Sermon of the Week:
What Was Your Name Again?
Week five of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Burning Bush, Notice and Act, Take off your Shoes, The Name of God. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Someone reminded me this week that
last October we adopted the theme ‘Be Thou My Vision’
for our 2020 Stewardship season.
I had forgotten about that, mainly because last fall feels like 10 years ago these days.
If you’re new to us,
every fall we as a church take stock of where we’ve been over the past year
and we look ahead to the next one
inviting people to pledge financial and volunteer support
as part of our budgeting and ministry planning process. This is what we call Stewardship season.
It is part of how many Presbyterian churches operate,
because it not only allows us to plan for the future
but it invites all of us to think about our individual role that we might play in helping a church thrive
a reminder that church is about the faith we nurture, the friendships we form
the service we undertake, the justice we pursue,
and that, to make it all work, we each are invited to pledge something of ourselves for that future.
We chose that theme, in part, because, come on,
it was going to be 2020, which was about as obvious a nudge
to ‘Be Thou My Vision’ as you can get.
So my friend reminded me of this,
and then asked me how that 2020 vision thing was going… and I had to laugh.
His point, of course, was that this has been a no good, very bad sort of year for all of us
where all our planning has been cast aside out of necessity,
as we are all having to adapt to the new reality of ministry during the time of corona.
I said in reply
that we had no idea, last fall,
that we’d be where we are today,
where everything is new,
having transitioned so quickly to worship services from our homes
learning on the fly about epidemiology and video editing and zoom and all that,
learning how to help a community stay together, and even thrive, in a time like this
over the long haul…
It was a good reminder that you can make all the plans you want
but once you get going on the journey,
who knows what twists and turns and detours and new routes lie ahead of you.
Plans only get you so far.
Once you get started, when you have to call an audible,
when you have to change direction,
you’ve got to be rooted in values
values that help you discern the opportunities and obstacles before you
values that help you make good choices,
and, beyond that,
you have to be open to the movement of God in your midst
so that you can both see God, there, alongside you
as you experience those twists and turns and detours,
and so you can GO where God is leading you to go…
There was something in this story about Moses
tending that flock of his father-in-law out at the edges of the wilderness
that caught my eye this week
something I hadn’t noticed before.
It has to do with Moses’ attention,
his seeing something and deciding to focus on it.
Moses is out there with the flock
and he’s just gotten to mount Horeb
and there’s a fire.
Fires get our attention.
Once, more than a decade ago, at the last place we lived,
the house across the street from ours was on fire.
There was smoke shooting out the windows on the second floor
thick and heavy and dark
and the fire department came and put it out.
It was some electrical issue in the bathroom.
It wasn’t, in the end, all that big a deal,
and I remember that the homeowner was able to get it all repaired
not sure they did that, after all that smoke and water and soot
but the main thing I remember is that you could see the smoke wafting into the sky
in such a way that it was the only thing you noticed.
I’m sure people could see it from miles away.
We were so glad no one was hurt.
You notice a fire.
We were driving this past week through central Missouri
and it was beautiful out
a few puffy clouds, blue sky, you could see a long way,
and my wife said something about seeing … something, out in the distance.
It looked like another one of those puffy clouds, but it was a bit different,
hazy, shaped differently than the others,
and after about two minutes it became clear that it wasn’t a cloud at all
it was smoke, from a fire,
and, sure enough, some six miles later when we got to the spot
it was someone burning trash in their back yard.
And I know people do that,
but it did wig me out a little bit.
Maybe we notice fire because it can be so dangerous.
I’m mindful this morning
of my friends in Northern California, who are reeling this week after powerful wildfires
continue to threaten homes and livelihoods there.
It is just one of a handful of significant natural disasters
that has our nation picking up the pieces right now,
including the derecho storms in Iowa and Illinois,
and hurricane Laura, which was the strongest hurricane on record
ever to make landfall in the state of Louisiana.
Moses is out with Jethro’s flock
and he sees a fire
and he looks at it,
and he notices that its…peculiar.
It is burning and burning
and it doesn’t go out.
The bush is not consumed.
That’s not how fires usually work.
So he tells himself that he has to go check this thing out:
I must turn aside and look at this great sight,
and see why the bush is not burned up…
And it was only after that,
after he decides to go pay attention to this spectacle,
Only after Moses took notice and turned his attention and focused on that great sight
that God called out to him
Yes. Here I am…
Don’t come any closer, and take of your shoes
for you are standing on holy ground….
Why does the author of this story
decide to point out that little detail
about Moses DECIDING to pay attention to that fire?
We know that there is a lot in this short little story
that is full of symbolic importance. I mean a lot.
