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Who Am I… To Be Doing This?

04 Aug

Charlton_Heston_in_The_Ten_Commandments_film_trailer-EDIT-600(a sermon for August 4, 2013, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Exodus 3:1-15, and preached at a Combined Worship Service with the Canterbury United Community Church in Canterbury, NH)

There is a man by the name of Andy Fleming who is an ethicist at the Emory Center for Ethics in Atlanta, Georgia; and Fleming has developed a process by which one should be able to decide his or her life direction.  It’s actually pretty simple; Fleming suggests that you should ask yourself three questions:  What do I like to do, what am I good at, and what needs to be done in the world.  Fleming further asserts that where the answers to those questions overlap for you is your “sweet spot,” the place where you are meant to be and where you are able to live out your destiny at its fullest.

That all sounds pretty good and very logical; kind of a more personal and outwardly focused version of those vocational tests we all had to take in high school.  But I ask you, what happens when God enters the picture, and you quickly discover that your “sweet spot” is far removed from God’s own plan for you?

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the call of Moses.

Now, as we look at this story as it’s told in the Book of Exodus, to begin with, it’s probably best that we leave Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston behind.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Ten Commandments, too; it’s just that that particular movie has had such a strong and indelible effect on how we picture Moses, he of the long robe and flowing white beard, the awe-struck religious gaze and slow, sonorous voice.  Granted, it feels to us like this ought to be the perfect depiction of one who’s come face to face with the Almighty, but look a little closer at our reading today and you start to realize, to quote Frederick Buechner, that Moses “probably looked a lot more like Tevye the milkman after ten rounds with Mohammed Ali.”

Understand that as we pick up his story in Exodus, just a scant three chapters in, Moses has already lived the better part of his lifetime – some 40 years – out “beyond the wilderness” in the land of Midian.  The days of his having been raised as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, with all the privileges and prospects of an Egyptian prince, are long behind him; as well as Moses’ reclaiming of his own identity as Hebrew, and his subsequent determination to do something about the horrible slavery under which his people were living: an effort which, of course, ended so miserably that Moses was forced to flee into the desert, presumably to live out the rest of his days tending sheep and trying to forget he ever tried to make a difference in the world.

That was the plan, anyway; at least until God intervened in the guise of a burning bush.

Now, the passage we’ve shared this morning is a classic example of what biblical scholars refer to as a theophany, that is, an appearance of God that calls forth proper fear and awe.  And this one has it all: the spectacle of a bush that “was blazing, yet it was not consumed;” a deep voice intoning, “Moses, Moses!” with the demand that he show proper deference by removing his sandals, this because he was standing on “holy ground.”  This was God, alright; “the God of [Moses’] father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and He’s come to deliver his people out of their bondage to Egypt, and “to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Make no mistake, this was BIG, and none of what God was saying was lost on Moses.  This was the answer to every prayer and petition Moses ever made; it was everything that he’d ever longed to hear!  Finally, he thought. God is here to make it right!

And then, with Moses still face down in the sand in fear and awe, God says this:  So, Moses… “it’s time for you to go back: I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt.” (The Message)

Excuse me?  You’re sending… me?

Here’s where any resemblance the Moses of the movies has to the biblical Moses ends; because no sooner are these divine words spoken then Moses actively seeks to get out of what God is asking!  Whoa, God; just a minute here!  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”   Have you forgotten, God, that I’m a fugitive from Egyptian justice?  Or that I’ve forged a new life out here with the sheep – 40 years ago, by the way!  Or that I’ve got a wife and a child now?  And besides, God, Pharaoh will never listen!  No offense, God, but you’ve got the wrong man for this job!

Don’t worry, God says.  “I will be with you.”

And, Moses goes on, even if I go to Israel – they’re never going to listen to me, so it’ll be a complete and utter waste of time – but if I do go to Israel, they’re going to ask who sent me, and when I say it was you, they’re going to ask your name, so what am I supposed to say then?

Tell them “’I AM WHO I AM.’”  “I AM” has sent me to you. That’s my name; “this is how I always will be known.”

