In today's Old Testament text, we encounter a very famous moment in the Exodus story. We have been following Moses, who has an esteemed career as a murderer outlaw at this point. You'll recall that he killed one of Pharoah's foremen because he had seen him beating an Israelite. Then he fled to Midian to escape the wrath of Pharoah, and picked up a wife, Tsipporah, and a pretty wise father-in-law, Jethro, on the way.
Anyway, Moses is out tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he sees the most curious sight: a scrubby little bush that's on fire, but won't burn up. In translating the text, I found that some scholars tend to think it was a blackberry bush – so if that helps your mental picture, there you go. Now, Biblical scholars disagree about the exact location of where Moses is at this point. We don't know where Midian and Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai) are, but we can agree that this bush would not have been dewy or wet – it would have burned like a brush fire in the hot, dry area. I think any one of us, like Moses, would have been puzzled as to why the bush kept on burning.
So Moses approached the bush to see what was going on, and then things got weirder. The bush started talking to him. We know, from reading the Scripture, that God was speaking, but Moses would have had no way of knowing. Plus, we are unsure if Moses even has a relationship with God at this point – remember, he was raised as an Egyptian and didn't have the benefit of being surrounded by people who knew the God of Abraham and Isaac. From knowing the story of the birth of Jesus, we also know that this isn't the first time God chooses to divulge good news to a clueless shepherd watching his flock.
Moses listened to the speaking of the burning bush, and God revealed Godself to Moses. Moses did what any single one of us would probably do: he hid his face in fear and awe. No one was supposed to see this God, JHWH, and live. Moses probably thought he was approaching his final hour!
God told Moses that he had chosen Moses to be his envoy to Pharoah, to be his advocate for his people, to free them from the harsh labor they had been subjected to. The time had come to save his people, and Moses was an operative part of that. And what did Moses say? Moses, probably feeling a mixture of dread, lack of self-confidence, and confusion, said “Who me?”
That “who me” has sounded down through thousands of years and hundreds of thousands of readings of the text. That “who me” is what I want to spend the next minutes talking about.
Some of you will know that I went to college in New York City, at Columbia University. Directly catty-corner to Columbia's campus is the Jewish Theological Seminary in America, the main training grounds for all the Conservative Jewish rabbis and clerics of America – confusingly, they are actually the moderate sect of Judaism, although they are called Conservative.
I had many friends who attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, so I often had occasion to walk by the building, or even to have lunch inside. They had the most beautiful marble facade on the outside of the building, and chiseled into the marble was a drawing of a flaming bush, and the motto for the Seminary, which comes from this reading: “And the bush was not consumed.” My eyes always found this verse, every time I was walking by down on the sidewalk below.
Throughout high school and college, I was very much like Moses in this verse, and I know that all of us have these moments sometimes. God was continually calling to me, whispering and shouting my name, saying, “Emily – I have plans for you. These plans involve full-time service in my church!” And I said, “Who, me!? But I'm going to be a lawyer, or a teacher, or a pharmacist like my Granddad. I can serve you just as well in one of those professions, can't I?”
But the bush was not consumed – and God kept calling. And I kept saying, “Who, me?” I applied for Peace Corps service after I graduated from college, and I said to God, “I'll serve you by serving others across the world.” And the bush was not consumed, and God kept calling. And I was turned down from the Peace Corps!
So I applied to Vanderbilt Divinity, but still wasn't sure that I wanted to pursue this calling from God. I said to God, “But I might make a better professor than a pastor.” But the bush was not consumed, and God kept calling to me from within it. So finally, I stopped and listened to God's plan for me. I'm still struggling to see what that plan looks like - I still have days when “Who, me!?” is a big stumbling block.
God doesn't call each of us to ordained ministry in the church, but God does call each of us somewhere. And God keeps calling. The bush is not consumed. And maybe it isn't a vocational call, a call to a profession. Maybe God is calling you to feel a particular passion about a certain issue – about the treatment of the homeless in this town, or the imprisonment of immigrants. You can say “Who, me?” just like Moses all day long, but God isn't human, and God has power and endurance to withstand our protests and our foot-dragging.
