Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; From “Who Are We?” to “How Do We?” – Who is Moses, really? The vulnerable baby found in bulrushes and raised in the very courts that tried to kill him? Runaway refugee? Or successful business and family man?
There’s an old Hebrew table of a rabbi living in a Russian City. Unsettled by a lack of inspiration and purpose, he wandered out one chilly evening, walking aimlessly through empty streets. He questioned his faith in God and his calling as a rabbi. Head down, hands in pockets, lost in thought he strayed into a Russian army compound. The bark of a soldier shattered the evening chill. “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
“Excuse me?” the rabbi mumbled
.“I said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’”
The rabbi paused a moment. Then gently, softly, to avoid inciting the soldier, he asked, “How much do you get paid every day?”
“What does that have to do with you?” the soldier retorted.
“I will pay you that same amount,” invited the rabbi, “if you will ask me those two questions every day.”[i]
Who are we? What are we doing here? In faith, we’d say those questions were about our call or vocation. Questions of identity and purpose arise in all of us whatever our age, in all places and conditions of life, in hearts yearning for faith. Questions through which we glean revelation here and there—bits, pieces, and sudden clear glimpses.
It could be sparked by words someone says. Amid hustle and bustle of city streets. Or feet up on the couch, dusk outside windows, we settle into a quiet evening with a book. Could be in ancient churches where a spirit seeps from the stones, as I feel walking here in our sanctuary. Could be in art or music, like when we hear “My name is Jean Valjean” or maybe just a week ago, with a group from church, “My name is Alexander Hamilton.” More than letters and syllables, both of those musicals and the lyrics of our lives are all about what’s in a name—who we really are, why we’re here, what difference we make for good or not. Sometimes those questions of identity and purpose spring out of special events. Sometimes they surface gently amid ordinary moments as familiar scenes seem to flare with life—breath catches, heart races, meaning burns into memory, a common place becomes sacred space.
And we take off our shoes. As I used to do at the Lake Michigan pier in Holland. Under clouds ablaze at sunset, as contentment, joy, and peace radiate from deep inside. Or with whitecaps crashing over my feet on that unshakable foundation, gusts whipping, lightning flashing as storm clouds roll in and teenage turmoil swirls in waves of longing for relationship, direction, purpose, and I cry aloud into the wind. I wonder where your memory takes you, where some experience still makes your heart turn aside. Maybe wherever you were two weeks ago, when our nation was eclipsed with the awe of nature.
Yes, often for us humans there’s something about creation. A primal connection deep in the core of our being. Stunning mountains, canyons, ocean vistas, or when we’re just walking in a forest, working on a farm, listening to crickets, songbirds, squirrels, or the stillness. Poets like Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver or famously Robert Frost capture those moments for us. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood … and I took the one less traveled by.” Of course, it’s about far more than a particular path somewhere in Vermont. The world outside seems to express what’s inside us. Emotions. Decisions. Inspiration. Sacred moments stretch across time and reality: Who are we? What are we doing here?
As the story goes, Moses was watching over his flocks by day, like shepherds at Jesus’ birth. He stopped, turned to see a bush blazing, heard a voice asking something like the soldier’s two questions. Divinity surged into ordinary humanity. An unremarkable spot in what is now desert wilderness became holy ground.
Many speculate about the burning bush. No one really knows what happened. More than exact explanation, point is that it expresses what Moses felt inside. A bright insight illuminated life around him in a totally new way. Burning desire suddenly kindled within his heart. Flaming passion and purpose seemed to engulf him, not unlike Jesus’ closest friends and followers at Pentecost centuries later when Luke describes tongues of fire resting upon each of them. Alive, aflame, yet not consumed.
Moses hears God call. He takes off his shoes and responds with tentative curiosity: “Here I am.” Then God explains the task at hand: confrontation, liberation from misery. Moses’ attitude quickly turns to “Who am I?” insecurity. Sure, it’s a grand and glorious vision of salvation for his people. It’s what burned inside years ago, when on another ordinary day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He murdered and buried the attacker. Trouble is, his own people didn’t celebrate the violence. They didn’t trust him. He ran away. But now God calls Moses to go back and bring people home. That’s the purpose for his life. Out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom and fullness of life in the Promised Land.
What we can do in our time and place may differ. Our purpose is much the same. God calls us to bring people home. Home to loving safety, to fullness of life with joy not worry, with gratitude, meaning, and peace … ultimately in the promise that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love. Wherever we are, friends, that relationship with God and others is our Promised Land. That’s the place and purpose to which the Holy One calls you and me, using our interests and abilities, whether celebrated by society or quietly humble in steady routines that really make the world go ‘round.
Who am I? Who are you? What are we doing here? Maybe we’ve heard Frederick Buechner’s description. God calls us to the place and purpose where our deep joy and the world’s deep need meet. It’s an intuitive, emotional, spiritual sense like flames dancing deep within. It’s shaped by practical consideration of how specific needs match with time, interest, ability I can offer. And we’re usually guided in some way by the Spirit speaking through the voice of family or friends or teachers or colleagues or acquaintances who offer little insights and observations.
We are called by God at our baptism, but specifics change throughout our life. Though we have talents and interests it may not be our vocation to use them in the moment. Maybe another time and place and opportunity. Changes can be exciting, inspiring, invigorating. And they can cause anxiety, disorientation, grief. I had to change my sermon preparation this morning. Somehow my laptop wouldn’t talk with any printers. So here it is. Ahhh, technology … anxiety. Maybe God was saying: here you want to talk about this? Here’s how it feels. But then like other parents sending their kids off to school this week, we just put our daughter on a plane to France for six months. Makes us ask: Who am I now? What I am doing with life?
