A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
The place on which you are standing is holy ground.
In today’s lesson we see Moses. He had an interesting history—one we read about in the book of Exodus. But at the moment we run into him, it is almost as if he has no history. He has broken off contact from the family who raised him—a different family from the one he was born in. He was a long way from his original home—he may have been out on the coast of Arabia. He had married a woman out in that distant place and was working for her father. And that job, tending sheep, was neither idyllic and romantic nor very well paying. Moses was making do as he had to, as best as he could.
He was tending sheep out in the arid mountains of the Sinai peninsula, running the sheep, trying to find enough for them to eat. In the midst of this drudgery, Moses sees a fire. Or rather, he sees fire, and when he looks at it, there is a bush with all this fire—but nothing is burning. The bush is there, the fire is coming out, but the branches and leaves don’t catch fire—they aren’t burned up.
“Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” All of a sudden, in the middle of this ungrounded life of his, Moses was standing on Holy Ground. And he didn’t know what to do.
The voice continued: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses didn’t even know his father. But God still called him. Here he was far from the land where he was born and grew up, which was Egypt, and far from the land of the Israelites, the people who were his parents, but whom he never really knew. He was up on a mountain, not far from Arabia, and the God of Israel was speaking to him. “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry. I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
And Moses said something that I believe can be loosely translated as: “Huh?”
Most of us think, “If God talked to me out loud, I’d be right there, ready to go.” But, in the real world, Moses was standing there with a bunch of sheep that belonged to somebody else. “How am I supposed to do all that? Face Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites who don’t trust me and have no reason to trust me?” Moses tried to duck, to get out of being responsible and to avoid being generous with his life, as most of us are inclined to do.
God said, “I will be with you.”
Moses was there on Holy Ground—listening to the One, the holiest of holies, the Truth, the Life, the Way. This would be an astounding religious experience.
Back when I was in school, all the fashionable writers talked about “peak experiences” and “mountaintop experiences.” What they were referring to was the experience that Moses is having, right here in this lesson, generalized for their mid-twentieth century audience.
But if you look closely at what is happening here, it is not about Moses, it is not a great mystical or euphoric experience for him. He is on that mountain to be sent by God: “I hear their cry on account of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” God sends Moses for the sake of his people, for the sake of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. Moses isn’t being rewarded at all, he’s not having a great experience for his own bliss. God is reaching out with compassion for his people’s sake.
And Moses is sent to lead the Israelites for God’s glory, not his own—yet, how many would reject Moses? How many would fear the disruption of leaving behind their oppression? Over the next forty years, Moses heard the complaints of some who longed for the security of their oppression in Egypt. From the flames the voice told Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them that I AM sent you.” The one who exists alone from all time and to all time is the God of their ancestors and he judges that they should be brought up from their oppression.
We talk about God’s judgment a lot. And we usually think that it means something bad for somebody, either for ourselves or for our adversaries, or at least somebody. We think that judgment means that God is angry and out to get somebody. The judgment of God has consequences in the real world, but those consequences are the consequences of God’s compassion. God came to deliver the Israelites out of his compassion, and the Pharaoh is portrayed as totally lacking in compassion and opposed to compassion. It did not work out so well for Pharaoh to fight against the compassion of God.
We live in a time when compassion is difficult to find, especially in the public arena. Fear and distrust multiply. And thus the prophets and Jesus were sent to the people to tell them to repent, for the judgment of God is at hand—the compassion of God is arrayed against those forces seeking to use fear, anger and death to control and oppress people and destroy compassion. This is a time of difficulty, perhaps even tribulation.
And Jesus tells a parable. A landowner looks at his garden and there’s a fig tree, which hasn’t born fruit, and his first response is to have it cut down. But the gardener says, wait. Have patience, have compassion, let me work with the tree; fertilize it, water it, cultivate it. In time, it may yet bear fruit.
God’s compassion, God’s judgment and our hope for freedom from oppression are the same thing. Jesus heals us, and leads us with him to Jerusalem without fear. In Moses, God brought his compassion to Israel. In Jesus, God brings compassion to all of us, blessing us with freedom and eternal life.
On this last Sunday of Black History Month, let’s conclude with the Collect for the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant, you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at
last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in thename of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen