Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
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, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 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." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Then Jesus told his disciples, "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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
During one of my first years as pastor here, a situation arose in which someone was not happy with the work I was doing. This person made their opinions clear and then stopped coming to church. Being a person who is naturally conflict-avoidant, that was fine with me. At first. But whenever I would stop the busy-ness of work and life, this nagging thought that I should call this person wouldn’t let me go. However, I would simply find something else to keep me busy. So for weeks, I kept putting off making that call.
Right about then, one of you called me on the carpet. You knew the situation and gave me advice I’ve not forgotten: make the difficult call. While I’ve not lived up to this advice perfectly, by any means, its echoes have had me picking up the phone more often than not.
We have before us in the story of Moses and the burning bush a conversation between Moses and God. In so many ways, this story is central to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of the greatest leaders of Israel is called by God. God gives the name by which he is forever after known, variously translated as “I am,” “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be,” “I am becoming.” It is the unpronounced name, YHWH, the sound of the human breath. That’s the first part of the name, and the part we usually focus on. The second part, you may recall, goes like this: “the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” the God of Sarah, the God of Rebekah, the God of Leah and Rachael, the God of St. Francis, the God of St. Terese of Liseaux, the God of Mother Theresa, the God of Martin Luther King, Jr., the God of Cesar Chavez, the God of Rosa Parks, the God of _________[insert your name].
And the God of Moses.
This God asks Moses to make the difficult call, to say the least. An argument ensues. In the transcription as we have it, God asks and the next line is usually “But Moses said to God.” Moses has a million excuses why he isn’t the one to do this. The good news is, God has a million and one reasons why Moses is the one. None of them, however, are particularly good reasons. Let’s see:
- Moses has trouble speaking in public
- Moses’ face has been hanging on post office bulletin boards throughout Egypt as a man wanted for murder
- Moses returned the favor of being a Hebrew boy raised in Pharaoh’s family by killing an Egyptian and then running away
- Moses has compassion for those being beaten up and oppressed
- Moses did take the time to turn aside to see what was happening in this bush that burned but was not consumed (although rabbis have argued over the centuries that it had been burning there for months)
- Moses knows that he’s walking on holy ground and so takes off his sandals
It’s so nice that we have this all wrapped up in 15 verses. I imagine Moses did tell the story this way. In reality, I think this sequence took more like 15 years - enough for Moses to come somewhere near forgiving himself for killing another human being, enough for Moses to remember how lucky he was to survive the killing of the Hebrew baby boys, enough for Moses to no longer be able to live with how harshly his nation was being treated by the Egyptians.
Enough for Moses to spend day after day tending sheep and arguing with God: Can I go back home again? I can go back home again. I can’t go back home again. Can I walk into the court of Pharaoh again? I can’t. I can. No other Hebrew will be able to walk the walk or talk the talk in Pharaoh’s court. No other Hebrew will get the time of day. I know how to play that game. Am I the one? If not me, then who? Then how? Surely God has a better place and a better plan for my people than this land of slavery and inequality.
Fifteen years of arguing in wilderness. Fifteen years of coming to terms with who he is. Fifteen years of realizing that while tending sheep is a good life, it’s not the life Moses was meant to live. Fifteen years of figuring out what he did wrong the first time in trying to defend his people and how he might do it differently the next time. Fifteen years of figuring out the right words to say to his brother Aaron and the people of Israel so they might believe that now was the time. Fifteen years of figuring out how to make this God’s decisive act in history, not the great act of Moses. Fifteen years of figuring out that a lifetime of being the one who never fit in shaped him perfectly for this moment.
And who knows, maybe fifteen years of the bush burning without being consumed by the fire (Rabbis argue about how long the bush was burning before Moses noticed and turned aside). But this year, this month, this day, something caught Moses’ eye. And then his ear. And then his mind. And then his heart. His sandals came off. As he merged with the Holy One on holy ground, he saw a vision of a land flowing with milk and honey, a land meant for all people, not just those in power. He had tasted this land, and having been born with a compassionate heart that burned with justice, he wanted a taste of this land for everyone.
Moses didn’t know how it could be done. But in that moment, he knew he had to make the difficult call that he had been considering for years. The Pharaoh who was his grandfather had passed away. A new regime was in power. Even though power is always power, this was a chance for change. A risky chance but a chance nonetheless.
"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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
By running away to Midian, marrying the priest’s daughter, and tending his father-in-law’s sheep, Moses had saved his life. Now that very life was slipping through his hands. Now was the time to lose life as he knew it. It might mean a painful, torturous, untimely death. It might mean glorious resurrection.
I made the call that day. And like 95 percent of the difficult calls I’ve made over the past seven years, it turned out better than expected. A land of milk and honey? That might be pushing it. But better than the desert wilderness. Even if little changed in the relationship I had with this person, I was freed from the bondage of fear and guilt. This emotional and spiritual freedom gave me renewed energy for life and work, clearing the way that had been blocked. Life is too short and too precious to waste wondering what if.
The cross is an exciting path of service to the world in the way that most deeply suits who you are. And, that which is so often forgotten when people speak of their “cross to bear,” the way of the cross ends in resurrection, new-found life. Moses was deeply suited to be the deliverer of Egypt - a man of both cultures with entry to Pharaoh’s court and a man with a heart from the oppressed and a burning desire for justice. In bearing that cross, in making that call, he and the people of Israel found resurrection, new life.
Maybe you have a difficult call to make, letter to write, or person to visit. Do it today. What’s the worst that can happen, really? People change. Maybe they’re just waiting for you. And if nothing comes of it, if nothing’s changed, you’re not out much, either. The situation’s the same.
However, there’s a good chance that by making that difficult call, you will lead a person, a group, or even a nation out of bondage, slavery, or oppression. Maybe that freedom will be in a very tangible release: marriage equality for all, release from addiction, just treatment for people of all colors and income, release of those unjustly accused or convicted. Maybe that freedom will be the emotional and spiritual release that comes from breaking the bondage of fear, anger, guilt, or shame so often inherent in broken relationships.
Life’s too short. Make the call. As author Madeleine L’Enlge said in preaching this passage: “God always asks the impossible. If it's possible, if it's easy, we can be pretty sure that it's the tempter who's asking us, not God.”
So let’s take up our cross and follow those who have gone before us and put their lives on the line. Let’s turn aside and see where God is calling us to holy ground. Let’s have faith that resurrection freedom awaits to surprise us more than we can imagine. Amen.