Oct 1, 2023

3 1-1


Into Action: Partnering A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian

Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15

Our narrative lectionary journey through the Old Testament continues today with the classic story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush. Last week, we heard about how Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok, and we were reminded by Pastor Katie of the importance of holding onto God in prayer. Jacob comes away from that wrestling blessed with a new name—Israel, contending with God. As his story continues through some interesting plot twists, Jacob’s son Joseph, who has been thrown in a pit to die by his jealous brothers, becomes second in command to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and from that post, is able to help Jacob and the rest of the family avoid starvation. They are reconciled and they and their descendants live in Egypt for the next several hundred years, until a new Pharaoh comes to power who does not know Joseph.

That’s where our story picks up; and it continues beyond that to relate how Moses, one of Jacob’s descendants who grew up in the court of Pharaoh and fled to the wilderness of Midian after he killed one of the Egyptian tasksmasters, meets God in the wilderness and asks God for God’s name. As you listen to the story, pay attention to how Pharaoh and the Egyptians react to the Israelites, and to what Moses later learns about God.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

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.

There’s no way to know for sure, but when Moses led the flock beyond the wilderness that day and came to Mount Horeb, I don’t think he was looking to begin a partnership with God.

I like to think it began as just an ordinary day, in a series of ordinary days for Moses. Just one more regular day.

On the other hand, there might have been something in Moses that was longing for more than just the day in day out keeping of his father-in-law’s sheep. There might have been something in Moses that was restless and ready to receive something new. Otherwise, why would he have led the flock beyond the wilderness?

What exactly does that mean anyway, beyond the wilderness? I mean, the wilderness can feel scary and uncertain enough—beyond the wilderness must be that times at least two or times one thousand. It brings to mind on how on at least a few medieval maps, they’d put the phrase hic sunt dracones—”here be dragons”—accompanied by an illustration of some kind of mythological creature. Here be dragons.

There’s the wilderness we know—or at least sort of know—with well-marked trails like the ones Judith and I found in some of the National Parks we hiked this summer. There’s the wilderness we know, just out beyond the edges of our settlement, just out beyond our comfort zones. There’s the wilderness we instinctively know we’ll encounter, with its time worn paths of grief and loss that generations of people before us have navigated. We can watch others go into that wilderness, we can even accompany them there, but there’s something different about it when we are there for ourselves and it feels like just by ourselves.

Speaking of that, how many times have I walked with people into some particular experience in life and thought to myself, “I’ve got a pretty good handle on this. I’ve been through this hundreds of times. I’ve been with people through this.”? Then when it comes to me, it feels like a brand new experience. Saying goodbye to a beloved mother. Moving a father out of his home and up here. Watching a child head off to college for the first time. Watching a child—in about three weeks—get married. All of that is new when you experience it yourself.

There’s the wilderness of starting something new to us—getting on the bus to go to middle school for the first time, starting college, beginning a new job, bringing the baby home from the hospital—that is certainly beyond our comfort zones. But that’s not exactly here be dragons territory, because we know other people have been there before us and even charted a course or written books about it. We have to go through it ourselves, but that’s just going into the wilderness, not beyond the wilderness.

However sometimes we venture—or are thrust—beyond the wilderness, into what feels like it truly is uncharted territory, somewhere we can convince ourselves nowhere else has ever been. That’s the here be dragons part of the map, and that’s when partnering becomes essential. When you wind up beyond the wilderness, for whatever reason, maybe it’s time to look around for a burning bush—or some other sign that we are not alone.

Like I said, I’m not sure Moses was seeking to enter a partnership with God that day, but that’s what God, who meets him in the burning bush invites him into. It must be said that Moses could very well have missed that invitation. When the angel or messenger of God appeared to him in the flame of fire out of the bush, he could have walked right on by.

Most of us do that all the time, by the way. We walk right on by burning bushes. Some person or occurrence shows up in our lives with a message for us, and we dismiss it as a coincidence, or we keep our eyes glued to our phone, or we hustle on about our day or our week without giving it or them a second thought.

