Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 19, 2013
Back in March I was invited to go over to East End School here in town and read a book to a class of 1st graders for Read-Across-America Day. The book I was given to read was titled “Move!”, it’s a book about animals and the different ways they move. One of the animals that was profiled in the book were crocodiles. At the end of the book were a few pages that described the specific animals featured in the book. The crocodile in the book wasn’t just your garden-variety crocodile; it was a Nile River crocodile. They are the second largest living reptile in the world, coming in at an average of 16 feet long, and an average 900 pounds in weight. They eat just about anything, and are responsible, even today, for the deaths of hundreds of humans a year.
As I was sitting in the classroom that day, talking about animals with little children (and not all of them were terrible predators like the Nile River crocodile!), my mind began to wander to the story we just heard this morning—about the baby Moses and his family who placed him in the reeds along the Nile River.
How desperate do you have to be to do something like this? To intentionally make a basket, wait for the pitch and the bitumen to dry so it is waterproof and then put your precious baby into it? A baby, who cannot feed himself, cannot fend for himself. A baby who does not know to stay quiet, that there is danger all around and then place him in the reeds on the banks of the Nile River? How desperate do you have to be to let go of something that is so precious to you as your infant child?
Or fast-forward just a few more chapters in Exodus. Moses the baby is now grown. He has run away from the Pharaoh, in whose house he has been living since the Pharaoh’s daughter plucked him up from the banks of the Nile River. He is now taking care of the livestock of his new father-in-law when a bush near him catches fire and begins to speak to him. The voice coming out of the bush is the voice of God telling Moses that he will be the one to liberate his people from the clutches of slavery in Egypt. Moses doesn’t think he’s up to the task and for the next chapter and a half of Exodus Moses argues and pleads with God that he is not the right one—God got the wrong person. How bad about yourself do you have to feel to believe that even for God, you are not good enough?
These beginning stories of Moses’ life tell an interesting tale. Moses’ life from an early age was a mess. He was born into an ethnic group of people who were under threat. Even before he was born, he was marked for death. Even before he was born he was being told he was not good enough—he was disposable enough to be ordered to be killed by the Pharaoh upon birth just because he was a boy-baby and then just a few months later, unable to bear the pain, his mother hid him in a basket, leaving him in the Nile River—where all sorts of other dangers lurked around him. As Moses grew up he must have learned the truth of what happened to him as a baby and struggled to make sense of the early traumatic beginnings of this life. It is clear that by the time he gets to this encounter with God and burning bush that these experiences have marked him—and they have caused him to doubt himself in many ways.
The early life of Moses makes me think about the lives of some children I knew when I was in college. I worked at a shelter for homeless children and youth in Camden, NJ for six months—and the children who came through the doors of that place believed that they were never going to be good enough, that they would never matter to anyone, and that there was no hope for their future. Their lives had taught them that they had nothing left to offer, and so they considered themselves as good as dead—their lives had no worth. And there was usually no way to convince them otherwise. Eventually, in an act of desperation to try to break through I brought a bunch of art supplies and let the kids paint murals and art. We had a great time together creating art, but most of it was as terrible and as tragic as the lives the children had led up until that point. The stories I heard and the children I met are memories that still haunt me today. How do we as a society set up the sin-filled situation where some groups of people believe themselves to no longer be important to anyone? In what ways do we silently stand by and magnify that sin? The “good people”, people like you and me are contributing sometimes to an already broken situation by our sin of silence or ignorance. It is an age-old situation that continues generation after generation. Those feelings of hopelessness borne out of his social situation that Moses had are mirrored in the lives of so many groups of people today.
Eventually Moses, and I think somewhat miraculously says “yes” to God and to helping to lead his people out of slavery. But what he didn’t know was that God was calling him on a journey that would take a long time. 40 years to be exact. God wasn’t going to help Moses or the enslaved Egyptians get to the Promised Land quickly—instead it was going to take a long time. This is about as frustrating of a fact today as it must have been for Moses then. Why 40 years? Why not tomorrow? Why not yesterday? Why did the journey from being a slave to being free have to take so long?