And God has heard all the excuses! If you think that you or I have some good excuses, think about what Moses said to God: “I'm a murderer and a fugitive, I have a speech impediment, and besides, my brother is really more of the mouthpiece in the family. Even my sister is a better leader than I am. I'd really much rather follow on this one, God.”
Finally, Moses pulls out his last stop, and says, “I don't think anyone will believe me if I go back and say that I heard God talking to me in a burning blackberry bush. What will I do when they ridicule me and say I'm making it up? What will I tell them that your name is?” These are good excuses. If someone came to me and reported the same story that Moses had, I would have recommended counseling. So, Moses has some good points here.
In asking for God's name, Moses is making an incredibly bold move. See, in our culture, we name our kids with some impunity. We decide when we get pregnant or when we adopt that, “if it's a girl, we'll name her Jessica, and if it's a boy, Matthew.” But in many cultures, even today, people will refuse to name their children until they see them, because in naming there is power to help shape the future of that child. The Bible is full of names that actually mean something. Moses' own name means “drawn out of the water,” although scholars debate whether it's a Hebrew or an Egyptian name. Isaac means “he laughed” because of Sarah's laughter about her alleged pregnancy. And Jesus? Yeshua in Hebrew means savior. And so on. So Moses, in asking for God's personal name, is asking for some control over God's action. How will God respond to this bold request?
God's answer to Moses is sheer genius. This is one of those pivotal moments in the Exodus story, and in the greater Old Testament. In a compact little Hebrew phrase that doesn't translate very well, God says: “I am who I am.” Another way of saying this, which is equally correct, is, “I will be what I will be.” God basically says to Moses, “None of your business! I'm going to do what I'm going to do, and your job is to listen and obey. I will decide if the people will listen to you or not, so it's not your concern to try to convince them.”
I think this moment is so ground-breaking because of the underlying statement God is making, and that God still makes today: don't try to limit me with words or ideas. In our human-ness, we want to know what God looks like. We want to know what God's name is. And God shows us little bits and pieces of what God looks like, but we will never, ever know the fullness of God. This is the heart of the mystery of God.
At the Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I study, the so-called “School of Prophets,” one way that this idea is expressed is in the form of gender-inclusiveness. We try to never refer to God as either “he” or “she” because God, in God's fullness, transcends human gender. And this is very difficult at first! After a lifetime of referring to God as 'he', to catch yourself and say “God” and “Godself” every time takes a lot of practice! But that is what the community is for. See, we remind each other. We raise our hands during class and say, “It seems as if we're losing sight of our commitment to inclusiveness. Can we remember that?” This is one of the vital roles of community – we invoke different images of God, but remind each other that each one is valid and none of them are complete.
There is great danger in saying that the image we have of God is the only image. Not only do we risk excluding people and turning them away from the church, we risk disrupting the very order of creation. God created us in God's image, but when we monopolize images of God, we create God in our image. This is a serious sin, and one that is incredibly widespread.
Sometimes, we want something for our lives so badly that we become convinced that God has called us to it. This is a very dangerous form of creating God in our own image. We might have wanted to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a mother or father, and we wanted it so deeply that we believed that God has given us a call to it. Only a life that is steeped in prayer and Christian community will be able to discern a call from God correctly, because a call must be verified from both within and without.
In some traditions, for a person to be recognized as being called to ministry, the call must be felt by others in the church. In our own tradition, United Methodism, the candidate for ministry must be recognized as having “gifts, graces, and fruits” that are fit for that ministry. The candidate must sit before various boards and committees charged with discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit, and deciding whether this person does indeed have that call.
And when we say to God, like Moses, “Who me!? I think I know what's best for myself, thank you very much,” we resist what God is creating in us. We resist the order of creation. And we don't let God do God's job.
