Moses. Moses. Last week my sermon centered on the God of Abram/Abraham. We talked about the radical idea that emerges from the patriarchs and matriarchs of monotheism: You don’t need a multiplicity of gods, you need one God. I didn’t know at the time, but last week was the first in a sermon series. This is week two. Last week was Abram’s God. This week, we’re talking about the God of Moses. I know, some of you may be asking, “Can Episcopalians have sermon series? I thought that was a Baptist schtick” It turns out, we can. Next week, we’ll wrap up the series by talking about “Jesus’ God.”
Moses, Moses. Commentators make a great deal of fuss over God’s repeating the name of the prophet. Anytime a word is repeated in Hebrew, you are supposed to pay attention. When your name needs to be repeated, you might be in trouble. Little kids know this to be true. So do parents. We don’t have the benefit of an audio recording of the events, but I would venture that the tone and volume of God’s voice might have increased for the second “Moses.” Moses’ name is repeated. So we have to stop and pay attention.
This passage, the call of Moses, is one of the most dense in all of Scripture. We could spend a whole graduate seminar parsing the phrasing of God’s name. We could talk about cultural setting. We could plot the geography of Moses’ turning aside on God’s mountain, his standing on holy ground, the location of the burning bush, and we could debate the meaning of his naked feet. This is a thick and important passage, but we’re in a sermon series talking about the nature of God. So, this morning, I want to talk about how Moses came to understand who God is. There are two important teachings about God I want to touch on, from the passage this morning: First, Moses’ God is a God of Liberation; Second, Moses’ God relies on us to accomplish liberation.
Before we get there, let’s back up and set Moses’ encounter in the midst of the story. Exodus begins, “A pharaoh arose in Egypt who knew NOT Joseph.” The children of Israel, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, end up in Egypt because of some brothers and a technicolor dream coat. Young Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, but once he is there, he makes himself useful. Joseph is so fruitful in Egypt that when famine strikes back in the land of Canaan, he saves his family, and they come to live with him in Egypt.
But eventually a pharaoh comes to power who didn’t know Joseph. This pharaoh doesn’t know the value of the immigrants living in the land. So he treats them harshly. Strangely, it turns out, Pharaoh has one of the Israelites living in his own household. Through the faithful disobedience of some Hebrew midwives, the young Moses has been saved from a massacre, and pharaoh’s daughter has taken him as her ward.
Moses grows up, and he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe he goes to far, but Moses kills the man. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs.
Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. I talked Moses quite a bit when in my former job as the Young Adult Minister for the Presiding Bishop: Moses is sort of the patron saint of young people who don’t have their lives quite together. Moses has not been choosing his path very consciously up to this point. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. It’s a bit like all of those Millennials that the news media spends time talking about, moving back home, or otherwise lost. Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects.
God picks some of the least likely people. Take heart Millennials. Take heart parents of children who seem to be adrift. Take heart, those of you who find yourselves at loose ends, tending whatever flock you may be stuck with. God picks those the world deems unlikely. I have a hunch though, that Moses was exactly who God needed.
Alright, we’re caught up now, to today’s story. Moses is out there, beyond the wilderness, with his father-in-law’s flock, and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Then God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” (Which is good, since that was the first chapter of the sermon series). I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page. Here we are, Episode two. Who is this God of Moses?
“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”
Indeed I know their sufferings. Moses’ God is a God with a bias. God is on the side of the suffering. God is there when the people are in misery. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Jewish people, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.”
In the early 20th century theologians began talking about a “Theology of Liberation.” The term appeared almost simultaneously among African American theologians in the United States and from theologians in Latin America. But the idea is older. There’s a reason so many of the Spirituals feature Moses. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”
This encounter with Moses shows us the first critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite.
The Roman Catholic Dominican Priest Gustavo Gutierrez authored the famous 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation.” He spends a great deal of the book with Moses. I once had the opportunity to meet Gutierrez. He spoke at the University of San Diego, my undergraduate college, and he confirmed a theory I have. I have this idea that holy people are all very short. Mother Teresa was tiny. I don’t think Desmond Tutu is even five feet tall. Gustavo Gutierrez is tiny.
Out of the short little Peruvian priest comes a big voice. I remember one moment in his speech vividly. He said, that especially in North America, we really have our own way of praying the Lord’s prayer. Do you know it? He said that Christians today have our own way of praying Jesus’ prayer. It goes something like this:
Our Father, who art in Heaven…
Stay there! We have this down there. Don’t worry about us.
That is what the man who often called the Father of Liberation Theology said is our prayer today.
Oftentimes, like Moses, we flee from the suffering. We find places of refuge. We build walls that keep out the distress, and the last thing we may want is God coming down here. Stay there God. We’re really okay. We may be tending Jethro’s flock. We may be just getting by, but we’re okay with just getting by. We’ve got ours. Stay there God.
But Moses’ God doesn’t stay put. “I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” Now, this is where this passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh.
You can understand why Moses is a bit surprised. “God, I thought you were coming down?” This is part B of what we learn about the God of Moses. Part A: The God of Moses is a God of liberation. Part B: God relies on people to accomplish God’s liberation within their own times.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this tension of Moses. As Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer escaped Germany. He taught for many years at Union Seminary in New York City, safe from the Nazi machine. Eventually though, he felt he had to return to his homeland. He took part in forming the Confessing Church which stood up to the tyrant’s regime. Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually executed for plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In his Letters from Prison Bonhoeffer writes:
If one speaks of God one must not simply disregard the actual given world in which one lives; for if one does that, one is not speaking of the God who entered into the world…but rather of some metaphysical idol…The truthfulness which we owe to God must assume a concrete form in the world. Our speech must be truthful, not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness which is not concrete is not truthful before God.
Bonhoeffer lived this truthfulness, and he died because of the truth: he knew that God did not bless the manipulations of dictators. God’s will was not behind the concentration camps. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to live his truth, to stand up to human power, to teach about the God of liberation not only with words, but in action. The God of Moses is a God who asks us, in our own time, to take a stand with God.
God will call you. God already has called you. There is a holy hunch at the heart of humanity. The hunch is this: “the world as it is is not the world as it should be.” Let me say that again, “The world as it is, is not the world as it should be.” I think deeply, we all know that. Maybe we know it better when we are younger. Have you ever had to try to explain homelessness or poverty to a child? “Why do some people go hungry?” “Why doesn’t that lady have a house?” Little kids get this holy hunch. The world as it is, is not the world as it should be.
As I said, children are particularly attuned to this hunch. As we get older, I worry that many of us get used to ignoring our injustice meters, or at least we figure out how to tune them out a bit. Others of us may feel like we’ve done our part. We’ve heard God’s call. I know that many of you in this congregation have dedicated a good part of your lives to working against injustice. But the God of Moses might call your name again. Don’t be surprised. God is relentless. That’s a good thing. God is not satisfied with human injustice.
The God of Moses is a God who invites each of us, over and over again. God calls us, over and over again, to do something about our hunches. God relies on us to make the truth concrete, to be a part of the liberation of those who suffer. How is God calling you? How many times will God say your name?