Sitting around the family fire one night Moses wonders about the people he left behind in Egypt. It is the thought he cannot get off his mind. The meager rations, the broken bodies uncounted. His wife pokes him, Moses, Moses, where has your mind gone? Oh nowhere. What do you need?
Or maybe there were dreams. Visions of himself standing before Pharaoh, nightmares of walls of water and chariots pursuing a crowd of refugees. Maybe these dreams were half forgotten and only recalled in flashes during waking hours. I wonder if God had been calling to Moses for many many years. Maybe like many of us Moses turned his head, shook it off, busied himself with the nomadic life, and tried to let it go.
Here in the light of this sacred fire before Moses in today's reading, we learn that God isn’t as concerned about safety and self-preservation as we are. What God desires is trust and even risking one's life for the sake of the well being of all. What our lessons tell us today is that God unquestionably sees and hears and is aligned with people who suffer degradation, rejection, tragedy, and terror. And it tells us that God’s salvation works through both our strengths and our weaknesses.
This strange and holy moment of Exodus also gives us a name for God. Sometimes I think the divine self-naming of ‘I will be what I will be’ is a profound statement of philosophical depth. God says God is the ground of being, the prime mover. There are other times when I think the reply is a little bit obnoxious. When asked your name ‘I am what I am’ is not a helpful reply.
This phrase is what gets squashed into Yahweh in the Hebrew.Think of the reply of 'Iwillbewhatiwillbe' as one word. And in current translations of the Bible this is usually printed as Lord, where all the letters are in capitals, with the o-r-d in smaller capitals. But this may be more unhelpful than the initial reply.Because in English the word Lord is a title, and in most of our biblical texts the word is a name. It might help to think of Lord being like my grandfather's dog named Sergeant. He wasn’t an enlisted person with a rank, he was a dog. ‘Here Sarge!’
Lord is Yahweh which is a name which is the mashed together version of ‘I will be what I will be.’ A sacred, holy, trembling in fascination, and I need to take off my hat and shoes kind of name. You can try to ignore the angels and the burning bushes and the person in trauma at your feet. You can choose the temptations of comfort and ignorance and falsehoods. God has a name for that too, its name is sin. Or you can turn around when God calls, get in line with Jesus, and dare to live in Yahweh’s way.
Week in and week out many people in this community offer welcome, feeding and healing space to people who seek liberation from a variety of evils. Yet our lessons today ask a hard question of tired and anxious people. Is it ALL we are called to do? What does God ask of people like many of us, people of comfort and education, people rather like Moses? Moses’ life story gave him peculiar access and opportunity. He gives God multitude of reasons why he should be let out of this duty. Yet characteristically, ‘Iwillbewhoiwillbe’ holds fast because God sees and hears and knows the cries and the suffering. God works through even reluctant human agents: creatively and surprisingly.
The rains in Texas and Louisiana and India have swamped the rich and the poor alike, and it has also exposed monumental injustice and vulnerability. While at the same time there is grace at work in communal action to directly care for and save the stranger. Reaching out a hand over a boat, throwing your whole self into an emergent situation. ‘Iwillbewhatiwilbe’ empowers people to stand and speak directly to Pharoah, to step out beyond our comfort zone and to serve for liberty in the middle of this mind numbing chaos. ‘IwillbewhatIwillbe’ lit a fire in the heart of Moses, What spark of grace is God igniting in your heart? Is there a need for a holy advocate for justice right here, and if Moses couldn’t excuse himself from it, how can we?
A decade ago at a camp on the James River there was a large plastic bin of kittens. At that time there was an effort to bring a compassionate end to the herd of semi feral cats who tore up the dining hall duct work each winter. The camp staff named this litter of kittens biblical names. Peter and Mary and Goliath. One calico kitten was named Moses. The young staff didn’t know that a calico kitten was most likely a girl.
I took young Moses home in a cardboard box rather than a reed basket. But as I drove her home I was thinking that I didn’t want to spend her whole life explaining her name. So I sat on my bed with the kitten in one hand and the Bible open to Exodus while I asked what word would work for a name, a word that was at the heart of Moses’ story. Scanning the text and holding my wild water loving and talkative kitten one word stood out. Liberation. Liberation is the heart of Moses call, his action, his duty. The kitten Moses became the kitten Liberty. What would your name be if it was what God is calling you to be and to do for his reign?
Will you pray with me?
Light from Light, Creation from chaos, Hope from despair.
Blessed Lord God of the Universe, Listen this day for the groans and yearning of your world,
Listen to our songs of joy and our dirges of destruction,
then in the midst of our stammering, speak your clear word of life
in the name of your Word become flesh our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
Prayer adapted from Walter Bruggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth