Mar. 24, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Mar 24, 2019 in Lent, Sermons

The Third Sunday in Lent

March 24, 2019

Even those who’ve never set foot in a church have heard to some extent of Moses and the burning bush not consumed. We elevate Moses as part of our story-awareness and call to mind his leading the Israelite’s exodus through the desert for forty years, or perhaps recall his birth narrative which includes his narrow escape in a basket woven of bulrushes and being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. We love a good hero and today’s reading is his call from God as a prophetic leader. But Moses was not a powerful figure or esteemed trailblazer then, rather he seems unlucky and impulsive, even confused, referring to himself as an alien in a foreign land. Think back to his youth; given a new adopted name while his own Hebrew mother pretends to be unrelated so to help raise him. To which people does he belong? Then as a young man, he reacts to seeing an injustice and tries to help a Hebrew man, and Moses ends up killing an Egyptian to do so, forcing him to flee his home because Pharaoh means to kill him. Once in Midian he’s still identified as Egyptian, invited to dinner as a foreigner, then marries a local girl and starts a family. He goes from being known as adopted royalty, to being a sheep herder working for his father-in-law, with no clear identity or belonging. Out tending the sheep one day he is drawn to a blazing bush and wonders at it. This is God come to Moses, “meeting him where he is” in a distracted moment.

He was far afield from grazing land, but this is where God speaks to Moses, and it makes me wonder — did God notice him because he’d had wandered to the “Mountain of God” or did God draw him there? Whichever it was, God called him from his shepherding and his obscurity in Midian to send him back to Egypt to lead the Israelites. Sounds like a big promotion for Moses, and yet he repeatedly objects to the idea. (One such objection is traditional in prophetic commissioning, as evidence of humility and an acknowledgement of the prophet’s dependence on God if he is to undertake such a call.) Here Moses continues to argue with God, one feeble declaration after another. We only read two today, but Moses names four, beginning with Who am I to go do such a thing? He is of course uniquely qualified by his bi-cultural identity with both Egyptians and Israelites, just the right person to ask Pharaoh to let them go, but Moses can’t see this. God promises to be with him anyway. Then Moses turns from doubts about his identity to questioning God’s identity; What do I say when they ask your name and who sent me? “I am who I am… ‘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.’” God determines his own identity and reveals it through God’s own actions. God has always been; from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now Moses and the people he will lead. Moses nearly whines his last objections; what if they don’t believe me or listen to me, or say I’m making it all up? He protests that he’s not eloquent and is “slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Finally, Moses says, “O my Lord, please send someone else!” Whereupon God gets angry — answering once again with reassurance. Ultimately God needs Moses to go, not someone else.

In our gospel today is a version of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ Like them, we ask it ourselves every time a natural disaster destroys people’s homes, or a shooter’s attack devastates a community, and the ripples spread across the world. Does God cause tragedy as punishment for our sins? “No,” Jesus answers, explaining these people were not being punished for their sin, they were not worse sinners. We are relieved to hear it because we don’t want a God like that, but we’re not too happy with the next quickly personal part; our own repentance. In the face of tragedy and injustice we want big answers to big questions to be simple, to restore our sense of order, to confirm our distance from evil, or absolve us of responsibility for it. Escaping to the big questions can either guide us towards or distract us from our own accountability. We can expect those more powerful or able to solve it, —or we can speak out against injustice ourselves, be better stewards of the earth, support our own Muslim neighbors or anyone being targeted, we can vote with informed intelligence, read perspectives that challenge us to think, care for neighbors needing basic necessities of food, shelter, and work, even if we don’t think we’re big enough to do it all or eloquent enough to say it just right. Asking why these things happen is good, asking what we can do is better. For all of Moses’ reasons not to answer God’s call, in the end he did so—with all of his shortcomings and fears. You don’t have to know all the big solutions to have an impact, we can make small changes, take courageous steps, act in the present as people of God, who like Moses, are created and called to serve.

I want to go back to Exodus, to where God begins by telling Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Scholars say this is show of deference or respect, but Moses doesn’t sound that way. He removes his shoes, but then balks and argues with everything God tells him. Here’s the thing about taking off shoes in someone’s presence; you feel different. Maybe vulnerable, awkward, or less certain, unable to run unprotected in the wilderness? You are closer to the earth, the feel of soil or grass against your skin. Think of being here on Maundy Thursday when the faithful remove their shoes and wash one another’s feet. It makes you feel humble, and being barefoot in a church – perhaps your self-awareness is heightened. How different it is to walk on grass wearing shoes and socks – and then to get barefoot. We slow down, more aware, even relax a bit, maybe you feel more ‘in your own skin’ somehow. Does it take you back to your childhood? Is this why God told Moses to do so? So that he would be, not Egyptian, not Midianite or shepherd, but just Moses; more fully present, more vulnerable, just himself; a child of God, with nothing between his skin and God’s creation?

God asks Moses to take on the biggest job in scripture since Creation, instead of God just doing it directly, instead of choosing someone already empowered as a leader or one highly skilled in negotiating, public speaking, wilderness pathfinding. God chose Moses, who told him every which way he could that he wasn’t up to the job and had no skills or appetite for it, because he had something God knew was needed. With all of his flaws, confusion, and dual identity issues, Moses’ own unique gifts and character were what God wanted and called forth. Coupled with the sense of self-laid-bare-before-God inherent in asking Moses to remove his shoes, perhaps God wanted Moses to be himself as a child of God in this conversation and in this call. Scholar Karla Suomala aptly cites an old Hasidic story about the importance of being one’s self: When Rabbi Zusya was an old man, he said, “When I get to heaven, the angels will not ask me ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ Rather, they will ask me: ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’”

Being oneself isn’t easy. All our self-identified failings are compounded by what our culture says we should want to be. Drawing near to God requires us to be only ourselves, only our ‘yes’, not an imagined résumé of perfection. I think God telling Moses to remove his shoes is less about respect and more about being authentically close – or perhaps those are one in the same! Suomala writes, “maybe we can also hear God’s voice, to Moses and to each of us, more like this: ‘Moses, take your shoes off! I need you, not Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, not someone with an MBA or medal of honor. Let’s talk, you and me, honestly, about this plan.’ And so Moses, being truly himself, said, ‘But God…are you sure this is a good idea?’” (Moses and God in Dialogue, Studies in Biblical Literature, v. 61 New York: Lang, 2004)

Isn’t this what Lent is about? Getting up close and ‘barefoot’ with God, becoming ourselves in the best way, the way God sees us? Our inward searching and reflecting is assisted by the tradition to pray, fast and give. The forty days recall both Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Moses’ leading the people of God forty years in the desert. We shift our liturgy so that we begin with prayers for others, then turn to our confession and absolution. Outsiders may see this as a focus on guilt, but we know it’s about being able to confess our sins and be freed to set it all down. Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article by Rachel Howard called “Lent”, exploring her experience of coming into the Episcopal Church, into Lent, and through a marriage, divorce, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. She notes the peculiarity of making “a forty-day space for what our pop-psychology culture seemed to declare Americans should reject: guilt. What I didn’t understand yet” she writes, “is that Lent concentrates guilt, then cathartically explodes it…Lent provides space for your guilt. This is not about cultivating bad feelings, but slowly disrobing them, letting them reveal their true nature. But this requires curiosity, and surrender.” Her life became stalled by unknowingly carried anger, resentment and guilt, and this gets in the way of any progress towards her authentic self, her readiness to move forward. I encourage you to read it online. Her story is beautiful and remarkable, and yet not so uncommon for people who practice faith that calls us into and out of Lent and into Easter. Her conclusion is that “Guilt, in stasis, becomes pathology. Lent, openly entered, gives guilt space, nakedness and, most important, narrative progression. The season is a passage, moving us from paranoia to metanoia, from being literally out of our own minds to being reconciled with our true minds through repentance.”

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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