Pentecost XII – Proper 17 – August 31, 2014
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
This morning we meet Moses as he is living as a fugitive in the land of Midian. At this point his life had either gone completely off the rails, or it was soon to get firmly on track. Back in Egypt… having emerged from the comfort of his childhood in Pharaoh’s court, Moses, as a young man, stepped out of the royal residence. He was gripped by the raw recognition of the injustice and bitterness of slavery that he saw in the greater world around him… and he recognized his true kinship with the people who were oppressed and suffering. When Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he erupted in violent anger and killed the Egyptian. He quickly buried the body, hoping to cover-up his guilt. But he was found out… and he escaped to the far land of Midian… to an area that we now know as Saudi Arabia.
In this strange land Moses was recognized for his good deeds in coming to the rescue the daughters of the priest of Midian. Impressed by Moses, Jethro gave his daughter Zipporah, which means “bird,” to be his bride. Zipporah gave birth to a son whom Moses named Gershom, which means “Sojourner” because Moses knew deeply the experience of being a stranger in a strange land.
Years passed. Pharaoh died, but the cries of the children of Israel only got louder. God heard their groaning. God saw the suffering of the people. God knew their pain.
By this time Moses had settled into the life of a shepherd, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. One day he led his flock out beyond the vast wilderness… to another place that was beyond time… and he went up to Horeb, the mountain of God. It was in this other place, beyond the wilderness… beyond time, that Moses was stopped in his tracks by the brilliant licking and crackling of flames that lit up a burning bush… a bush that was not consumed by fire. Beyond the wilderness beyond time, on this mountain, Moses recognized the divine presence. He turned his head aside, afraid to ook. Moses turned away as we often turn away or avoid the encounters that are painfully raw in their intensity… moments in which everything is stripped down and the excess is burned away… and all that is left is what matters… Maybe we avoid looking up because we are too busy, or blind, or simply overwhelmed by what is before us. Moses turned aside, and then he looked up to see the burning bush.
Out of the burning bush God called, “Moses, Moses!” a name that means “pulled out” or drawn out as Pharaoh’s daughter had pulled him out of the river to become her son, and maybe he was given the name Moses because he was to be the one to “pull (Israel) out” saving the Hebrew people from the life threatening waters of both slavery and the Sea of Reeds” also known as the Red Sea. Before the flames of holy intensity Moses said “Here I Am.” …and the encounter went to the next degree… for God said, “Do not come any closer. Remove your sandals, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It was in this place, beyond the vast wilderness, beyond time,… in being called by name… in the recognition that the ground right there beneath his feet was holy ground. Now Moses was ready…. and God got down to business with him. God gave Moses orders to go back to Egypt and to free God’s people from captivity. Moses resisted and God insisted. And Moses wondered by what authority the Children of Israel would follow him, what calling card should he use? Who shall he say sent him? And God said “Ehye Asher Ehye.” In our English translations we hear God speak the name “I Am Who I Am” … a name that sounds grounded and immovable and formidable… But Jewish translators have a more dynamic interpretation… as God proclaims “I Will Be There” is my name… I will be there calling you, beckoning you, welcoming you, walking beside you…into a new land where you will be free…. I will be there with you in your strife and in your struggle… I am the presence that calls forth life and liberation… I am the dynamic presence that is beyond all names… and beyond all concepts. Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be there howsoever I will be there… And further God said to Moses… Tell the Children of Israel: That the God whose name is too grand to speak is the God of all of your parents and of all of your ancestors… that the God whose name is too holy to speak is the God of all people everywhere in this generation and in all of the generations to come, in every time and in every place. This one God, who is known on holy ground of meeting, cannot be co-opted or contained by any faith, denomination, congregation, building or tradition. Our God “is” far greater than we creatures can grasp with a microscope, or telescope, or data analysis system or trending patterns. This is a God of whom we catch but mere glimpses… glimpses in the earthiness of bread and in the tingling warmth of wine… divine glimpses caught in the chant and in the dance… in the gesture of a healing touch… or in the hard laborings at the table of truth and reconciliation. Our God, who is more than we can ever know, calls to us… and at times we dare to look up.
God knows that our world is groaning. From the streets of Ferguson… to the Ebola stricken communities of Africa… to the strife in the Middle East… and on those unnamed patches of despair where pain and groaning reach God’s heart alone… God’s desire is hot and aflame… seeking to grab our attention and to draw us closer and invites us to “more.” All of the ground we have been given is Holy Ground and in our distracted wanderings we forget… we forget that God is where we are, and it is here that we are to remove our shoes and feel the earth beneath our feet.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus leads the disciples who have, up until this time, known his healing and teaching and stilling presence… he now introduces them to the hard place of Golgotha that is in his future. He tells them that he is headed towards Jerusalem where he will meet suffering and death. The Holy Ground of our Christian tradition includes that painful place on a hill outside of Jerusalem where the oppressive forces of the empire planted a cross of crucifixion and death in an attempt to halt the movement of freedom and justice. Death has not, does not, will not have the last word. God transformed a tree of death into a tree of life that was to bear fruit for all generations. It is heart breaking to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday… and we are called to show up to that hard place that we might witness the flowering of God’s purpose. After Jesus told the disciples about what was ahead for him, he laid out what was ahead for them… if they were to continue on… He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This does not mean that his disciples were to follow the path of crucifixion. It meant that they were to lift up and carry the life giving tree and serve its purpose… the cross through which death’s grip was broken… through which the brilliance of new life shines… Jesus’ instructions meant that the disciples were to make the conscious choice to follow in the Holy Way, as servants of the God of life… calling forth health and well being, liberation and release for all of God’s children, in all times and in all places. It is a calling, and it requires faithful dedication, and it requires work. We are called… to look up, stand up, and get to work… and we cannot do that if we avert our eyes and keep our shoes tightly laced.
I would like to close with a poem by Rabbi Yael Levy:
Whose gaze am I willing to meet?
Certainly the azalea bushes,
Ablaze in yellow and red.
Absolutely the cherry blossoms
Whose pink and white petals remain luminescent even as they fall.
And the lilacs give me no choice
Their scent reaches out
Even before I approach.
I turn aside to look.
But what about the man in the subway
Smelling of urine and weeks worth of grime?
Or the woman clutching her baby
In whose hand I place a one dollar bill?
I avert my gaze and turn away.
Today I inadvertently lifted my eyes
First I saw a red wheelchair
And pants tucked around half a leg.
Then my gaze met another
He smiled a wide, knowing grin
And gave me a thumbs up as he rolled himself by.
The bush is always burning
Will I turn aside and look?
Tiferet: Brokenness in Beauty
The cracks of Divinity
That allow for the light to shine through
A radiant glory permeates all creation
Will I risk the pain and joy of a broken heart
To turn aside and look?
 Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, New York: Schocken Books, 1983, pg. 264.