FAITH MOVING FORWARD
10 But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” 13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” 14 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. 16 He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17 Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”
(Exodus 4:10-17, NRSV)
I have a couple of recurring stress dreams that are college related. In one, I go to the college post office and realize that I’ve forgotten that I have a box. I peer through the little window and see that my box is overflowing with mail but I can’t remember the combination and no one can give it to me.
There’s another stress-related dream where I have a final exam in a class I never attended because I didn’t know I was registered for it. I know I’m going to fail the exam and fail the class. Both of these dreams are specific to college, not high school, not seminary, and not graduate school, always college. I think they reflected the stress I felt in college where academically the stakes were higher and I was flying solo for the first time. I remember final exams in college being particularly stressful because I’d spent too much time hitting the drums and not enough time hitting the books. In both of these dreams, there’s something I should have known but didn’t, so now I’m doomed. Unlike the good Scout, I’m not prepared.
In today’s scripture lesson, Moses feels inadequate, not up to the task, unable to complete the assignment God has given him. And what was this impossible task you ask? God was recruiting Moses to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh with God’s demand to free the enslaved Israelites. I love how Moses replies to God in verse 13 when he says, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” One can read it straight, devoid of emotion. Though my guess is that Moses fears for his life and is overflowing with anxiety and fear so it comes out as, “O MY LORD…please send someone else.”
We need to rewind to the first chapters of Exodus to put the story in context. (I have read a few details into the story to flesh it out a bit.) While still in Egypt, Moses kills an Egyptian who is mercilessly beating an Israelite. Knowing that his head is on the block, Moses flees from Egypt to the Land of Midian. He is hired as a shepherd by a man named Jethro. In time, Moses marries one of his boss’ daughters, Zipporah. The couple have a child named, Gershom, which means “stranger or sojourner.” It’s a reminder that Moses is still an outsider among the Midian people.
Forty years pass before Moses meets God in the burning bush. And when he does, God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Wasting little time, God tells Moses to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to free the enslaved Israelites. Moses didn’t jump at the opportunity and understandably so. If he returned to Egypt, Moses could be arrested and executed for his crime forty years prior. God tells Moses that he’ll be safe because there is a new Pharaoh. Even so, Moses does not feel up to the task and starts making one excuse after another hoping the Almighty will draft someone else.
Moses asks, “Why me? How could I ever go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to freedom?” It’s a reasonable question. God replies, “I’ll be with you.” This does not inspire confidence. How is a voice emanating from a burning bush going to help Moses confront Pharaoh? God then says, “I’ll give you proof that I have sent you, when you have brought the Israelites out of Egypt you can bring them here and they can worship me.” This is cold comfort for Moses.
Grasping at straws, Moses replies, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say ‘The God of your ancestors sent me.’ And then they ask, ‘Who is this God anyway? What is this God’s name?’ The only honest response is—I don’t know. What would I tell them?” Moses is not asking for the Israelites alone, he is also asking for himself. He’s given an impossible task from a burning-bush-God without as much as an introduction. Finally Moses says to God, “Sorry, but I didn’t catch your name? I don’t know you from Adam.” (Ok, Moses would only say that in the Monty Python version.)
God revealing the Divine Name to Moses is one of the most important passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. God says to Moses, “My name is Yahweh meaning ‘I-AM-WHO-I-AM.’ Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’” God reveals even more saying, “This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.” God then tells Moses about the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey.” God keeps talking, assuring Moses that Pharaoh will set the Israelites free.
Again Moses makes excuses telling God, “The Israelites won’t trust me. They’ll say, ‘Take a good look at this guy. Do you really think God would appear to this hick shepherd from nowhere?’” Seeing that this is not going anywhere, God tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground. He does and it turns into a snake. At God’s insistence, Moses grabs the snake’s tail and it instantly turns back into the staff. God tells Moses to slide his hand into his cloak. When Moses takes his hand out, it was covered with leprosy. God tells him to slide his hand in the cloak once again. Moses does so and his hand is healthy. God then rationalizes with Moses saying if the first sign doesn’t convince them, then surely the leprosy on and off the hand move should do the trick. God tells Moses, “If they still don’t believe you, take water out of the Nile and pour it out. When it hits the ground, it will turn to blood.”
