13 A Pentecost 2020: The Beginning of God (according to Exodus 3:1-15

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We are Christians,
but the reason we talk about
the Judeo-Christian tradition
is that we were Jews first.

Jesus, who is the central figure of our religion –
the Wisdom Teacher, Gautama, or Messiah…
the HUGE One at our center – was a Jew.
If we desire to know where Jesus was coming from
then we need to know and feel
the biblical narrative that lived under his skin.

If the empty tomb is the primal Christian moment
then the burning bush is the primal moment in the Hebrew Testament.

There are other rival primal moments though,
unlike in the New Testament,
but Exodus 3:1 through chapter 4:17
is the core primal narrative to which Jesus was rooted.

WWJT – What Would Jesus Think?
Whatever it was, he would have
thought it
through the lens of Exodus 3:1-15.

Now the ancients of many cultures throughout history
believed that a story had power:
If you tell the story,
and you tell it well,
and you tell it often,
then it becomes your story.
Then – then – YOU become part of the story,
and the STORY shapes you
and the story SHAPES those who live with you.

In other words, life becomes shaped
in the image of the story.

On the surface of it,
that sounds ridiculous – we’re too sophisticated
to believe that a story has power
when we know darn well that life is shaped by bacteria,
DNA, and physics.
But be that as it may,
we also know in our bones,

in the muddy and gritty experiences of our lives,
that the ancients were right.
The story we tell shapes life.

This could be a sermon about getting in touch
with whatever story we have hitched our life to –
the story or stories that are shaping who we are and life around us.

That is a pretty big deal,
and discovering our story
is an essential chore of spiritual practice.

But I am sticking to THE story today
because the one evangelical bone in my body –
the mandible bone of the preacher –
thinks this story needs to be the core story
of our primal narrative as Christians.
As I tell you about it,
it will become obvious why it was also
the primal narrative of 18th and 19th century slave theology
in the United States.
We would do well to re-enter this story ourselves.

Anyway, just remember that the story we tell
shapes the life we live
and shapes life itself.

In the story of Exodus 3:1-15,
we learn right up front, at the very beginning,
what the differences are
between God and human beings.

Understand please, this is the very first appearance of God
in the whole of the Biblical narrative.

We heard about a few things that God did in Genesis
but until this moment with Moses,
God has been behind the curtain.
It is here that God inserts godself
smack dab in the middle of things.

Also understand
that while we are used to thinking
that the Book of Genesis
is the beginning of the bible, it is not.
Genesis is a prequel –
like the three Star Wars movies added to the first trilogy
to explain how it all began.
Genesis came later,
much later in historical time
and was then added as a preface to the Exodus story.

But the biblical story
really begins with Hebrews in slavery in Egypt.
The story begins by telling us about
an increased cruelty and oppression
heaped upon the slaves
because Egyptians lived in fear of the Hebrews
who had grown to out-numbered them.
All tyranny lives in fear of the oppressed
rising up to overthrow the tyrants.

We read about the same fear among white slave owners
in the colonial United States
and in the pre-Civil War South.

So 3:1 is the first appearance of God in the bible.
First impressions make a big difference.
Let’s look at what we learn about God
right from the beginning.

What strikes me is that, unlike us,
God knows how to create heat and light without fuel.
We, on the other hand, are consumers
from the first moment we slip from the dark.
Our fuel-efficiency is pretty poor too.
But we learn that with God,
as with all energy,
it changes form
but is never destroyed.
Isn’t that the First Law of Thermodynamics or something?

Right there in the burning bush
we have an example of God adorned
in a basic law of physics.

So we, who are consumers of energy
meet God, who is the source of energy.
And then we learn that God,
making a first appearance in the bible,
has in fact been around for a long, long time –
even longer than the story:
“I am the God of your fathers and mothers,” God says.

But now, here, in the second paragraph,
is where we learn the most important things about God –
most important to us human beings, that is.

Right up front God tells us what happened:
First, God says, “I saw the misery of my people.”

Second, God says, “I heard their cry
as they were being beaten and whipped by their taskmasters.”

Third, God says, “I know their suffering.”
I want to stop with this one
and just stare at it for a moment.
”I know their suffering” means
that God suffers too.
How did our story ever come to include a god
that was impervious to pain and above it all?

Fourth, God says, “I became present to them
so they might be delivered from their oppression.”
And finally, fifth, God says, “I acted,
so that they could be liberated
and be given an abundant alternative.”

I saw
I heard
I knew
I became present
I acted.

Going forward,
whether in Exodus, Ruth, Matthew, or Paul,
we will find one or more of these five characteristics of God.
If we don’t, then it is a different story
we are reading.

This is NOT the story of a god that just hangs out
up there or out there
as an amorphous energy –
that is the story of a different god
from the God in the Exodus story.
We know right up front
that God is a god who sees,
hears, knows,
is present,
and acts.

Now enter human beings.
Moses is the original Prophet –
a religious leader who is equal parts social critic,
political activist, and spiritual guide –
and he is also the prototype of human relationship
with God.

