Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our series about God on the move with a story about God trying to get Moses moving. It takes a little while, doesn’t it? Let’s cut to the highlight film.
To be fair, Moses isn’t exactly sitting still when our story begins. He’s working as a shepherd, keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, hardly a desk job. He’d have been moving around regularly, and it sounds like he’s been on a particularly long hike with his sheep at this point if he’s gone “beyond the wilderness.” (Exodus 3:1)
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush… blazing” yet not consumed. (Exodus 3:2) Once Moses turns aside to see this strange sight, God commands him to remove the sandals from his feet, for he’s standing on holy ground. God then introduces himself: I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (Exodus 3:5-6) And then tells Moses: I’ve got a job for you to do. It’s time to go back to Egypt, take on Pharaoh, and free your people.
Moses immediately pushes back: Who am I that I should go? (Exodus 3:11) And the reason I jumped a full chapter ahead for our second reading is that he argues with God for quite a long time. I skipped over a bunch of it; the point is God keeps on saying Moses needs to go back to Egypt for this important assignment, and Moses keeps on saying he's not the guy for the job. The people won’t listen to me, Pharaoh’s never going to let them leave… and a chapter later Moses is still going: I’m no public speaker, Lord. Seriously cannot string a sentence together. Always tripping over my own tongue. You’ve got the wrong guy.
Through it all, God offers signs and solutions to give Moses the confidence he needs to head back to Egypt and get the job done. They won’t believe you? Try this trick with your staff, or this one with your hand. Every excuse is answered. None are sufficient, it seems, for Moses to decline the invitation, which is after all, really a divine command and not a suggestion. We’ll be singing that command after the sermon today: “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh. Let my people go.”
Since none of his arguments are working, finally Moses pleads, “Oh my Lord, please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13) At which point God’s had enough. Frustrated by the constant excuses, God explains that Moses can give Aaron the content of the message and Aaron can speak for him. Problem solved. Done and done. Off you go.
There’s plenty to engage us as 21st century readers in this argument between God and Moses, because heaven knows Moses doesn’t have a monopoly on giving excuses. Especially when it comes to being asked to do things outside our comfort zone, it’s easy for us to understand how he must have felt. So it may be an ancient story, set on the opposite side of the world, but it feels immediate and relatable because… Well, we hear you, Moses. We get it.
In fact, it’s so much fun exploring this push back between Moses and God that I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of burying the lead as often as not when I’ve preached on this text. Allow me to try to correct that problem today.
It’s been right there in front of us the whole time. And now that I see it jumping off the page at me, it changes the tone of the story.
Listen again. “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry… Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
It turns out the urgency of God’s call to Moses isn’t all about Moses. God’s children are suffering. God has observed their misery, has heard their cry. That’s why God doesn’t particularly care how eloquent Moses is, or how hard it is for Moses to get anyone to listen to him. That’s why God loads him up with signs and support.
When after all of those other excuses, Moses finally says to God “O my Lord, please send someone else,” the text says “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” Why? Because the whole time Moses has been arguing, God’s children back in Egypt have been suffering. God hears his objections but frankly, compared to the pain of those being whipped as they try to build bricks out of straw, those excuses start to sound fairly petty. They’re being beaten and you’re worried about your public speaking ability? They’re being killed and you’re nervous about heading back to Egypt? Seriously, Moses, get moving…NOW! I’ll go with you and give you the words to say. This is way too critical to wait any longer. Their cries have come to me, I’ve seen their misery, and that’s why I’m calling you. Can’t you see how important it is that I’m pulling you off the bench? It’s not about your fitness for the job. It’s about a life-and-death need we’ve got to address. There’s no time to lose. Let’s go!
Of course, Moses didn’t have a news app on his phone showing him current photos or live streaming video of slaves being beaten in Egypt. He’d witnessed an example of that kind of cruelty before fleeing that place himself some time ago, but since then he’s been minding his own business in the fields with the sheep. How many families were hungry, how many children were dying, how brutal were the task masters and how tyrannical was Pharaoh’s leadership – these kinds of things were no longer immediately in his face. Perhaps time and distance had made him forgetful? Still, the cries of the oppressed reached God’s ears, their misery reached God’s sight, and God called on Moses to act.
