September 3, 2017: Pentecost XVI
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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. 2There 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. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When 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.’ 5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6He 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.
7 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, 8and 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. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He 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.’
13 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?’ 14God 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.” ’ 15God 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.
Exodus 3:1-15, NRSV
Happy Labor Day weekend! Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus seems well suited to this end of summer holiday, because it is all about the start of Moses’ new job as God’s executive prophet. That is, in this morning’s passage, God calls Moses not through a head hunter, or even an angel, but with a burning bush that ignites in the middle of his everyday life and burns without ceasing. When Moses “turns aside to see” what is happening, God has him. And God summarily hires Moses for a special project of gargantuan proportions, and puts his new Director of Liberative Operations immediately to work at a job that comes with substantial sacrifice and risk, and little clarity regarding the reward, other than the inner satisfaction of serving the purposes of God Almighty, of course. A job for which Moses did not apply. Nevertheless, the same vulnerable, marginalized Moses who was floating in a papyrus basket in the reeds of the river to avoid Pharaoh’s death detail in last week’s reading is now recruited by the Creator of the Universe to march straight into Pharaoh’s court and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, of which he was once one. The Book of Exodus is the Book of this collaboration between Moses and God that freed a people, constituted a community and delivered not just the Israelites, but the identity of God as the Great Liberator of all time.
We will be reading from the Book of Exodus for the next two months.
It began in our reading last week, after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations, long after Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, grandson of Isaac and Rebekah, great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, have gone. And a new Pharaoh has come to power; a shortsighted, fearful, arrogant Pharaoh who rebukes and fears the number of “foreigners” in his land, who feels threatened from the get-go by the growing contingent of immigrants, Israelites in this case. And so Pharaoh begins to make life uncomfortable for them using a compliment of age-old, tried and true weapons of mass discomfort – ostracism, demonization, bondage without recourse, hard labor etc. And when the oppressed people, the Israelites, cry out for help, God hears their cries. And God responds as God always responds to the pain and suffering of God’s beloved people, God hooks up with a human partner to change the world. In this case, Moses.
Now, we might wonder why God doesn’t just fix these things. After hearing the desperate cries of God’s suffering people, why doesn’t God just take Pharaoh out? If God is indeed all-powerful, why can’t all this suffering be taken care of with a wave of God’s almighty hand? Why does God always seem to be waiting on flawed, fragile, frail, fractured human beings to do God’s work? Why does God even bother calling the likes of Moses – a shepherd of no special distinction, except of course that he is a criminal, having killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew and then burying his body (check it out, chapter 2 in Exodus, best seller material). Other than this drama, Moses is an ordinary working man who spends his days minding his father-in-law’s sheep. Why on earth would God choose Moses to lead the most central movement of God’s illustrious career to date?
And this is why I love the Bible. This is why I believe, as was stated in my ordination vows, that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. And if we define salvation as being fully reconciled and reunited with God, the Bible is the story of how God never works alone. God is not a lone wolf. The Bible would be a very short text if our Almighty God ran the world as an all-powerful monarch or general or CEO or head honcho of any kind. But God does not choose to work alone. God works in and through creation in concert with, in partnership with, in mutual relationship with….us, God’s beloved creatures. And this morning’s reading from Exodus is a classic example of how God calls us into that partnership.
Prophets are key to our ongoing story with God. They are the ones who, like sacraments, point us to God’s purpose in this world, the ones who articulate the path to what we Christians call the Kingdom, or as we call it in this community, the Kindom of God. And so prophets are God’s collaborators.
In his classic book, The Prophets, Abraham Heschel writes that the biblical prophets essentially address the human “failure of freedom.” Their central prophetic message to us, says Heschel, is an, “insistence that the human situation can be understood only in conjunction with the divine situation…” That is, human beings have, “choice, but not sovereignty.”  That basically means that we have the freedom to choose between options, but not the sovereignty to control the options from which we can choose. Whether or not we follow God’s call is up to us. But we do not have the sovereignty to change the call. We pick up or hang up, but we cannot dial another number. This is the fabric of our partnership with God. This is the stuff of which our relationship is made, and this is the story that is told over and over and over again, through the generations in our Holy Bible. This is the first ingredient in the formula that is God’s call. The human must answer.
2There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; Moses looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
And just then, God had him.
And so after the human answers, the second thing about a true calling is that it comes when we are ready, not when we are expecting. Not when we are wanting to be called, but when we are ready to be called. Then the bush bursts into flame! And unfortunately, sometimes, willing and able are in two different time zones. And so Moses tells God that he cannot be a prophet because he is not prepared, he is a rotten public speaker and so maybe God would rather call his brother. And God snaps back: “Just go. I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Sort of the divine version of, “because I said so.” And again, Moses has the freedom to act, but not the freedom to change the calling or its timing.
