A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.
Exodus 3: 1-15
Romans 12: 9-21
Yesterday I spent most of the day at the National Book Festival. It was my idea of heaven—being in the same place with a whole bunch of people who share my love of reading! You really can’t beat it.
The best part of the day was meeting Kate DiCamillo, the author of Because of Winn-Dixie. Show of hands, has anyone read it? It tells the story of India Opal Buloni, a preacher’s kid who has just moved to Naomi, Florida, because her father has gotten a call to a new church. When the book opens, Opal is so very lonely. That is, until she adopts a dog—Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie opens her life to new relationships and teaches her about growing up. The story is completely beautiful, one I’ve returned to time and time again, even though I’m well past nine years old, the recommended reading age.
Surely I’m not alone here—don’t we all return to the stories that we see ourselves in? Maybe if not a book, a movie. Or music. A relationship in which you feel the most like yourself. I could feel Opal’s loneliness when I picked Because of Winn-Dixie up to read right after my dad’s new call meant a big move at a not so convenient time in my life. We return to the stories that teach us something new every time we read them. In that moment when I was seventeen, Opal and Winn-Dixie taught me that happiness and sadness go together in life, and those experiences open you up to the particular feeling of melancholy, and make the joys in life that much sweeter.
In a way, this story that we read today of Moses and the burning bush feels similar to Because of Winn-Dixie. Not so much in terms of content, but in familiarity. It’s a story we’ve been told time and time again. It’s included in children’s picture books and story bibles, one of the greatest hits of the Old Testament. I’m pretty sure there’s even a Veggie Tales episode about it, though I could be wrong about that one. And really, what’s not to love? It’s the call of Moses! The beginning of a huge arc in our narrative of faith.
In this story of Moses and the bush, God shows up in a big way. A big, firey, you best stop and pay attention to me kind of way. And Moses does. He stops. He pays attention. He’s afraid of the task that God asks of him, but he stops and he pays attention and he listens. He asks the question that I’m sure any of use would have. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
I can imagine that there were many more questions in Moses’ mind. Maybe something like, “Who am I to do this? I’m just Moses. Just a shepherd. I am a nobody. I long to be nobody. God, don’t you know the things that I have done? Don’t you know that I am not worthy of your call? God, I promise, I am not who you want.”
I love God’s response. God doesn’t say, “You are the one for this job because you are the most righteous of all men. You are perfect, Moses! You are my absolute favorite. You are the strongest, smartest, most intimidating person I could think of. That is why you are the man for the job!” Nope. That’s not what God says. In fact, God doesn’t really give Moses a reason. Instead, God’s response is this: “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.”
This thing that Moses has been called to do isn’t about Moses at all. It’s about this powerful God who sees these people created in God’s very own image hurting, oppressed, and bearing the weight of a mighty injustice.
I wonder how many times God had tried to get Moses’ attention. It seems like a burning bush is a pretty big first attempt. How many times had Moses chosen to look the other way when faced with an injustice such as the Israelites living in slavery? How many times had God tried to get his attention? “Moses,” God might’ve whispered, “Moses, do you see what’s happening? Moses, this isn’t okay… Moses, I didn’t create my people for them to hurt like this.” I sometimes wonder if God maybe got a little irritated with Moses. Shouldn’t Moses have known that this deep injustice wasn’t okay? Without God having to appear as a burning bush?
In Bridges to Worship, I often ask the children a few open ended questions so that they learn to find themselves in the stories of our faith. I ask them, “Who is in this story and what happens to them?,” and, “How is this story different from the time and place in which we live?,” and “Why do you think this story is important?,” “When would be a good time to remember this story?,” and we finish with, “Where do you see yourself in this story?”
