by Michael Usey, Exodus 3.1-10
American author Sam Keen wrote,
Wonder is the alpha and omega of the human mind. It stands the beginning and end of our quest to understand ourselves and the world. Aristotle said philosophy begins in wonder. It is the most primal of emotions, at once ordinary and disturbing. As the sixth sense, the natural religious sense, wonder is the royal road that leads us to the other elemental emotions, and thus to a renewed sense of the sacred.
We’re in the middle of a fall sermon series entitled Evolve, looking at how our faith has evolved and what words continue to aid our spiritual evolution. Words such as when, evolve, help, thanks have been part of the toolbox of God’s wild spirit to move further up and further into becoming the people God wants us to be, and today we add the word wonder. God uses wonder to change us into something more.
Speaking of wonder, what I’m wondering is why Mike Eller, our music and worship minister for this Sunday, chose as his very first song to use in a worship service Kumbaya? Do you feel me? Rev Eller, a Baylor grad for three degrees, all the way from NYC throwing shade on a fellow Baylor Bear? I wonder who told him of my intense feelings about Kumbaya: Christian, as a final parting shot to his colleague? Lin and James, as the first vollegy of a coup? “Someone’s plotting Lord, Kumbaya …” Maybe Kari with her stiletto sense of humor got to him. I wonder, does he somehow know Wayne Jones or Bill Ingold? How is this outrage possible? How hard can it be to ban one song, I wonder? Will wonders ever cease, and this song as well?
Do you know the story of the duke and the duchess who owned a country estate, and had a whole lot of servants who were maintaining the estate in their absence? One day the duchess went out there to talk to the servants, to get an accounting, see what all of them did. She called them into the room, one-by-one, and asked them what they did and how things were going. About an hour into the interview, an old man came into the room.
The duchess said, “Let me see, you have been with us now twenty years?” “Yes ma’am.” “Your job is to walk the dog?” “Yes ma’am.” “But the dog has been dead for eighteen years?” “Is there anything else you would like me to do, ma’am?” I would like to talk about this story in terms of Moses, and the life he was living in Midian, and how we’re living the covid life in light of wonder.
You read the story of Moses in Midian, and you get the impression that Moses is hiding there, hoping that God won’t find him and will leave him alone. You get the impression that Moses knows that he ought to be doing something else with his life. But he is happy there in Midian. He has a whole long list of reasons why he shouldn’t do those things that he thinks maybe God will ask him to do. Besides that, it is such a lovely life there in Midian. He works for his father-in-law, Jethro. He married the boss’s daughter. He married Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter. They have two sons. They are the perfect nuclear family: husband, wife, two children. One day Moses will inherit the farm. One day Moses is going to be rich. One day it will all be his, and he will settle back and be a gentleman farmer. It is such a wonderful life. It is the best possible life that Moses could ever have.
The only problem was that burning bush. If it only hadn’t happened. But it did happen. It changed everything. Wonder changed things. The story of the burning bush is one of the most famous of all the stories in the Bible. I wanted us to look at it this morning and see what it says to us about how wonder can change us.
The first thing that I want you to notice is that it didn’t just happen out of the blue. It was the resolution of something that had been bothering Moses for many, many years. In fact, what happened at the burning bush in Midian, started at the pyramids in Egypt.
Moses was born in Egypt, the son of illegal immigrants. The Jews migrated into Egypt because there was a famine in their land. They were poor, they were hungry, they had no food. They did what all poor people do, they migrate to where there is food, where there is prosperity, so they can participate in it–just like today. The Egyptians tolerated this infusion of aliens into their land until they got too numerous. Then they enslaved them, put them to work on public projects, like making bricks.
During that time, the Pharaoh, who was the king, ordered that all male babies born to Jewish women that year were to be put in cages–no, wait, that’s now–they were to be killed as a means of population control. There were too many immigrants into the country. Moses’ mother, when she heard this edict, hid her baby, Moses, in an ark in the bulrushes along the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter came along, found the baby, took him into the palace, raised him as a prince of Egypt. In fact, she is the one who gave him his name. His name, “Moses,” is not a Hebrew name. It is an Egyptian name, meaning son. “Mosha” is the Hebrew version, meaning drawn out.
One day Moses, now a grown man, visiting the construction site, sees an Egyptian slave master strike a Jewish slave. Moses, overcome with rage at the injustice of this act upon a Jew, and enraged over the whole institution of slavery, and now, for the first time, identifying with his own people, struck the Egyptian guard and killed him.
