Everybody and Nobodies’ in the Bush League

A sermon based on Exodus 3:1–14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 2, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I read what I think is a funny take on our lesson this morning. Upon seeing the burning bush and hearing the heavenly voice Moses asked “Who are you?” From the burning bush he heard the reply “I Am who I Am.” Astounded Moses shook his head and said “No way…” Of course the response from the bush was “Yah-weh!”

I plan to preach on Moses and related Exodus stories through the month of October. These are stories fundamental to our Christian heritage. The plan is to look at the prequel to today’s story later and cover more details, but the general background to the reading today is that the Hebrew people were enslaved expendable nobodies trapped in Egypt. They were slaving away for a cruel Pharaoh and his royal house. Moses was born as one of those Hebrew slaves, but was raised in Pharaoh’s royal house as a grandson.

When he grew up Moses went out and about as royal family and saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. He felt called to interfere and he stopped the beating. In the process he killed the overseer. Then he buried the body hoping his deed would stay hidden. But the next day Moses learned word of his crime was out so he fled Egypt and hid in self-imposed exile for forty years. The place Moses hid was called the land of Midian (an area believed to be southeast of Egypt).

Our lesson begins with Moses is in a Midian desert. He is married to a non-Jew. He has fallen from high royalty to working as a lowly shepherd not even keeping his own flock but rather keeping the flock of his father-in-law, a priest of another religion. With just Hebrew birth parents and no Jewish upbringing or family connections for decades Moses was basically Hebrew in name only. He did not even keep the covenant of circumcision with his son. So the story starts with Moses in no man’s land geographically, culturally, religiously and nationally.

Boiled down all of this background means that when God appears to Moses he had nothing going for him. He was not just a nobody father raising non-Hebrew children, but also just a lowly shepherd of a non-Hebrew’s sheep in a desert. Moreover he was also loathed Egyptian royalty to the Hebrews and loathed Hebrew traitor to the Egyptians –and was considered a murderer in both camps. On top of which, we learn a little later on that Moses has a speech disability. In short, from virtually any angle that mattered in the Ancient Near East Moses was a loathsome lowly misfit outsider criminal. He was an outcast. He and his family upon which much of his honor was based were as defective as can be.

Moses is not someone anyone back then would want to be near, let alone have as a leader. Certainly no one would ever think God would visit Moses, talk to him, use him, or speak or act through him. So while millions and millions of humans have through the ages held Moses in high esteem, as we do now, he most assuredly was not held in any sort of esteem by anybody before he saw and answered God, when Yahweh called his name from a bush aflame.

Picture whatever person in our culture you think is the most loathsome and rejected, the least likely person God would show up to, that’s who we need to hear God showing up to in this story. While some might bristle at that notion, and find it a negative that God would honor such a man, it is actually a positive. That means that whatever you or I think we have done, whatever bit of us we find unworthy it all means nothing to God’s ability to call and transform us and use us to transform the world. That’s true, as long as we are willing to turn and see God’s light and listen to God’s call and do the work God calls us to.

There is absolutely nothing we could have done, or could be in our minds or in reality, that can stop us from seeing God– from being called by God or from doing Gods work. Absolutely. Nothing. And as true as it is for you and me, it is true for every other person. Whether we like it or not.

As we just heard in the choir anthem and in the reading Rev. Young read so well, Moses is called by God to do a very Holy task. He is to go with God to Egypt and try and do a seemingly impossible rescue of oppressed nobodies to the rest of the world, Hebrew slaves. He is to rescue the least on earth from the most powerful on earth, Pharaoh, who himself was “considered a god on earth, the intermediary between the gods and the people . . . “ 1

We can hear in our lesson a counter-narrative with Yahweh the One God pitted against the false god Pharaoh, and Yahweh choosing the real intermediary between God and the people, Moses–a non-royal nobody to world who turned and listened and followed God. That theological concept, that the One God would care for and take the side of slaves was a preposterous notion in the Ancient Near East where gods were understood to support the powerful and wealthy.

That God showed up for Moses in the desert to call him as a Divine intermediary and leader was even more preposterous. It was as remarkable and counter-intuitive and counter-culture as can be on every level of human ideals in that time and place. Given his background up to this point, Moses is the last person humanity would pick back then, and I submit that would be true even today. But God picks him.