Changes come in personal faith, as I cherish the chances to listen and share with you. Changes come in congregational life—activities and worship opportunities, even the building and the bulletin, and as ever in the people who come and go in the glory and vagaries of life. We called Chrissy to serve among us. She and I were just talking this week about pivotal moments in life—how meaning grows more clearly over time and reflection and continuing experience. So surely God is calling all of us together, friends, to some newness yet unknown. In fact, we’ve had a lot of change in staff in recent years, with much goodness through it. We can trust that.
God calls Moses to change, to do a new thing, by going back to places and people he knew before. Going back to face his old self—who he’d been, what he’d done—to discover who he would become. God calls Moses. And he responds: Who am I? Why should I go? Hear the anxiety, maybe hidden shame, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy for the task, or simple resistance to giving up what was comfortable, familiar, meaningful. God calls Moses out of himself—out of the deepest parts of who he is, his relationships, all that defines his life. God calls Moses, and you and me, to live and serve beyond self—for others, especially those suffering, in dire need, who have potential to form a flourishing society.
In living faith, we move from questions of who are we to how do we?
God gives Moses a new purpose. And God gives Moses a promise to quell anxiety, to encourage uncertainty, to strengthen resolve. “I will be with you, the Holy One assures him. Tell everyone I sent you.” “Ahhhhh, right,” Moses responds. “Minor detail. I don’t know your name! Who do I say sent me? How do I convey your presence?” “I Am who I Am” or “I Will Be who I Will Be” … scholars have fun plunging depths of verb tense and implications of grammar. “I am the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah.” That is, you see, I AM the source of all life in the past. I AM the sustainer of all life in the future. I AM the essence of life in its fullness of love and beauty and meaning right now, everywhere, in everyone.” There is no place, no person, no experience that is beyond the pale of my care or the scope of my purpose. “I will be with you,” God said to Moses. “And I will bring you home.”
Yeah, that’s good to know, and hard to keep in mind and heart sometimes. That’s what the rest of the Bible is all about. That’s what we’re always trying to hear and remember. Who we are in God’s love. Why we’re doing what we’re doing. How we stay inspired to keep going. Maybe that’s what this Labor Day weekend could be about, or at least a moment of it, along with whatever ways we labor at home, or for pleasure, or when the week begins again.
You see, friends, any job or task can be a holy calling. Not just being a minister. Routine things like caring for this sanctuary and building, or doing the bulletin. Yes, Shawn, Mike, Randy, and Ann work to make things look nice for their own sake. And there’s something more, someone more—you and me and anyone else who walks in our doors. Staff, volunteers, and everyone who clean, print and prepare for the experience of God’s grace and peace we might come to share here. The experience of sanctuary that is so much more than just beautiful walls and windows. An experience of being loved, valued; of finding meaning. A sense of home. And a purpose to leave here and create that sanctuary for all people in our city and far beyond.
Who am I? What am I doing here? How do I keep going? It wasn’t exactly an army base, where I turned aside to hear those questions. You may know, I spent time this summer at the St John’s Abbey in Minnesota. It became much more than just getting out of the rat race, resting from weariness. In the Bauhaus-style bleak concrete sanctuary light streamed through an entire wall of swirling honeycombed stain glass, enveloping, embracing me. More than walking aimlessly, I rode my bike amid trees and bushes and farm fields on the Lake Wobegon Trail. Better than a soldier’s bark, the Spirit spoke through books and Benedictine brothers, a master craftsman, a student worker, other strangers, and a very nice woman who showed me the discounted section in their bookstore! On the first night I arrived, July 4th fireworks flashed in the distance over a lake, and then melded with beautiful heat lightning under a full moon. Is that what I long for, I wrote in a diary? Divine light, flashes of insight, beauty, energy, illumination, inspiration? I turned aside for much of a week …… and I recalled why I do this—ministry. Why I want to share the everyday beauties, hopes, dreams, and difficulties with good and imperfect people like you. Why I long to tell good news of God’s love. Why I want to cultivate that Holy Love more deeply and broadly throughout our world.
Let’s be clear: neither you or I are Moses. Nor are we the new Moses, Jesus, who lead people on a new Exodus toward home in God’s Kingdom. With Paul and all the other saints over the centuries, we are ordinary people transformed by God’s loving power of resurrection. The Exodus journey ahead for Moses and the people would not be easy, as we’ll hear in weeks ahead. And so dear friends, it can seem hard for us to make it to God’s realm of peace, when we will wonder how do we get there? Through all anxieties and difficulties we face, I pray God’s call will remain ever aflame within us, kindled by the Holy Promise to be with us always, everywhere. God delivered the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. God brought new life in Christ after Jesus was sealed stone cold in a tomb. God will bring us new life in the fullness of genuine love, hope, and goodness.
Paul wrote to early followers of Jesus Christ in ancient Rome to encourage them in what that looks like. What it looks like when God will come to us. What we look like when God comes through us to others. Sounds a lot like the benediction we’ll share in a few moments, when we put our spiritual shoes back on to continue our journey. May it be a moment burned into our memory. Turn aside to see desire, passion inside ourselves, dear friends, … alive, aflame, yet not consumed, connecting with wonders and needs of the world around us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] See Martin B. Copenhaver, Room to Grow: Meditations on Living as a Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015). 151.