Let’s quickly talk about three examples: shoes, the mountain, and the power of a name….
Taking off shoes in a holy space
is a common religious practice in many traditions.
It is regularly practiced in Islam and some forms of Buddhism
a sign of respect, of humbling yourself in the presence of the divine.
There’s the mountain, mount Horeb,
the very place that Moses will later bring the liberated Hebrews
after they are wandering for a generation in the wilderness
to see God again, to receive the tablets of the law.
There’s the discussion about the name of God,
and we’ll turn to this again in a few minutes,
but we already know the importance of naming things
how names carry with them so much meaning,
and the act of naming
is a significant sign of empowerment, and remembering…
so it is that Adam and Eve set out to name all the creatures…
that Jacob was given a new name after wrestling at the Jabbok,
Israel, one who struggles with God and survives,
the very name that the Hebrew people would adopt as their own to this day,
we saw Joseph received an Egyptian name after he was sold into servitude
a name that obscured his identity to his family until he revealed it.
There’s so much going on in this quick little story,
that we would be forgiven
if we missed that detail about Moses DECIDING to pay attention to that burning bush…
What would have happened, I wonder,
if Moses instead had been flipping through his tiktok that day, you know?
Catching up on Facebook,
reading a book,
out playing golf,
working on his basket weaving hobby,
doing …whatever…and not given that burning bush a second thought…
Instead, it was because Moses NOTICED, and ACTED on what he noticed
that the rest of the story is able to unfold.
Maybe the author points this out
because NOTICING and ACTING
is precisely what Exodus says God is doing here,
WHY it is that God is speaking to Moses in the first place.
Let’s set the scene in a broader context.
Last week we learned about Moses’ birth
how he came to be adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter,
and the story continues, in what we haven’t read,
to describe how he would come to be seen as an Egyptian,
even though he wasn’t, he was a Hebrew.
In fact, after he has a struggle with an Egyptian that he sees attacking an Israelite,
he flees to Midian, where he encounters and helps the daughters of the priest of Midian
and they describe Moses to their father as an Egyptian, they tell Jethro
that an Egyptian came to their aid, when it was Moses, the Hebrew.
So he’s sort of in hiding, incognito, unrecognized at first.
But he is caring and kind and helpful, and after ingratiating himself with their father
he marries one of the daughters, Zipporah, and they have a son.
Moses seems to be starting a new life, having escaped his complicated past
as well as the horrible conditions of servitude experienced by his fellow Israelites back in Egypt.
And just before our reading for today,
there, at the end of Chapter 2,
after telling us about Moses emigrating to Midian and settling down
and seeming to find his place as a shepherd out in the wilderness,
the author reminds us of what is happening
back in Egypt,
back where the story is ongoing…
We hear this:
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.
Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.
God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham…
God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…
This isn’t accidental.
God NOTICES the cry of the people…and, as the verbs suggest,
God begins to move to put a plan into action.
That plan begins with THIS story,
with the bush and the shoes and the mountain and the names and the whole bit…
God is ACTING on what he notices,
calling Moses back to his purpose,
asking him to join in God’s plan to deliver the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom…
wouldn’t you like to come along with me to do that, Moses?
says the voice coming from the burning yet not being burnt bush.
Do you see the parallel?
God paying attention to the cry of the Israelites
Moses paying attention to the bush that was not consumed by the fire.
NOTICING is the precondition needed for meaningful action,
for taking steps to make things right.
You’ve got to pay attention before you can take the first step
so it is for God
and so it is for Moses
so it is for us…
The temptation right now is to say that everything is so bad
that we want to close our eyes and not pay attention to what is going on these days.
There’s so much.
Too much, really.
And what do we focus on?
It’s not like there’s a solitary bush burning in the distance
that can take our mind off of a relatively stable day of sheep grazing if we go look at it.
So far, I’ve mentioned the things we have to do to adjust for the pandemic
and I’ve only talked about churchy stuff
not about schools starting up,
and what that means for students and parents and teachers and neighborhoods
I’ve not mentioned loved ones in nursing homes that we can’t go visit
or people we love dying from Covid 19
or the people struggling over mask mandates.
And we mentioned the natural disasters
fires and storms and hurricanes,
but not the communal disasters
that are being fomented on our city streets
as the pain and the hurt of Black people shot by the police
is spilling out into the streets, it seems after so many other pleas
for reform over the years have gone unheard and unnoticed.
Then there are political conventions and simmering doubts about the integrity of our elections
and you wonder how in the world can anyone pay attention to anything, much less everything.
How do you focus?
What do you focus on?
