Leaving Pharaoh Behind When You Don’t Have a GPS: Sermon for March 19, 2017

Growing up I wanted one thing perhaps more than all others. I wished for it, hoped for it, prayed for it, and it never came. When I got to college I would occasionally catch glimpses of it, but it wouldn’t last long. And when I thought about my future, I would dream of living in a place where I could see it all the time.


It snows a lot where I live. Happy spring!

What was it I was looking for? Snow. I was looking outside during the blizzard this week and I thought, “Hey, I got my wish!”

I know that this probably sounds funny to those of you who grew up in New England, but down South we have very little snow. And in Florida, where I spent most of my time growing up, we had none. There were no seasons. Every day was the same.

When I first decided to move to New England about ten years ago I didn’t do so for snow. I did it because it was the right choice for me, and it meant that I could do ministry in a region where I could be myself. But I must say that the snow was a nice perk. I couldn’t wait for changing seasons.

And then one day my first year, I had to stop for gas in the middle of the day. I got out of the car, and it was cold and snowy and wet. The wind cut through me like a knife. I had never experienced cold like that, or even thought it was possible. And I stood there pumping gas and shivering and thinking to myself, “Why in the world did I ever leave the South?”

So, in some small way, I can sympathize with the people in today’s Bible passage. They had a much more compelling reason to leave home, though. These are the Israelites who after generations of living in slavery in Egypt, after years of back-breaking work, had finally been able to leave. They had followed Moses out across the Red Sea and they had entered the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land.

And, as you know, this didn’t go exactly according to plan. The people who had left Egypt probably thought that Moses had a map that would take them where they needed to go, and they would be there in no time. What they didn’t expect is that they would be wandering, and wandering.

When it became clear that they weren’t getting anywhere anytime soon, people started to look at Moses and wonder if he knew what he was doing. He had told them God was leading him, but they weren’t so sure about that. And on top of that, they were getting thirsty. They didn’t have any water to drink.

And so they went to Moses and said to him, “Hey, why did you make us leave Egypt? Just to kill us?” Because back home in Egypt they may not have been free, but at least they had water.

And so it’s understandable that in this moment, so far away from the only home they’ve ever known, away from food and water, away from a Promised Land that they’re not sure even exists, and that they’re really not sure Moses knows how to find, they start to wonder why they ever left Egypt in the first place.

Moving from one region of the country and leaving a captor in search of freedom are two very different things. I’m not trying to compare them. But I do know what it’s like to make a change in your life, to run into obstacles, and then to wonder whether maybe things hadn’t been so bad back where you came from.

The fix for my problem was simple. I bought a thicker jacket and after a while I learned to really love the change of seasons here. And I know that moving north opened up a world of opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been available at that time in the South.

But for the Israelites it wasn’t so easy. They really thought that this change they had made might kill them. Yes, being Pharaoh’s captives had been terrible, and no they hadn’t liked it, but at least back in Egypt they didn’t have to worry about dying of dehydration. At least back there they knew what to expect.

I get that. I think we all have our own Egypts, and our own Pharaohs. We all have times and places in our lives where things aren’t ideal, but at least we know what to expect. We might not like it much, but captivity is somehow less scary than the wildness of freedom.

But here’s the catch: we all have our own promised lands too. They’re there waiting for us. But in order to get there we have to let go of what is holding us back. We have to tell our Pharaohs that we are leaving. And we have to head out in the wilderness and look for a place that no GPS can find for us.

And sometimes, that takes a long time, and we have to cut our own trail to get there.

I’ve talked before about how in my 20’s I wrestled with my drinking, and eventually got sober. I don’t tell this story here to draw attention to myself, but I’m sharing it, first, because I believe it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s important to break stigmas around addiction. And I also tell it because I know what it’s like to let a personal Pharaoh keep you in captivity, and away from the Promised Land.

Before I finally got sober, and I’ve been sober for a double-digit number of years now, I got really comfortable living in Egypt. And I started to be way too loyal to a Pharaoh who had no loyalty to me.

When I finally did get sober, I expected everything to be better automatically. I thought, “I’ll be in the promised land in no time.” But here’s the thing: the first two years I was sober were probably the worst two years of my life.

photoSeriously, if you told me I had to go back and relive any period of my life, I’d probably go back to my most awkward middle school years before I went back to those first two years. Everything seemed to go wrong. Nothing turned out the way I planned. Every day was a struggle. I was out there in the wilderness saying, “You know, at least back in Egypt I wasn’t dying of thirst.”

In retrospect, those years probably seemed so bad because for the first time in a long time I was being honest with myself, and I was seeing the world around me honestly too. I was seeing what I hadn’t seen for a long time. And so I kept moving forward, cutting a new path. And year three was pretty good. And year four was even better. And year five was amazing. And it’s been pretty amazing ever since.

But that promised land didn’t come easy.