In the globally connected world in which we live, the cries of the oppressed not only reach God’s ears, they reach ours too. God sees their misery and so do we. God sees the damage tyrannical leaders are doing and so do we. We can’t help but doing so. But what do we often do?
If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself thinking: I’m glad there are other people out there who are better educated in the issues, who have more time at their disposal to march in protests, who have more money available to give to those in need, whose voices will make more of an impact than mine will if they contact their government representatives. I’m afraid my list of excuses can go on and on.
I do this even though the cries of the oppressed are not all that remote. They are well within my own hearing and sight, as well as God’s. And yet I persist: Lord, I’m not skilled enough, not brave enough, not wealthy enough, not wise enough… Lord, I simply don’t have the time, the talent, the connections… Surely there is another person out there somewhere to take this on for you. Someone who… well, someone who most of all isn’t me. To quote Exodus 4:13, “O my Lord, please send someone else!”
But what if God is trying all the while to communicate to us: look, the urgency of this assignment isn’t all about you. It’s about the misery of your fellow children of God.
Now obviously there are going to be times when we are in pain ourselves for one reason or another. Times when there really are legitimate excuses for not pouring energy into others. When it’s all we can do to survive an illness or injury or loss, for instance. Or when we’re in the middle of a family crisis of some kind. The God who made us and loves us knows these things. Of course God knows. And God wouldn’t expect those to be the seasons in which we could give ourselves over to an important assignment elsewhere. Sometimes we’ve just got to hold tight and wait for our own storm to pass.
But on our regular days? When life is chugging along in a relatively normal way, can we hear God saying: “Look, you’ve met me here on holy ground. You’ve heard my voice and worshipped me here and you know who it is that’s calling you. So pick yourself up, and put those sandals back on your feet and grab that staff of yours, because it’s time to get moving. I’ve got important work to do to address the suffering of my children, and I’m calling on you to join me in that work. Let’s go!”
Surely the same God who heard the cries of those Hebrew slaves in Egypt so long ago hears the cries of suffering people today in Syrian refugee camps and in detention centers in our own country, in internment facilities in China and in tents under our own Seattle freeways. That same God sees the misery of those trapped in sex trafficking and those unjustly imprisoned due to racial prejudice. God hears the cries of those watching their children sicken from unsafe water and those watching their children die of malnutrition.
The God who called Moses is calling right now and brave souls are stepping up and answering that call, some of them the least likely people we might imagine would take on such important work. I suppose some of them may have been hoping for a call like this, but I’ll bet you most of them were just minding their own sheep, doing their own thing, maybe even moving along in another direction when something dramatic – a burning bush of sorts - caught their eye and they felt they had no choice but to turn aside and respond to an urgent call.
As for our own excuses? God may listen patiently for a chapter or two while we try to explain why we’re terrible candidates for tackling oppression and injustice. But sooner or later, I suspect God’s going to expect us to get moving anyway. Because that call I’m resisting might not be all about me; it might actually be about a pressing need in someone else’s life. Of course I can’t do everything, but if I’m honest with myself, is there something I could be doing? My unique calling, or yours - it may not change the entire trajectory of global injustice, but to someone it could make all the difference in the world.
I also wonder if there’s a particular call God has in mind for us as a congregation as we head into our 75th anniversary year and beyond. I’ll be interested to see if similar patterns emerge as we listen together for God’s voice in our upcoming prayer retreats. Because when we turn aside for a minute, acknowledge that we are on holy ground, and really listen, that call will be so much easier to hear.
Meanwhile we saw it back in Genesis and we’ve seen it again here in Exodus. God’s Spirit is out there on the move - breathing, blowing, blazing…and calling. Always calling. Calling the most unlikely people to get over their excuses, to really listen as they stand on holy ground, and then to move.