You see, Moses is still enslaved by his thoughts. The fact that he argues, back-and-forth, back-and-forth with God for chapter upon chapter in Exodus is proof of that! Moses is enslaved to his thoughts. He believes someone else’s truth about himself, that he is not good enough, that he is not strong enough, that he is not able enough. That is what the legacy of being beaten down; generation after generation can do to people. Rather than see his life as a series of miraculous events—he did not get eaten by crocodiles, he did not drown in the river, he did not get killed as a baby, his sister was smart and brave and kept him united with his mother, and he was able to escape from Pharaoh and have a new chance with life, these are all miraculous and good events!—Instead Moses sees his life as a series of tragic events. Moses sees the world and his life as if the glass is half-empty, when God is right there in front of him telling him that his cup is not half-empty—it is overflowing, and despite his situation, it has been his whole life because of God’s grace and God’s love! And like most of us today who for one reason or another are beaten down in our thoughts about who we are or what we are capable of—it takes a long time to unlearn those thoughts, or stop giving credence to those little nagging voices in your head. Moses, even though he was “free” was enslaved to the negativity in his life. He believed one story about his life, and no matter what God offered him; he could not believe anything new about himself. And then there was a whole society, the Israelite people, who had been so beaten up and so traumatized emotionally, who were just like Moses. Changing their physical location to the Promised Land was not going to take them out of that mental enslavement—only a journey with God would.
These vignettes from Moses’ early life invite us into some important questions today for the changing landscape of life in the church that is presenting itself around us.
- What is the “promised land” that we are looking for today as a church? What would a future of promise and hope in the church today look like for you?
- Are we able to silence the voices in our heads, the voices out there, voices that maybe tell us we are not “good enough” or that our best days are only behind us—and have the courage follow the voice of God into a new place?
- What are we enslaved to? What do we love that we do not want to let go of? What are our idols? What are our golden calves?
- Are the things that we are enslaved to holding us back? How can we give thanks to God for the gift they were to us for a season in our lives and then let go of those things and move forward?
- If God is calling us to a new, unseen “promised land” do we want to go there? Or is it too strange, too new, too unknown to trust God and trust those who God has sent to lead us to it?
- What does it mean for us as Presbyterians to be the church that is “reformed, yet always reforming?” Some days that catch-phrase for our life together is empowering, it’s exciting—because it means we can always strike out into new ventures and follow the nudgings of the Spirit. Other times it might feel like a calling that is filled with fear—the expectation that we are to always keep moving and keep going forward. We like our traditions, we like the things that have made us who we are up until this point. “Why O God,” we ask, “Why do you keep pushing us to change?”
- And finally—and most importantly—the story of Moses and his broken spirit invites us to ask the question of where have we as the Church participated in systems of oppression? Can we be honest and name these? Can we then, not only change our behaviors, but repent as a way of moving into God’s new future new future and new Promised Land? Can we begin to do that?
Today is the day of Pentecost—the day we celebrate that the Holy Spirit comes to be with the early church, that first little group of disciples. In many ways they were just like Moses. Beaten up by their experiences. Sour on life and a probably more than a bit sour on God. Not sure of where they were going or how they could move forward. They had only gone so far on their journey and it had ended in heartbreak with the death of Jesus. And yet on Pentecost God’s Spirit moved into their world and once again asked them to do more and to be more. You can just hear them saying in their heads, “Not now God, I am tired. My heart is broken. I cannot go forward.”
And yet somehow they did.
And we are here today as the spiritual descendants of Moses and his people and those early disciples, people who were able to move forward only because of the grace of God.
And now God is calling us on new journeys, with new tomorrows, into places we do not understand, and to a future we cannot yet map out. Can we do it again? Can we once again follow where God is leading? Can we trust in the promise of God’s grace? We’ll keep talking about these things next week as we ponder the next step in Moses’ journey with God. Until then, may this prayer from another Presbyterian congregation sustain you…
Lord, we acknowledge that we are not always ready for your
Sometimes we turn aside, stumble over, or even reject
experiences and encounters that we later understand to have
been precious gifts.
Help us to be open to the gift that you offer us now.
We acknowledge that we do not fully understand it ,
but we receive it from you with thanksgiving
and pray that your Spirit will enable us to make it our very own.