Today I am preaching the second in a three part series of sermons on a question: “What do we mean when we say the word God?” Last week we encountered the God of Abraham, of Sarah, and of Hagar. We talked about the one God we share with our siblings who are Jewish and Muslim. We talked about the radical teaching that God is one. When we speak of God, we speak of the One who is behind creation, behind every act of mercy, behind every movement for justice, behind every demonstration of love. Next week we’ll turn to Jesus and the story of the Prodigal son. Today we encounter to Moses, and the Midwives whose resistance set the stage for Moses.
In the story we have today, there exists a fundamental tension. God calls Moses. God has to Moses multiple times. Moses is stupefied by this bush that is not consumed. God has to get past Moses’ conceptions. Rabbi Rami Shapiro has said: “The God of your understanding is just that, the God of your understanding. What you need is the God just beyond your understanding.” For God to get Moses where God needs Moses, God has to push his conceptions of what we mean by God. And it turns out, God has been pushing the boundaries on Moses’ people for quite some time.
Resistance Before Moses, The Midwives
Remember Moses enters the world under threat. He enters a world where Pharaoh is trying to commit genocide against his people, but he also enters a world where his people have learned to resist. Before Moses receives a call, a group of midwives hear God’s voice. These women, Shiphrah and Puah, choose to listen to God rather than Pharaoh. When the king tells them to kill newborn Hebrew boys, they return to Pharaoh and say, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.” Shiphrah and Puah play Pharaoh’s own biases against him. “for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.”
Through their quiet resistance, through cunning, the midwifes were able to save lives, including Moses. Their resistance is political, yes, but it is also theological. Pharaoh does not have the last word on the dignity of their people, on the value of human life. When we speak of the God of Moses, when we speak of the God of the midwives, we speak of a God who stands with oppressed people. Moses was born into a community who already knew on one level, God stood with the poor, with the hungry, with those who were made to suffer. God is a God of liberation. And God needed to push the people, needed to push Moses, to work on a greater scale.
The early chapters of Exodus chronicle the rise of an anti-immigrant rhetoric in Egypt. A first pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew boys, the next pharaoh makes life even worse for the Israelites. The people are treated as slaves, are abused. As a young man in pharaoh’s house, Moses becomes enraged when he sees an Egyptian beating one of his kinsfolk. Moses lashes out and kills the oppressor. Then Moses has to flee.
Moses encounters a God with a bias: for the oppressed
That’s how we find Moses where we encounter him this morning, working for his father-in-law, far from Pharaoh’s jurisdiction, out in the desert with the sheep. That’s where he hear’s God’s voice from the burning bush. “Moses, Moses.” It does, it takes a couple of repetitions of his name before Moses answers. Moses may not be exactly happy as a herdsman, working for his father in law. (Who is ever really happy working for their father-in-law?) But he is safe. He is secure. Then God comes and interrupts his safe world.
“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.” For Enslaved Africans making their way to freedom, for Bartolome de las Casas the Spanish Dominican who questioned colonialism, for St. Francis who chose to live among lepers, for as long as there has been a church, there have been voices claiming, “God sides with those who suffer.” Christians have looked to the story of Moses for inspiration, for the primary text, the original story of the God of liberation.
Gustavo Gutierrez and the Lord’s Prayer
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 short.
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 try and build walls to keep out the distress. 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’ve got ours. Stay there God.
I have come down, now YOU go
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, the God of the Midwives, This God is a God of liberation. Part B is more complictaed: God relies on people to accomplish God’s liberation in their own time.
Moses’ God is a God of Liberation, but not simply a God of “liberation from.” This is not just a God who sets us free from Pharoah. This is a God who has a reason for liberation, is liberating them FOR something. Moses’ God does not only save the people FROM Pharaoh. The God of Moses, the God of the midwives is preparing the people FOR life after pharaoh. God liberates God’s people TOWARD a vision. As St. Augustine wrote, our freedom is FOR something. God has a vision of life in community, a vision Jesus would call the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God.” Dr. King would translate that vision as the “beloved community.” God gives us freedom FOR something. God involves us in the work., to live together in just community, to build one another up.
There are forty chapters in the book of Exodus, and the people are free from Pharaoh after chapter 15. The rest of Exodus moves the people toward God’s vision, toward the living of just community, toward the covenant.
Romero and Moses share a God of Liberation
Today is the 39th anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, and patron saint of our partner organization Cristosal in that country. Romero compared his “humble ministry” to that of Moses, simply to transmit God’s word. In a homily he preached almost exactly one year before he was killed, Romero said this:
What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially-lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? …My siblings, God’s word calls us today. Let me tell you with all the conviction I can muster, it is worthwhile to be a Christian.
Romero speaks of a God like the God of Moses, the God of the Midwives: a God of who involves people in the work of Liberation, a God for Freedom. God hears the cry of God’s suffering, God’s beloved poor. God hears the cry of all of those who are left out, lost, and least in our society. God stands with them, and God gives them hope. Saint Oscar Romero points us beyond our own comfort to the work of God. Oscar Romero points us to listen with God to the voices of those who are still crying out from under the oppressors rod.
Of course, the most famous line in this story of Moses is when Moses asks for God’s name. Moses says, “who should I say sent me?” We could have a whole graduate seminar on this name, and I am already close to over time in this sermon. Permit me just one word on God’s response.
When our Bible translation renders God’s response as “I am who I am,” know that the Hebrew is much more complicated. Some theologians have translated this verse saying “I was who I was, I am who I am, I will be who I will be” or even “I am becoming what I am becoming.” I would also venture the following. “I am that which is.” As Paul Tillich wrote, God is the “ground of being.” God is involved in all that is, in all that was, in all that will be. This same God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Joseph, the Midwives and Moses, the God of Jesus, and Romero, and Dr. King, and the God of all of those people who sang freedom songs in the early days of our country. That God is at the foundation of our very being, and invites us all to work toward freedom.
When we speak of God, we speak of a vision for integral liberation. We don’t just speak of a libertarian freedom, an anarchy where anything goes. Such a freedom is not really freedom for all. Our God sets people free for love. God sets us free to live in just and loving relationship with our fellow human beings, with our fellow creatures, with our planet. It is worthwhile to listen to call the God of Moses. It is worthwhile to be a Christian. When we speak of God, life can get complicated. When we choose to listen to God, we can be called outside of our comfort zone.
When we speak of God, we speak of the loving, life-giving, liberating force behind all of creation. We speak of the one who works behind the scenes, through unlikely characters and strange burning bushes. We speak of a God who invites us to look beyond our own understanding, to seek the God just beyond our understanding. When we speak of God, we speak of a higher power, the ultimate reality, the divine which is integrally involved in all the work of liberation, in the work of redemption, in the work of freedom for all God’s people.
Be careful when you speak of this God, and especially when you speak to this God. You may be invited to let go of your boundaries, and to set people free.