Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ our LORD. Amen.
In my first weeks here at Augustana I’ve been learning many new names. And there’s a lot to names. Think about yours. Do you know the meaning of your name(s)? What’s in a name?
Of course many of us may recall that actual phrase, with its origins in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet. We know the story: Romeo, a Montague and Juliet, a Capulet, meet and fall in love, but they are doomed from the start because of their names, or family identities which pit them against one another. “Tis’ but thy name that is my enemy;” Juliet states, “though art thyself though, not a Montague…. O! be some other name: What’s in a name?”
Shakespeare’s on to something, for whether for good or for bad names matter. They matter because they mark us and they matter because they have the power to represent the entirety of who we are to others.
In our reading for today we learn of God’s name for the first time through the story of a man whose own identity is, shall we say, questionable. Moses, whose name tells his own story- mosheh, the Hebrew word for “to draw from water,” encounters God in a radical way through the Burning Bush and is henceforth claimed and empowered to lead his people in their struggle against the Egyptian forces of oppression.
Now, before we dig into the story of Moses it’s important to remember how and why the Hebrew people found themselves in Egypt to begin with. Our narrative lectionary skips over many late chapters of Genesis and the story of Joseph. Recall with me his story.
Joseph is Jacob’s son, born to his beloved Rachel, and envied by his brothers for his fatherly favor and wild dreams of leadership. Joseph is kidnapped and for a trifle sold off to a Midianite, who eventually sells Joseph to one of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s officials. During Joseph’s tenure in the Pharaoh’s court he experiences ups and downs, but ultimately comes under the Pharaoh’s good graces and helps lead Egypt to one of its most prosperous and bountiful seasons. Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Jacob’s descendants experience drought and famine, leading them to immigrate to Egypt in search of food. They find it and to their surprise also find Joseph, who sets them up with the best land, seed and produce. For a while. But right about when Joseph’s brothers begin to enjoy this “high on the hog” lifestyle, famine strikes Egypt, resulting in the selling off of land and people. So, now without food, land the Israelites find themselves bound in slavery as aliens in a foreign land.
Moses is the son of unnamed Levites, the tribe most financially dependent upon others. He is born a slave, and a scorned one at that, for as the early chapters of Exodus remind us the Pharaoh of of the day was threatened by what the text refers to as the the “strong and fruitful Hebrew women” who were evidently prolific procreators. And this part of the story is familiar, right? Shortly after Moses’s birth he is sent up the Nile in a basket so to be spared from the ongoing infanticide.
By the time we meet Moses in chapter three decades have passed and Moses, while yet alive, leads a conflicted life. Think about it. Moses is a son of Hebrew refugees from Canaan, nursed by a Hebrew mother but raised by an Egyptian princess, called upon to speak to Hebrews as an Egyptian but addressed by them as an Israelite, exiled from Egypt for killing an Egyptian while yet mistaken as one and now a Midianite by marriage, cast away from all community he has known and loved. So who exactly is Moses?
I have a feeling that Moses himself asked that question, hinted at in Ex. 2:22 where Moses names his firstborn son not something cozy like Samuel, “God has heard,” or David, “Beloved,” but Gershom, meaning “an alien residing in a foreign land.” I mean, parents, can you imagine? “Hi, I’d like to introduce my son. This is, “Doesn’t belong here.”
The truth is, like so many called in the biblical texts (like Matthew, who I spoke about earlier this month), I don’t think Moses really felt he belonged anywhere. And yet, it is Moses who first hears the name of God. It is Moses who first gets a glimpse of God on Mount Sinai. It is Moses who receives the Law. And it is Moses who reappears with Jesus and the Prophet Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Why? What makes him so extraordinary? Is it the bush? As is so often told in other religious folktales, is this just one more example of someone being radically transformed because of a miraculous spiritual experience? I don’t think so.
