1 Pictures from the Family Album: The Burning Bush Richmond s First Baptist Church, September 3, 2017 The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Exodus 3:1-15 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. 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. Then Moses said, I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. When we closed the family album last week we were looking at a picture of Moses. There he was, a beautiful baby boy in a basket, and he was crying. Pharaoh s daughter couldn t help herself; when she looked on that face her heart just melted. She took the boy home with her, called him Moses, and raised him as her own son. If you ve seen the movie The Prince of Egypt, that s kind of, sort of, what he was: a prince. But he was also a Hebrew, and he never forgot that. One day he went out to see how his people were being treated. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and after looking both ways he killed him and buried his body in the sand. But someone saw him, and when word got back to Pharaoh he wanted to kill Moses. Moses ran for his life, and ended up in the land of Midian, on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula. He sat down by a well, and while he was there the seven daughters of the high priest came with their father s sheep. They filled the troughs and began to water their flock but some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up, came to their defense, watered their flock, and when they went home their father wondered how they had finished so early. They said, An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock! Their father said, And you left him out there by the well? Invite him to dinner! So they did, and things must have gone well, because, within a few months, Moses had married one of those girls, and a few months after that she gave birth to a baby boy. Moses named him Gershom, which means something like little stranger, because, as he reckoned, I m a stranger here myself.
2 Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Pharaoh died, and the Hebrew people groaned under their slavery and cried out to God. God heard their cries, he remembered his promise to Abraham, and he took notice of his people. He knew it was time. One day Moses led his father-in-law s flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. He saw a bush that was burning without burning up and decided to take a closer look. As he did he heard a voice saying, Moses, Moses! Take off your shoes. The ground on which you are standing is holy ground. Now, I don t know if you can do it easily, but if you can take your shoes off, right now, and if you can t at least recognize that the ground on which we have gathered is holy. This is the place where we come to meet God, and sometimes it happens, doesn t it? In the prayers, in the hymns, in the sermon, in the silence God speaks to you, you hear his voice, you feel his presence. In fact, this place has been set apart for that purpose; it s why we call it a sanctuary rather than an auditorium; it s why we try to take such good care of it. This is holy ground: this is a place where people have met God through the years, and where they still do. Moses took off his shoes, he fell to the ground, he covered his face (when is the last time you had a worship experience like that?). He lay there, trembling in the dust, and heard that voice again. It said, I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And then God said this remarkable thing: he 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, 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. Just listen to the verbs in that statement: 1. I have seen the misery of my people, 2. I have heard their cries for help, 3. I know their sufferings, and 4. I have come down to deliver them.
3 This is not an angry God who sits on a cloud somewhere, waiting to throw down a lightning bolt. No, this is a God of compassion, who sees, and feels, and acts. Although, if you wanted to find fault, you might ask why it took him so long to do anything. It s hard to be sure just how long the Israelites were in Egypt. The book of Exodus claims it was 430 years, but some scholars say it couldn t have been more than 215. Either way, it seems like hundreds of years too long, doesn t it? How long would you have to be a slave before you d had enough, before you started crying out to God for deliverance? Ten minutes? Twenty? Twenty five? Which may be a good reminder to us that God s sense of time is different from ours. As the Bible says, A thousand years is like a day to the Lord (2 Pet. 3:8). That s not much comfort when you cry out to the Lord and he says, Look, I m a little busy right now. Can I get back to you tomorrow? But he is a little busy right now. If you could put a stethoscope on the globe and listen to the cries for help you would hear them coming from everywhere, but from some places more than others: Houston, at the moment; Syria; Sierra Leone. You could almost understand why it takes God a few minutes to help you find a parking place at the mall (smile). You could almost understand why your more desperate prayers aren t answered immediately. But it doesn t mean that God doesn t care. If this story proves anything, it proves that he does! I have seen their misery, he says, I have heard their cries for help, I know their suffering, and I have come down to do something about it. But what he has come to do comes as a complete surprise to Moses. I m sending you, God says. I want you to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. To which Moses can only reply, Why me? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? Well, who else? Moses was the perfect candidate for this job. He was a Hebrew who had been raised in Pharaoh s palace. The old Pharaoh was dead; the new Pharaoh may have been somebody he grew up with. The two of them may have played together as boys. Who better to go to that Pharaoh than Moses? God could have explained all that to Moses, but instead he says, Don t worry. You won t have to do this alone. I will be with you, and this will be a sign to you: when you have brought my people out of Egypt you will worship me right here on this mountain. Who is Moses? He is the one God is with. And that s really all it takes. Often, when I am praying for people, and especially people who are near death, I will pray, Lord, as the psalmist has
4 reminded us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we don t have to be afraid as long as you are with us. We can fear no evil, as he says, because your presence is the antidote to fear. So, when Moses asks, Who am I to do such a thing? God says, You are the one I am going to be with, and because I am going to be with you, you can do it. You don t have to be afraid. Hear those words for yourself if you are in a frightening, or difficult, or troubling situation. God is with you, too. But Moses has another question for God. He s already asked, Who am I? Now he asks, Who are you? In other words, 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? And God says, I am who I am. But Moses is confused. So God says further, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you. But Moses is still confused. So God says to Moses, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, [YHWH], 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. And that seems to satisfy Moses, at least for the moment. But what does it do for us? This is the last picture in this series from the family album: this picture of Moses, bowed down before the great I AM with his face in his hands. What do we get from that picture? What are we supposed to learn from it? I ve been asking myself that question all week. Here s the way I summed it up yesterday on a piece of scrap paper at my kitchen table: 1. Like Moses, we can turn aside, take off our shoes, and hear a word from the Lord. 2. What we hear is that God: a. Sees the misery of his people b. Hears their cries for help c. Knows their suffering d. And comes down to deliver them 3. He is a God of compassion, who calls on his people to rescue the oppressed, who sends us to deliver them.
