Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:12-28
I had a bear of a time starting this sermon.
I mean, to be honest, I almost always find sermons hard to write, but usually the struggle is to finish them.
I think, I write, I agonize; I loathe and second-guess. I revise up until the very last minute. When I step into the pulpit, the typed words of my manuscript are drowning in sea of blue ink.
Sometimes the ones I like the least in written form are the ones I deliver with the most conviction, because, as my preaching professor told us,
“If you have a dog, walk it proudly.”
But hard as it is for me to finish a sermon, I almost always find them easy to begin.
Some word arrives, some image or idea or anecdote, an opening line, a hook, a refrain–I mean heck, last time my friend told me the entire sermon from the backseat of the car. The universe supplies some kind of inspiration, and when I spot it, I say yes, and write it down—and then of course I have to struggle with it; the sermon, having started as a gift, never writes itself—hence the multiple drafts and the inky blue pen.
The nineteenth century poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem about this—about the twin roles of effort and inspiration in the creative process. Using the metaphor of pregnancy, of giving birth to an idea;
Hopkins writes of the moment of conception and the long slow work of gestation.
He speaks of insight as
The fine delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind the mother of immortal song.
This flash of insight from without is then followed from within by the mind’s long work of mothering,
Nine months, he writes, nay, years, nine years she long
Within her wears, bears, cares, and combs the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
The process comes together in this beautiful description of what writing, at its best, can be:
the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.
My problem, this time, was not with the gestation; I’d been stewing on this sermon for weeks. No, the problem this time was conception – or rather, lack thereof. I’d been waiting and watching, looking and listening, and yet no insight came.
I was missing the spark of inspiration that feels like it comes from the outside,
the strong spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame.
This felt deeply ironic, because the scripture for today is about that flash of insight: the burning bush, a flash of fire that caught Moses’ attention and caused him to turn aside, God’s voice calling to him from the flame.
Yet no such voice or image had appeared to me.
Where was my burning bush, this week? What was God’s call to me?
It’s not like I usually witness a miracle or hear the audible Word of God – David and Alexandra, maybe this happens to you, but it doesn’t happen to me – but usually something in the text or in my experience will sort of shine, and I’ll know to go seeking after it.
But not this time. It was closing in on Sunday, and so, in what I can only call an exercise in intellectual pyrotechnics; I set about to generate my own insight, my own flame; something flashy that you might enjoy.
I combed the text for kindling.
“‘I am who I am,’” God said to Moses, and so I read a bunch of articles about the nature of consciousness and the experience of subjectivity.
“The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,”
and so I researched the chemical reaction that happens when wood burns, when hydrocarbons combust in the presence of oxygen and break down into carbon dioxide, water, and ash.
Maybe if I use the word hydrocarbons, I thought,
they won’t notice I have anything substantive to say!
“‘Remove the sandals from your feet,’” God orders Moses, “‘for the place on which you are standing is holy ground!’” and so on Thursday afternoon I came into the empty sanctuary and thought, maybe I should take my shoes off and walk around, see what happens, but then I thought, No, Margaret, that’s just too weird.
At one point, my wanderings took me into Tim’s office, where he’s set aside, for staff to look through, the books he won’t be taking with him, and I pulled off the shelf a little book by Karl Barth on preaching.
Barth is a theologian famous for his voluminous and impenetrable Church Dogmatics, but this preaching book is a tiny little hardback, scarcely more than a pamphlet.
And that’s because Barth, for all the depth and complexity of his theology, taught that preaching ought to be decidedly simple.
“To preach is to bear witness,” Barth wrote. It is to say what you have seen.
“The preacher does not have to invent, but rather to repeat, something.
No thesis, no purpose derived from his own resources must be allowed to intervene. God alone must speak.”
Oh. I thought. Oh.
That’s why this is so hard.
In the absence of inspiration, I was trying to be a magician, to concoct some kind of spectacle; ignite a burning bush of my own that would be worthy of your time and attention. But I’m not a magician; I’m a minister, and so what’s required instead is simply to bear witness, to look into the scriptures with openness and receptivity, and then to say something, authentically and even earnestly, about what I’ve heard there, about who I believe God to be – and I know that, I know that’s what preaching is for…But it felt so hard to do, with this passage, not because so little is revealed, but because so much—in some ways, it’s easier to preach on texts that are thornier and more obscure. There’s more work to do to tease the meaning out—
but Exodus 3 is not that way, no, Exodus 3 is theophany, divine appearance, revelation—when God reveals, to Moses and to us, God’s purpose and God’s name—
and I didn’t want to bear witness to this, I was trying to squirm out of it, because I felt entirely inadequate to the job.
