Inspired by Exodus 3: 4-12
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.
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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.”
Out of everything packaged into this morning’s scripture, I find Moses’ response to God’s instruction the most curious.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God communicates to Moses that he should tell the Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their current enslavement so that they can go to their Promised Land, and Moses’ first concern is internal insecurity of his ability to carry the task out successfully. From the outside looking in, the problem is more likely to come from the mission, not from the missionary.
Exodus begins with a transition of power that has crushing consequences for Egyptian immigrants. The death of Joseph and the installation of the new king culminates in the change of the Israelites status. First, they were known as a people of military power and wealth, and now they are known as a population of nameless slaves existing as a necessary commodity to progress and production while simultaneously symbolizing a continuing threat to the same power structure benefiting from their enslavement.
The birth of Moses into the Exodus event symbolizes the complexity of the system itself and the fragility of a peoples’ placement in systems structured to create and acquire power over others. We see that Moses’ mothers’ desperation is so great she understands the best chance for her son’s survival is placing him in a basket and floating him down the river. Moses’ adoption, based on the falsification of his identity, signifies the complexities of a system of fear and division. The Pharaoh implements policies of brutal oppression in which the people enforce through assigning levels of worthiness to specific groups existing in their community. In just a few generations, we see a system embodying the belief of these values on all sides.
We also see Moses’ unique upbringing distances him from the internalization of shame in a culture that has dehumanized his people. When he comes of age and reenters the fullness of society, he can see the discrepancies of a system dependent on dehumanizing a portion of its population. Marked with him murdering an Egyptian who was mercilessly beating a nameless slave, Moses’ entrance into the story begins as risky and reactionary. Moses sees the suffering of the people and reacts with a raw emotional rage that violently sets one of the nameless free but extinguishes the life of one named.
Our current passage is the initial interweaving of Moses’ desperation to rename the nameless and God’s validation that these unnamed are people worth remembering.
“I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”
Yahweh meets Moses in a place of pervasive pain and incites a process of social transformation wrought by the revolutionary intervention of a divine remembering of all persons created purpose in the story of creation. The God present before Moses rises as a burning flame initiating a new social possibility for the world in which the landscape suddenly slants toward a vision of mutuality, reciprocity, and reconciliation for all people.
The unimaginable event for the contemporary Christ-follower is the dramatic and direct presence of a God who shows up, speaks out, and sends forth. The relevance of the unimaginable requires an examination of our bondage to systems created and sustained by people programmed to believe they are beneficiaries of a system that benefits a few at the cost of traumatizing all.
On Thursday, Mary Jane shared with me her observation that we are in a culture now where everyone thinks a different thing and that things haven’t always been this way. The pandemic has functioned well to pull down the veil on the brokenness of our systems. These systems present themselves as irreplaceable and, in turn, exhaust the possibilities of societal transformation through creative collaboration. The inability to experience unity on any single issue, to feel connected, and to cooperate toward any solution, exists as the spiritual virus signaling our exodus from the false comforts of all we know.
The question I see us struggling with as a people of incredible privilege in the world is less about our qualifications to envision and embark on an exodus and is more about the necessity of the exodus this moment. The question that holds us in place that silences our conscience is one of urgency; “Are things terrible enough to risk making things worse…even if we know that making things worse now, might make things better later on.” Moses is questioning if he is the right person to lead his people, where he knows they need to go. We see people suffering, and we hear their cries, but we haven’t even established a consensus that where we are in the place, we need to leave.
Russian botanist, Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov, has a story of heroism kindled much like Moses. Born in 1887 to a family of means, Nikolay bore witness to widespread desperation among his people as droughts and famines swept through Russia. His placement in the story as a witness to the horror of gross economic disparities supported by government institutions manifested in a lifetime dedicated to utilizing a scientific approach to efficiently feed the world and eliminate the starvation which ravaged the impoverished people of his homeland.
Nikolay was the first to grasp the critical importance of biodiversity. Discovering that every seedling contained its species’ unique message, Nikolay understood that deciphering this message would make it possible to write new messages-to grow food immune to disease, fungus and insects, and resistance to drought. Though the work of deciphering the messages would span decades, Nikolay committed his life’s work to ensure safe passage to future generations by founded a world seed bank that he hoped would be impervious to war and natural catastrophe.
As Stalin’s stronghold tightened, Nikolay’s work shifted from a perception of importance to “pretentious scientific nonsense that was a threat to the Soviet dominance hierarchy. Undeterred in his commitment and cause, Nikolay was discredited, imprisoned, and eventually starved to death, leaving his loyal colleagues to finish the work of cataloging and protecting the world’s genetic inheritance from the invention of agriculture-the seeds that had sustained humanity for 10,000 years.
While huddled in a cellar storeroom, nine of Nikolay’s colleagues discerned that the only thing they could do amid political instability and a populace who was starving was to do what Nikolay would have done himself; keep working, no matter what.
The people of Leningrad starved through three Christmases. Yet, even under siege, Nikolay’s colleagues managed to hold out against relentless German assault. In the end, the botanists too succumbed to hunger, dying at their desks in the darkened, frigid institute amid the specimens of peanuts, groundnuts, oats, and peas that their sacred honor had prevented them from consuming.
The food we consumed this morning, however, processed or genetically modified, is a descendant from the botanist who died to protect. The Land that we communion with this morning, however, misused and misunderstood, is an inheritance from a people who believed in the arrival to a place where the soil set them free.
In our contemporary work of seed saving and woeful wandering, I believe the key to preserving in the mission gifted through our created purpose is embracing this eternal reality: that we are not dividing ourselves. We are being divided by a system that is only held in place by our unwillingness to sacrifice stagnation so that we might move into the promise contained in the process of collectively dreaming of alternative structures that support societal transformation.
We are the seeds that carry the message to a nameless people that we are all beloved; that black lives matter, that immigrants deserve a shared space to call their own, that the earth requires respect as a sacred and limited living body that gifts us with our every breath. I know that so many of you sit with me as we desperately try to pull back together with the remnants of our broken hearts. Hearts breaking from the atrocities of slavery that change name but never loses form. Hearts breaking from death described in numbers placed strategically to protect us from pain, breaking from the isolation bred in media of all platforms dedicated to perpetuating the myth that we are alone.
But hear now the good news arising from the burning bush and bursting forth from a cave of one million seeds; Your broken heart, my broken heart, is the beginning of the movement toward wholeness in a work that will never finish. It is the opening for the start of something new to reach out from the Christ that rests in the centermost place of each of our selves pulling us closer together so that we may never accept a world that exists with a nameless people.