Sunday’s Sermon, September 3, 2023: A Call in the Wilderness

September 3, 2023
Penelope Bridges

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today we continue the story of the Exodus. To recap: Pharaoh had ordered that all the baby boys born to the enslaved Israelites were to be murdered. Moses’ mother tried to save him by setting him afloat in the Nile. The baby was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court. At some point Moses became aware of his identity as an Israelite and of the oppression of his people. (How traumatic it must be to realize that you actually belong to the group that your adoptive family is oppressing.)

His divided loyalties led him to kill an Egyptian who was assaulting an Israelite, and he subsequently fled to Midian, in present-day Saudi Arabia, where he married and settled. When we meet him today, he is living “beyond the wilderness”; or we might say, “in the back of beyond”.  Seeking healing from the trauma of his earlier life, as many people do, he has sought out the wilderness. Untamed desert. No human footprint. Moses is completely alone. Until he isn’t.

The bush is burning. And it’s speaking to him. This phenomenon is initially simply a curiosity for a man who, as far as we know, hasn’t up to now participated in the religious life of his people. Moses may not yet know God, but he understands that this is holy ground.

First, Moses sees the bush; the sight compels him to turn aside to learn more. And then he hears the voice. God says, “I have observed the misery of my people.” God sees the people, and their suffering. The original Hebrew intensifies this statement by adding a preposition that indicates, not only that God sees, but that God sympathizes. God sees and feels for the people suffering.  And Moses sees and feels the divine presence. To be seen is important: it’s how we acknowledge one another and the world around us. What do we see when we look out at the world? Do we see the beauty and the suffering all around us? Do you see the pain in the unsheltered person’s face? Do you see the contrast between an asphalt-covered parking lot and a wild garden? Do you sometimes try not to see someone or something that is upsetting? When we truly see someone, we have to recognize their uniqueness, their pain, their humanity. We have to let them in.

At this point in the story, Moses is triply isolated from his own people: by his upbringing, by his criminal act, and by his geographic displacement. And yet, God sees Moses as part of that community. God sees Moses’ true identity and draws upon it to strengthen the call to go and lead the people out of captivity. It’s possible that Moses has never fully accepted his identity as an Israelite, but now God calls him back to himself.

One sign of a true spiritual call is when that call invites us to live more fully into our own selves. Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son is the classic illustration of the spiritual harm it does when you forget who you are. You’ll recall the turning point in that story, when the young man has squandered his inheritance and descended into abject poverty: he comes to himself and realizes that he has a home to return to. So here Moses is recalled to himself. He can argue, but he can’t run far or fast enough to escape his essential identity. And now he must confront, not only the reality of the oppression, but also his own inner conflict. And it’s a struggle.

Moses doesn’t want the job. He repeatedly tries to turn it down, but God keeps pushing, and assuring him that God will be there for him. To be there is the essence of the divine name, “I WILL BE what I WILL BE”. Another translation has “I will be there howsoever I will be there,” which gets across more clearly the sense that God is always present; indeed, God IS presence. Moses is granted an incredible privilege when God reveals the divine name to him, because knowing someone’s name gives you power – and in ancient times that was considered a magical power. Knowing God’s name assures Moses that his people, powerless and enslaved, will be able to call upon God’s power to save them. And that is where today’s story leaves us, with the promise that God will always be present with God’s people, no matter how challenging the situation.

Where are the burning bushes in your life? We encounter the divine in a wide variety of contexts. For many people, a natural environment is the most God-like place. A magnificent wilderness is perhaps the most compelling of all, as we experience awe and wonder at the creative hand of God. Have you ever dared to imagine a world where there were no longer any true wildernesses? It could happen: millions of acres are disappearing daily thanks to clear cutting, construction, desertification, and rising sea levels.

Our faith includes reverence for the wonder of God’s creation: this reverence shows up all over the place in our worship. The verses that we sing of All Things Bright and Beautiful focus on the natural world: the purple-headed mountain, the river running by. It’s no accident that Cat Stephens had such a hit with Eleanor Farjeon’s song “Morning has broken”, as so many of us can relate to the delicate beauty of the early morning in a natural setting, each new day feeling like the beginning of Creation all over again, and echoing the story of the first Easter morning.