Forget trying to convince the Israelites, God hasn’t even convinced Moses that the whole march into Egypt and march out with the liberated Israelites plan would work. Moses rolls out another excuse. “You know, Yahweh, I’m not great with words. I don’t speak so well. My mind will go blank. I’ll just stammer saying something incoherent. Yahweh, I’m not your guy. Sorry!” So God retorts in essence saying, “Moses, have you forgotten who you’re talking to? I actually designed and created the human mouth, not that I want to brag.” God continues, “Come on Moses, let’s get this show on the road. I’ll be with you every step of the way. I’ll tell you what needs to be said. Capiche?” Nope. Moses rolls out his final plea. “Oh my Lord, please, please, please, please, please, send somebody else why don’t you?”
And now Moses has gone too far. One translation reports that, “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” Another version puts it succinctly, “God got angry with Moses.” God may have gotten fed up with Moses, but God still had not given up on Moses. “Alright already,” says God, “your brother, Aaron, is great with words, they just roll of his tongue. Let him do the talking, but you’re going to tell him what to say.” Moses never verbally relents, but he has run out of excuses. God wins the argument, surprise surprise. With that, Moses calls a moving van and prepares to return to Egypt, his family with him.
If you’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, “The Ten Commandments” or DreamWorks animated, “Prince of Egypt,” then you know what happens next. (If not, try streaming them at home.) Fast forward 40 years. The Israelites finally enter the Promised Land. It’s a shame that other people are already living there but that’s another sermon for another day.
One takeaway from today’s story is that God calls Moses to do something. God doesn’t make the divine introduction, talk about the weather, and call it a day. No, God has an assignment for Moses. There is something that needs to be done and God needs Moses to do it. His shepherding days are behind him. His days as God’s spokesperson are ahead. It’s time to move forward into an unknown future with the promise that God will always be with him. Moses has no idea going into it if he will succeed. He may not. In that moment it’s not about accomplishing the task. Success is taking the first step of what is bound to be a difficult journey. There is only one good way to go, forward.
That is our call too. God calls us as individuals and as a church to move forward. Active faith is always moving forward. It is not about being complacent and resting on our laurels. Instead, it is struggling to be faithful to the plans God has for us now, plans to widen our welcome to people who have become disillusioned with churches trying to maintain the status quo, discouraged by churches too afraid to try something new. That is not who we are as a church family. We’ve been trying all sorts of new things the last few years—the Center for Wellbeing, Women at the Well, Concerts for a Cause, David Dorman’s Current Events class, Lisa Larsen Hill’s Seeds of Faith, Blessing of the Animals, the Art Gallery, the Congo Café, the brightening of the sanctuary with the latest LED bulbs, and this wonderful sound system which not only boosts the spoken word, but also sounds fabulous playing prerecorded music.
We are broadening our horizons and opening our minds to the next thing God has in store for us, opening our hearts to love even more people, and opening our doors to people who feel alienated from God, until they come to this church and hear these words, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Our closing song is the old spiritual, “Go Down Moses” with its refrain, “Let my people go.” For the record, Moses went down and Pharaoh let God’s people go. Paul
Robeson helped popularize this piece. My favorite version is Louis Armstrong’s New York City recording from 1958. Enjoy! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
September 15, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, as we begin this new program year, give us excitement about all of the possibilities in store for us. Give us ideas to open our minds. Give us compassion to open our hearts. And give us courage to open our doors to our sisters and brothers whom others turn away. All the while, draw us closer to you and to one another.
Through Christ we pray. AMEN.