That scene is reminiscent of the great novel by Herman Melville, Billy Budd. We know that Moses, like Billy Budd, had a speech impediment which became exaggerated when he became angry or anxious. His tongue froze so he couldn’t speak. Billy Budd, enraged at the injustice of Claggart, the first mate on his ship, unable to speak, bursts forth in rage and strikes Claggart and kills him. It is like Moses. Pent up anger and resentment, without a means of expression, will in time explode. The same lesson has a social dimension, as well. You suppress any class of people, you suppress any race, deny them a voice, and in time that rage will build up and explode in violence. Surely we Americans can understand this, in 2020 especially.
The same thing happened with Moses, who in the face of the suffering of the Jews, instinctively strikes out in anger, and now must face the consequences. In that event Moses chose sides. He was no longer an Egyptian prince; he is now one with the Jewish slaves. He fled Egypt for his life, crossed the Reed Sea, went into the desert, a fugitive. He stopped at a well, and met Zipporah. He asked her father for her hand in marriage. He settled down and worked for Jethro, tending sheep. He had a wonderful life in Midian.
He’s like the duchess’s dog-walker. He hopes nobody will find him out. He hopes that nobody is going to interrupt this wonderful life he stumbled on. He hopes nobody reminds him, “You have people of your own race who are suffering in Egypt.” Nobody reminds him, “Your people over there are under slavery, while you are living the good life.” What I want you to see is that his past is still with him. What he saw in Egypt and tried to run away from, is now imprinted on his conscience. He got out of Egypt, but he couldn’t get Egypt out of his conscience. Look what happened to him.
He is shepherding the sheep. He is out there all alone. He is days away from any other people. He has gone all the way to Mt. Horeb. He is on a lonely hillside there. The only sound is the wind sweeping across the desert. In circumstances like that, when you are all alone, all by yourself, and it is all quiet, do you know what you are left with? Just your own thoughts, and that is dangerous. If you don’t want to think about your life, then always keep busy, keep moving, keep talking, keep listening to podcasts, keep listening to the audible or pandora, because sure enough, when you get off by yourself someplace where you are all alone, where it is all quiet and you start thinking, anything can happen. You could start seeing things, maybe hearing things.
Moses said what happened to him was that he saw a wonder, a bush aflame, yet it wasn’t consumed by the fire. Then he heard a voice. He said it was the voice of God, saying, “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, I have heard their cry; I know their suffering.” What I want you to see is that that is what Moses could have said. That is what was on Moses’ conscience. “I have seen the affliction of my people.” Moses could have said that. “I have heard their cry.” He was there. “I know their suffering.” He was witness to it. Moses could have said that.
That doesn’t mean that God didn’t say it. Nor can you dismiss it by saying, Moses just has an overactive conscience, obviously. It means that God can speak through our conscience to say something that God wants you to hear. Moses could have said, “I have seen the affliction of my people.” God didn’t tell Moses anything that Moses didn’t already know. What happened was, God said, “Do something about what you know.” Which I have to wonder if this is the same message God gives to us now. When most people read this story they are attracted to the detail of the burning bush. They think that’s the wonder. I mean, how can a bush be inflamed and not burn up? They focus on that. Some try to rationalize it. We live in a scientifically oriented world, so we try to rationalize it. We try to fit it into the world as we understand it. I read some commentator say, “You know, there is a bush out there in the Sinai Desert that in the springtime has red flowers on it. Just at the right time of day, when the sun is setting…” Or, they psychoanalyze it. They say, “It was all in his head.” Or, “It was sensory deprivation.”
This is utter nonsense. The real wonder was not that a bush was on fire. The real wonder was that God put a fire under Moses, who like you and me, was just trying to stay the course, right up to retirement. Don’t get distracted. Mind your own business. Live well. Leave well enough alone. And just hope the duchess doesn’t pay a visit. That was Moses’ goal in life. Sound familiar? He just wanted an ordinary life. His mistake was he got out there all by himself, where he could think, where he could reflect on his life, and that is where God got him. Into this ordinary life, came wonder, fire, passion, dedication, commitment and compassion for other people.
But I also want you to see that Moses resisted this wonder. Moses was a reluctant prophet. That is the best kind. Beware of a prophet who enjoys his work. There isn’t a prophet in the whole Bible who whistles while she works. They are all dragged to it. They are all summoned and they all demur. God had to practically drag them to their job. They didn’t want to do it.
Moses is no exception. Listen to his excuses. He says, “I’m not qualified to do this. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh. I am not qualified to do this kind of work.” The answer God gives him is, “You don’t have to be.” God will use you as you are. God just needs somebody to go, somebody to be there, just show up. Which is kind of deflating to your ego if you believe that you have been chosen by God because you are so capable, attractive and creative. The fact is, God can use anybody. This should be completely obvious to people who have Michael Usey as their pastor! Most of the people God uses, according to the Bible, are nobodies. They are all unlikely heroes. The fact of the matter is, the crucial qualification for being a hero is just to show up.