5 And that made me ask: Who is crying out today? Who is waiting to be delivered? My first thought was those people who are recovering from the devastating hurricane in Houston. But then I had a second thought. At this church we talk a lot about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Sometimes we talk about bringing heaven to earth. When people ask me how to do that I say, It s not hard: just look around for anything that doesn t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work. But another way to get at the problem is to follow the path of brokenness. To ask yourself, What is it that breaks my heart? and then go to work there. What s been breaking my heart lately is racism in America. I know it s not just a blackand-white issue; racism comes in every color; but I ve been reading a book by Michael Dyson called Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, and it s been preaching to me. i Listen to the opening lines: America is in trouble, and a lot of that trouble perhaps most of it has to do with race. Everywhere we turn, there is discord and division, death and destruction. When we survey the land, we see a country full of suffering that we cannot fully understand, and history that we can no longer deny. Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives. ii Dyson is not talking about the shadows cast by the statues on Monument Avenue (which have been in the news so much lately). As my brother-in-law says, If a newlywed couple is fighting over the china pattern it s probably not about the china pattern. iii The same is true with our monuments. If we re fighting over statues, it s probably not about statues: it s something older, and deeper. People disagree on just how long slavery existed in this country. Some say 245 years; others say it s been almost 400, that black folk are still in bondage. Either way, it s been way too long and the damage that s been done is enormous. But Michael Dyson is crying out on behalf of his people everywhere. On page after page he explains why the tears cannot be stopped. What the story of Moses tells me is that God sees that misery, he hears those cries, he knows that suffering, and he has come down to do something about it. What may surprise us, as it surprised Moses, is that he wants our help.
6 In these last few weeks I ve been wondering what I can do to help. I ve been reading books and articles, talking with friends and colleagues, and one thing I can do is denounce racism as a sin from the pulpit of Richmond s First Baptist Church. There: I just did it. It is a sin. It is what Jim Wallis calls America s Original Sin. iv And we are living with the consequences to this day. But I can also do this: I can call on you, as God s people, to do whatever you can to put an end to racism. I know you re tired of hearing about it; so am I. But just a few weeks ago we were reminded that racism is alive and well in this country. We saw people who came from all over America for a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville: white supremacists who believe that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races. v White nationalists who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation. vi These are people who seem to believe that making America great again requires making America white again (as if that were ever true), to which our own president responded: Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. vii What do we do? When we see a burning cross we turn aside, we come to church, we take off our shoes, and we hear the voice of God calling us to do something about it. We may have to go Pharaoh, as Moses did. We may have to tell him to let God s beautiful black people go. But we will certainly have to let go of whatever racism remains in our own hearts. Turn enough pages in the family album and you will be reminded that we ourselves were once slaves, but God saw our misery, he heard our cries, he knew our suffering, and he came down to deliver us, and this time not through a burning bush, but through a beloved son. The evidence is in front of us this morning. [gesture toward the table] On the night he was betrayed the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed it he broke it and said, This is my body Jim Somerville 2017
7 i Dyson, Michael Eric. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (New York: St. Martin s Press, 2017). ii Dyson, Tears, p. 3. iii Chuck Treadwell, Rector of St. David s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. iv Wallis, Jim. America s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016). v Merriam-Webster. vi Merriam-Webster. vii President Donald Trump, as reported in the New York Times, August 14.