We notice that Moses does something smart
straight off the bat – he hides his face.

He knows, as we all know,
that being in close proximity to God
is like Icarus flying too close to the sun.
We can’t survive such intimate,
unadulterated holiness.
So Moses covers his face and turns away.

But Moses goes downhill from there,
and that is part of the beauty of the narrative:
Story don’t lie.
It is actually a very funny conversation
that gets lost in translation.
It goes like this.

”Moses, I want you to go back to Egypt
and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”

We have to picture the look on Moses’ face
because Moses is an escaped assassin
with a price on his head –
put there by Pharaoh who felt personally betrayed by Moses.
It was a personal vendetta thing.

God could probably have knocked him over with a feather.
Moses finally responds:
Uh, you know, I am not really up to the job.
I am not powerful enough to face Pharaoh like that.”

Objection number one.

“Not to worry Moses,” God retorts,
“I will be with you and I am powerful enough for both of us.”
“Well that’s nice, O burning bush, but exactly which god are you?
I’m I dealing with a Sun, Rain, Fertility, Earth, or Wind god?
I mean, Pharaoh is a god too,
and he has lots of gods working with him.
I can’t go up against all of that power
without knowing who has my back!”

Objection number two.

”Aw, go on Moses, just go back to Egypt,
gather all the elders around you
and tell them that “I AM” sent you.
You can tell that to Pharaoh too.
Tell him I am is not ‘a’ god
but ‘I am’ THE God.”
“Well, I certainly appreciate you your ‘I AMness,’
but somehow I don’t think they are going to believe
that I am on a first name basis with THE God.”

Objection number three.

If we use our imagination, we can almost see
Moses backing away slowly from the bush
a little more with each objection.
This is where we run out of story
in today’s reading.
But because it is THE story
I am going to tell you how it ends.
God says, “Oh, don’t worry about it,
I’ll give you lots of powerful magic.
Here watch – “
and God does several very cool magic tricks.

While Moses must have been impressed
he may still thought he could smell a rat.
After all, why doesn’t God deal directly to Pharaoh.
Was this I AM god unsure it could prevail over Pharaoh?

Moses surely had plenty of survival instinct like most human beings.
He didn’t make it out of Egypt in the first place
by acting as anybody’s fool.
So Moses says, “Oh Lord, I would love to do what you ask
but really, I have a speech impediment – a very disturbing disability –
and clearly you need someone more articulate than me.

The fourth objection.

At this point God might be getting impatient
and wondering about what kind of partner Moses would be.
”I told you,” God says, “I will be with you
and I will put the words you need
right on your very tongue.”

Moses is running out of excuses.
”Oh Lord, you are so generous,
but why don’t you send someone else?”

The fifth objection.

This time there is anger in God’s voice.
”Look, you little weasel,
I will send your brother Aaron with you.
He has the gift of gab enough for both of you. Now go.”
All five objections are over-ruled so Moses finally has to go.

The whole thing ends up pretty well
following some dramatic moments of suspense.
But this beginning,
which may have been written
as a liturgical recitation of some kind,
is the core of the narrative.
It presents a pretty clear contrast between God –
who sees,
hears, knows,
becomes present,
and acts –
with us human beings –
who fear,
make excuses,
and resist.

It seems pretty obvious to me
that we have forgotten the power of the story we tell,
or been convinced that we live in a universe
that only has one story to which everything is subject –
a kind of story bubble.

Capitalist economics is one such story bubble –
we’re in a dog-eat-dog world,
and greed is the invisible hand
moving all human behavior,
so the best thing we can do
is be a winner.

Fundamentalist religion is another story bubble –
we have the truth and those who do not believe our truth
are enemies of God.
Our task is to be powerful enough
to make human society conform to truth
and so bring about God’s blessing.

Scientific determinism may be the biggest,
most powerful bubble yet today – it says that since
there is a cause or causes for everything in nature,
whether known or unknown,
and we exist in nature,
then all human action is likewise determined.

So what is your primal narrative?
It really does make a difference
because conscious of it or not,
you and I are acting out the story we have been given
or adopted.

The story we tell,
the one we see ourselves as living in,
is hugely powerful.
And not to put too dark a tone to it,
we better know what story we are in
or which story we want to be in
because there are a whole bunch of people
telling us which story we are in –
and doing so, to appropriate our stories
into theirs.

It seems to me that if our spirituality
actually has any meaning or importance to us,
that the Judeo-Christian story
is one we would want to lean into –
to see it as our story.
I do not mean literally – I am not a fundamentalist.
I mean to understand what that story tells us
about God, ourselves, and the kingdom
that God dreams for us to create on earth.

It is a story that has power
and could have more power
should we opt to live into it.

Well, as they say,
it’s just a story –
a story that each of us is living one way or another.
But it truly matters how we read it
and what version we embrace because,
under the power and influence of story,
it will become the world we live in
and the people we become.

I appreciate you being with me
and listening.
I hope it offers a fertile place for your own thoughts.
Peace be with you.