It may be a bit unorthodox to say (because let’s face it we LOVE to tell and hear the dramatic story of the Bush. Everybody wants a miracle, right?), but I want to suggest that Moses hears, sees and does these extraordinary things because he pays attention to what God is already doing and responds. Look at verses three and four with me, for example: Seeing the bush ablaze, “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. WHEN the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.” It makes you wonder just how long this bush was burning, doesn’t it? It makes me wonder if others passed it by, before Moses, but paid no attention or shirked away in fear. Either way, this particular part of the reading warrants our extra attention, for Moses’ call here is conditional, not compulsory. The call comes after Moses leans in and pays attention.
And this leads me to a question for us today. What are the bushes alight around us? Where are the fires? Said differently, where is God pulling out all the stops to invite us into His ongoing work? And are we turning aside to pay attention? Or, are we mindlessly walking by?
This morning marks the start of our stewardship month at Augustana, where we reflect on our financial giving. And to me this seems like a burning bush of sorts. Albeit with comparatively very little flash (although as far as the dramatic goes, I did hear rumors about Pastor Aune performing a stewardship skit in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for that!), God puts before us mundane things like an offering plate and giving plans to participate in God’s radical work, a work that is still about setting captives free. But do we have the vision to see it that way? What if every week you and I treated this actual object (offering plate) as we would a fire, a God-infused miracle that speaks to each of us? Would you then respond by nervously passing the plate along empty? Would you, out of obligation, drum up the extra cash in your wallet to save face and check it off the church to-do list? Would you, as frankly I often do, feel bad that once again you neglected to prioritize writing the check or setting up the autodraft? Honestly, I don’t think any of us would want to respond to God’s invitation with excuses, selfishness, and guilty shame. And I don’t think that’s what God wants for us either!
What does God want for us? In answering that question we have some great clues in Moses’ story. Time and time again God tells Moses that he is the man for the job and that he will be equipped. And many times (five to be exact), Moses questions God. In 4:1, “What if the Israelites don’t believe me?” as if to say, “I’m an imposter, surely my past mistakes disqualify me. Or in the next breath he says, “What if they won’t listen,” perhaps indicating that Moses’ Hebrew language skills aren’t the best due to his Egyptian upbringing, making him potentially awkward. Just nine verses later we hear, “But LORD, I have a bum tongue,” my disability disqualifies me. And two verses later, “Someone else is better suited; what about my brother instead?”
So even though Moses does the right think in paying attention to the burning bush and models something for us in that, he yet questions God’s invitation because he’s too hung up on his own deficiencies. He’s making it about him. And that can also feel familiar, can’t it?
When it comes to matters of stewardship this cop-out resonates with me. Let me pause and just share a brief part of my own stewardship story. Since we were married 11 years ago my husband Andrew and I have chosen to give regularly, to our home church and to other nonprofits and ministries. Seven of our eleven years of marriage one or both of us has been in graduate school and for all eleven one or both of us has been working in ministry of some kind. All that to say, our experience with money has been one of enough, not plenty. And given this it’s been tempting for me in particular (my husband is generous through and through) to say, “Well, we’ll give more when the degree is done or when part-time becomes full-time or when we’re not paying so much in childcare, etc.” It’s also been easy for me to pull a Moses and think, “What do I have to offer; what on earth will my pittance of $20/week actually accomplish?” It’s easy to say I can’t, forgetting who God is when actually God says to us, “Because I AM, you can.” You know, I actually asked some of our staff here at Augustana how far $20/week goes and was astonished by what I learned. That small amount provides the meals Augustana supplies at Loaves and Fishes for a whole month and is enough for 4000 meals at Feed My Starving Children. It also purchases the entire curriculum for Kid’s Kingdom, our Sunday children’s Ed ministry. It makes God’s work possible in real and tangible ways.
God spoke to Moses and God speaks to us yet today, “I AM WHO I AM.” And because God is the all encompassing- the one whose very name speaks to relationship more than anything else, we can trust as we step out in faith. We can trust that God will be the words in our mouth when we have none. We can trust that God will deliver us from evil. We can trust that God will provide when we’re afraid to give generously. And we can trust that God will never leave us, nor forsake us just as God never left the generations we read about in the Word. A title for all generations, “I AM WHO I AM,” and because of that we can.