A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California.
October 3, 2021
Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17
Last week Joann preached about the story of Jacob, renamed Israel. In the intervening chapters, his sons’ have picked up the family tradition of trickery. To get rid of their father’s favorite son, Joseph, they sold him to traders and then told dear old dad that he had been murdered. In truth, Joseph ends up in the court of the Pharaoh and helps Pharaoh prepare for a coming famine.
Eventually, the brother’s deception is uncovered, but only after famine has arrived back home and Jacob sends his family to Egypt seeking food. The story of Joseph helps us understand how the people of Israel became slaves in Egypt. They left their homes because to stay was to die.
Our biblical ancestors are not unlike the Afghani and Haitian and others who are on the road today, seeking life in a new place because there is nothing for them in their homes but danger and death.
Generations have passed, however.
The Hebrew people have grown numerous and have thrived in their new land. But a new Pharaoh has taken the throne. And he didn’t know Joseph.
And he doesn’t remember the stories about how Joseph saved Egypt.
And when economic or political situations take a turn, people have a tendency to “close ranks”, so to speak. We ignore our history, we forget that we too, or our ancestors at least, were once immigrants in a new land. We focus our fear on outsiders.
And so Pharaoh oppresses the refugee Hebrew people and enslaves them, forcing them to build and labor in dangerous and inhumane conditions. Even those horrible conditions don’t keep the Hebrew people from surviving and thriving. So Pharaoh kills all the baby boys, to prevent them from growing up to be threats to Egypt.
It is into those conditions that Moses is born. Today’s readings skip the fairly important chapter describing his birth. His mother, continuing the “trickster” qualities of her ancestor Jacob, manages to get him out of harm’s way and so he doesn’t die according to Pharaoh’s plan.
Moses was the original Boy Who Lived, long before Harry Potter came along. He knew what it was like to not belong, to be different from everyone else. Adopted into Pharaoh’s own house, but aware that he was Hebrew, he saw the way he benefited while his birth family were enslaved. He even murders an Egyptian who is harassing a Hebrew man, and is judged and found wanting by the Hebrew people who see the crime. He has no place to call home.
Moses can’t fix the injustice. He is expendable to Pharaoh. He is seen as an outsider by his own people. And so he leaves.
Our story picks up today when he’s 10 miles past the middle of nowhere, tending the flocks of his father in law, Jethro the Midianite.
When I think of Moses, no matter how much I wish I had another image, I confess I picture Charlton Heston.
And if we know the end of Moses’ story, we think of him in heroic terms. He leads the people out of slavery and out of Egypt! Huzzah!
Moses is not heroic at the beginning of his story, though.
He’s a mess. On the run. Without friends or clear plans for the future. And it is this Moses that God calls. Not the Charlton Heston Hero Moses. God calls the refugee, stateless Mose.
Moses sees a bush on fire, but not being consumed by the fire. He turns to look at it and God calls out to him:
“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
I don’t know if you have the experience of being claimed as a member of a particular tribe or group of people. As an adopted child, I find resonance in Moses’ story. And to be claimed, as Moses is claimed here—I am the God of YOUR father, the God of Abraham….etc—by the tribe that didn’t raise you is very powerful.
Many of you have heard some of my story. When I first got my original birth certificate, my birth mother did not want to meet me, and the man she said was my father died many years ago, but that man’s family, the McCourts, claimed me. My existence was not known by the family until I called them. When I reached out to his daughter, I knew my existence would reveal her father’s infidelity and that my call might not be received very well by her. But when I told her who I was and why I was calling, instead she said, “A sister! I have a sister! I’ve never had a sister before”. And that was it. We became family. She claimed me.
And one of my cousins from his family sent me a photo. It is a picture of the McCourt cousins taken in 1961 with their (our) grandmother. And as my cousin labeled who everyone in the photo was, she wrote my name on the picture and put “not born yet”.
It has been a humbling gift to be welcomed and claimed by people like this.
