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Sermon: Answer to the Holy

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill on February 28, 2016.

The 3rd Sunday in Lent; Year C: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-18; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9         

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          This world in which we live, and move, and have our being is shot through and through with the Holy, though we may never know when or where or even if we will encounter it. But maybe you’ve experienced the Holy…

          - In church on a Sunday morning, when a particular hymn takes your breath away, or brings tears to your eyes;

          - At a 12-step meeting, when an alcoholic with 20 years of hard drinking followed by another 20 years of sanity, sobriety and service, speaks the truth and we hear it and know it, deep down in our hearts;

          - Or during a hike in the woods, when we come upon an ancient and majestic tree, and realize it has been here on the face of the earth roughly 10 times longer than we have;

          - In a hospital delivery room, when the nurse places a newborn baby into your waiting arms;

          - Or perhaps sitting around tables at a Bible study, with scripture before you, when words on the page can take up residence in our hearts, and we know they will never leave.

          For me, I experience the Holy through my wife Chrissie; she is the Heart Of My Heart. Holiness is evident in both good times and bad, especially when I am hurt or sick or feeling unlovable and she continually reaches out to me in love.

          I hope that all of us can name other places and times and circumstances. Yes, our world, this world that God has made and given to us, is shot through and through with the Holy. But we never know where or when or how or with whom we might encounter it.

          Moses had his meeting with the Holy at a time in his life when he was, perhaps, at low ebb. You know the famous story of his early years. How the people of Israel sought refuge in Egypt during a time of famine when the skill of their ancestor Joseph saved the country. Eventually, they came to be under a Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph. And so this Pharaoh looked upon the Israelites with distrust and dismay, as if these resident aliens, these immigrants, were dangerous … and so they were taken into slavery. You remember that Pharaoh decided that all Hebrew boys should be killed at birth, but he was subverted by clever, fast-thinking Hebrew midwives. You know how, thanks to the wily and resourceful women in his life—his mother, his sister, and even the Pharaoh’s own daughter—Moses was drawn forth out of the waters of the Nile that might have been his death, and was given another chance at life.


And yet, this adoptee seems to have been raised with an acute sense of the plight of his family of origin. Though he was raised by an Egyptian princess, and afforded every advantage as her son, he was aware of the brutality being leveled against the Hebrews. He impulsively intervened and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Because of that action, Moses himself became a refugee. He had to flee into the wilderness, to Midian. There, like other biblical men before him, he came to a well and met his future bride. And here we find him now: Moses - born to an oppressed people, raised in the household of royalty, tending the flocks for his father-in-law.

          You might be wondering what was going on in Moses’ mind before he came upon the unearthly sight of the burning bush. Was he thinking about the home he had lost? Was he remembering his royal family? Or, perhaps, did he have vague memories of the mother who cared for him until he was weaned? Was he remembering the moment when he took the life of that Egyptian? Perhaps he was playing it over and over in his head, wondering if things might have turned out differently. Or maybe he entirely engaged with the process of shepherding. Shepherding was not a job for sissies. They had to be tough guys, ready to beat off wild animals or poachers with their staffs at a moment’s notice. They were vigilant nursemaids, tending the weakest of the flock when they were injured. They were also outcasts, since they were always “unclean,” and mostly unwelcome in polite society.    

          Whatever Moses was thinking, it must have disappeared quickly in the presence of a bush that blazed and yet was not consumed. Here is the Holy, dangerous and thrilling, and inviting and terrifying. And Moses did an incredibly important thing at just that moment: he stopped. He paid attention. He stopped to look at that Holy thing, to try to understand it. That is when he heard that voice… that voice issuing the double call, his name, “Moses, Moses!”

          Occasionally, in scripture, God calls to one of God’s people, and it is particularly urgent: That moment when Abraham has the knife poised at Isaac’s throat. That long night when Samuel is asleep in the temple and God wants to call him to serve to clean up all the corruption. This is one of those moments. It is urgent. The voice of God calls Moses’ name twice, and Moses does what all these biblical characters seem to do: he says, “Here I am!” (In Hebrew, Hineni) It means I am ready and I am willing. I am ready to hear what you have to say to me, God. And I am willing to do as you say.

