Homily for Pentecost 13, September 3, 2017
St. John the Apostle Port Moody
“Identity and Courage”
I speak to you as a sinner to sinners, and as one who is loved to the beloved of God through the mercy of God. Amen.
When I was very young, the coming of Labour Day marked the turning of the year. The hot lazy days of summer were nearly over and I would be heading back for another grade in school. After post-secondary education, the first Monday of September took on a new meaning. I was working for a public services union, advocating for the rights and safety of working people. Labour Day highlighted the toil of generations before me who had sacrificed and lobbied in order to bring about that which we sometimes take for granted: parental leave, health benefits, defined working hours, financial support when one is ill or injured. It is a yearly reminder that the working conditions that I and many in this country now expect are a recent development in human history, and one we can so easily lose when a different political administration comes to power.
In many parts of our world, the political and cultural climates have driven ordinary citizens to fear for their livelihoods and their lives. Some have groaned under the weight of oppressive regimes or war-torn regions. Others have fled as immigrants or refugees into a wilderness, leaving behind family members and friends. The thought of going back and facing what is going on in their countries of origin is terrifying. Even if they are not persecuted for who they know or what they may have done, there is little opportunity to use their trades or skills to earn a living. Why would they go back when even the most menial of jobs here in the new world is safer?
Moses was a political refugee in the wilderness of Midian. He had fled Egypt for killing an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew labourers. In this foreign society, he has found a wife and a job and a new life that has nothing to do with his previous position and privilege as a prince of Egypt. He has adopted a new identity that has nothing to do with his cultural or religious roots. But one day, when Moses is looking after his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, he encounters God. Not in a temple or a sacred ceremony, not in some special revered place, but in Horeb, which means ‘the wasteland’. But it is not enough for God to show up. Only when Moses shows he can both see the burning bush, and he turns aside to find out what is going on and why, does Moses hear his name being called. At this point, he could have run away. It might have been safer. Wildfires can be deadly, and unfamiliar voices can mean danger for a refugee.
In having the courage to answer, Moses is taking a risk. The one who was once drawn out of the water of the Nile is being drawn into something new. The writer of the story immediately puts in his mouth the words that any prophet would say to a heavenly call: “Here I am.” But this is a man who has distanced himself from his Hebrew roots and the suffering of his people. He steps up before he knows what is going to be asked of him. Because from the onset, God claims Moses back as his servant. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel”. Moses may not want to admit it, but he is still an Israelite. He can’t avoid his past. He sees the burning bush and he remembers what it is like to be oppressed. Then God lays out his mission: “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” And now Moses is truly conflicted.
It is much harder to go back than to go forward sometimes. Moses has made a new life for himself in this wilderness. Now he is being asked to go back to Egypt. He is to give up the security and companionship of his new family in Midian. The possibility is facing imprisonment or death for his past actions. And if he tries to advocate for the Hebrew labourers, then there will be ridicule, opposition, and further persecution from the Egyptian ruling class, to which he once belonged. The God before him is asking him to choose a side. Is he Midianite? Is he Egyptian? Or is he indeed a child of Israel? Moses is not just suffering from fear of leadership. He is having an identity crisis. “Who am I?”, he cries.
God’s response reconnects him to the story of salvation. “I AM will be with you”. Who Moses is lies grounded in who God is. The holy name of God is revealed on the holy ground where Moses is now standing barefoot. It is a phrase so sacred that the Jewish people will not speak it aloud. It is only written in Hebrew consonants on the pages of scripture, and every time it is to be pronounced, the word “Adonai” or “the Lord” is substituted. The meaning of God’s name is fluid because of the way the verb “to be” is structured in Hebrew. So God’s name could mean, “I Am what I am”, or “I Am what I will be” or “I Am what I am becoming” or “I Am what I am for you”. Moses has first declared “Here I am”, and God is telling him that where Moses is, God will be also. Moses has asked “Who am I?” and God has reaffirmed that he is a child of the Israelites, just as God is the God of the Israelites. Because God is “I Am”, Moses can find his way back to his identity and his courage.
It takes courage to turn back and take on a task with the shadow of the past hanging over us. For some it may be simply going back to school or to work after time away. For others, going home after a fire or flood have changed the landscape. For more, standing up to oppression by having the courage to identify with those who have less power. But the promise is that God is calling us not to stand alone. In answering the call of justice and love and compassion, we are united with the Holy One. We have found holy ground. Amen.