Holy and Humble Curiosity

Sunday, August 30, 2020
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 17)

Focus Theme:
Holy and Humble Curiosity

Focus Prayer:
In the flaming bush you promised deliverance to your people, O God, and in the cross of Jesus you embraced our suffering and pain. In times of misery, show us the transforming power of your love that we may know the hope of your glory. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Exodus 3:1-15

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.” 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, 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 for ever, and this my title for all generations.

All readings for the week:
Exodus 3:1-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c or
Jeremiah 15:15-21 with Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Focus Questions:

1. How do you respond to the suggestion that “God is hidden within the suffering”?

2. What is the “larger purpose” of your life?

3. Why do you think God wanted Moses to take off his shoes?

4. What sort of “wilderness” do you live in today?

5. Have you ever felt “soaked in grace”?

by Kathryn Matthews

Things were not good for the people of God, back in Egypt. Moses had escaped after killing one of their taskmasters, but his people were still trapped in slavery: brought low, pressed down, suffering. From down below, they cried out to God, and, we read, “their cry for help rose up to God” (2:23). Perhaps they wondered if there was anyone there, listening to their cry.

However, J. Gerald Janzen writes that a biblical faith tells the story with the conviction that “Every cry, with the individual throb of suffering it expresses, is falling, cry for cry, not on deaf ears, but on the heart of God. If God is hidden, God is hidden within the suffering.”

(There’s something that could be examined more closely in our own lives: the idea that “God is hidden within the suffering.”)

God remembered those ancient promises

And so God heard the cry of the people, and God remembered having made certain promises to them. Something had to be done. We know, from the earlier story about a baby drawn up from the waters, that a plan had, in a sense, already been put in place, even before “God remembered” or “took notice” of God’s people and their suffering.

Nonetheless, Walter Brueggemann finds it significant that the slaves, not God, were the ones who provided “the initial impetus for the exodus confrontation”: their cry is “characteristic of Israel’s powerful tradition of ‘lament.'”

It seems fair to say, then, that the plan that was in place got kicked into motion by a relational, interpersonal move by Israel–crying out from their hearts to a God who, they believed, must be there, listening, a God who must care–and therefore, a God who will respond, a God who will do something about their predicament.

Minding the sheep in Midian

Meanwhile, Moses was minding his own business, or perhaps he was minding someone else’s business, because that’s what his father-in-law’s sheep would have been. He had gone way, way out, beyond the wilderness, to the mountain of God.

We remember this mountain as Sinai, also called Horeb, probably a sacred place for the Midianites, his remote cousins with whom he had settled down and gotten married, started up a family, made something of a life for himself.

Now he could just do the regular things that ordinary people do: taking care of business–in that situation, tending the flock of sheep. Perhaps Moses thought that he had things in rather good order, for a man on the run, a man wanted by the powers-that-be for murder.

Mirages in the wilderness?

Out there in the Sinai peninsula, past the wilderness, it must have been hot, and the air would have felt thick and shimmery. It would have been easy to see mirages and other apparitions, so when Moses suddenly came upon an angel of the Lord and a bush on fire, he may not have trusted his own eyes.

Perhaps that’s why he drew closer to inspect this astonishing thing more carefully. He was brought up short, however, by nothing less than the Voice of God.

The inexpressible, up on the mountain

Here the story somehow pulls together the indescribable, inexpressible, awesome (that over-used word!) presence of God and the most mundane of things: shoes. Janzen observes that speaking of transcendence is so difficult that all we can do is rely on our words, our limited, inadequate words.

God, frightening and unapproachable, warned Moses not only to keep his distance, but also to take off his shoes. Yes, it was holy ground, high up on that mountain, far beyond the wilderness, far away from home. But it was also someplace where God could talk to Moses in such a way that his life, and the life of his people, would never be the same.

Where hospitality and reverence intersect

Taking our shoes off on sacred ground is a familiar idea, but so is “kicking off our shoes” and getting comfortable. In those days, inviting someone to take off their sandals was a sign of hospitality, Janzen says, and “Moses finds himself in a presence that is unfathomably sacred, a presence that invites him to be at home at the same time that it claims his profound respect.” Moses, who “has felt himself ‘an alien residing in a foreign land’ (2:22) now finds himself a guest of God.”

But Janzen takes it one step “deeper,” in a way that makes Moses seem more alert and open, and vulnerable to the call of God. Reflecting on the purpose of wearing shoes, he observes, “Footwear protects us from the ground, and it renders us insensitive to what our soles (and our souls!) might feel there.” Perhaps God wanted to make Moses comfortable enough that he would listen and take the message to heart.

A story of call

It takes only a sentence for God to reassure Moses that this is no mirage, that this is the God of his own ancestors, the God who makes promises and keeps them. Right away, Moses covers his face, afraid to look.

God then explains the situation, using lots of verbs in describing what God has done so far: observed, heard, know, come down, deliver, bring, seen, and, of course, send. That last verb–“send”–is the one that makes all the difference in the world to Moses.

More than a lovely memory

This could have been a lovely story or a reassuring moment in the faith life of Moses (surely he would have found it good news that God had heard his people’s cry and was going to respond), but no, there’s much more in it for Moses: this is the story of his call from God.

And Moses was just the sort of person who would have understood God’s motivation, James Newsome writes, because he, too, “knew what it meant to protect and defend others…[and] knew that caring for others was expensive and hurtful.” Or, as Brent Strawn describes Moses, he “has deliverer in his blood.”

Moses would have understood God’s determination to rescue the Hebrew people, to “pry them loose from the grip of Egypt,” as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message.

