probably for a serious study session at the beach nearby.
Here! That makes me feel somewhat akin to Moses. Not every day does one walk casually by a bush that is burning but not being consumed by the fire. That catches Moses’ sight. He stops and takes a closer look. God has caught his attention and addresses him by name. Not every day does one see a burning bush that isn’t being consumed, and from which one hears one’s name called twice. “Moses, Moses!” A few days ago I read that Anthony Martignetti died. If you are of my generation, you will likely remember a TV commercial for Prince spaghetti. It was filmed in Little Italy in North Boston, where Anthony, then 12, lived. An Italian mama opens her window and yells, “Anthony! Anthony!” Anthony leaves his afterschool game and runs home. Then a voiceover explains: “Wednesday is Prince spaghetti day.”
“Moses, Moses!” Moses answers, “Here I am.” In the original language, it is a one-word response: here! Present. Here I am. Right response. God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This is the first time in the Bible the word holy is found and it is not used of God or of Moses, but of some little ordinary plot of earth. Earth is holy. Psalm 24 begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it….”
This makes me think of a favorite little poem by Emily Dickinson:
Earth is crammed with heaven, // And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees // Takes off his shoes – // The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
This would be a good time for us to take off our sandals, or shoes and socks or flip flops or slippers. We too are on holy ground as we worship the living God and hear his word. God is present with us; we are on holy ground. When we learn this from Moses and God in Exodus 3, perhaps we will start seeing all ground as holy because God is the creator of all the earth and the entire cosmos.
It all starts at stop. God initiates and Moses stops. God gets Moses’ attention. All relationships with God start with God initiating and our stopping. God sets a bush ablaze and Moses stops. God is always the initiator. We are always the responders. God initiates; Moses responds. Bushes are still ablaze in our world. God is still getting our attention and speaking our names. The Black Lives Matter movement has a powerful phrase: say their names. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake. Names are important. Black Lives Matter and blue lives matter. Six years ago, a Rochester police officer was killed in the line of duty. His name: Daryl Pierson Names matter. “Moses, Moses!” Bushes are still ablaze. God is still speaking. God knows our names. If we stop, we may hear God calling us by name. God has called me by name, but the voice has never been audible. But I know others that have heard God call them in audible ways.
The conversation that ensues is fascinating.
- God speaks first. “I am the God of your ancestors. I have seen the suffering of my people. I have heard their groanings. I know their sufferings. I have come to deliver them. I’m going to do it, Moses. Now, you go tell Pharaoh.” Now STOP has changed to GO.’; from red light to green light.
- Moses responds, perhaps while his bare feet are shaking: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” “Here I am” has become “who am I.”
- God speaks again: “I will be with you…”
- Moses responds again: That will be great, but, “What if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
- God speaks again: “God says, ‘I am whoI am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
In the next chapter in Exodus, we find Moses voicing yet one more objection and offering a plan B. In Exodus 4:10, Moses says that he is not eloquent, but slow of speech. God answers, I know, and says, Go. Then Moses counters with his plan, “Lord, please send someone else.”
The Bible tells of many reluctant prophets. We think of Jonah, but he is not alone. Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t always thrilled about God’s directions for them. Neither was Amos. Neither, at one point, was Jesus. When we are hesitant about heeding God’s direction for us, we are not alone; we are in good company.
Moses would go to Pharaoh and God would deliver his people out of bondage. And Moses would never forget a burning bush, a voice calling his name, and a strange name for God. My biblical Hebrew is rusty, but my friend Richard Middleton’s biblical Hebrew is current. He shared some insights with me about this ineffable name for the mysterious one. The most common translation is ‘I am who I am.’ We can’t go wrong with that. Jesus uses that divine I AM of himself repeatedly, especially in the Gospel of John. Jesus says on John 8:58, “I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” But there is another equally valid translation: “I will be who I will be.” That fits well in Exodus 3, where God tells Moses that God will deliver Israel and Moses gets to share this good news with the powerful Pharaoh. Moses, tell Pharaoh “I will be who I will be” sent you and watch will Yahweh will do.
Either way, we don’t define God. God reveals God. We respond. In my Presbyterian tradition, we have a brief, classic definition of God: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism) That’s good, but it’s also audacious of us. We don’t define God, this Yahweh, this “I am who I am,” this “I will be who I will be.” God is the glorious mystery, the mysterious glory, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. My wife has a favorite quote that goes something like this: “Theology isn’t a way of explaining everything, but is an ultimate grounding in hope.” I like that.
Moses engages in honest conversation with Yahweh. God can handle honest conversation. I don’t have trouble with Peter pulling Jesus aside and saying, “It shouldn’t go this way, Jesus. We don’t want this to happen to you.” That is honesty. I agree with Peter, but then Peter and I aren’t God. I AM is God. Yahweh is God. We are relieved of the burden of trying to be God.
I find that a lot of my praying is telling God what to do. Is that true for you too? God, heal this one. Lord, get that one a job. God, help my candidate to win. That is not altogether bad, but it can be. If we only tell God what we want and when we want it, it doesn’t say much about who we believe God to be. It isn’t a very healthy relationship. As if God were dependent on us to remind him what needs to be done. That is a kind of prayer, but it is not the purest form, the deepest kind of praying. When Jesus faces the impending suffering and death that he had told his disciples about, he shows his full humanity. First he asks for a plan B, but then he leaves it to God. I like the way “The Message” renders that prayer: “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?”
“Earth is crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God….” The next time we see a burning bush or hear some mysterious voice calling us by name, whether audibly or not, here is how we might respond: “Here. Here I am. Right here on holy ground.” Then we might just get a new glimpse of the mysterious glory of Yahweh, the I AM, the I will be.” And God might just say something like, “I’ve come to deliver people in bondage. Now, you go and work with me.”