Sermon, Sept. 3

Readings for this Sunday are here. 

Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus contains one of the best comedic monologues in Scripture. 

The voice of God, speaking miraculously from a burning bush, says: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their sufferings; I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them; I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians. So, Moses, I’m sending YOU.” 

No wonder poor Moses pushes back! “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, king of Egypt?”

It’s actually a good question; there are excellent reasons for Moses to stay the heck away from Egypt and Pharaoh. 

If you need a refresher on Moses’ story, I heartily recommend watching or re-watching the animated movie Prince of Egypt; it’s very well done, profound and funny. You can stream it online on a bunch of different platforms for $4. 

But let me give you a quick summary – without beautiful animation or catchy songs – now. 

Last week we heard about Moses’ birth, the son of enslaved Hebrews – Jews – in Egypt. Pharaoh had decreed that all baby boys born to the Hebrews should be killed – thrown into the Nile River – out of fear that this enslaved population might become too strong and rebel against their Egyptian overlords. 

Moses’ mother and sister tuck the baby into an improvised boat and hide him in the reeds at the edge of the river; and Pharaoh’s daughter, walking by the river, finds the baby and decides to adopt him and raise him. 

At our Zoom Vespers service last Sunday evening we wondered together about why she might have made that choice.

Did she disagree with her father’s cruel decree? Or was this just the kinder, gentler aspect of genocide: rather than kill the baby, raise him as an Egyptian and hope to overcome his Hebrew birth and background?  – Much like the treatment of Native children in boarding schools in our nation’s history, based on the brutal principal of “Kill the Indian, save the man.” 

Regardless of the reasons, Moses is raised as an Egyptian. But he knows his birth identity, too. It’s complicated!

One day as a young man he’s out in the countryside, seeing his people – the Hebrews – being forced to work as slaves. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. And since nobody is around, he kills the Egyptian – and buries the body in the sand. 

The next day he spots two Hebrews fighting, and rebukes them: “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” One of them responds: “Who put you in charge? Are you planning to kill me like you killed that Egyptian?”

Moses realizes that people know what he did – and perhaps he realizes, too, that he can’t count on solidarity or support from anybody. For the Hebrews, he’s a sellout who thinks he’s better than the rest of them. For the Egyptians, he’s an oddity who can’t be trusted.  And indeed, when Pharaoh hears of the murder, he demands Moses’ death – even if he was raised as his grandson. 

So, Moses runs.  He flees Egypt to a neighboring region, Midian. He meets a nice local girl, Zipporah, and get married.  He names his firstborn son Gershom, meaning, Stranger or exile. Which Moses has been, not just since he fled Egypt, but really since the princess rescued him from among the reeds of the Nile. 

Years pass. Pharaoh dies; another Pharaoh is crowned king. The Israelites, the Hebrews, struggle and suffer, enslaved. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 

And then one day Moses is out with his father-in-law’s herd… and spots flame in the distance. 

From one angle Moses is the perfect person for God to send to Pharaoh. He speaks the language; he knows the ways of the palace and the people. He probably knows the new Pharaoh well. He is at home in that world as much as any Hebrew could ever be.

From another angle this is a terrible idea. Moses is wanted for murder – of an Egyptian. He has proven that you can’t kill the Hebrew and save the child. He’s likely to be recognized, arrested and executed the moment he shows his face.

That’s why Moses initially resists God’s call – and keeps resisting beyond today’s passage. 

What if they don’t believe me? I’m no good at public speaking!

And finally, simply: O God, please send someone else!! 

(To which God says, FINE, your brother Aaron can go with you and help you. Okay? Okay. GO, already!!) 

The moment when God pivots from “I have heard my people’s misery; I am going to save them” to “I’m sending YOU” always makes me laugh because it feels like a very characteristic God move. 

Years ago I read a prayer – intended as a joke – that I think of often: “Use us, O Lord, use your servants… even if only in an advisory capacity.”

We’d quite like to just be advisors to God, right? God, do this! Fix that! That sounds a lot easier than being servants – helpers – collaborators. 

It’s more or less the opposite of the quotation from Saint Teresa of Avila that you may have heard: “Christ has… no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” 

I do actually believe that God – and God in Christ – act directly in this world, not just through us. 

But it’s also very clear that God frequently chooses to act through us – or to give us the opportunity to act on God’s behalf, to further God’s purposes of justice, mercy, reconciliation, healing, liberation, and peace. 

And I’ve got to tell you: this is a real risk of deepening your prayer life, or of hanging around with God in general.

You may have these moments when you place a need or concern or problem before God in prayer and God says, You’re right. That is a problem. You should do something about it. 