The funny thing, really, the wonderful thing, the kind of detail that drew me to scripture in the first place, is that Moses doesn’t want to do it either. Moses, once he’s seen the bush, is extremely reluctant to talk about it, too.
As he approaches the burning bush, Moses removes his sandals, but he also hides his face, because he’s afraid to look at God directly. And once God reveals God’s identity – “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” – and God’s purpose – “I have come to deliver my people from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” and God’s plan for Moses – “I will send you to Pharaoh to being my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Once God has revealed these things, Moses begins to object.
“Who am I that I should go?” Moses asks, and God says, “I will go with you.” and Moses says, “What should I say to the people if they ask me who sent me?” and God reveals the divine name: “I am who I am,” or as it can also be translated, “I will be who I will be,” a name that reveals both everything and nothing, that makes God both sovereign subject and entirely undefinable, pure consciousness, pure being, pure life, pure freedom—a name so holy as to be unpronounceable in the Jewish tradition, a name so mysterious that people of faith have been struggling, for 3,000 years, to understand its meaning.
You’d think that this would be enough to silence Moses,
and it does, for a while, enough for God to outline, in detail, the Exodus plan, plagues and all, but in the next chapter Moses’s objections continue.
“What if they don’t believe me?” he asks, “What about my speech impediment?” “Shouldn’t you send someone else instead?”
There’s part of me that wonders, here, whether Moses had become a little jaded about this project of liberation that God commands him to undertake; whether he despairs of any of his own actions ever making a difference.
You see, Moses had tried, once before, to intervene on behalf of his people, and it hadn’t gone so well. He was in a unique position—born to Hebrew parents, but thanks to the courage of the women in his life – his mother, his sister, and the midwives – he wasn’t killed at birth but instead was raised in the house of Pharoah—and so he has these twin identities, this position of privilege. He grew up among the oppressors, but his kin were the oppressed, and as a young man he tried to do something about the injustice he experienced around him. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he intervened, killing the Egyptian. The next day, he intervened again, this time in a fight between two Hebrews, who rejected his attempted assistance, asking, “who made you a ruler and judge over us? Wasn’t it you who killed that Egyptian?”
Pharoah got angry, and Moses fled for the hinterlands, leaving civilization behind and settling in the land of Midian. He married the daughter of Jethro the priest, and decades go by; when we encounter him in chapter 3, he’s settled in to middle age, tending the flocks of his father-in-law’s sheep. He’s fine there by himself in the wilderness, he’s made peace with things as they are. Moses tried it once, this act of intervention, and it cost him nearly everything; his adopted family hated him for it, and his own kinsmen rejected him. Why should he try again?
The thing that Moses learns, at the burning bush, is that God has not made peace with things as they are; that God has other plans for the people, and by extension for Moses, too.
He learns that the God of his people’s tradition is not some dead relic of the past, but conscious, active, living – that God has been listening, especially to the cries the oppressed:
“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,” God says – and that God will not let things stand: “I have come down to deliver them.”
Moses learns that God is sovereign, independent, powerful, and free, and that God is on the side of freedom; God will intervene to save—no matter how angry it makes those in power, no matter how worn down the spirt of those who are oppressed, no matter whether Moses thinks it’s realistic or not.
“I am who I am,” God tells him. “I will be who I will be.”
This is what Moses hears, in that bush; this is what he bears witness to; this is what he ultimately, however reluctantly, goes and repeats.
I’ve never seen a miracle quite like what Moses saw— a bush that blazes and is not consumed. God has never called me by name and told me to go save some group of people—and, to be honest, that’s probably for the best.
But if I’m going to be authentic, here, and even earnest, then I have to tell you that I have experienced, over and over again, something that feels like revelation, a surprising disclosure, a hint at who God is and who God calls us to be.
The burning bush, for me, has been scripture itself – something that appeared, unexpectedly, at a point in my life when I had settled on doing other things, and somehow called to me, caused me to turn aside, said come, pay attention, look at this – something unremarkable, another bush, another book, yet also, somehow, alive and full of meaning, something that is not God, but that contains the voice of God, a place of revelation, a source of light and truth, alive and unconsumed, the strong spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame.
The book out of which God spoke to us in the past, and speaks to us still, today.
It’s not the story that I would have written – there’s a lot in scripture that’s strange, uncomfortable, hard to account for. But it isn’t ours to write, only to encounter, to turn aside and listen, shoes off, for the God who is revealed there – the God who listens, and who loves, and who comes to us to save. Amen.