          God tells Moses, take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is Holy! A clergy friend said to me earlier this week, I wonder how many times Moses had walked by that very same place before? How many times had he looked at that particular bush, and seen nothing but some shrubbery? That idea makes me wonder - How many times have I been in the presence of the Holy, and simply passed on by, busy anticipating the next meeting or the next phone call or the grocery list or the to-do list?

          Of course, when we do slow down enough to notice that something Holy is in our midst, we run the risk of God presenting us one of those completely overwhelming, impossible tasks God likes to save for God’s special favorites. To Moses, go to Pharaoh and tell him: “Let my people go!” To Solomon, ‘Build me a temple!’ To the disciples, ‘Go to the ends of the earth to tell people the good news! ‘  

          Perhaps it is a call to ministry to the parish. Can you offer time to teach Sunday school or work with the youth—even though you’ve never done it before! Or, why don’t you start a new feeding program or contribute to the local care stations in your community? Any of these can be the kinds of jobs that sometimes make us go, ‘Oh, God, are you kidding me!?

          Which is, pretty much, exactly what Moses says. You want me to go where? To whom? And do what? Are you kidding me? Me? Who am I? I can’t go to Pharaoh… remember I’m wanted for murder in Egypt? What are you thinking, Lord?

          God meets Moses’ objections with the one answer that cannot be discounted or refuted or ignored. When Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God doesn’t recite Moses’ resume. God doesn’t say, “Well, you were raised in the Pharaoh’s household, maybe you could use those connections to your advantage. And, hey, the Israelites are your people after all. And you were pretty brave with that Egyptian… and you’re a natural with the sheep!” God doesn’t do that. When Moses points to his own deficiencies, God points to Divine sufficiency. God’s answer is simple and complete: “I will be with you.”

          I will be with you. When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, we have the assurance that we aren’t doing it alone. God is with us. Remember from our Baptismal promises that we pledged to walk the way of Christ, saying, “I will, with God’s help.” The success of any enterprise doesn’t depend on us, on our brilliance, on our strength, or on our determination. All it depends on is our willingness to hear God’s call and to respond in the affirmative: “Here I am.” Hineni!

          But there is something else to consider: When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, it is usually because God somehow requires human partners to carry out the divine plans. “Without God, we will not. Without us, God cannot.” God chooses to work through human agents. I suppose, if God had wanted, God could have simply put the Egyptians in a nice deep sleep and had the Israelites awaken to a new day of freedom, high-tailing it out of town. God, being God, can probably do that sort of thing. But that does not seem to be the way God works.

          God chooses human beings… often, it seems, the most unlikely human beings… to be the conduits of God’s saving work. A fugitive from justice, sent to speak to most powerful and brutal ruler of the land—that’s Moses.

          February is Black History Month so it is fitting to remember at least one person, who born into slavery, eventually escaped and completed thirteen separate missions between 1849 - 1855 to rescue more than 70 slaves—that was Harriet Tubman. She was nicknamed “Moses” by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The nickname was a direct reference to the story of Moses who did save the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. I imagine we can all think of other examples of God choosing a similarly unlikely human to do mighty, saving work. This is Holy Action!

          The good news is: God isn’t calling most of us to rescue whole nations. But the sobering news is: God is calling us. Maybe not to the grand things that makes the news, but certainly to the “Do-what-you-can-to-make-things-better” things that work quietly behind the scenes. Maybe you and I can’t solve the problem of oppressed people singlehandedly. But we can sign a petition or get involved with a reputable organization. We can work to ensure that hate and separation do not become the rule rather than the exception. Maybe we can’t solve world hunger or even local hunger on our own—but we can faithfully provide food stuffs to ALIVE!, assist in offering meals at Carpenter’s Shelter, or volunteer at the Lazarus Ministry at Church of the Resurrection to aid those in Alexandria’s West End. Even our youth spent some hours this month helping sort food for a local food pantry. I invite you to ask yourself: What is the Holy work to which God is calling you?

          Yes, my friends, the world is shot through and through with Holiness. This earth, our island home, along with everything that is in it, is God’s. Every tree. Every person. And opportunities to experience the holiness of God’s handiwork are, literally, waiting for us on every corner, each time we meet another human being, every time we look out our windows or take a breath. But sadly this world is both beautiful and broken. God is continually calling us… every minute of each day. God calls us to take part in the work of mending creation and healing that brokenness. We who walk the holy ground are called to God’s holy work. Are you ready? Will you answer Hineni?

          Remember: We can and we will, only by God’s grace and with God’s help.