Do you see what’s happening here?  Keep reading through the Exodus story and you’ll find that this becomes the pattern – God calls Moses, Moses then digs in his heels, finding countless reasons not to do what God is asking, and God, in turn, reassures and persists in moving Moses forward.  Moses figures he needs the benefit of a divine trick or two to get his point across?  How about a wooden staff that turns into a snake; that ought to be impressive!  Moses feels like he’s not eloquent enough to convince Pharaoh?  There’s brother Aaron, “a mighty orator,” by all accounts, to do the job.  And, on and on it goes: God with a plan for his people, and Moses with all of his excuses.

Certainly doesn’t sound like how Charlton Heston handled things up on the silver screen; but quite honestly, it sounds pretty familiar to me.  How about to you?  Because, as I said before, our “sweet spot” of life, where we think we’re to be in this life often flies directly in the face of what God is planning for us!  I don’t know about you, but I can understand Moses’ reluctance – but I can also tell you that in the process of fighting God’s call, you’re apt to miss out on an amazing journey, and a purposeful life.

I actually found this out back when I first started seminary to study for the ministry; you see, though I’d long had a pretty clear sense that this was the work to which God was calling me, I soon discovered that most of my classmates at Bangor were still trying to figure out if this sense of God’s call they were feeling in their lives was real, where exactly they were being called and to what, and most of all, why!

Friends, my little group of seminarians included a kindergarten teacher, a retired insurance executive, a chemist, a mathematician, an actor and entertainer from Hawaii, as well as an operative from the CIA (or so he claimed!).  And what these very different people from all over the country all had in common was that they’d been living these nice, normal lives with homes and families, mortgages and car payments, but all of a sudden (and often persistently, over time) here came God, intruding into their comfort zone, to say to them, here’s the thing; I want you to sell the house and move your family to Maine so you can go to divinity school and then become a minister!  And miracle of miracles, these people had done just that; some of them reluctantly, to be sure, and with great anxiety as to what was coming, but they’d done it; they’d chosen a path and a vocation that was far afield from any “sweet spot” they might have chosen for themselves.  And many of them ended up doing some amazing things in ministry, and for the sake of Christ; some of them in parish ministry, some in other faith-based professions.  But over the next three years we spent together wrestling with scripture and matters of faith and theology, on more occasions than I can count, I heard from these people the very same words as were spoken by Moses at the burning bush:  “Who am I to be doing this?”

And isn’t that the awesome nature of our God: that there is a pathway and a purpose for each one of us that goes far beyond our own self perceived plans and schemes; and that God is relentless in his effort to stir us out of life’s complacency and our own comfort zones, for the sake of following that pathway.  It’s interesting to note, by the way, that the name that God gives to Moses is “I AM WHAT I AM,” in Hebrew, Yahweh; but in English, that name might better be translated as “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”  To put this another way, it turns out that God’s name is a verb; the very name of God Almighty is about being and doing and living and… GOING!   And what Moses had to learn, you see; what so many of us have to learn in the course of a faithful life is that in order to learn who God is, you need to go where God goes!

David Lose describes this beautifully; he writes, “Faith is a full contact, participation sport.  You just can’t sit back and expect to really know God; you have to get up off the couch and get in the game, take a risk, try something marvelous, reach for something you thought unachievable, step out onto the winding road; the end of which you can’t see from your doorstep.”

The thing is, God can call us – and God does call; God has a plan, and a purpose for each and every one of us here; but in the end, we’re the ones who have to answer, and everything hinges on our response.  I think it’s safe to say that you and I are more like the “real” Moses than the movie version, in that whether the “call” in question has to do with vocation, or else some other kind of moral or ethical stance, or some manner of life-affirming decision, we’re the ones who can either step up and step out with God, or else, manage to find 101 reasons not to answer the call!

The good news, however, is that God is relentless in beckoning us toward a future we cannot yet see but which God himself is fashioning both for us and through us. And with every question we raise, every doubt we have, every fear that would seek to hold us back, God is there, assuring us again and again:  Don’t worry, I will be with you.  For I AM “the LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and I am the one who is sending you.

It’s a mystery, to be sure, this business of God’s call – but it’s also a wonder, full of untold possibilities, and it’s a calling that belongs to anyone who would open their ears, their hearts and their lives to what God may be asking.  Who are you and I to be doing that?  Beloved, the real question is, who are you and I not to?

Something to think about as we come to the Lord’s table today… because God is calling; even now, God is calling.

Thanks be to God, who even now, is calling us forward.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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