September 3, 2017 – The United Churches of Olympia
Exodus 3: 1-15
This Sunday we find ourselves back with Moses. Only just last Sunday we watched amazed as the Pharaoh’s daughter plucked the three month old out of the Nile in a little reed basket. You might be a little curious about what happened to Moses from the time that he was an infant until the passage for today, wherein we find God asking him to do something that seems scary and impossible.
Moses grew up in the royal court but he knew that he was adopted. He knew that he was a Hebrew. When he was a grown man he wanted to know more about the origins of his birth. This could be like many of us who are adopted, curious about our biological families. So he went to see what his people of origin were doing. Moses saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. When no one was looking, he killed the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand. The next day he came upon two Hebrew men fighting one another. He could not understand this and tried to intervene with the man that started the fight. That never goes well, does it? That man challenged Moses, asking him who made him boss, and asked if Moses was going to kill him like he did the Egyptian. Eventually the Pharaoh found out that Moses had murdered then he was on the run for his life.
On his travels, while sitting by a well he met the daughters of a Midianite priest who were coming to draw water. He provided protection for the women and eventually married on of them: Zipporah. She gave birth to a son that Moses named Gershom. The Hebrew word for stranger is Ger. Moses must have felt like a stranger in a strange land.
Then, Moses was a shepherd for a very long time, time enough for the Pharaoh to die and for a new pharaoh to come to power, but God’s people were still suffering. God remembered God’s covenant with God’s people and that brings us to this very special call to Moses to rescue God’s people and lead them to a broad and beautiful land.
This is a pretty dramatic ask. We all want to live meaningful lives and we all want to do what we are supposed to be doing right? Think of all of the times you have been asked what you are doing with your life: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What are you going to major in when you go to college?” “What career path are you following?” And if you quit a lucrative career, or go to college again to pursue something different, people get very concerned looks on their faces, and express worry. “Are you sure this is the best decision? Will you be able to support your family?” “Are you doing the right thing?” Wouldn’t it be great if you had such a dramatic experience as Moses did, at that crucial point in your own decision making, so that you yourself would be absolutely clear? I know that when I am trying to find the best way forward, or when I am trying to choose the right bend at the fork in the road, a burning bush that actually spoke out instructions would be quite welcome!
Moses is wandering about with the sheep when he comes upon this amazing phenomena: a bush that is on fire, but does not burn up. And then a voice calls to him from the bush. The first thing that happens is that he is told to remove his shoes. This only happens twice in the Bible: here and in Joshua 5:15 where the space is declared to be holy and shoes are to be removed. The direction to Moses to remove his shoes would be well known to him for, having been brought up in Egypt, he would have known that the Egyptian priests observed this custom in their temples. Today it is observed in all Eastern countries where the people take off their shoes or sandals before entering mosques and synagogues as a confession of unworthiness to stand in the presence of holiness.
Neither of our denominations have the concept of holy space per se. We don’t have an alter, or a tabernacle, and we don’t believe the presence of God to be located in a specific place. Being good Congregationalists and Presbyterians, we don’t have that sense of awe for our sanctuary. How would we know if we were actually standing on holy ground? How do we experience the voice of God in our lives? When might we be so moved by the presence of the holy that we would want to take off our shoes?
As he stands there barefoot, God lays out for Moses the plight of God’s people and then tells Moses that he is sending him to bring out the Israelites from Egypt. I can just imagine Moses standing there, completely taken aback. His immediate response (which inspired the title of the sermon) was “Who Am I?” You can almost imagine him with his head swiveling about, eyes darting around for the real recipient of this request. Seeing no one else, he says “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt?” Despite Moses’ dual citizenship, this does sound like a pretty frightening mission. God’s response is that Moses won’t have to go it alone. God will be with him. So Moses asks for God’s name. After all, there were a number of different people groups during this time and they all had different God’s with different names, and Moses wanted to get the right name, perhaps like a code word, so that the Israelites would know that the rescue mission was legit.
God gives the name “I am who I am” tell them “I AM” has sent you. I find it very interesting that Moses’ response to God was about identity: “Who Am I?” and God’s response to Moses was also about identity “I AM.” I think in many ways we all at times have identity issues. Sometimes they come as part of the normal developmental stages of our lives. Sometimes we try to figure out who we are in a new relationship, or as part of a new group or in a new employment situation. Sometimes when we move or go to college or lose a loved one or go through a divorce we try to “reinvent” ourselves. Identity is often an issue for people who are adopted, or who are born in one culture and raised in another. Identity can be an issue if we don’t fit the social norms. And, Identity is an issue when we are called upon to do something that we think that we are not equipped to do. Sometimes, God calls upon us, because God can see things in us that we cannot yet see in ourselves. God’s identity “I am who I am” (Yahweh) is the promise of presence, the promise of movement, the ground of our being, the strength in our vulnerable, unformed places. God’s name is simply the verb to be: I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be…and I will be with you.
This past week I heard so many stories on the news of people who watched the horror unfold in Texas and felt called to do something. One man was sitting in his living room watching the news and felt a call to load up his boat and go and help. He said that he had never done anything like this in his life, nor had he wanted to. He just knew all of the sudden that this is what he had to do. He called his boss who said he could have the time off of work and he got his boat trailer hooked up and he went and started helping. Many news outlets covered Houston native Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack.” He turned his two furniture stores into temporary shelters for Tropical Storm Harvey evacuees. As the city started to flood, he posted a video online with a simple message: Come on over. He gave out his personal phone number. And hundreds of people streamed in. I watched that news segment in amazement, thinking how tempted a business owner would be not to get his showroom samples muddy. During the interview he said a line that made clear his sense of identity, something that he teaches his children: “Service above self.”
Many of you know people personally who have jumped in to help, and who have donated funds. People who felt a tug or a call upon their lives to do something difficult and uncomfortable. People who have followed the call.
Moses was confused about his identity. Was he a Hebrew? Was he Egyptian? Who were his people? He may have seen himself as the murderer that he was. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine God speaking to him under any circumstances, and yet there he was, standing on holy ground, filled with a sense of awe and terror as God spoke to him from a burning bush.
As I said earlier, God sees gifts, skills, resilience and hope in each one of us that we perhaps cannot yet see in ourselves. That is our true identity, how God sees us. That is the answer when we are tempted to utter the response “who am I?” You have what is needed inside of you to begin to answer the call of God, and God, who answers to the verb “to be” will be with you every step of the way as you grow into your call, wherever that road takes you.