I think it’s like that for a lot of people who have to make hard changes. Recently I was reading about people who leave abusive partners. Do you know on average how many times it takes someone to leave an abusive relationship and not go back? One? Two? Three? Four?

On average it’s seven times. Seven. And that’s no judgment on the person who is leaving. It is incredibly hard to walk away from someone who says they care about you, no matter how much they hurt you. It’s even harder when you have to walk away with little money or resources. Leaving that behind is as hard as leaving Pharaoh. Harder even, because at least Pharaoh never told the Israelites he loved them.

And those are just a couple examples of the Pharaohs who want to hold us back in captivity, and keep us from the promised land.

Chances are, there has been a Pharaoh in your life too. Maybe there’s one there now. Maybe there is something holding you back from the place that God is calling you to. And maybe you know there is something better out there, but the wilderness you’ll have to cross feels so big and forbidding. Maybe you’re afraid to leave what you know in order to become what you know you are meant to be.

You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last. And the good news is that while it may not be easy, you will not go alone, and you will not go without God.

When the people started to yell at Moses that he was going to kill them all, he went to God. And he said, “look God, these people are ready to kill me. I need help.” And God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and that water would then pour out.

Moses did that, and it did, and the people drank. And they were strengthened enough that they could keep on walking, keep on searching for the promised land.

If you are in the wilderness, if you are breaking free from Pharaoh, God is walking this journey with you. And if you need it, God will give you living water, the kind that will see you through to the end. And on those days when you might look back, choose instead to look forward. Because what kept you in captivity is never better than the journey that can take you home. Amen?

What We Worship: Sermon for October 5, 2014

Recently I heard a story about Ruby Bridges. In 1960 she was a six year old African-American girl in New Orleans who had the unenvious task of desegregating a formerly all-white elementary school. You may have seen pictures of her. A little girl walking into school surrounded by tall US Marshals.

As she walked to school each day protestors yelled at her. One grown woman would say that she was going to poison her. Another held up a black doll in a coffin. And when she got to school all but one of the teachers walked off the job and refused to teach her.

"Adoration of the Golden Calf" - Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

“Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Herrad of Landsberg, 12th Century

The one teacher who did stay taught Ruby that whole year. And at the end of the year she asked Ruby a question. She had noticed that when Ruby walked through the crowds she talked to herself, repeating something over and over. And so this teacher finally asked her, “What were you saying?”

I’ll come back to that story, but first let’s look at today’s story from the book of Exodus. Over the last two months the lectionary has brought us a lot of readings from this book about Moses leading the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land. They are familiar stories. The Burning Bush. The Passover. The parting of the Red Sea. And today is no exception; you have probably heard about the Golden Calf.

The people have been journeying in the wilderness for a while now. And Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai by God to receive Ten Commandments. But the people don’t know that. They just know he’s been gone a long time. So long that they start to worry is he never coming back.

So Aaron, Moses’ brother who is left in charge while he is gone, gets scared. He wants to calm down the people who are getting panicked. And so he has all of them bring him their gold, and he melts it down and makes a giant gold cow. And he shows it to the people and says, “this is your god, who brought you out of the land of Israel.” And the people respond by worshipping before it, bringing offerings, and having a feast. It’s only when Moses comes back down the mountain, alive and angry with them, that they stop.

It’s easy to identify with Moses here. It hadn’t been so long ago that God had brought the people out of Egypt. It wasn’t so long ago that the Red Sea was parted. They should have remembered that. And they should have recognized that this golden calf, this brand new statue that had been set in front of them, had nothing to do with it.

So we get why worshiping a gold cow is so ludicrous. It’s easy to think they were just plain foolish. But here’s where Scripture works its trick. Because sometimes we think the truth is so obvious that we would never fall into the same trap as the people in the stories. But sometimes we have more in common than we think.

This isn’t really a story about a gold statue of a cow. This isn’t really just a story about the Israelites. This is a story about all of us, and about what we choose to worship. And, most of all, it’s about what we put in God’s place when we are afraid, or uncertain, or lost, just like the Israelites were.

In theological terms, the Golden Calf was an “idol”. An idol can be an object, like a statue of a cow, but it doesn’t have to be. An idol is just anything that we put our trust in instead of God.

So, sure, a golden calf seems silly to us now. But is it really any more so than some of the other things we worship? Money? Power? Sex? A big house? A nice car? Maybe none of these things are bad by themselves, but when we start to attach our ultimate meaning, and our hopes for salvation, on them, that’s when they become a problem.

The Israelites were trying to get somewhere. They had left everything they knew behind, and now they were lost in the wilderness. And the guy who said he knew where they were going, the one with the direct line to God, was gone. And it didn’t look like he was coming back. And so, they took matters into their own hands.

We do the same things. We all have our own Golden Calves. We find ourselves lost. Or full of fear. Or searching for meaning. And when we feel the most scared, or alone, or uncertain, we build ourselves false idols, things that we think will make us feel better, but rarely do. And that’s because we turn to idols when our fear overtakes us, and we lose so much hope that we stop turning to God.

