The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday August 30, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last Sunday Moses was a baby in a basket and in tonight’s lectionary reading he is married and living in Midian. So, once again, we have some catching up to do.

Baby Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister Miriam sees the rescue, thinks quickly and convinces Pharaoh’s daughter to hire Moses’ biological mother Jochabed to care for him. This raises all sorts of questions about identity and Moses’ childhood that the text does not answer for us.

Does Moses know he is adopted? When does he find out? Does he know Jochabed is his biological mother? Does she teach him anything about Israelite culture or does she keep his heritage a secret in order to protect him?

We simply don’t know. What we do know is that by the time Moses is a young man he is living as an Egyptian – he has not been enslaved and people identify him as an Egyptian based on his appearance. He looks like and lives and walks like an Egyptian. At some point he has learned that he is not an Egyptian, his is an Israelite, and he has come to care for his people.

His care causes him to act rashly. He sees an Egyptian man strike an Israelite man and Moses looks around, thinks the three of them are alone, and then he kills the Egyptian and tries to hide his crime by burying the body. (2:12)

But the murder does not remain a secret and Moses flees for his life to the land of Midian. (15). In Midian he meets his wife, Zipporah, and settles down there.

This is how we come to find him at the beginning of today’s reading, tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. (3:1)

Then we are told that:

“After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (2:23-24)

And this is where tonight’s reading picks up the story.

Moses is out looking after he father in law’s sheep, and he leads the flock “beyond the wilderness” to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” (3:1)

While he is at Horeb, an “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in a “flame of fire out of a bush.” The bush, we are told, was “blazing,” this was not a small spark or tiny fire. And miraculously, the bush was burning, but it was not burning up. (2)

When Moses sees this burning bush, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” (3)

“I must turn aside.” I hadn’t noticed this detail until this week. The bush is not directly in front of him, he has to turn to the side to look at it. He has to stop, and take notice.

I’ve always just assumed that this burning bush was so big and so unusual and so right up in his face that he had no choice but to take notice, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He has to turn to the side to notice it.

I wonder how many other burning bushes he passed by before this one caught his attention. I wonder how often we rush right by burning bushes in our own lives because we’re too busy to stop and turn to the side.

In a few weeks, we’ll be offering an online book group. There is still time to sign up, you can email me for more information. We’ll be using Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, a book in which she discusses a myriad of ordinary ways that people can connect with God in their everyday life. It’ll be more than a discussion group however, we’ll be discussing the book via Zoom and then meeting up in smaller socially distanced groups to practice what we’re learning about. In the second chapter, The Practice of Paying Attention, BBT, as she is known to her friends, writes about this event in Moses’ life:

“The bush required Moses to take a time-out, at least if he wanted to do more than glance at it. He could have done that. He could have seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye, said, “Oh, how pretty,” and kept right on driving the sheep. He did not know that it was an angel in the bush, after all. Only the story¬teller knew that. Moses could have decided that he would come back tomorrow to see if the bush was still burning, when he had a little more time, only then he would not have been Moses. He would just have been a guy who got away with murder, without ever discovering what else his life might have been about.

-BBT continues -What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside. Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he was supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait a minute. He parked the sheep and left the narrow path in order to take a closer look at a marvelous sight. When he did, the storyteller says, God noticed. God dismissed the angel and took over the bush. “When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”

Moses chooses to pay attention and this gets God’s attention.

There is this interesting thing that we’ve seen happen numerous times over the past few months – a figure will appear that is described as an angel or a messenger and then later, our human character will identify this figure as God. Different things are happening in different stories but in this one, I like the idea that we begin with an angel who appears as a burning bush and then, when Moses chooses to stop, God tags the angel out and talks to Moses directly. Perhaps the angel exits exhausted thinking, “Finally! I thought he’d never stop and listen.”

However it happened, God is now in this bush calling out to Moses and telling him to “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (5)

Moses is now in the presence of the god of his ancestors, his Israelite ancestors, and he hides his face in fear. (6)

In the DreamWorks movie about Moses’ life, Prince of Egypt, they choose to say that Moses did not know about his Israelite heritage until shortly before he kills the Egyptian. As such, he knows little about his people’s way of life, about their beliefs and practices or about their god.