To all of our “who me”s, God says “Yes you – and I'm with you. You have power that you don't know yet, because it is from me.” This is powerful stuff. It was powerful for Moses back then, has gripped people in all the intervening years, and continues to reach into our lives and grasp us. Moses thinks that his life is his own; that he is settled somewhat comfortably into a life of tending his father-in-law's sheep, and God comes to say otherwise.
How often has this happened to each of us? How often have we heard or uttered the phrase, “ . . . but God had other plans for me”? Do we go along willingly? Do we jump right in to what God has in store for us?
In certain places and at certain times, it is very easy for us to hear and feel the pulling of God's divine will in our lives. At other times, the communication becomes cloudy. Many distractions stand in our way, and there are more coming every minute. Who would have thought, a hundred years ago, that we would have tiny hand-held devices that allow someone to reach us by phone or email everywhere that we go?! In a business professional environment, we are expected to respond to everyone's emails and demands within a twenty-four hour period! This doesn't leave much time to carve out and listen for the calling of God.
Occasionally the distractions are so great that God will indeed come in a bizarre sight like the burning bush, a tragic incident in our lives, or an insistent person – but a lot of times God speaks softly and waits for us to hear. God is endlessly patient with us in this way. A lot of times God chooses to give us subtle signs and warnings about where God is calling us, and expects us to tune in to God and tune out of some of our daily demands.
Part of God being “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be” is allowing God the freedom and latitude to work broadly in our lives. If we allow God only a little corner of our hearts, or only one day of our week, we are not letting God be who God is. God gave us all we are, and God demands the freedom to invade every part of us. Are we open to that? Do we hear the call of God? If not – I suggest a retreat. Even a five-minutes-a-day retreat. At first it will feel like a waste of time. It's not. It's a gigantic investment of time.
In God's way of operating, which is different for each person, space for hearing is vital. I know sometimes I will go through an entire day without a second of silence. I have the radio on when I wake up, I make calls while I'm driving from one place to another, I sit in class while a professor lectures, and I chat with my friends over lunch. I'm exhausted when I get home, and I fall into bed without a second thought. Sometimes God takes the only opportunity God can get – when I'm reading for class – and invades my thoughts in that quietness. I'll find my mind a million miles away from what I'm reading, because God saw that as the only moment to get my attention. This is a sad state of affairs in my life! This is when I know that I have to consciously schedule in some time for God.
So what do we “take home” with us from this Scriptural text from Exodus? What application does it have in our everyday lives? To sum up, I think the applications are threefold. First, we must remember that God is calling, all the time. God calls us not just to careers or family situations, but to everyday events. God calls us into people's lives. God calls us into places that demand justice and mercy, and expects us to perform in the example of Jesus. God is calling each one of us right now to do something or to go somewhere, and most of us aren't hearing it because our world makes it very difficult.
The second application from this text to our everyday lives is that we all make excuses when God calls us to something difficult or unattractive to us. God has heard all these excuses before, and a million more that were probably more valid than the ones we have. Regardless of our excuse-making, the point is that God equips us with what we need moment by moment, and asks only for our trust and belief. It is a hard step to make, out into the unknown, but God accompanies us. To all the “who me!?” of our lives, God responds, “Absolutely. You. I'm with you. We're going to do this together.”
And the third, and most sweeping application of this text to our lives resides in the revelation of the divine name. When God responds to Moses brash inquiry as to God's name, “I am what I am” becomes the way that we have thought about God ever since. Wrapped up in God's name, which abbreviates to JHWH in Hebrew, is the idea that humanity cannot place a neat frame around God. In fact, to limit God is a great sin that reverses the divine order of creation. God created us, and it will never be the other way around.
The frames we try to place around God are endless: gender, appearance, political inclination, and the list goes on. In our daily lives, we might sometimes try to create God in our own image by deciding that the plans we have for ourselves are also the plans that God has for us. The only remedy for this backwards way of thinking is a life full of prayer and a discerning community.
So when you feel a “who me!?” coming, remember the story of Moses and the burning blackberry bush, and know that you aren't alone in this feeling. Followers of JHWH have felt it through thousands of years, and God's response has been consistent: “Yes you.”