In the best case scenario our idols only destroy us. But taken to their extreme, our idols can destroy not just us, but those around us.

At the beginning I was talking about Ruby Bridges and the teacher who had watched her repeat something over and over to herself while protestors were tormenting her. At the end of the year she asked the little girl, “what were you saying”? And this six year old replied that she was praying. She was repeating over and over to herself the prayer her mother taught her to say while the protesters yelled at her: Forgive them, God, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Now, that’s an amazing story of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you might wonder what that has to do with idolatry. For me, it’s this. The people who were yelling those horrible things at Ruby were, at their core, afraid. They had been given this false idol of racial superiority couched in “the way things have always been” for their whole lives, and now it was being taken away. And they were so scared of losing it that they lost their humanity entirely and terrorized a small child. I’m sure many of them were even Christians, and yet, their fear and hatred drove them to stop seeing a child as beloved of God and to instead love their idol even more.

Some would say that six year old Ruby Bridges had every reason to hate those people who hated her. And yet, with the help of the adults around her, she somehow didn’t. Every morning she walked through a hell that most of us never will, and somehow refused to build a false idol of hate or anger. She didn’t give the people who hated her that power. She refused to live in their fear. Instead, she put her trust in God, and ultimately that trust carried her through and gave her hope.

You and I, hopefully, will never face anything like she did. And yet, we will know what it is to be afraid. We will know what it is to forge ahead on a new path. We may even know what it is to live with the fears of others. And when we do we will be tempted to create our own golden calves, our own little idols, to protect ourselves.

But we have another option. In fact, we have the only option that will keep us from letting our fears destroy us. We have God. And we have the assurance that worshiping anything else will never save us. It will just destroy us from the inside out.

And so we have a choice. Do we worship our fears? Or do we instead bless the possibilities?

As you know, today after church we are having our annual blessing of the animals. I was a little worried about preaching about the Israelites worshipping the golden calf on the day we were blessing the animals. I thought it might look like we were trying to recreate the scene out front.

But, of course, we are not worshipping them. Instead we are blessing them. And when we bless something, we are not worshipping it…we are putting it in its place, and asking God’s blessing upon it.

Churches typically do this blessing of the animals on this first weekend in October because it is the closest to the Feast of St. Francis, who was known to be a lover of animals. He saw in them evidence of God’s work in creation, and he blessed them as good. We in the Protestant traditions don’t view saints the same way our Catholic brothers and sisters do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t look to them as examples. And St. Francis is a fascinating example of someone who wanted to shed all the false idolatries of the world and look only for evidence of God’s presence, even if that evidence came covered in fur or feathers.

There’s a story about Francis that I love, that also reminds me how important it is for those of us who are Christians to keep our eyes on the prize, and off the idols. The story goes that Francis attended a lavish dinner with other members of the clergy. Inside the tables were heaped with food and drink, paid for by the church, and everyone was having a great time.

Except right outside the doors of the banquet hall, people were starving and begging for food. And so, quietly, while others feasted, Francis put only a few breadcrumbs on his plate. And he quietly began to eat them as everyone else ate from the feast. And when they finalized realized what was happening, they stopped too. And they realized that they had been distracted from what they really wanted to be. And they shared the feast with those outside.

To me that story is about putting aside our idols, our distractions, clearing our vision and choosing instead to focus on what really matters. It’s about letting go of our golden calves, and choosing God instead.

In the end, Francis and the bishops found they couldn’t serve Christ until they focused on the people outside their door. And the Israelites found that they couldn’t go to the promised land until they left the calf behind. They could have remained there, with the idol they made for themselves. But they would have been stuck there. They never would have become what God intended them to be.

And in the end, we can’t find the promised land until we leave our idols behind. No matter what they are, and no matter what fears or insecurities created them, we will never manage to move until we let go of the distractions that don’t matter, and cling for dear life to what does. Only then will we ever find what we are truly seeking. Only then will we have hope. And only then will we be given the wondrous privilege of being used by God to bless the world. Amen.

Safely through the Waters: A Baptismal Sermon for September 21, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
14:19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.

14:20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

14:22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

14:24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

14:25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

14:26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

14:27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.

14:28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

14:31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

How many of you have ever seen the movie “The Ten Commandments”? The one with Charlton Heston? It has been years since I have seen it, but I watched a short piece of it this week in order to prepare for this sermon, so if you haven’t seen it or it’s been a long time, don’t worry…I’ll remind you.

Charlton Heston, Moses, is leading the people out of Egypt and to the promised land. And over the last few weeks we’ve heard some of this same story from Exodus. Moses speaks to the Burning Bush, Moses goes and tells Pharaoh “let my people go”, the plagues come, Pharaoh reluctantly agrees, and Moses gets the people ready to move. And so they start on their journey. But they don’t get very far before Pharaoh changes his mind. And Pharaoh and his army take off after Moses and the Israelites.

