A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 28, 2011 (Proper 17, Year A)
Outward images don’t always match inward reality. This isn’t some great news flash if you’ve ever voted for and then been disappointed by a politician or bought a teeth whitening toothpaste that failed to make your teeth white. The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the classic example of this phenomenon. On the outside there’s an intimidating all-powerful façade with a booming voice yet behind the curtain we encounter a less-than-powerful reality in the form of a balding, insecure man pulling levers and playing tricks.
I think we can all relate to this to a degree. Not necessarily being a balding, insecure man but in the sense that there’s a small interior voice that questions whether what people see on the outside is in full harmony with our true identities.
We spend much time and energy, sometimes our entire lives, trying to be the people others think we should be or that we ourselves hope to be. It may not always be a conscious effort but the way we dress and interact with others and present ourselves to the world start to form our identity. “Helen? Oh, she’s such a giving person. Always willing to do things for others.” Well, sometimes Helen is just too tired or doesn’t feel up to it or needs a break. But she’ll feel guilty if she’s not able to live up to that image of the selfless caregiver so she’ll sacrifice her own needs and dog sit for the friend who’s spending the weekend on the Cape. She’ll be affirmed and thanked, of course, and maybe even given a geranium; and everyone will again talk about what a giving person she is. But meanwhile, deep down, resentment may be building that she can’t even identify or confront. And eventually the outward image will no longer match the inner feelings.
Moses may well have felt the same way. We think of him as the great leader of Israel who confronted the pharaoh and then led the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom. We picture him as the white-bearded prophet who handed down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. I know some of you are picturing Charlton Heston even as I speak; and if you’re not it’s only because you’re my age or younger. In which case you’re picturing Disney’s animated version of “The Prince of Egypt.” Either way, it’s difficult not to envision Moses as a powerfully built, supremely confident man of God.
But then we hear this well-known encounter with the burning bush and we start to see something of the man behind the image. And he appears to be quite…human. This isn’t a story where God calls and the great leader salutes and marches off to do battle with the forces of wickedness with no questions asked. There are a lot of questions asked here.
The first question has to do with Moses himself; the second with the identity of God. God tells Moses that he has seen the misery of his people and he has heard their cry and he’s ready to act to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians. That’s all well and good but the catch here is that he wants Moses to be his messenger; he wants Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. And Moses’ response is telling of his inner attitude: “Who am I that I should go to pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” This isn’t exactly a man brimming with confidence in the task at hand.
But I think it’s also a question most of us can relate to. We may not be asked to lead the Israelites through the Red Sea but there are plenty of responsibilities entrusted to us that make us question our self-worth. If you’re a parent you may ask, ‘Who am I to bring a child into the world and be responsible for helping her navigate life’s challenges?’ If you’re a teacher, either in the school system or our own Church School, you may ask, ‘Who am I to teach a classroom full of second graders?’ If you’re in business you may ask, who am I to be given responsibility for a $5 million budget?’ If you’re a priest you may ask, ‘Who am I to stand up and preach the Word of God?’
These questions don’t make us insecure people – I actually think they make us better at what we do because we recognize that without God’s help we can do none of it. So in a moment of honesty Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And if you look at Moses’ life to this point, you can understand why he’d be puzzled by God’s choice. He was born an Israelite, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, tries to help a kinsman being abused by an Egyptian, kills the Egyptian, is rejected by his own community, goes on the lam, gets married, and ends up working as a shepherd for his father-in-law. That’s a mighty fall from the royal lifestyle in which he grew up. And it makes that question “Who am I” even more poignant.
The second question Moses asks of God relates to God’s own identity. It’s one thing to go to the pharaoh and tell him to set your people free but you know the first question out of his mouth is going to be, “Who gives you the right to come barging in here with such nonsense?” And you better have a decent answer lined up.
So Moses says to God, ‘Okay. I can tell him the God of my ancestors sent me but what do I say when they ask me your name?” God eats some spinach, flexes his muscles and says, “I AM Who I AM, thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” And Moses is probably thinking to himself, ‘couldn’t you just come up with a regular name, like Joe?’
Talking a brief look at our gospel passage, we get the aftermath of Jesus’ questions to Peter from last week: “Who do people say that I am?…But who do you say that I am?” It’s no accident that we hear echoes of God’s “I am” statement and Peter responds in the great confession of his faith, “You are the Messiah.”
I just wanted to make that connection briefly but the point here is that despite his questions, despite his lack of confidence, despite his thin resume, God chooses Moses. He doesn’t expect Moses to be anyone other than who he is. God believes in him, God watches over him, God loves him. God doesn’t expect him to be perfect on either the outside or the inside; God simply expects him to be faithful. And that’s precisely the same thing God desires of each one of us. God seeks faithfulness, not perfection. Which is an easy lesson to hear but a tougher one to let sink into our souls.
Let’s face it, God already knows us inside and out. In other words, God already knows we’re not perfect – our secret is out. That’s what happens when you worship a God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” But the good news is that, like Moses, God loves us despite what he knows; God calls us to serve him despite what he knows; and God invites us to be faithful despite what he knows.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011