God, help us. God, come quickly, come soon.
It has been quite a week.
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt broken more than once trying to take it all in.
When that happens, here’s what I know:
we lean on the values of our faith to help us PAY ATTENTION
to navigate an unsure future
to see the road ahead, and to follow where God leads us,
knowing that God is there, at our side, enduring all of this with us
helping piece everything back together
healing where people hurt
providing justice to the oppressed
and leading people out through the wilderness…eventually…to a green and pleasant land.
And we know that
because we see that that is who God is
when he grabs Moses’ attention
has him take off his shoes
and enlists him in a bigger cause than he ever thought possible.
And Moses didn’t believe it.
God, surely you have the wrong guy.
Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh…
forgetting that he was the perfect guy to do that
having grown up in that household
knowing Pharaoh better than any other Israelite would….
Its ok, Moses, I will be with you….
Ha. Sure you will. They won’t believe me when I head back and try to sell this to them.
Who am I supposed to say sent me? How can I get them to believe it?
Tell them that my name is I AM WHAT I AM. I am the God of their ancestors.
And I will free them from this chaos
and they will have a future with hope and with justice and with safety.
So, it’s interesting,
when you read the TANAKH translation of the Hebrew Bible,
that’s the English translation published by the Jewish Publication Society,
and the most widely available English translation of the Hebrew Bible
written by and for the Jewish community,
when you read this passage in the TANAKH,
that name for God isn’t written the way that the NRSV offers it.
Instead of saying I AM WHAT I AM
it simply gives three Hebrew words instead, ‘ehyeh-asher-ehyeh.’
Those are the words that the NRSV tentatively translates as I AM WHAT I AM,
and which, over time, form the letters that would later become Yahweh,
or Jehovah when it makes its way into English in the King James Version.
What is amazing about that name, ehyeh-asher-ehyeh
is that it is a verb.
It’s not a noun like other names.
No. God is different. God’s name is a verb.
When Moses asks God for some proof, you know,
for how he’s going to justify his claim to the people when he gets back to his neighborhood
God tells him to share his name with them
the name that signifies a God who is a verb, God the do-er, God who is and who will be,
God who will shake everything up
because he has NOTICED their suffering and will ACT to do something about it.
That will be my name forever, my title for all generations…
I will confess to you, that it is one of the hardest things for the human mind to figure out
how to think of God as a verb, and not just as a noun…
even when we say God is love, as we find written in the New Testament,
we try to turn love into a noun, the thing of love, in our heads as we try to figure it out,
as much as we let ourselves conceive of God as the action of loving
the very relating to one another in care and compassion and concern…
This is one of those things that challenges our finite minds, perhaps,
knowing that God cannot be contained by what we think or how we interact with God,
grateful, as we are, that we can encounter God through these stories
and in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord.
But if it means anything, it means that God goes beyond what we can imagine
and because of that God has the ability
to shake things up, make something new happen,
and even free a people from 400 years of painful servitude.
For those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus,
we believe that God in Jesus Christ can heal and teach and feed the hungry
and overturn the tables and lead us in prayer
and can show us a more powerful, more profound, more reconciling way to love one another.
It was that loving, healing, teaching, feeding, table-turning power of God (all verbs, if you noticed)
that inspired the Apostle Paul to offer some vitally important values for us
in the reading that Cheryl read today
benchmarks, guideposts for us
as we seek to make our way through this challenging period
where all of our plans are thrown out the window
and we’re having to figure out what to do next.
Let your love be genuine.
Hate the things that are evil and hold fast to what is good.
Love each other with mutual affection.
Outdo each other in showing honor….
Rejoice in hope
be patient in your suffering
persevere in prayer.
Insofar as it depends on you, live peaceably, with everyone.
Do not curse those who persecute you.
Don’t repay evil for evil.
In fact, do not become overcome by evil,
but overcome evil with the good.
There’s a way forward there, if we have eyes to notice,
a way of living in a topsy-turvy world
that neither turns away nor adopts the evil that surrounds us…
the way of Jesus, to engage lovingly, truthfully, knowing that God is right there
working through every act of grace and compassion and prophetic truth telling.
And I wonder, if we have the energy and the ability to notice it
and to turn toward it,
if it just might be what we need
to get us through the worst of it.
It will take us several more weeks to see how that plays out in the life of Moses,
but for now, may we ponder the amazing ways of our God
whose name is a verb
and who calls to us
to take off our shoes
and to listen
and then to engage the world with love and with peace and with reconciliation in our hearts
as people who speak the truth in love,
who work for the liberation of people who are oppressed
people who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out into this world
trusting that God will lead us home.
May it be so