Holy Moses! If you think today’s Scripture reading was long, imagine how long it will take me to unravel it all for you. Obviously, I won’t be able to do more than point us to the heart of the story and, hopefully, give you a way of relating to it—and to God—as we hear God’s call in our own lives.
So, the calling of Moses is quite a remarkable story! Let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot more about Moses than I’d ever known before—or at least I’ve unlearned some of the misinformation that I’d acquired. Has it ever happened in your family that stories get told and retold so often that they somehow get meshed together? That Uncle Orville didn’t actually run away and join the circus because he’d spilled his milk one too many times? Actually, he’d spilled his milk at age seven and joined the military—not the circus—at age 18, but in your mind it’s cause and effect and only one incident. Or something like that . . . .
That’s what happened to me with Moses. In my own mind, Moses ascends the mountain, sees a burning bush, gets the Ten Commandments, and proceeds to smash the golden calf and march off triumphantly to the land of milk and honey. Guess I combined too many important elements of Moses’ story—or should I say, God’s story?
We know about the Ten Commandments, the manna in the desert, and so forth, but that story started with God and Moses and that bush. It started with God getting Moses’ attention—quite dramatically I might add—and then the two of them engaging in building a relationship. I believe God does this same thing with each of us, albeit in perhaps a more subdued way.
For the past several Sundays we’ve heard throughout our Scripture readings the phrase, “Here I am.” We heard it with Abraham and Isaac, when Isaac was a youth; then with Esau, Jacob, and Isaac, when he was nearing the end of his life; and now with Moses encountering God’s call on Mt. Horeb. Pastor Leanne stressed recently how that phrase, “Here I am,” was used to signal a submission to the other in a relationship. God is calling Moses into relationship, and the response from the prophet is, “Here I am.”
But before Moses could interact with God, he had first to recognize God’s presence. For Moses, God appeared as an unconsumed flame in a bush. I have my own flaming bush story—minus the flame. Some of you might have heard me talk previously about my lilac bush and my meeting God there on the corner of Humboldt and Pleasant Streets in Milwaukee. In my case, walking past a huge, blooming lilac bush touched my heart and my soul as nothing else had. It was my moment of surrender to God—a moment I cherish beyond belief. I’ve heard surrender defined this way: It’s when a sufficient amount of pain comes together with the grace of God at a moment in time, and we say “yes.” If you’ve had such a moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were remembering it right now. Meeting God is, indeed, memorable and life-changing. For me, it offered hope—something I had not felt in years. That’s why I have a tattoo of lilacs on my right ankle—to remind me of God’s presence in my life and the way God first touched my soul.
I saw a lilac bush; Moses saw a burning bush. Both got our attention. We know from earlier in the book of Exodus that Moses had killed a slave master and consequently fled Egypt in fear for his life. Perhaps he was tired of living in exile, or perhaps he was content to tend his father-in-law’s flocks. God, however, had other plans for Moses’ future—plans that we learn from the story did not exactly thrill Moses. He might be dubbed “the reluctant prophet,” but God dealt compassionately with Moses’ misgivings.
That is perhaps what I find most appealing in this story. Moses was able to be his authentic self before God. He was able to share his hesitancy—to let God—and us—know that he did not think he was good enough. It appears he, too, suffered from low self-esteem, despite being rescued as a baby and being raised by the pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses proffers that he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue.” What is God’s response to Moses’ apparent weakness? God offers reassurance, saying twice in this passage, “I will be with you,” and then offering assistance, saying that Moses’ brother, Aaron, can journey with him and speak for him. Being there to support one another and help carry each one’s burdens is crucial to the eventual outcome of this story. Moses feels he could not carry out God’s will on his own, and that was okay with God.
I am wearing a button today that my sister, Barbara, gave me. It references her third battle against cancer, and it says simply, “No one fights alone!” God says to Moses, use your brother’s strength, and that message is one we need today. The COVID pandemic has left so many isolated and has brought so much upheaval to so many of us. We are fighting this age’s battles; the Israelites were being crushed under 400+ years of slavery. God’s response to us today is the same as it was to Moses and his people: “I will be with you.”
In today’s reading, God instructs Moses to take off his shoes, because the ground on which he was standing is holy ground. This might be saying that the ground is holy because of God’s presence or God’s creation of it, or it might be saying we should trust God and take off or let go of the things we use to protect ourselves. God invites us to come as we are—“slow of speech and slow of tongue”—because God needs us for the work of creation. We need not be protected from God, but by God. God says to Moses—and also to us—“I will teach you.” We are standing on holy ground, too, as a community of believers, here to support and care for one another and the world. We are called for God’s purpose and are asked to say “Yes,” “Here I am,” and “Amen.”
Moses’ story and simple response of “Here I am” were echoed for me in a prayer by the late monk, Thomas Merton. With Moses in mind, it seems appropriate to close today with Merton’s words:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.