I have had the opportunity, as I know many of you had, to attend banquets in this city where they honor heroes. They are simple, ordinary people, citizens of this community, who have done courageous things. It is a great evening of optimism for the human race to be a part of the celebration of the lives of those people. They bring them up to the podium, hand them an award, ask them to say something. They all say the same thing. They all say, “I didn’t do anything. I was just there. Somebody had to do it.”
God says, “Go, just go. I will give you the power to do what you have to do. But first, you just go.” He had another excuse, too. The other excuse is, “I can’t make a speech. I am not eloquent.” Remember what happened to him in Egypt when he got angry? He stammered and stuttered, became speechless, and then violent. He didn’t want that to happen again. God has an answer to that excuse, too. He says, “I will give you the words. If that doesn’t work, use Aaron, your brother, old silver tongue. Let him make the speeches. You do the more important thing, just show up. Just be there.”
So Moses went back to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh, leaving behind the quiet, secure life in Median. God’s wonder had become a part of his life. He never went back to it, incidentally. Moses became the liberator of his people. Moses freed the slaves in Egypt, and led them to freedom.
God continues to act in people’s lives in the same way, breaking in with wonder. Let me ask you, what if God uses your conscience to speak to you? Do you ever think of that? The conscience has been on bad times lately. Not only because it is so hard to find one nowadays, especially in public life where we like to get images of who we should be as human beings. It’s hard to find one there. In addition, we have come through a period of history these last hundred years or so, where conscience has been defined as a social fabrication. Conscience is what society, or mother, has imprinted in you. The corollary of that is if you are a mature person, if you are a free person, then you free yourself from this inhibiting, neurotic conscience.
All that may be true. That is to say, it may be true that our conscience is programmed by experience. But the crucial news–this is what you ought to pay attention to–is that there is something inside of you that gives you the capacity to judge your situation in life, and your behavior, by a standard that is greater than yourself. What is critical is that the capacity is there.
That human capacity could be called a “conscience,” and perhaps no other creature has it, just human beings. (Although I must say my dog Loki can look very hang-dog when he knows he’s done something bad.) There is that capacity in all of us to reflect on our lives. We call this a conscience. If it is quiet, or if it is corrupted, or if it is seduced, or if it is self-satisfied, or smug, then I am not sure that you are yet fully human. My understanding of being a human being is that you are always growing, always moving, evolving, always dissatisfied with the way things are, looking for something better, always trying to improve yourself, or the world.
What this story of Moses, tells us is that God uses that capacity called conscience to get us to do the things that God wants done with our lives and with the world. God is our Creator, so maybe God created us with this restlessness, this tendency that when things are going the way we want them to go, all of a sudden it gets boring. Or, this uneasiness with the way things are in the world. The world shouldn’t be this way. I mean, I don’t think cows don’t worry about this. Human beings worry about it. Or, this guilt about what we have done or haven’t done. Maybe God has given us that capacity so that we would do something about our lives.
The point is this, to be human, especially to be a human being who believes in God, means that you had better listen to that conversation that is going on inside of you, because that just may be where God has chosen to speak to you.
A year ago, last October, I got an email from a fellow minister, Sadie, calling for help escorting women into the Women’s choice clinic on Randleman Road. I’ve been involved in reproductive rights since seminary; it was an on-going conversation with me and God. (And I know most of us have nuanced Christian positions on issues such as abortion, which is as it should be.) Now you know I’m not one to use overly pious language to describe my faith–okay, maybe I almost never use traditional pious language, but honestly I felt God calling me to this ministry. There was a deep sense of this being my moment to do this now. I told Ann this, and instead of being skeptical, she was moved. I received training, now two mornings a week (for two hours each time) I join with other escorts making sure that young women can safely enter the clinic, despite the large group of protestors outside. This escort group includes a half dozen other ministers and at least ten College Parkers, including my sons Zach and Nate, when he’s in town.
Remember this, what Moses heard from God, was no different than what Moses had been saying to himself. And remember this, that all those excuses didn’t really matter. If God calls you to do something, God will make it possible for you to do it. And finally, remember this. Wonder can happen to anyone, and it can happen anytime. Life isn’t over when you have reached the goal you set for your life. Life isn’t over when you attain a certain comfort and security in this life. Life isn’t over at a certain age. Wonder can continue to change us in a heartbeat.
A woman thought about going to college, getting her degree. She had put it off for many reasons, but now as she started thinking about it, she couldn’t get rid of the idea that maybe she ought to go to college. But then she thought maybe she was too old now, it wouldn’t work. She told her doctor about it. She said, “By the time I get the degree I will be fifty. Her doctor said, “How old will you be if you don’t get the degree?”
“I have seen the affliction of my people.” I have seen the wonder of a better world. I have seen what my life can really be like. Now go.