September 20, 2015 | Exodus 2: 23 – 3: 14 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
As you well know by now, we are in the middle of a federal election campaign. In my home, with an almost 10 year old in the house, we’ve been trying cease this opportunity to do some education about the electoral party system. So far Nathan knows that Justin Trudeau just isn’t ready to lead (from watching tv commercials); that Tom Mulcair will ruin the country (according to his best friend Andre); Elizabeth May’s party name matches the colour of their election signs; and that if Mom makes partisan comments from the pulpit, Stephen Harper will revoke her churches tax free status. What we hope he will eventually learn is that authority by which we make important decisions in our lives, like who will lead our country into the future, matters.
In this morning’s story about Moses and the burning bush, the question of whose lead we will follow, the question of authority, is central. “Who am I that I should lead the people?” asks Moses. “Who am I that I should be the one to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” “By whose authority am I going to tell the people I have been sent? Under whose name will I go? “My name” replies the voice from the burning bush “the God of your ancestors, the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Tell them “I am has sent you.”
Who will lead us as we try and find our way forward as a country; as we try and figure out how to be church in these changing and disorienting times; as we try and save our planet or simply figure out what next step we should take in our personal lives? By whose authority will we make our choices? By God’s authority, the authority of the great I am. But what if we’re not sure who or what God really is?
American theologian Dominic Crossan says the most important question for the church in the 21st century is this: what is the character of your God? The reason he says this is because over the centuries, so many harmful and distorted interpretations of God have developed that for many people the very word God has become offensive. If we want an example of this we need to look no further than the case of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis who was recently sent to jail because she refused to give out marriage licenses to same gender couples. When asked by whose authority she was making that decision she replied “by God’s authority.” To which some people would say “Amen sister” and others of us would reply “not by the authority of the God I believe in.”
So how do we decide who’s right? Who is the God you believe in? Do you even believe in God? By whose authority do you make your big life decisions? What is the nature of your God?
These are important questions for the church, and for us as individuals not only because they help us orient our moral compass in general, but because one of the primary ways we find a faithful direction for the future is by looking back at the ways God has been present to us in the past. And in order to see God in the past, we have to be able to recognize who and what it is we are looking for.
So I wonder what clues this story about Moses and the burning bush might have for us today about the nature of the God for whom we are searching to help us find our way into the future.
One of the first things I noticed about the God we encounter in this story about Moses is that contrary to the image of an angry and vengeful God that we so often think of as the Old Testament God, this God seems quite compassionate and caring. Here is a God who has heard the cries of people suffering in slavery, the God who remembers a covenant once made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a God who notices when people are in distress and looks upon them with active care.
Now this might conjure up for you images of an old man with a white beard tenderly loving his people from afar which might be just fine for you and if it is then go with it. But if that image doesn’t work for you, I wonder if you have ever felt like someone took notice of you when you were in a time of need; or if you were stuck in a terrible situation and somehow found your way out. I wonder if you might now look back on that in that time in your life and those circumstances and say that the God of Abraham of Isaac and of Jacob noticed me in my distress and looked upon me with compassion.
And I wonder if this scene that has been painted for us this morning, in which Moses hears his name being called from the center of a burning bush, reminds you of anything you have ever experienced in your own life. Have you ever had a moment when it felt like God was speaking directly just to you? Have you ever experienced something so mysterious and overwhelming it has evoked in you a sense of wonder and awe? Have you ever just known with all your being that the ground upon which you were standing was holy? Maybe a place you could literally put your feet on or perhaps just one of those experiences that you know you couldn’t have orchestrated in and of yourself?
I wonder if you have ever felt like Moses felt when he was standing in front of that burning bush and wondering who or what it was that was speaking to him from within it? Scared to show your face. One of things we often overlook about Moses is that he was on the lam when he ran smack dab into God that day. He had fled from Egypt because in a fit of anger he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave, someone Moses knew to be his kin. Moses was a fugitive and a refugee who knew two wrongs didn’t make a right and yet God deemed him worthy of leading his people into freedom. Perhaps because God knew he already had within him a spirit of compassion for the suffering and oppressed.
So I wonder if you have ever done something that seemed unforgiveable to you and discovered you were still worthy of forgiveness and respect. I wonder if you have ever been scared to turn your face towards new life and possibility because you were worried about what that new life might demand from you even though somewhere in your being you longed for that new life to emerge.
When Moses asks God by whose authority he should go to the Israelites and lead them from slavery into freedom the one thing he is told he should do is evoke for his people their memory of the past. Tell them the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob has sent you to them. Tell them the God who freed them in the past is the same God that will free them in the future. It’s a very personal memory that is being evoked here. Sure it’s a patriarchal lineage that is being recited, but it’s also the memory of a God who has been active in the lives of individuals in very intimate and personal ways. What that says to us about the nature of the God we encounter in this story, is that when it comes to giving authority to someone or something to lead us into the future, or to put our name forward to do the leading, it’s our lived experience of our faith that matters most of all. Don’t believe me because I tell you what I say is true, believe me if what I tell you resonates with your own experience of the truth.
When you look back on your own life, where are the places you can see that love and grace and possibility were companioning and guiding you? Are there times when you thought that God was absent that in retrospect you can see that perhaps God was with you all along? If we look back at the history of this congregation, what are the specific moments we would name as times when God was there? Are there times when we thought it was God’s voice we were following that in retrospect we realize it was a distorted voice that we were following?
The ways that we have experienced sacred presence in the past, are clues to the ways we will experience the sacred in the future. The lessons we learn from the past about the ways we are likely to get caught in a web of deception are clues to the things we need to be mindful of as we take next steps on the journey forward. Times of new beginnings are always times to pay attention and to take stock.
Finally what does the story of Moses and the burning bush tell us about the character of God? It tells us that the God of Abraham, of Jacob and of Isaac, the great I am, is a God that wills for freedom, a holy presence that pushes on the prison gates of everything and anything holds back or harnesses the fullness of our existence; a powerful and creative energy that is always ready to unlock our greatest potential for justice, peace and love.
It’s tempting to look at the story of Moses and interpret it in a way that says the nature of God is to seek freedom only for those God deems as worthy. God comes to save the people of Israel but to heck with Pharoah and his Egyptian army that drown along the way.
Who wants that kind of God? But make no mistake about it, the fullness of the God revealed to us in scripture longs for Bashar Al-Assad’s freedom just as much as for the Syrian people. Our freedom is always wrapped up in the freedom of others. Moses freedom from his self- imposed exile was wrapped up in the freedom of his people, Pharoah’s freedom was wrapped up in letting the people go. So any path leading into the future that is guided by the God who guided Moses will always be about greater freedom for all.
How do we decide… which leader to choose for our country, which partner to pick, which job, which purpose for our life, which way to be the church, which path to take into the future? The way forward is found by looking for God in our past and the places we will find the God for which we are searching are the places of compassion and love, freedom and justice, possibility and personal encounter. And when we find the God for whom we are searching, don’t be surprised if the one being called to lead the way is you.