While I was preparing for this sermon, I decided to ask myself the same questions. I admit that while I was reading this story and letting the words wash over me, I could feel a sense of familiarity sneaking in. Our final hymn, Here I Am, Lord, is meant to go with this story of Moses’ call, and the verses come from God’s point of view: “I have heard my people cry… All who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save… I have borne my people’s pain… I have wept for love of them… I will give my life to them… Whom shall I send?”
“Whom shall I send?,” God asks. Moses answered this call. He trusted that God would be with him on the journey and I’d say that the willingness to let go of your own reservations and trust in something bigger than yourself is half the battle. This image of Moses answering God’s call has stuck with me for so long, in part because I’ve always loved that Moses is an unlikely hero—it’s relatable. Were I to ask the children where they see themselves in this story, it would be completely understandable for them to see themselves as Moses. God is asking that Moses do a very big thing. God wants Moses to go and ask Pharaoh for something we all know that Pharaoh won’t want to do, and with that comes the requirement that Moses no longer overlook the injustices that people are facing. It’s so much easier to turn away and not pay attention when people are hurting, especially if we don’t experience what hurts them in the same way.
I think it’s fascinating that in the scripture, we’re told that Moses is standing on holy ground. It is a sacred space that should be treated as such, for it is a place where God showed up in a big way so that Moses would notice, pay attention, and react. Where do you see the sacred spaces in your life? My answer has always been Montreat in North Carolina—going to youth conferences there for my entire life has made that little valley a place where I feel God like no other place, but it is always a place where I am challenged, pushed, and forced to pay attention to things that I’m sure God has been trying to bring to my attention for much longer than that one week of the year. Maybe your sacred space is the running trail, or within a relationship that challenges you (in a good and healthy way).
I wonder if you’ve ever had a sacred space that feels a little quirky, like it’s not supposed to be a sacred space, but it’s a place where you’ve noticed God. In thinking about the question I ask the children, “How is this story different from the time and place where we live?,” I found myself also thinking about how the story is similar to the time and place where we live.
“I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them…,” God says to Moses. God says to us. It was only three weekends ago that a mass of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, so that they could “unite the right,” or at least the white right. It was only three weekends ago that we watched as a man drove his car into a crowd, killing a young woman, because he was so very convinced that he was better than the people who were there doing a counter protest. He was so very convinced that his life was better, that the fact that the people there counter-protesting were also children of God, children created in the image of the same God who created him, that he killed someone.
Stick with me here, but I think that we might one day consider Charlottesville to be a sacred space. Not because what happened there was sacred—please do not hear me say that. But rather because it was a place that God showed up. The reactions to Charlottesville were incredible—our country was angry because we know that we are better than that. We are better because of our diversity. We are better because we claim to know that we are stronger together as a community, regardless of the color of our skin. But what happened in Charlottesville made us pay attention to what we have been hearing from communities of color for so very long. The rally in Charlottesville never should of happened. And perhaps if we had been listening to the cries of God’s oppressed children before now, it wouldn’t have happened. But I truly believe that God used that horrible day to get our attention—God was there in the clergy that stood between the counter protestors and those who were there as a part of the rally. God was there in the people who tried to make sure that folks were staying safe. God was shouting to us that day, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them… Whom shall I send to set my people free?” Whom shall I send? When I think of the burning bush these days, I see the image that many of you may have seen of the clergy holding hands and standing vigil. Standing between hatred and love. Standing in the midst of fear and pain. In preparation for this sermon, when I answered those questions that I ask our children, I realized that I think that image is our burning bush these days.
Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that we are to live in harmony with one another, hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. If our burning bush was Charlottesville, the flooding this week in Houston has reminded me of what we can be when we are following these teachings. In the midst of Charlottesville and its aftermath, I was afraid that we were being overcome by evil, but watching the reactions to the disaster of Houston has helped me see that perhaps we are more than what we are at our worst.
Friends, my prayer for us all is that we may be paying enough attention to what God is trying to say to us that we answer the call before God has to get our attention with a burning bush. May these words from Paul be true for us all: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” May it be so for all of us. Amen.