Arguing with God

There are several things that draw our attention in this one piece of the very long conversation between God and Moses that begins here and continues through the first five books of the Bible, a conversation that is sometimes surprisingly contentious.

Moses may be awe-struck, but even here, the first time that God talks to him, Moses talks back. His reservations are expressed in questions that could be boiled down to “Who am I (to do such a great thing as deliver my people)?” and “Who are you (or at least who can I say sent me to do this bold thing)?” And so we hear that naming is important.

How can this be?

Janzen argues that Moses needs to know how he (simple sheepherder that he is) will be able to convince an entire nation of people that they should follow him in overthrowing the grip of the mightiest empire on earth, how he is “to persuade them that such a name should inspire them with hope.”

In the mystery of God’s name is freedom and power to deal with every situation and to enable and empower the people, beginning with Moses, to do the same. The name that God provides, Janzen writes, “identifies God as that ultimate mystery who is free to be whoever and whatever God chooses to be, in whatever situation or circumstance.”

Questions of “who”

The two “who” questions come together in God’s response to Moses: the simple words, “I will be with you.” Moses doesn’t need to worry about who he is (and isn’t), or to fret about his inadequacies, the formidable task ahead, or the obstacles in his way.

After all, Brent Strawn writes, “ultimately, this call really isn’t about who Moses is. It is about Who is with Moses.” Many commentators make the point–a key one, of course–that the all-powerful, too-awesome-to-behold God still (usually!) works through the small, intimidated humans God loves.

We recall all of those verbs describing God’s actions, until we get to the key word, “send,” which means Moses will, after all, have to do some of the work. Still, it’s God who plays the most important role; it’s God who’s at the center of the story and the key person in it: Strawn says that the presence and power of God will make all of Moses’ work possible: “Moses will never have to deliver alone again.”

Hearing our call in community

While the great drama of the Exodus is initiated up on that mountaintop, this is also a very personal story of call (not that the personal and the communal natures of call can be severed). Moses was doing his chores, wandering with the sheep, perhaps fittingly going too far (beyond the wilderness–most of us are afraid even to go into the wilderness, let alone beyond it), and encountering God, who gave him, Brueggemann writes, “a larger purpose for his life.”

It’s this “larger purpose,” Brueggemann says, that changes everything in Moses’ life, and in our lives as well.

Waiting for our lives to break open

We may have experienced this already, Brueggemann says, or perhaps we’re still waiting for it to happen, still hoping to hear the call that will transform our life, that will “break it open.” Our lives today are lived far away from the mountaintop beyond the wilderness, and yet we must feel lost at times even in the everyday, regular lives we live.

Deep down, we hunger for the holiness of God and a larger purpose for our lives, to discover our lives, like Moses, “saturated with the reality of God.” The questions that Moses asked out loud might have been about “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” but inside, Brueggemann wonders if he wasn’t asking, “What could be different about the purpose of my life because of the reality of this God?”

All of creation longing for liberation

And this “what” is key to our call. Brent Strawn observes that the story isn’t trying to explain “why” Moses is called; that’s “theoretical,” but “the what of calling” is not. We look around us today, in a wilderness of our own, and listen and wonder about God’s call in our lives.

Brueggemann links this story of impending liberation with Paul’s lyrical description in Romans 8 of the liberation that all of creation longs for, groans for, a liberation from decay, and today, a liberation from the greed and violence to which we have subjected it: “Imagine the whole of creation destined for an Exodus liberation!”

A haunting beauty

In the stark and haunting beauty of the wilderness, if we draw away and listen for God’s voice, and seek God’s presence, we might find ourselves drawn into a project much larger than we could ever imagine: the healing of creation. Like Moses, we might consider ourselves inadequate. We might waste time debating “why” we were called, instead of getting to work on the “what” of the larger purpose our lives have been given.

“Perhaps,” Strawn writes, “more deliverances would happen if the called were more concerned with the what of, not to mention the fact of, their calling instead of debating the why.”

Pursued by holiness

We might also consider the terrible alternative: living a life with a sense of call. We could refuse to listen, refuse to go up on the mountaintop, close ourselves off from the holiness that pursues us and calls out our name. Life is certainly simpler that way, and we are certainly free to say “no.”

In his commentary on Exodus, Walter Brueggemann describes the uncalled life as “an autonomous existence in which there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy.”

A clash with culture

Our culture tells us that we should be independent (and so should those “other” people who don’t seem to know how to look after themselves) and self-sufficient. We just have to make it on our own. But Brueggemann thinks we are only fooling ourselves, for like Moses, we are not autonomous: “There is the One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned.”

In the end, the question, then, is whether we’ll have the courage to listen and respond, trusting that wherever we go, to Egypt, to Pharaoh, to the ends of the earth, we will never be alone. Ted Loder has written a beautiful prayer, “The downsweep of your wing,” that expresses our hesitation before the call of the God of “forbidding holiness as well as exciting horizons.”

When, Loder prays to God, “I don’t have enough inspiration, wisdom, imagination, will, or faith to do what seems to lay its claim on me, or to work the change that seems required, have mercy on me and cover me with grace…find a way to me, bestow some gift I cannot name…” (His beautiful prayers can be found in Wrestling the Light).

One pictures Moses, coming down from that mountain, soaked in grace, never alone, and never again the same. May our lives never be the same, as well.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Parker J. Palmer, 21st century
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.”

Mother Theodore Guerin, 19th century
“We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only that which we can do.”

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 20th century
Cordelia: “I hope I’ve got a vocation.” Charles: “I don’t know what that means. Cordelia: “It means you can be a nun. If you haven’t a vocation it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I’m here to be me, which is taking a great deal longer than I had hoped.”

Phillips Brooks, 19th century, Trinity Church, Boston
“Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”
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