Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.
Our church has seen pretty substantial growth over the last year. Really even in the last six months. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that this 152-year-old place and this 2,000-year-old religion still have so much life and relevance.
But I’m also surprised. I don’t think I’m supposed to say that, but it is true.
In my experience and in my studies, it is the churches that offer a lot more clarity and control than we do that grow. Most mega-churches are those that offer specific rules for who is inside God’s grace and who is out, as well as specific steps one must take—and specific phrases one must say—in order to get special protection or closeness to God.
We don’t, either in this local UCC church or at the national level.
What we offer is conversation.
What we offer is a framework for hearing Biblical interpretations—worship—then opportunities to seek your own through service and fellowship. We place a high value on taking personal responsibility for unpacking the assumptions about God in Christ each of us has, and constructing and re-constructing theologies and lives based on what new light breaks forth from God’s holy word and our lives.
That is hard.
That is hard because it means we cannot outsource our spiritual journey to a creed or church constitution. It is hard because it means we have to be in community, listening to many voices and perspectives. It is hard because it is unending.
So, in an average year it would surprise me to see such a steep rise in interest in a place that does not provide the comfort of rules. In a year where I have witnessed such groaning for a little stability, so many cries for a break from surprises and uncertainties, I am even more so.
But when I return to today’s encounter between God and Moses, maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe what we are seeing at this church is the presence of the God of Moses—and an eagerness to be in service to that God like Moses.
The scene today opens with God hearing the suffering of the Hebrews, then seeking out help from Moses to alleviate that suffering. Though God speaks to Moses through a burning bush—not a very common form of communication—Moses waffles. Moses isn’t sure he has the right stuff and who is this god, anyway? Moses has good reason to ask for God’s credentials because his own credentials for being a prophet of God to the Hebrew people are so weak.
Moses was born a Hebrew, it is true. In his infancy, Moses was at as much risk of death as any other male Hebrew baby in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But Moses’ mom, a woman of great love and ingenuity, hides baby Moses in a small ark. The Hebrew word there is identical to that of the vessel Noah earlier used to save a remnant of the world from the flood.1
Up until this point, Moses is perfectly poised to be accepted as a prophet of God. Then this new little prophet is found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised up in Pharaoh’s house. Moses didn’t grow up among his own people and their hardships. His relationship with their daily agony ended before he was weaned.
But Moses wasn’t altogether sheltered. Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t conceal the truth of his origins. The next time we meet Moses, he is observing “an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers” (1.11–12). Moses always knew he was a guest in Pharaoh’s house.
On determining that there are no witnesses, Moses kills the Egyptian abuser and buries him. Pharaoh finds out and Moses runs away. Moses runs away from his people and their suffering in order to protect himself.
While gone, Moses marries Zipporah, a Midianite, which is a different ethnicity, with a different religion than the Hebrews. So, Moses is a Hebrew man, raised by an Egyptian Pharaoh, married to Midianite woman.
And God is asking that man for help.
When Moses comes back to town with his palatial upbringing, and his murderous history, and his lack of solidarity with the people he left behind in bondage, and his mixed marriage, the Hebrews are going to have a question or two about Moses’ credentials. So, Moses needs to bolster his with God’s own.
God also has some answering to do.
We have skipped over a very involved story about Joseph and his brothers that describes an intensely intimate relationship between God and the Hebrews.
Then God seems to have disappeared.
The Hebrews fall from a place of power and privilege in Egypt to one of degradation and pain. Not only does Moses need to answer for who he is, but God needs to explain where God has been—and why either of them can be trusted.
But God’s answer doesn’t really help.
Who are you, God?
Who are you, God?
Um, OK. No, really, who are you, God?
Good try. You can’t fence me in. I am eternal. I will be dynamic.
God doesn’t care about our need for answers and clarity. God does not need to credential godself, at least not beyond the air we breathe and the hope we feel.
That’s part of why we participate in World Communion Sunday. We need to remind ourselves that no one has a lock on the nature of God. Not the churches who claim to have all the answers and not us, either. On this Sunday God will be at God’s table in New Zealand and India. God will be at God’s table in Brazil and Nova Scotia. God will be at God’s table in Palestine and North Korea.
In ways we cannot control and will never be able to really understand, God is being whomever and however and whatever God must be.
Our role in such a relationship is not to ask who is speaking but to listen to what is being spoken. What God speaks is freedom for slaves.
Free the slaves of hunger and homelessness.
Free the slaves of menial labor and unemployment.
Free the slaves of bigotry and self-righteousness.
Free the slaves of ignorance and the legacy of slavery itself.
No matter who we are.
No matter how cowardly we have been in the past.
No matter how coddled we prefer to be.
God will find a way to speak to us that we will finally hear in order to bring each of us in our complex histories and loves into the work of redeeming history through love.
Maybe that’s why our branch of the Christian family tree is bearing more fruit these days: We reflect God’s multiplicity of strategies (or strategy of multiplicity) and the dignity of the diversity of human life.
When you are invited to this table in just a few minutes, do so with the awareness that we are, with millions of people of all kinds, taking our next first step toward freedom.
Do it will the full presence, receptivity, and responsivity of the prophet’s HERE I AM/hineni.
And, without question, trust that God IS, that God will be just as God will be.
1 Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004), p. 312.