— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 13th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
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 forever,
and this my title for all generations.
An article in the Christian Century that appeared not long after I came to Nacoochee to be your pastor shaped some of our worship service. The article was written by my theology professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Dr. Edward Farley, and it was entitled “The Missing Presence” (3/18/1998). The essay was critical of Protestant worship services. The topic – Protestant worship services – was surprising because most of us at Vanderbilt assumed Dr. Farley did not go to church even though he was an ordained Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament. He played jazz trumpet in night clubs on Saturday night and we assumed he spent Sunday mornings recovering. Either we were wrong or he started going to church because his observations had the ring of first hand experiences.
The article had the impact, though it didn’t happen for several years after reading the article, of leading me to re-arrange our typical liturgy. We moved our passing of the peace, which in most liturgical services comes after the declaration of forgiveness. We moved the sharing of the peace of Christ to the first of the service so the fact that we become fairly raucous in the sharing does not break the tone of the worship. We also added silence in several places. Here’s part of what led to the changes; Dr. Farley wrote:
To attend the typical Protestant Sunday morning worship service is to experience something odd, something like a charade. The discourse (invocation, praises, hymns, confessions, sacred texts) indicates that the event celebrates a sacred presence. But this discourse is neutralized by the prevailing mood, which is casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, pleasant and at times even cute. This mood is a sign not of a sacred reality but of various congregational self-preoccupations…Lacking is a sense of the terrible mystery of God, which sets language a-tremble and silences facile chattiness…If the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be addressing God not as “holy, holy, holy” but as “nice, nice, nice.”
The rest of Dr. Farley’s article argues for worship as coming in awe and adoration before the Mystery of ultimate love. He reiterates that the prevailing mood of most Protestant worship tames the Mystery and therefore points to the reality that the worship hour is about something other than the sacred. He concludes the article with these two sentences…
The casual, happy, amused and chatty Sunday morning has crept up on us unawares. If it is here to stay, at least for a while, perhaps congregations face the difficult task of creating another time or event in their ritual life when people gather to adore.
I think Dr. Farley had a valid criticism. The holiness of God, the grandeur, the mystery, the awe, the adoration of divine love and ultimate goodness, these are often buried beneath our needs for a comfortable place where we get to see all our friends and hear about what is going on in the community and in the lives of our friendly neighbors. And the end result is that during the Sunday worship we have domesticated God to such a degree that there is nothing we don’t control, nothing we don’t know about the God who is the reference, supposedly, of our time together on Sunday morning. Church too often becomes a little or large club where we all are buddies – God included.
It is hard for us to imagine God appearing to Moses in a burning bush and telling Moses to “Come no closer!” and then “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It is hard to imagine God saying to Moses – “I AM WHO I AM.” I am afraid that Dr. Farley was right – for most of us God is a pal who wouldn’t dare tell us to back off and to recognize that God is a mystery beyond that which the human mind can fully know. God would never be so overpowering because to be so might hurt our self-esteem. We, and I certainly include myself in these criticisms, are much more comfortable strapping God into a pair of short pants and taking the sweet, little thing out for a walk on Sunday morning.
It is the safe thing to do – to domesticate God – and quite natural. After all…
Who wants to come into the presence of One who can call us out of a well-healed existence with family and money and send us into hostile territory and then wilderness?
Who wants to come into the presence of One who calls forth absolute allegiance over and above family, state, political party, or financial security?
Who wants to come into the presence of One who is free to upset everything that has become the meaning, however shallow, of our existence?
Who wants to come into the presence of One who is beyond our full knowing, beyond our full control?
Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest who died in 1987. He traveled the world collecting stories that help lead people into what he called “The Heart of the Enlightened.” He told this story and then ended with a one sentence commentary.
An elephant was enjoying a leisurely dip in a jungle pool when a rat came up to the pool and insisted that the elephant get out.
“I won’t,” said the elephant.
“I insist you get out this minute,” said the rat.
“I shall tell you that only after you are out of the pool.”
“Then I won’t get out.” But he finally lumbered out of the pool, stood in front of the rat, and said, “Now then, why did you want me to get out of the pool?”
“To check if you were wearing my swimming trunks,” said the rat.