Finally they all find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. And water is in front of them, and Pharaoh and his army are behind them, and things look bad. A man yells out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Just to drown in the sea?”

How it probably didn't happen...

How it probably didn’t happen…

Moses steps up and yells, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us!” And he turns and stretches out his arms and shouts, “Behold God’s mighty hand!” And suddenly there are these really bad 1950’s special effects and the waters peel back on both sides and Moses and the people can see clear across to the other shore. They all look amazed and start shouting “it’s a miracle” and they run through the waters before they close back up again and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

So, that’s the way it happens in the movie. But I’ve always believed that the book is better than the movie. And I think a big part of why books are better than the movies is that they go deeper, they’re more complex, and they tell the story a whole lot better.

The Bible is no exception. The passage we read today from Exodus tells us about a people who are hopeful enough to start out on a journey, but realistic enough to be scared. They have left behind all the knew, which wasn’t good, but was a whole lot better than this new reality where they are in the wilderness and facing certain death. So it’s understandable that they were starting to wonder why they ever followed this Moses guy anyway.

I’m sure that if I were there, I’d be doubting all of this too. And I’d be wondering whether it might be better to give up hope and to just go back to what I’d always known. Because hope can be dangerous sometimes. It can put us in situations we never dreamed of, and it can make us wonder why we ever dared to think we could do something new.

That’s what was happening that day as they stood on the banks of the water. The loss of hope, the triumph of doubt, the fear. They were all there.

In the movie version, that all only lasts a few seconds. Moses turns around and parts the waters and it is so breathtakingly awesome that doubt vanishes just like that. And the people crossed over. And they knew, for at least a little while anyway, that God was with them. How could they doubt after seeing something like that?

But have you ever wondered whether that was how it really happened?

Rabbis have a tradition of Scripture study called “Midrash”. It’s a way of taking a particular story from the Biblical text and thinking about and wondering over the meaning, including those things that are left unspoken. And there’s this wonderful tradition about this text which, in my mind at least, is ten times better than the movie.

In this interpretation, there is a man who is mentioned in the Book of Exodus who is named “Nahshon”. And when Moses calls on God to part the Red Sea, as this version of the story goes, it doesn’t automatically part. Instead, everyone stands there wondering why nothing is happening. But then, Nahshon steps out into the water. First one step. Then another. The water gets up to his ankles, up to his knees, up to his hips and shoulders. And finally, when it is up to his nose, the water finally parts.

I like that telling of the story. Because I believe that God could have parted those waters in one fell swoop, and that the Israelites could have seen the shore and known that they were going to be safe from the get go. But I believe that sometimes God asks us to show a little bit of faith, and a little bit of commitment.

Sometimes God wants us to be a Nahshon and so God lets us get nose-deep in the waters. And that’s not because God is toying with us, or being sadistic. That’s because God is preparing us for something better. God is using our faith and our hope to shape us, and to teach us that our actions, our responses, matter too.

The name “Naschon” is sometimes used to mean “an initiator”. That’s what he did that day. He took the initiative and started the crossing. And there are some who push this text even further and say that even after he got nose-deep, and even after the sea started to part, it was a gradual process. The people took one step, and a little more of the sea parted. And then another, and it parted more. And another, and another, trusting that if they just took the next right step, God would show them the next place after that. And eventually, God would lead them to dry ground.

When you think about it, that’s what the journey of faith is like. We don’t get to see the end. We don’t get to see dry land on our first step. But sometimes we get to see just enough to see the next right step. And we step out in faith believing that God won’t leave us stranded, and that the waters will not overpower us. We step out believing that God will make a way.

Today in worship we are baptizing a child we know. And this church knows her story, and her parents have given me permission to say a little about it here today.

On the day this child was born, the parents she would come to know weren’t there. Neither were her brothers and sisters. She had not yet met this family. But God was there. And God was with her in the deep waters, carrying her safely towards the shore.

One day when she was 16 months old that child wound up here in Exeter, at a new home, and everyone thought it would only be for a little while. This was a foster care placement, and they believed that one day it would be time to bless her on the rest of her journey and send her onward.

They took that first step, not just her foster parents, but the whole family together, to welcome a child into their home and to love her. But step by step, day by day, it became clear what God was calling them to do next. And when it became clear that this child wasn’t going anywhere, they took that next step out in faith too. And what God showed us once through Moses, another adoptee, God is showing us now through her. God parted the waters, and God made a way.

And so, today her parents bring their daughter, and her brothers and sisters bring their sister, to the water. They are bringing her to the font. And today as a congregation we baptize her.
And in baptism this is what we are saying: this child belongs to God, and she has all the days of her life. And in baptism she is entrusted to her family, and to all of us now, to help her to learn how to step out in faith until she can do it for herself.