Today’s Gospel coming alongside this Exodus text might well increase our reluctance to make ourselves available to God, to help advance God’s agenda. 

Jesus tells his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The idea that advancing God’s plans in the world might occasionally involve facing mortal danger – like Jesus, like Moses – is hardly a reassuring thought. 

I think we can all recognize that circumstances and causes arise where someone might be willing to risk much. 

Maybe we can name, within ourselves, the people or purposes for which we’d put ourselves, lives or livelihood, on the line. 

The fact that some things are important enough to die for is one of Jesus’ core teachings – as well as the fact that such a death may accomplish more than we can imagine. 

But facing or risking death, or even harm or imprisonment, as a routine aspect of Christian life? Hmmm. 

Father John reminded us last week of a quotation from C. S. Lewis: If you want a religion to make you really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

So. If we pray to God about a need or problem, occasionally we may hear God’s response: Good point. Why don’t you do something about that? 

And sometimes what we are asked, invited, called to do may be costly or risky. 

But maybe our passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome brings in a little bit of comfort or reassurance. Because we’re not supposed to do any of this on our own. 

Even Moses gets help with his bold mission from his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. 

This passage is a continuation of our text from last week. This is what being transformed by God’s work in your heart and life, instead of conforming to the ways of the world, looks like, to the apostle Paul, the author of this letter. 

Hate what’s evil, hold onto what’s good. 

Take good, loving care of one another. 

Show each other respect. 

Be patient when things are hard; persevere in prayer. 

Look to the needs of those who have little, and don’t look down on anybody. Welcome strangers warmly. 

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.

Try to live in harmony with each other, and so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

This bit about being kind to your enemies, because when you do that you’re heaping burning coals on their heads? – Paul is quoting the Book of Proverbs here, a book of the Old Testament that is in part just a collection of proverbs, variously wise, witty, or questionable sayings from the time before Jesus. 

The proverb casts generosity towards an enemy as a win/win situation: it’s holy in the eyes of God AND it will really annoy your enemy! Proverbs can a little sardonic like that. 

I think I see why Paul quotes it here but honestly it undermines his overall message a bit! I’m not sure being kind to your enemy because it will annoy them counts as overcoming evil with good. But… maybe? 

Anyway. Remember, Paul is writing to a group; almost all the “you”s in Paul’s letters are plural. These are instructions on how to be, together, as God’s people; and how to help each other be God’s people. 

On the one hand, that list might feel like it’s asking a lot. On the other hand, they’re really pretty basic guidelines for how to be a community that tries to care for one another and do good for those around them. 

“Basic” doesn’t mean easy; lots of this stuff is pretty hard at times. But we try to do it together. 

When I read this list in Romans, I think it reflects our intentions and aspirations as a church community. And I think we do a lot of this pretty well, much of the time – but not because each of us does it perfectly all the time. It’s cumulative and collective. 

I miss an opportunity to weep with someone who’s weeping, or welcome a stranger, or attend to somebody’s needs. But someone else in the community is paying attention and they step up, or make a connection. It’s not perfect; we miss things. But we sure do better together than I think any of us would on our own. 

I am so grateful for the people in this community and beyond who remind me or inspire me on a regular basis to hate the evil and hold fast to the good; to be patient and prayerful in hard times; to be generous and empathetic; to hold hope. 

Jesus tells his followers to form churches, and Paul spends most of his life trying to help churches figure out how to bear with one another in community, because being a Christian can be tough and it helps to have people who are in it with you. This is one of my core sermons; most of you have heard it before. 

But the point today is that I suspect several, perhaps many, aspects of our common life here at St. Dunstan’s have their origin in some kind of burning bush moment. 

Someone felt sad and worried about the plight of refugees, and God said, why don’t you organize people to buy them groceries?

Somebody carries grief that church wasn’t a welcoming or nurturing place for their kids, and God leads them into becoming an active participant or supporter of children’s and youth ministries. 

Somebody was feeling anguish about climate change, wishing there was something they could do, and God said, Maybe you could help your church install solar panels.

Being Christian in community means that when you have one of those burning bush moments – large or small – 

If you need to test it: is this really God‘s call in my heart or just my own desire?

If you need to feasibility check it: how would this even work? What would I need? What else do I need to know? 

If you need allies and participants to make it happen, a team to share ideas and resources and time – 

Then here we are, your community, in it with you. 

Aaron and Miriam to your Moses. 

So here’s the message of today’s Scriptures, dear ones:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Take care of one another, and face the big stuff boldly. 

Persevere in prayer, hold hope together. 

And keep a keen eye out for talking plants.