I wonder if people who know they belong, people who are welcomed and claimed, are better able to hear God’s call.
What is it that took Moses from being a refugee who didn’t belong to becoming the leader of his people, standing up to Pharaoh
Before God tells Moses what God needs him to do, God claims him. Don’t underestimate the power of that claim on Moses as he moves forward in this story. He isn’t claimed just by anyone, but by the God of his mother and father. Even though he was raised in Pharaoh’s house, Moses belongs to God and to the people of God. And by responding to God’s claim, Moses denies the claim of Pharaoh, which says he doesn’t matter, which says other people are expendable for political gain.
And on the holy ground at the burning bush, God makes sure Moses hears a better claim and offers an important call. God is sending Moses to Pharaoh to deliver God’s people out of Egypt.
Meeting birth family has been interesting. Not all of them have wanted to meet me, but many of them have. And when they accept me, it’s been immediate, like that first phone call with my half sister. They haven’t claimed me because of the things I’ve done, or because of my personality, or any accomplishments. They don’t know any of that. They have just accepted me.
God knew all about Moses when the burning bush appeared. God knew Moses never felt at home in either the Egyptian palace or with the Hebrew people. God knew Moses had murdered. And God still claimed and called him. Moses talks back to God with all of his insecurities. “You don’t want me, God. I AM nobody. I AM a mess. I AM not even a good public speaker. Claim someone else”.
God gets a little annoyed at this point in the story, but even still, the claim is there. “Who do you think gives humans speech in the first place?” God cries out in frustration. “You’re mine. I have work for you to do. Go do it”.
I read the news, often with much sadness, as we kill in gun violence and war, as we divide and separate from each other—and I think it is easy to see a world where people know neither their claim or their call. When we don’t know we are, when we don’t feel we are, claimed and connected, we act as if Pharaoh is right—subjugating others and disregarding the worth and value of their lives. I think God might still be a little frustrated with us at this point in our story. “You’re mine. I have work for you to do. Go do it”, God still calls from burning bushes I don’t think we’re noticing.
This past week, I was in Dallas cuddling my granddaughter. I took a break from baby snuggling to visit two of my college friends. Being with them, I was reminded of how much they supported me, cared for me, and loved me in college. And still today. The claim we have on each other’s life may not be easy for everyone to see. We live in different places. We don’t see each other that often. But when I am with them, I know I am safe. I know I am loved. I know I am safe to be my imperfect and real self. When I am with them, I belong.
And I think because of love and support I received from them in college, at a time when I didn’t fully believe I was worth loving and supporting, I’ve been able to live into God’s call in my life.
Who are those people for you? The ones who claim you as their own? It might be family. It might be friends who become like family. It could be relationships right here at church. Or in your AA meetings, quilting groups, or other communities.
Think for a minute about the people with whom you belong and are known.
Think for a minute about what we need to do to create community where people know they belong. I’m talking about here at church, and in our neighborhoods, in our families, and in our country.
Do people know they are accepted—as they are—and claimed so they can be a part of our communities? Do we treat people we meet as if we all belong to the same ‘people’, as if we’re all connected to each other?
This may be the most important work for us these days. Because it is hard to live into your call when you don’t know who or whose you are.
In a few moments, you’ll get to hear from a few folks from our Calvary community who have answered the Call to serve with our Ministry partners. We hope you will hear the call in your own life to join in some of this work. They will be available after worship to speak with you and tell you more about how you can join in this work.
God claims us and God calls us, as God claimed and called Moses, because God has seen the misery, and heard the cries of God’s people.
We are the people to respond.
We are the people to stand up to Pharaoh.
We are the people to share the Good News that Pharaoh’s claim on us is a lie. Remember, Moses didn’t feel particularly qualified to do the job either, so don’t let that stop you.
We are standing on Holy Ground. May we hear God’s call because the world sure needs to know a better truth. Amen.