We are going to teach her how to be a Naschon. We are going to teach her how to be an initiator. We are going to teach her how to turn to God even when hope seems foolish, and to trust that the same God who brought her family together, will continue to carry her through the waters. We are going to teach her to step out in faith. And she is going to teach us too.

And so in the waters of baptism today we are responding to what God has already initiated, and we are wading in, and saying we will walk with her on this journey. And so now, let’s gather at the edge of the water. And let’s wade in together. Because I truly believe that if we make a start, God will make a way. Moses and Naschon and and this beloved child we baptize today have taught us that much. Amen.

Who Am I?: Sermon for August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15

3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

3:2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

3:3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

3:4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

3:5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

3:6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

3:7 Then the LORD said, “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,

3:8 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, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

3:9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

3:10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

3:12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

3:13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

3:15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I was a kid, in elementary school, there were a lot of words I couldn’t pronounce the right way. (And not just because I was from the South.) I had a speech impediment, and so once a week or so I had to go meet with the speech pathologist. And she would try to get me to concentrate on saying “s” correctly, or making sure my “f’s” and “th’s” sounded different.

And, she was good at what she did, and my speech did eventually become clearer, but I also became incredibly self-conscious about speaking in public. I was always worried that when I talked my mistakes were all that people heard.

10351450_801313973254536_63441642393740313_nThe whole prospect of public speaking scared me to death. And I remember very clearly making a decision as a child that whatever I did when I grew up, I would never take any kind of job that required me to stand up in front of people and talk.

There’s an old saying that we make plans and God laughs. I think God laughed pretty hard when I made this promise to myself that day. Because the truth is that our best laid plans often don’t quite match up with God’s.

Moses knew what that was like. When you think about Moses you might think of him telling Pharaoh “let my people go”, or parting the Red Sea or coming down from Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets and the 10 Commandments. You might think of Moses as a strong leader. A man of faith. A liberator.

And he was all those things. But first he was this. A baby who escaped death because his mother put him in a basket in a river. A boy who grew up in the royal household not knowing his heritage. A teenager with a conflicted identity who saw injustice and in a moment of rage killed a man. And a young man who had fled, and who in exile resigned himself to tending his father-in-law’s sheep.

It was while he was out with the sheep one day that things changed for Moses. He’s grazing the sheep and he sees this bush that is on fire. And that’s concerning, but even more concerning is the fact that while the fire is raging it doesn’t actually seem to be burning up the bush. Moses goes to take a closer look and once God has Moses attention, because sometimes for some of us we need big signs like randomly burning shrubbery, God calls to him.

“Moses! Moses!”

And Moses says, “Here I am.” And God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s on holy ground. And then God says “I’m the God of all your ancestors…Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…that’s me. And I know what’s been going on. I know what you and all of my people have been going through in Egypt. I know about the suffering and the slavery and the beatings and the injustice. And, more than that, I’m going to stop it. I’m going to take all of you and bring you out of Egypt and to a place flowing with milk and honey.”

Sounds pretty good, right? God knows how bad things have been. God is going to put a stop to it. God is going to save God’s people. This must have all sounded like good news to Moses. Until God says this: “And I’m going to send you to Pharaoh to take care of this, okay?”

And that’s when Moses asks the big question: “Who am I that I should be the one to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt?”

“Who am I?” It’s the big question. We all ask ourselves that. And Moses had reason to ask. He was a refugee who had fled after killing a man. But even without that, he did not think of himself as a leader. He was just a guy who watched his wife’s father’s sheep. He didn’t really belong with the Hebrews, didn’t really belong with the Egyptians, and didn’t really belong with the people in Midian. And, Scripture tells us, he was “slow of speech” which meant that he probably had some sort of speech impediment to boot.

This is the guy God chose to go talk to the Pharaoh and then lead his people for forty years in the wilderness? Moses was probably the last guy you would expect, and Moses himself knew it.

And so when Moses says “who am I”? it’s not a ridiculous question. It makes sense.

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever felt called to do something big, something meaningful, but you haven’t felt qualified? I think we all have. I think we’ve all had a time when we have counted ourselves out of the game before we even tried because we just didn’t feel like we were good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. Moses got what that felt like. And that’s why he asked his big question: “Who am I?”

Now, here’s the kicker: did you notice that God doesn’t answer him? Hardly confidence-inspiring, is it? Instead, when Moses says “who am I”, God says this: “I will be with you.”

God doesn’t say “Moses you are good enough,” or “Moses, you have what it takes”. Because God promises something better. God promises God’s presence.

So Moses starts to think about logistics, and he says to God, “If I go to your people, and tell them you’ve told me to lead them out of Egypt, what do I say? What if they ask me who you are? What should I tell them?”

And God says this: “Say, ‘I am who I am’ and tell the Israelites that ‘I am’ has sent me to you. This is my name.”

“I am who I am”. What’s that supposed to mean? Is it a riddle? Is it God dodging the question? It sure doesn’t sound like a name.