The third thing about a true calling, as is evidenced by Moses’ persistent insistence on his unfitness for this work (and he objects no fewer than four times!), God never calls anyone into their comfort zone. Every prophet, every agent of God’s deepest will, has, at one time or another, been frightened to their core. That is not to say that we should not follow our bliss, as it were, but that if that bliss is authentic, the road ahead will be fraught with pain and pitfalls and sacrifice. God never calls us into our comfort zone. Just ask Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Paul, Peter……All sucked summarily out of their comfort zones. So, my prophetic friends, fasten your seatbelts.
And last, in the final analysis, God is calling us to wholeness above all else. God calls us just as we are, just as we were created to be called. God calls us to be reconciled with all that we are, the good the bad the ugly and the magnificent. Any calling that denies our whole selves is not God’s calling. Any calling that seeks for us to be good rather than whole is a trap. Every time. This is what the wise writer Parker Palmer means when he says that dwelling with God is being faithful to one’s nature, not one’s perfection or one’s proficiencies, or even one’s goodness, but only one’s wholeness, one’s human nature.
And so Moses, the vulnerable baby in the basket, the veritable criminal on the run, the meek shepherd tending the flock of his father-in-law is called, in no uncertain terms, by God to do the unthinkable. To leave his life, to risk his life, to turn the power structure of the Egyptian empire on its ear by freeing the entire population of marginalized immigrants in its midst. It’s not hard to see why the marquis prophets of God are few and far between. Although, we do not know how many God has called. We only know the ones who have answered.
Moses answered. He sees the burning bush and answers God’s call with “Here I am.” But he does not accept the job strait away. He seems to have one condition. And only one. He wants to know the name….the exact name…..the official name of his new employer. Not so that he will have clout when he comes up against Pharaoh, not to protect for himself should Pharaoh retaliate. Moses is not asking for a shield against Pharaoh, he is asking for an assurance for the Israelites; he wants a name to tell his fellow Hebrews so that they will have the courage to follow him. He wants them to know that they too are called by God, and not by Moses.
And so Moses says that it will not work to tell them “the God of Your Ancestors” has sent you. That is apparently not good enough for Moses….not specific enough….maybe it is not current enough. What have you done for us lately? Moses says, I can tell them that, but they are going to want to know your name. Not your history. Your presence. What should I tell them? Who do you say you are?
Last week in our Gospel reading, Jesus asked his disciples a similar question: Who do you say I am? Of course, they already know his name. He is Jesus of Nazareth. But that name takes some fleshing out. And so Jesus tells his disciples who he is in divine terms. First, he is the builder of the church, and he will build it on Peter. Second, the holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven which he will turn over to his Rock. And finally, Jesus orders his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.
That’s the one! That’s the name the disciples are looking for: Messiah. The one anointed by God.
However, the name, Messiah (Anointed By God) would have little meaning without today’s story from Exodus. For Christians, Moses is (in hind sight) asking: Who shall we say anointed the Messiah? In whose name are we Christians baptized? In whose name are we to love our neighbor, sometimes dangerously and with considerable risk? Who is this God who calls us to freedom, whose will we are following? And that is precisely what Moses wants to know. He wants a name.
And God’s answer to Moses could not be more vague or more precise. God says to Moses tell them you are sent by: Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be). Say it with me. Ehyeh asher ehyeh . Again, after all it is the name of God: Ehyeh asher ehyeh . The NRSV translates this “I am what I am.” But the verb in Hebrew is not in the perfect tense. You will remember, the two basic active verb forms in Hebrew are the perfect and the imperfect. The perfect applies to things that are complete (i.e. perfected or finished) actions that have occurred in the past. The imperfect tense applies to ongoing actions, things in process or happening in the future (not yet perfected or finished).
Ehyeh asher ehyeh is in the imperfect tense. And so the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, the Hebrew equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the verb forms in this statement as: “become.” God identifies God’s self as: “I am becoming what I am becoming” or “I will become what I will become.” Not yet finished. God is not perfected.
And a name not likely to be found anywhere on the 8th century b.c.e list of most popular baby names, or in any century before or since. It’s a name too long to be listed on a driver’s license, but too true to be anything else. But if this is the name of our God, then ours must be a theology of becoming, a term coined by theologian Katherine Keller in the title of her wonderful book on Genesis: The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. But holy cow does it apply here!
And so when we ask ourselves in this beloved community, Who do we say we are? – our theme for the coming year – we will inquire through this lens of becoming….following God’s lead. And so maybe our work with sanctuary and other justice ministries is not so much the work of resistance, but rather the work of becoming……maybe we are becoming a beloved community of a becoming God.
And so, oy ve! Have we got work to do!
© September 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 Heschel, 190.