Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Exodus 3:1-15: Moses at the Burning Bush
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘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, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
The Divine Name Revealed
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
Moses.... have you heard of him? Born to an enslaved people? Saved by the brilliance of his midwives, mom, and older sister? Raised by the compassionate daughter of a man who was considered a God and was also deeply afraid of the power of the people he enslaved and his biological mother who was pretending to be a nursemaid? Murderer who leaves town to hide from punishment? Shepherd? Leader called by God who’s also often too nervous to talk to others so he recruits his eloquent brother to do the talking? Yes. That Moses.
I don’t know if there are many people in the whole Bible who try harder to talk God out of calling them to great things. I mean, Jonah... you know, the one ended up inside a whale’s stomach for a couple days that one time... he didn’t really want to do the work God called him to. But, that was because he didn’t want to help the people God was trying to get him to help, not because he didn’t think he could help them. Moses, who grew up the grandson of the pharaoh but somehow managed to not learn any of the pharaoh's confidence, doesn’t seem to think he can help anyone.
Even when God tells him that God will be with him through all of this, Moses isn’t sure he can do the job God wants him to do. In fact, he spends not just today’s reading but all the way to the end of chapter 3 and halfway through chapter 4 trying to convince God that he cannot possibly do the job. He only agrees to do it when God relents and let him take along his Hebrew brother Aaron. Only Abraham’s argument with God to save Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind when I try to remember anyone else arguing with God for so long to try to convince God to do something other than what God wants to do in that moment. Importantly, Abraham was able to convince God to spare Lot and his family. Moses was not able to talk his way out of a job. He was able to get a co-worker/confidante/company for when the work of a prophet got hard and lonely. His brother Aaron would be there.
In a sermon he prepared for this Sunday before Labor Day, Mike Seavey, who you were able to hear from at the beginning of worship, argues that the dispute between the enslaved Hebrews and the Pharaoh can be understood as a labor dispute. He says, “In fact, this dispute is the ultimate of all injustices. The Egyptians have enslaved the Hebrew people, and their slave labor supercharges the Egyptian economy into the most affluent of the world.” The Hebrews were only in Egypt because of a famine back home. They had once been welcomed by a different Pharaoh.
But, there is a new Pharaoh. And, this Pharaoh began to see the descendants of climate refugees as a threat instead of people who needed a safe place to be. When they were a threat, he could justify harming them. When they were a threat, he could coerce them into making him even more rich and powerful. Too often, the way to power is over the backs of the impoverished and desperate. Work.... labor is necessary to bring life into fruition. But, not all labor is worthwhile. Not all labor brings life. The Pharaoh used forced labor and poorly compensated labor to enrich and empower himself. It is the opposite of the labor to which God called Moses.
In her book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Dr. Wil Gafney has done some powerful work lifting up the labor that allowed Moses to survive the fraught life of a slave into which he was born. Laboring by the side of many Hebrews who gave birth were Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to kill Hebrew children. They would risk their lives and lie to their boss to save the children. It is the labor of his mother, Jochebed, that welcomes Moses to life, and it is her labor of love to hide him for three months so that he will not be killed as the pharaoh had ordered. It is her desperate, but ingenious, plan that gets him in the arms of the Pharaoh’s daughter. And it is Jochebed’s bravery and skill that gets her the position of wet-nurse for Moses, thereby assuring that she is able raise him in his earliest years.
Dr. Gafney notes that Jochebed may have been able to nurse Moses for five years. Five years that helped him know his identity as a Hebrew... that helped him maintain his relationship with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, both of whom would accompany him in his labor as a prophet. Miriam herself had also worked as part of the plot to save Moses as a child. It is no wonder that she, who had learned the work of outsmarting a cruel pharaoh alongside her mother as a teenager, would later sing a song of freedom for her people after God saved her people at the sea.
The princess, her servants, Jochebed, Miriam, Shiphrah, and Puah... all of their work together helped to raise up a man, Moses, who, as Dr. Gafney points out, cared enough about being Hebrew that he is willing to defend a Hebrew slave from an Egyptian overseer, killing the overseer and necessitating his move to Midian. And, even though he is not sure that he is capable enough to do the work God asks of him, it is clear that the labor of so many had loved him into adulthood and could carry him through his mission from God. Maybe some small part of him realized he could do the work he was called to if he wasn’t trying to do it alone.
It is rare that we labor alone. And, perhaps Moses has some wisdom in asking for a coworker. Workers are always stronger when they join together, right? That’s the lesson we learn from Moses’ family. And, that may be the lesson that got him to stop arguing with God and go with his brother to fight for his people’s right to no longer be coerced into harmful work that did not benefit them so much as it benefited the rich person who owned them. May the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Shiphrah, the God of Puah, the God of Jochebed and Miriam, inspire us to work together for good, even in the midst of systems that benefit from the kind of labor that destroys life, rather than creating it. And, may we remember Moses, who felt unable to do the labor to which God called him when he thought he had to do it by himself. May we find our Aarons, and walk with them, guided by God, into freedom.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mike Seavey, Labor and Faith Liaison for the Maine AFL-CIO, shared a Labor Day sermon he'd written with me. I quote a line from it here. Mike came to church today to share some about ways faith communities and workers can work together.
Wil Gafney's chapter on Exodus in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.