But in Hebrew “I am who I am” translates into a name for God that you may have heard before. It’s is pronounced “Yahweh”. And among the most Orthodox of our Jewish sisters and brothers that name is so holy that it is never spoken out loud. And if it is written on paper that paper must be treated with respect. In fact in college I had a professor who was an Orthodox rabbi who asked us that we give him our textbooks if they were damaged because they contained God’s name and it was so holy that he would bury them out of respect.

It was striking how deeply he cared and it took me a while to realize that it’s wasn’t just the actual name itself that made it holy. It’s what it means: I am who I am, which at its essence just means this: God is.

Of all the things we can say about God: God is great, merciful, gracious, loving, eternal, Triune, and we could go on and on…none of them are completely accurate. Because on their own they can’t be. No matter what words we can put on God, they will never accurately convey the vastness of who God is. We will never completely get it. And so the most faithful thing we can say is what God said: God is. “I am who I am.”

That’s what God tells Moses before God sends him to do something incredible. Moses asks “Who am I?” and God says “I am with you”. Moses asks “what’s your name” and God says “I am”.

And that’s the sum of it. God is. And God is with Moses. And God is with all of us. And because of that, sometimes ideas as crazy-sounding as going and asking the Pharaoh to leave and take everyone with you work out. Because God is with you.

The name of the book this story is told in is Exodus. It was originally written in Hebrew but later it was given this Greek name. And Exodus literally means “a way out”. And that’s what God created through Moses; a way out for God’s people. God took this most unlikely of heroes and made him capable of amazing things. God did that. Because God is. And God was with Moses.

So who was Moses? He was someone that the great “I am” had chosen to be with. And who are you? You are someone God is with too. At your core, that is what defines you more than anything else in life. That is how God answered Moses’ question, and that is how God answers us all: I am, and I am with you.

And so maybe, despite our shortcomings, despite our faults, we are enough. And maybe God can use us in some ways we have never imagined. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we can’t succeed. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we won’t even try. It’s easy to accept defeat before the first step is taken. But when we do that, we forget who is with us, and who God is.

And so here’s my challenge this week. What if every time you tried to step out in faith and then asked yourself “who am I?” or “what makes me think I’m up to this challenge” or “why did I ever think I could do this”, what if every time a question like that comes up, what if you didn’t answer? And what if instead you just said this: God is. And God is with me.

What if we all did that. Can you imagine what it would be like if we all put our faith into action and trusted that God would be there with us? What would it be like if we believed that God could take the most unlikely among us, and the most unlikely parts of us, and use them for amazing things? I’m not saying it would always be smooth sailing; even Moses wandered around for forty years in the wilderness. But I am saying that if God is really calling us out into the next part of our journey, God is not calling us out alone.

God is. And God is with us. And that is all we need to know. Amen.

“Hope, Memory, and Why This Day is Different from All Others”

At Jewish Passover Seders there is a point in the meal called the Mah Nishtanah, or the four questions. The youngest child at the table asks four questions on focusing on, “Why is this night different than other nights?” The adults at the table answer the child’s questions in turn, and in doing so recount the story of the Jewish people as told in the book of Exodus.


I think about that tradition when I read the book of Exodus, from where our passage from today comes. I love the idea of remembering as a body what happened before, and teaching it, the good and the bad, but especially the triumph of the good over the bad, hope over pain. It’s something the Jewish tradition has always done remarkably well, and it’s something we could learn from in our own tradition.


Whenever i read the book of Exodus, i remember that tradition. The story we read today is a familiar one. It takes place not long after the Passover and the fleeing of Egypt for something better. The people are not long removed from their lives as slaves and they know that they are now being pursued. They know that they could go back to a life of pain and no hope. And they look behind them and see the Pharoah’s army approaching. And they look in front of them and see the Red Sea. And at first glance everything looks very bad.


But you know the story. You know what happens next as surely as the adults who answer a child’s questions at the Passover table. You know that Moses picked up his staff, and stretched out his hands, and the waters rolled back, and the people were saved. It’s one of the first stories many of us learn from the Bible. Even though neither we nor anyone we knew was there, it’s a part of our memory. And it’s a part of our hope.


I’ve been thinking about memory and hope a lot this week. Memory as we approached today, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Hope as we as a community seek to rebuild. And I’ve been reminded again and again that memory and hope are often two sides of the same coin.


But sometimes we get a little weary of remembering things. It starts to feel like we are dragging around a heavy weight all the time. As we’ve approached this anniversary I’ve seen the commercials for program after program about 9/11. It’s pretty amazing how low some stations have sunk in their quest to capitalize on this anniversary. It was hard enough the first time, and this time it’s enough to make me want to turn off the tv and not pick up a newspaper.


I even wondered whether or not to preach about it this morning. Especially here as we struggle in our communities to come to terms with what happened two weeks ago and what it will mean for us next. Do we really need another reminder of that day?


