Sermon, Sept. 3

This passage from Exodus makes me laugh every time I read it. Listen, and pay attention to the pronouns:

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. 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.”

Did you catch that? God says, I have heard the cries of my people; I know their sufferings; I am going to save them and bring them to a new land; I’m sending YOU.

And Moses says what I think any of us would say: Waitaminnit here. WHO AM I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? Who am I to headline God’s saving work?

Moses is a fascinating character. He’s bi-cultural, like many immigrants and children of immigrants. He is a Hebrew by birth, one of God’s people Israel, and he was in touch with his birth family as he grew up. But he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, as an adopted son of the princess of Egypt. He can fit in, in both Egyptian and Israelite society – but doesn’t fit perfectly in either. So on the one hand, Moses is a great candidate to send to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the people Israel. He knows Pharaoh. He speaks the language. But on the other hand, he’s a TERRIBLE candidate. The reason Moses is wandering around in the wilderness, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, is that he’s a fugitive. One day, back in Egypt, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. And he killed the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand. He thought he’d gotten away with it, but the very next day he tried to break up a fight between two other Hebrews, and one of them said, “What are you going to do, murder me like you murdered that Egyptian?” So Moses knew he wasn’t safe. And he fled to the land of Midian, where he met a nice young woman, and settled down to help out with the family herds.  So you can see why marching right into Pharaoh’s palace sounds insane to Moses: as far as he knows, he’s wanted for murder in Egypt.

But God is not interested in Moses’ excuses. God says, Go. And tell them I AM sent you.

Moses’ situation reminds me of another Hebrew, another Jew, who got close to the seat of power, much later in the history of God’s people Israel: Queen Esther. Esther was a young Jewish woman living with her uncle in Persia, during the time of exile.  She is chosen to become queen, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, because of her beauty. She hides her Jewish identity, because people looked down on the Jews. But then an advisor to the King convinces him to murder all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther has to speak up, but she’s terrified – this isn’t a friendly marriage; she can’t even approach the king unless he asks for her, and to speak against his will could get her executed.  But her uncle says, Esther, if you can’t do something, who can? Perhaps you have been raised to this high station for just such a time as this.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? …

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

And then there’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus, in today’s Gospel.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” Biblical interpreter Matthew Swanson reminds us not to be too quick to take the cross as a metaphor. Crucifixion was real, brutal, and ever-present reality, in first-century Judea.  It was what happened to people who got crosswise – so to speak – of Roman interests. People who spoke out against the empty cruelty of Roman colonial rule – against the shallow, hollow religion of the great Temple, in its collusion with Herodian greed and Roman rule – against the stark, shattering poverty in which so many lived, under the harsh burden of taxation imposed jointly by the local king and the Roman governor – people who raised their voices about any and all of that, were headed towards a nasty end.

Peter wants to believe that Jesus is special, that Jesus is exempt from all that.

But Jesus says, NO.  This is the human lot. This is what I signed up for.  Pushing back against the forces that cause human suffering involves us in human suffering.

People wonder, sometimes, why Jesus is so harsh with Peter here –  Get behind me, Satan! Back off! I wonder if it’s because in Peter’s words, Jesus truly hears the Devil tempting him: Surely you can avoid this brutal end. Surely you can preach and heal and feed and serve without ending up… there. You’re special. Why should you have to suffer? Jesus responds sharply because that voice – that voice could get to him.  In one recent translation, Jesus tells Peter, “You are a stone that could make me stumble.”

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it…

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

There’s something these three stories – Moses, Esther, Jesus – have in common: lots of suffering. In Moses’ time, the Hebrews were dealing with bitter oppression by a government that feared and hated them.  In Esther’s time, a minority that had been living in peace as part of society was now being targeted for elimination.  In Jesus’ time, everyone but the wealthiest few were struggling – poor and sick, with no one to speak for them.

We can relate. Many of us feel like the suffering and struggle around us is so intense right now.  Immigrant families live with feeling unwelcome, unwanted, and many live with the constant terror of their families being torn apart by deportation.  The floods in Texas that have taken everything from so many. GLBTQ+ folks faced another assault on their humanity and worth this week, from conservative evangelical leaders. People of color, and those of us who simply believe that diversity makes us stronger, are witnessing with dread the increased assertiveness of white supremacist groups and leaders.

It’s overwhelming. Moses was overwhelmed, Esther was overwhelmed. Peter was overwhelmed. Even Jesus seemed at least whelmed. I am sure as heck overwhelmed. Sometimes.

But there’s another thing these three stories have in common. They’re all moments when in the depths of suffering and struggle, God’s purposes are accomplished. These aren’t just stories of survival. They are stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph. Moses, with God’s help, frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Esther, with God’s help, asks the King for mercy for her people, and the King hears her. Jesus… dies on the cross that Peter hoped he could avoid. But the grave cannot hold him. He rises again, and shows us, once and for all, that right, temporarily defeated, is still stronger than evil triumphant.

Moses, Esther, Jesus and Peter – they all lived in terrible times. And they all became part of God’s redeeming work, in those terrible times.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this.

What moves Moses from his fear and inadequacy?  What gets him to march into Pharaoh’s palace, into the lion’s mouth, and say, “I AM sent me”? It’s hard to say No to God, sure. But I think Moses says Yes because God invites him into hope.

Hope. It’s so different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not.  It’s different from the kind of naive privilege that says, People like me usually come out OK, so the situation can’t be that bad. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. Hope means looking at our holy stories, our family stories, these and so many others, about times when things were really bad, and yet, and yet, some kind of good emerged. God’s purposes were accomplished.

Moses said Yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted. Esther said Yes, even though she was afraid, because she had hope. She wanted what God wanted.  Jesus said yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted.

Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet. Hope gets in its kayak to rescue neighbors and opens its mattress store to house the displaced and makes tacos to feed the recovery workers.  Hope tells us that the stories of our times can be more than just stories of survival – although survival matters! – but we dare to hope for more: for stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph.

Know your hopes, friends. Name them and feed them. Help them grow. Introduce them to your friends. As your hope gets stronger, you may find that one day your hope starts tugging on the leash, taking you somewhere you hadn’t expected to go. Don’t be shy. Go. And when you get where your hope is leading you, tell them, I AM sent me.