The theme for this year’s Season of Creation, which begins today, is “Let justice and peace flow”, a phrase that immediately brings to mind a mighty river. Scripture uses rivers as metaphors for healing, new life, and positive change. The prophet Amos proclaimed, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The people who wrote the books of the Bible had no conception of a river clogged by raw sewage like the Tijuana river estuary or by mining detritus like rivers in the coal areas of West Virginia.  They couldn’t have imagined a river covered over in concrete in order to build a city over it, or concern that a river on the scale of the Colorado could actually dry up. To our ancestors, a river was eternal and indestructible.

One aspect of the Exodus story strikes a discordant note for us today. God describes the promised land to Moses, the land of milk and honey, as the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. And God plans to dispossess all those people in order to give the Israelites a safe home. Well, this is awkward. What’s going to happen to “all those people”?  The Zionists among us will say that Israel is legitimately occupying the land because God meant it for them. Alongside this logic, the American foundation myth says that it was OK for European explorers and settlers to displace the indigenous people of this continent because God meant it for us.

We know that Europeans took this land, without asking, from its original inhabitants, that the invaders betrayed and cheated the indigenous people across the continent, even employing genocidal methods to eliminate them. The Sacred Ground curriculum laid all this out for us when many of us studied it a couple of years ago. In our service bulletins we now include a land acknowledgment that goes like this:

 “St. Paul’s Cathedral acknowledges that we gather on unceded Kumeyaay land. We value the knowledge, culture, and worldview of Indigenous people. We commit to the vital work of educating ourselves, increasing community awareness, and promoting reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbors. As we examine actions and practices that perpetuate harm against Indigenous communities, we pledge to work toward a meaningful and respectful relationship as we follow their example in honoring this sacred land.”

It is a very uncomfortable truth. For us, this place, this cathedral, is sacred ground. We experience God’s presence here in profound ways. We even hear God’s voice sometimes. How shall we reconcile our awareness of the injustices perpetrated centuries ago with our devotion to this special and sacred space? That is something we must continue to work on.

If we read the Gospel enlightened by our sensitivity, both to the sacredness of Creation and to the myth of manifest destiny, we may come to the conclusion that, when Jesus says we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and let go of our lives, what he is saying to us today is: what are we willing to give up of the life we have led, so that humanity and all of God’s creation may be healed of the harm we have perpetrated?

We in the first world have enjoyed an extremely self-indulgent lifestyle: using without thought of the consequences for our planet or for our neighbors; blowing the tops off mountains to get fossil fuels so we can drive bigger cars; demanding electronic devices that use rare metals obtained by slave labor across the globe; fueling the market in beef that leads people to destroy the rain forest; throwing away perfectly good food while children in our communities go hungry … the list goes on and on. This is a hard message to hear.

Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (from Mary Oliver, The Summer Day). What are the wild and precious things we cling to? What might we have to give up, to allow to die, in order to allow God’s justice to be fulfilled? Are we willing to allow God the freedom to transform the world, a transformation which is likely to mean less for us privileged folks, so that all may have enough? It may mean letting go even of some of our prayers: the prayers that seek to control God, to manipulate the divine power to bring about the outcomes we crave, such as bodily health, financial security, and the punishment of those we deem wicked. (I refer you to the Romans reading for this one).

Moses lets go of his life, his comfortable life in the wilderness with a spouse and a child and an extended family. He loses his life in order to save the lives of his people, in obedience to the will of a God whom he has not known, and who doesn’t even give a straight answer to the question, “who are you?”. And Moses finds a whole different life, one directed by a relationship with the God of his fathers and mothers, a God who demands, who holds accountable, who persists, and who above all remains faithful.

You might echo Moses and say, “Who am I, to be the one to go to the Pharaohs of this world and demand change?”  Well, as Marianne Williamson writes,

“Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.”

From Marianne Williamson,  A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

In this season of creation, how will we find the courage to let go of the life we thought we wanted, and to turn our focus to the greater good, to the repairing of the earth, to the liberation of millions held captive by consumerism, poverty, and fear? How will we make manifest the glory of God that is within us? How can we do this, as small as we are? I will be with you, God says. Not, I will make it easy. This life can, after all, lead to crucifixion. So, not easy. But, I will be with you. That’s how we will do it. We will do it, as the baptism service proclaims, with God’s help. 

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