But as I thought about it, I realized that to not say anything about it here, in this place where we lift up every Sunday the divine memory of what God has done, is to cede the memory of what happened ten years ago, and even what happened two weeks ago, is to abandon our memories to other places. Our memory of the events become shaped not by the Gospel and God’s love, but by CNN and MSNBC and Fox News. They deserve more that that.


When the child asks at the Seder table why this night is different from all others, why the food is dipped into salt water first, they are told it is meant to symbolize the bitterness of the tears cried in Egypt. The past, the past before the Red Sea rolled back and freedom was assured, is not forgotten.


Today may feel a little like a day where you remember, “Why this day is unlike other days” and all you can taste are bitter tears.


And today may be a day when you also feel uncertain. It may be a day where you are standing at the shore, looking out at an obstacle you can’t cross, and feeling a threat approaching not far behind. And you may be wondering, “What am I going to do now?”


I’d like to tell you that this is the day that the sea is going to part, and you are going to walk right through with safe passage to the other shore. I’d like to tell you the memory of bitter tears is going to be washed away in that water, along with all that is trying to drag you down. If life were a movie, that’s how this would go.


But sometimes movies get it wrong. And in this case they’re not nearly good enough.


I know I’ve told you the story before about hearing Bishop Gene Robinson speak about the parting of the Red Sea. It was not long after he had gone through a trying time in his own life. There had, I’m sure, been plenty of tears and a search for hope. He was a man who could understand standing at the shore and feeling like there was no way across.


What I loved about the talk that day was that he didn’t make this story easy. In fact, he made it harder. And in doing so, he made it even better.


Bishop Robinson said that the parting of the Red Sea was probably nothing like what we saw in the movies. The waves didn’t roll back and the way across wasn’t clear and safe. It probably wasn’t like that at all.


Instead, it was more like this: the waves rolled back just enough that the people of Israel could put their feet on safe ground. And then they rolled back just enough that they could take another step. And then another. And then slowly, by faith, they made it across to safety. They did what they never thought possible.


The reality of life is a lot more like that than it is like the movies. God gives us enough that we know where to take the next step. And when we take that step, no matter how high the odds are, no matter how overwhelming the journey may seem, we get enough room to make the next. We are rarely shown the whole journey at once. But we are often shown exactly what we need to make the next step there.


Ten years ago we stood at the river banks and we wondered what happened next. Our safety and serenity had been taken away from us. Rebuilding felt impossible. We wondered if anything would ever feel normal again. We were afraid.


The first day I saw an airplane flying again, the first time I saw a baseball game, I knew that life, no matter how changed, was still good. And we would be shown a way across the scary, deep unknown, step by step. But I also knew, just like those children at the Seder table knew, I would, and should, never forget. I would never forget what happened, and I would never forget what God did next.


Ten years from now, you may well be back in church, remembering what happened in this place just a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you what you will be like then, what this church will be like then, or what the world will be like then. We have too many steps to take between now and then, and the shore is not yet in sight.


But I do know this. God will not lead us this far, and then abandon us. God, the same God who became human and suffered with us, did not allow pain and hatred and destruction to be the last word. Instead, God transformed it into something new. Something that could resurrect us all.


At the Seder, after the food is dipped in something salty, it is then dipped into something sweet. The sweet signifies what God has down to transform what was once so bitter. The meal is not complete without both the bitter, and the sweet. The memory, and the hope. And so it is with us as well.


Look behind you, and never forget. The only way what’s behind you can hurt you is if you refuse to remember. Look in front of you, at that sea that looks impossible to cross, and hope. Because it’s only by hope that you can begin to do what God is calling you to next. And then, step out on memory and hope. Put your feet down in new places. And look around to see where God rolls back the sea next. And then remember your last impossible step, and make another. Amen.

“Water from a Rock”

Exodus 17:1-7
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”