The culture’s sense of worth or unworth and Moses’ own sense of his worth or unworth –indeed our sense of worth or unworth– has absolutely no bearing on God’s choice or sense of worth. To God all are worthy all the time. This means that each person, and all peoples –no matter what negative baggage they have or the world thinks they have!– can serve with God to transform the world and positively affect the oppressed and all the rest of the world –and continue doing so throughout history. That is the basic fundamental lesson of this section of Exodus–and much of the rest of the Bible.

Before, during and after I went to seminary I have looked at and studied today’s lesson a lot. But something dawned on me for the first time as I prepared this sermon. Just as much as Moses represents the nobodies of the world, he actually also represents everybody. Moses is both Jew and Gentile; free and slave; royal and subject; citizen and alien; afraid and brave; able and disabled; law breaker and law giver; rich and poor; reverent and irreverent; sinner and Holy man.

So we can hear in this story a remarkable set of circumstances that create a nobody and an everybody. We can hear in this story of God showing up and calling Moses, a very beautiful message. The message that God is available and can and will show up and positively influence the life of every single type of person – and that every single type of person can serve God and positively influence and transform the world regardless of who she or he was in the near or ancient past.

The nobody and everybody are loved by God, are worthy to God and possess the potential to take God’s light – the very flame of love– out into the rest of the world. Not one impediment – even self doubt like Moses clearly had– can prevent God working with and through us if we stop, take off our shoes and stay awhile and listen to God speaking. And. God. Is. Still. Speaking.

While this Bible story can be heard as being about God’s care and valuing of each of us, all of the individual nobodies, and everybody’s worth, the story can also be heard to be about God’s dedication to the worth of the collective whole of humanity, right? God calls Moses to the aid of the lowly Hebrew slaves.

As I mentioned already in the Ancient Near East gods were only understood to side with the powerful, Yahweh, “I Am Who I Am,” the real one true God sides with everyone and wants everyone’s well being.

Like water that always seeks its own level, God in the universe always seeks a fair and just level of well being for humankind– individually and collectively. We call it in our most poignant secular claims: equality for all, liberty for all, justice for all. In Christian faith story we have similar names. Mary upon conception of Christ within her names it in her song the Magnificat as God looking with favor on the lowly, lifting up the lowly filling the hungry with good things. (Luke 2: 48, 53, 54). Jesus calls it is his first sermon “bringing good news to the poor . . . proclaim[ing] release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . .” (Luke 4:18) In today’s lesson God – Yahweh– puts it like this:

“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 I 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 . . . The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:3-7)

Amazingly God calls Moses a nobody to go help the nobody Hebrews. God calls Moses – the everybody– to talk to everybody in Egypt –especially Pharaoh, and see if he can talk some sense into them. Or as I like to think of it, as “talking some God into them.” Get them to be God’s agents seeking a fair and just level of well being for humankind.

I don’t know if you have ever thought about it, but many secular wordings in American phrases we like contain leveling language that I like to think of as God stealthy calling to us, the words try to talk some God into us. Things like the Pledge of Allegiance’s phrase “with liberty and justice for all.” And the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “All . . . are created and endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And, of course, the Statue of Liberty beckons with the worlds “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The Statue of Liberty’s lamp has a flame we can even consider reminiscent of God’s beckoning to Moses– an alien himself. Even the Star Spangled Banner seeks to have us be and remain “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Free from tyranny and oppression, and brave enough to keep working for it.

Moses was asked to do a monumental task . . . we all are. Moses could not hide from it in the middle of nowhere. When he finally turned and listened he saw at least a part of his world aflame with God and he heard God’s call. We cannot hide from it either– it is in our Bible stories and in our secular claims to betterment. And it is in our very being. We not only live and move about in God, but carry Yahweh’s spark within.

Not only can we not hide from it, but no matter what unworthy idea that we or some other human construct makes us feel or tries to make us feel, we are all of us – everybody and nobodies– so valuable to God that we are worthy of Divine attention and doing Divine work in the world. Me. You. Nobodies. Everybody. All are worthy of Divine attention and doing Divine work in the world– carrying God’s flame of love in what we say and do.

1. Ancient History Encyclopedia, on line at http://www.ancient.eu/pharaoh/