Father de Mello’s one sentence commentary on this story is: “An elephant will sooner fit into the trunks of a rat than God will fit into our notions of (God).” (The Song of the Bird, p. 6)
In our worship and in our lives of discipleship, let us find time and ways for adoration of the ultimate Mystery that is God, the deepest Good of all things that is God, the Grandeur of Love that is God! God is I AM WHO I AM and beyond even the majesty of our minds and imaginations. We do need times in our lives to simply adore God and to veil our faces with the angels before God’s splendor and light.
This practice of adoration is particularly difficult right now when we are not able to gather in what is for many of us sacred space. For many of you as for me we are now watching worship on a screen and possibly while sipping coffee and eating a bagel. I’m grateful, very grateful, for our video worship; it is filling important needs for us right now. Such a worship service, however, does make coming into the presence of an awesome, mysterious, holy God more challenging. Maybe it would be a good addition to the service to find time to sit in silence in the woods or on a porch and simply open oneself to the sounds and sights of nature. Bird song can bring the glory of God to mind and heart as can fog on the mountains or the sun rising over the hills or light dancing on the waters. Wherever and whatever can orient our spirits in the direction of adoration for the majestic, awe-inspiring holy One is an important, worship-full practice.
Moses was invited to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground. His adoration, however, was not the only thing God wanted from Moses. God had a mission to give to Moses. The adoration was fuel for a divine calling. Moses, experiencing the fiery mystery of God, was then called to set the oppressed free. God said to Moses – I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. In this story and in the words of the prophets who would come later in history who often were calling the Israelites themselves to account for their oppressive behavior toward other people and strangers, I AM WHO I AM revealed her/him/itself to be on the side of those who live under oppression. God, if these stories in Scripture are to be believed and authoritative for us, calls us to work on behalf of those who live under oppression and injustice. To adore God is not a one act play; rather, to adore God is to be infused with God’s burning love for the poor and the oppressed.
We are hesitant to talk much about issues related to social justice – setting the oppressed free and working on behalf of the poor – because there are so many sides and opinions on what the church should do about those things – if anything.
There is a cartoon in a back issue of the Christian Century (7/23/2014) that captures our dilemma about dealing with social issues. A large Episcopal Church has just let out and a couple is walking by seeing the congregation file out. People are screaming at each other. One woman is holding a Bible in one hand and lifting both hands to the sky wailing. Purses are being swung. Men are shouting at each other and their wives are holding them apart. Women are shouting at each other and their husbands are holding them apart. The priest seems to be in a fighting stance ready to deflect a swing from one of his congregants or throw one himself. The couple walking by is observing all of this and she says to her husband – “Goodness, what do you suppose the Rector’s message for the troubled world was this time?”
Such contentious reactions to sermons and other voices in church do sometimes lure congregations in the direction of avoidance at all cost of real issues in the world. Some churches want only adoration without any communal calling. To make a retreat into a religion that is only about personal adoration of God, personal salvation, a religion that is only about personal comfort is, to put it bluntly, unbiblical. God, according to the Bible, hears the cries of the oppressed and expects those who know God’s love and justice to hear those same cries and to work on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed. We are not all called to be Moses or Martin Luther King, Jr or some high ranking government official; we are, however, all called to open our minds and hearts to how we might actually use our privilege or position or resources in the direction of creating a more perfect union in our community, nation, world.
Moses’ acceptance of God’s call to lead the people out of bondage in Egypt could be thought of as Moses’ call to leadership in the “Hebrew Lives Matter” movement. It was not that God did not love and care about the people of Egypt; rather, God had then and has now a preference for the oppressed. “Black Lives Matter” is a movement that seeks to bring to the consciousness of our nation the fact that for more than 250 years black and brown people have been mistreated and their lives have mattered less in the minds and actions of the oppressive majority. As the numbers of unarmed black people who are killed by police continues to rise – as it did just this past week (August 23, 2020) with the shooting of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin – it makes good sense for our nation, sports teams, political leaders, churches to begin to find ways to protest and call us to live into our better natures, to listen to our better angels. It is righteous work even if it is messy work to march and speak out for equality. It might cost us our comfort. It might cost us our serenity. It might cost us our ideology, political party or affinity groups on Facebook. It will give to us, however, righteous purpose and place in the unfolding of God’s reign of love.
Moses was not perfect. Protestors in the streets today are not perfect. The call, however, to stand with and for the oppressed is a mandate from heaven. God, the Holy Other who deserves our adoration, is also the God who thundered through the words of Moses – “Let my people go!”