17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

17:5 The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

During the Holocaust in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, a trial took place. It was not the trial of prisoners by Nazis. It was very different. It was a trial conducted by Jewish rabbis in the barracks, and the defendant was God.
The rabbis argued about whether God had abandoned the Jewish people. They argued about how a benevolent God could allow such bad things to happen to them. And in the end, the rabbis, good, religious men, found God guilty.
One of the biggest questions of faith is “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Theologians have asked it for hundreds of years. Philosophers have pondered on it. And you and I have wondered too. Where is God when something bad happens?
I’m not going to give you a definitive answer this morning. Because, I don’t know. There are, in any given week, dozens of situations that I see and wonder why God is doing more to help. I used to feel bad about that. I used to think that I was disrespecting God. But wondering where God is and looking for answers is not the same as disrespecting God. If anything, it’s a form of taking God more seriously.
That was a little of what was happening in the passage. The Israelites are out in the wilderness. They have left slavery in Egypt and are journeying to a promised land. But Moses has led them far from home and they are thirsty. They begin to question him asking, “why did we even leave. And Moses calls to God and says, “They are almost ready to stone me.” The people begin to ask, “Is the Lord among us or not.”
We do it too when bad things happen. That is when we often find ourselves taking God more seriously. Seriously enough to ask where God is.
If you have been watching the news you have seen the pictures from Japan. You have seen the absolute devastation. You have seen destruction and loss of life and pain that will haunt the country for years. And maybe, at some level, you have asked, “Where is God.”
I’ve always rejected the idea that God does things to punish us. God does not going around using earthquakes to bring us in line. God does not cause tsunamis to prove God’s might. God does not will us to suffer in order to gain our love
But it’s easy to see how some churches have used what happened in Japan as a way of making people be fearful. Repent or else, we are told. Change your ways or you are next. And the underlying message, spoken or not, is this: those affected had it coming.
But God is not a God who hurts us. Rather, God is right there with us when bad things happen. And God is there in the aftermath.
When the people in the wilderness cried out loud enough, and when Moses went to God for help, he was given an unlikely answer: Strike the rock and water will spring forth. God tells Moses, “Your people will no longer go thirsty in my presence. I will save you.”
I believe it’s true that God hears our cries. And I believe that God does provide for us when we ask. But sometimes it takes longer than we might hope. And sometimes we have to go on a journey we wouldn’t wish to go on.
A close friend of mine, who has given me permission to tell this story, was sexually assaulted ten years ago. She was a very faithful person. And she was extremely proactive about her recovery. She saw a therapist. She went to a trauma recovery group. She even went to trauma yoga. She did everything right.
She managed to deal with the trauma of what was done to her, and to keep her faith. In fact, it was her faith that pulled her through it. But recently she told me that she was having a bit of a hard time. Trauma recovery is difficult and there are many layers and something you thought was done with has a way of coming back a little sometimes. And this time, it was hard for her to find God. No matter where she looked, God seemed far away. She’s one of the most faithful people I know, and I knew this must be devastating for her.
I think about Moses, taking a journey on faith. And I think about her, taking her own journey. I think about what it was like for Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. And I think about what it was like for her to say “I will not be defined by what happened to me anymore. I will be defined by surviving it.”
That was a hard journey to take. Many never take it. Many are happier living in the Egypt that they know rather than the promised land that they don’t. But she wasn’t, and she set out across the desert, and she is heading to the promised land. But right now she’s standing at the rock, just like Moses, asking God where God is. And God is telling her, “strike the rock. There’s living water in there for you. Strike the rock and know I’m here.”
I know she is going to get through this dark night alive. And she is going to be better on the other side. And the promised land that she reaches is going to be better than anything she could have imagined. But there’s no short cut across the desert when you’re looking for the promised land. There’s only the hard, hard journey and the doubt.
I look at Japan. They are not suffering because of their own actions. Just like the Jewish people at Auschwitz did nothing to deserve being there. Just like my friend did nothing to deserve being assaulted. They are suffering because sometimes, for whatever reason, bad things happen to good people.
But I know this: there is a promised land. It looks different for all of us. For the Jewish people in the camps it was freedom from persecution. For my friend it is to sleep without nightmares. And for the Japanese it is to rebuild homes and lives.
There is living water waiting to be struck from the rock. But we don’t know what it is going to look like. And sometimes, we may not know it yet, we are called to be the water that comes forth.
I read a story recently about a chef in California named Bruno. He had emigrated to this country and started out as a dishwasher. He worked hard and ended up opening his own restaurant. When he had more than enough, he began to donate financially to the Boys and Girls Club.
One day his mother came from Italy and wanted to see where his donations went. He took her to the Club and saw a boy eating a small bag of potato chips. He asks him if it was a snack, and the boy said “no”. It was his dinner. His mother overheard.
Now, I know something about Italian mothers, having one myself. And so, when his mother heard that and told him that he had to come back and feed them pasta, he had no choice. And for years now, he has been coming back and feeding dozens of meals a night to children who might otherwise not eat. When the economy went bad he lost a lot of his business. But he couldn’t leave the children without food. And so he refinanced his house, and kept right on serving.
There is water if you just strike the rock. And sometimes we can be the water that comes forth. We can be the strong shoulder to cry on. We can be the one who speaks out against hatred and oppression. We can be the one who sends help when our brothers and sisters can’t do anything else to help themselves. We can be the ones who be water to the thirsty in all sorts of ways
In just a few moments we will be taking up a special collection for Japan. Our proceeds will go to Church World Service, an ecumenical organization with a proven reputation for responding to disasters like this. They will make sure that your donations will get to the people who need them the most. They will make sure that water will spring from the rock.
And as for us, there will be a day when we are promised a new land. And if we dare to go, we will find at sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. Dry and dusty and wondering where God is now. And we will have just enough faith that we will know what to do. And we will strike the rock. And somehow, God will give us water. We may not know what that water will look like now, but it will there. And we will not be allowed to go thirsty any longer. May it ever be true for us. May it ever be true for all God’s people. Amen.