In the film – which I highly recommend – Moses asks the burning bush, “Who are you?” He really doesn’t know the answer and when God replies he is the god of Moses’ ancestors, Moses’ face registers shock, delight, and excitement. He doesn’t know this god, but he wants to.

God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings and have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (7-8)

I imagine Moses took this in as good news, very good news even. The next part of God’s plan, however, sounded like very bad news.

“I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (10)

You can almost hear the record scratch at this point. Liberating the Israelites? Good. Expecting Moses to lead the way? Not good. Not good at all.

Moses argues with God. The lectionary actually cuts off our reading halfway through the argument – it’s a long one.

Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” and “But suppose they don’t believe me or listen to me?” and “I’m horrible at making speeches.”

Basically Moses is saying something like, “God we just met and I’m confident you’ve pick the wrong guy,” and God being way more patient than God needs to be, listens and responds to each one of Moses concerns saying essentially, “I picked you, you are the right person.”

Moses challenges God five times and each time God is not deterred.

I’m not sure about you, but this is some highly relatable content for me in two main ways. First, I argue with God all the time. All the time. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Sometimes I even think I win.

And second, I can identify with Moses’ conviction that he is the wrong person for the job. God must have made a mistake; God really should choose someone else.

I identify with Moses’ question, “Who am I?” His, “Why me?” His, “Surely there is someone else who would be better for this job!”

As part of this exchange, Moses says, “If the people ask me your name, what should I tell them?” In the version we read tonight, God’s reply is translated as “I am who I am.” (13-14)
In his commentary on this passage, Everett Fox makes a number of interesting observations.

For example, have you ever wondered why Moses is fixated on figuring out God’s name? Earlier in this story, when Moses wonders who God is and God says, “I am the god of your ancestors,” that’s enough for Moses. Why does he now need some other name?

Fox observes that “In the context of Egyptian magic, knowing the true name of a person or a god meant that one could coerce him, or at the very least understand his true essence. [Moses] foresees that the slaves will want to be able to call on this power that has promised to deliver them.” (270)

Moses doesn’t yet understand how this god, the god of his ancestors’’ works. He is drawing on what he was taught about gods in his Egyptian home. He is looking for a magic word, a magic name, to help him better understand who he’s dealing with. Or possibly he is looking for a magic word that will help him gain some control in the situation, some sense of safety.

But he doesn’t get what he wants. “I am who I am” is a pretty strange name.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, Fox suggests that a better translation of God’s name (ehyeh asher ehyeh) than “I am who I am” would be “I will be there.” God’s name therefore reassures Moses, can later be used to reassure the Israelites, and by extension each one of us, that God is with us.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, God promises “I will be there.”

Listen to how this sounds in Fox’s translation, a translation where he is working to make the English sound as close to the Hebrew as he can. As part of that work, the name Moses becomes Moshe.

This is God’s response when Moses, Moshe, asks what God’s name is:

God said to Moshe:
EHYEH ASHER EHYEH/ I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.
And he said:
Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel:
EHYEH/I-Will-Be-There sends me to you.

As the story continues and Moses offers up additional arguments, God counters with his name “I will be there.”

For example, when Moses says he’s a poor public speaker, in Fox’s translation, God replies:

“I myself will be-there with your mouth and with [your brother’s mouth]and will instruct you as to what you shall do.”

God is saying, “You are never alone.” I am the God, who by my very nature will always “be there.”

Slavery is evil. The Israelites suffered greatly and spent generations wondering if God was ever going to come save them.

We should be careful not to equate our current situation with theirs – it’s not a one to one comparison. At the same time, I imagine many of us can relate to the sense of despair that comes when we are suffering and God seems absent.

The world seems so heavy and dark right now, and not just because of the weather. It can be easy to wonder if God will ever hear our cries of pain and despair.

I can’t fully explain why I believe this, but I do. Wherever you are and whatever you are facing. God is there. Even when God feels absent, God is there. I don’t know why God feels absent sometimes, it’s on my list of things to ask her when we finally get to sit down for coffee.

I do know that sometimes, God feels absent because we’re too busy to notice God’s presence. We walk right by the burning bush. We don’t stop and turn to the side and encounter God in a tangible way.

This week, if you think you see a burning bush. I hope you’ll stop. I hope you turn to the side. And I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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