I’m fond of quoting the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning on this point. In Aurora Leigh she writes:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

It may be that the most important spiritual practice in life is the discipline of noticing, really being present and paying attention to the people and creatures and events in our lives. The power of today’s story is that Moses, out beyond the wilderness, is able to do that. It’s only when, after noticing the fiery bush and that it was not consumed, it’s only when Moses decides to turn aside and look at this great sight that his encounter, and his real partnership, with God begins.

You never know what will start, or reinvigorate, that sense of partnering with God, but it’s likely to happen out beyond the wilderness.
It might be going away on a retreat, or a sabbatical, and because you are out of your routine finding yourself more attentive to what is going on around you, you notice how the living divine might be speaking to you. It might be that it takes what friends of mine call hitting your bottom to realize that you really do need the help of a power greater than yourself. It might be making a geographical move you never really anticipated making. It might be when you find yourself beyond the limits of your own strength.

It might be any one of a million here be dragons moments, including watching a documentary or hearing a speaker, or reading your news feed and thinking, “We’ve never been here before. My God, something needs to be done about this.” It could be that it’s the angry divisiveness in our society, or the unfolding of global climate change, or the increasing tolerance for violent imagery in our games and media and tv shows.” Or, it could be just being in a church on a regular old Sunday morning, listening to a sermon, like, I don’t know, this one right here. You never know when you might hear the call to partnership, or renewed partnership, with the living divine.

But when the call to partnering comes, somewhere out beyond the wilderness where dragons are, it’s worth remembering several things from the story of Moses and his encounter with God. You might write them down. By the way, taking notes is the Presbyterian way of saying amen.

First, Moses is invited into caring actively for the oppressed. Moses learns that God cares about people who are enslaved and oppressed. I know oppression can be a loaded word, and it can promote a victim mentality, but it is true that there really are people who are treated unjustly in our country and our world.

Related to that, perhaps you noticed that the Egyptians in today’s text seem to be putting forth a sort of replacement theory. You know, if we don’t deal shrewdly with these Hebrews and their people, if we don’t keep them in their place, these Hebrews and their people will take over and turn things upside down. From the conversation God has with Moses, it is clear that God is not neutral on that matter. God cares—and God calls Moses to care and to help bring freedom for and justice to those who are being oppressed. God’s care for the mistreated and the people on the margins gets written into the law that Moses will later be handed down.

A second thing to note is that when Moses asks God for God’s name, the Living Divine answers with four Hebrew consonants, the tetragrammaton, which when you fill in vowels is rendered Yahweh. Yahweh is variously translated as I am that I am, or I will be what I will be, or I am becoming what I am becoming, or, in an entirely new translation, “You can’t control me, Moses.”

At least one commentator has noted that Yahweh sounds a lot like breath. Yah-weh. Yah-weh. Yah-weh. From the very beginning of our lives, the first breath we take, to the last breath we take, we are breathing the name of God. We are infused with God’s life.

Our very breath reminds us of partnership with the Living Divine, which is why it is so helpful to begin the day in meditation, paying attention to our breath—and to breathe deeply whenever we are in those Here Be Dragons moments. To breathe deeply whenever we feel overwhelmed by what life is throwing our way, whether it is saying goodbye to a beloved associate pastor, or beginning a new call, or dealing with some other challenge or loss in life. Breathe deeply. Yah-weh, yah-weh, yah-weh. We are not alone. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and Jacob is with us.
As a favorite confession of faith that I used to say in the U.C.C. Church where I’d just been confirmed, puts it: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.” So breathe deeply.

Another thought I have to share is that there is mystery at the very heart of God’s name. It’s consonants. We have to supply the vowels. We guess at them. Our best guess is that it means I am that I am, or I will be what I will be, or I am becoming what I will become, or you can’t control me, Moses. All of that suggests that we cannot manipulate God or life, no matter how much and how unceasingly we may try.

I was reminded again by a friend yesterday that we don’t know what will happen next in life. To pretend that we do, to project and fret and stress and worry, rather than to do what we can to prepare for what might come in our personal or communal lives, is to fail to fully appreciate the mystery of life. At the very heart of God, there is mystery. But God with us, we are not alone. We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know. When we deceive ourselves into thinking that we do, life usually brings us a stark reminder that we don’t.

So let’s circle back to one more gerund, recognizing God’s call. It’s here you know. In a regular ordinary church, on a regular ordinary Sunday, on a day like today. It’s here, you know. For you and for me.


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