Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
August 31, 2020
Exodus 3: 1-15
Our story from Exodus today is one of the most famous stories in history. It begins on a quiet mountaintop with a non-descript name: Horeb. One day soon that mountain will have a different name: Sinai. On that mountaintop, a shepherd is keeping watch over his father-in-law’s flocks. That shepherd’s name is Moses.
Shepherds watching sheep have a lot of time to think. What is Moses thinking as he watches his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep on that mountain nearly 3300 years ago? Did he miss the days when he had been raised from childhood as a member of the household of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt? Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Moses straddled two worlds. He was a Hebrew who had been rescued from Pharaoh’s decision to drown all the male offspring of the Hebrews. His rescuer had been Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him right under her father’s nose. His wetnurse was a Hebrew slave who was in actuality his real birth mother, so presumably, he’d always known his heritage. So he lived in both worlds.
But then a time came when he was forced to choose. Once he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the overseer. At that moment, what may have been simply a gut reaction determined the path of his life forever. He chose to align with the slave rather than the master, the
oppressed rather than the oppressor, the Hebrew rather than the Egyptian. Forced to flee Egypt, he came to Midian, where he married Zipporah and they had a son. He worked for his father-in-law Jethro.
So perhaps watching Jethro’s sheep that day, Moses was regretting his decision to kill that overseer, to trade in a life as a prince of Egypt to be a shepherd in Midian. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!
Or maybe he was grateful to have escaped into a life of peace, filled with minor difficulties but mainly the pleasures that come from living without stress and having a family that loves you.
Or maybe he was still stewing about the predicament of his people, the Hebrews, still living in slavery under the oppressive heel of his step-grandfather, the Pharaoh, and how now he was in no position to help them, and might never be.
Or maybe he was just zoned out, staring into space, not really thinking about anything at all.
Whatever he was thinking about, apparently he wasn’t thinking about God. But as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Suddenly a bush bursts into flames, and from the bush comes the voice of God, and the voice of God says, “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”
One reason we know that Moses wasn’t thinking about God is that Moses actually doesn’t know who it is that’s speaking. “If I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they say, ‘What is his name?’, what shall I tell them?” It’s a perfectly good question at a number of levels. In the first place, though the Hebrews had become one people over the course of hundreds of years in Egypt, they had not arrived in Egypt as one people. They were a mix of Semitic peoples from all over the Middle East who had first come to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine. Their numbers had represented many different religions, and no doubt many Hebrew slave households would have had the symbols of many different gods. Add to that that there were also many different Egyptian gods, all of whom would have been familiar to Moses and he probably would have worshiped them in the normal routine of his former life as a royal Egyptian courtier.
In answer to the question, God gives Moses something God has never given anyone before: The Holy Name. No one has ever heard it before this dramatic moment. God’s name, we are told, is Yahweh—a weird word that is a non-word. It is derived from a verb, in fact, the most basic verb form in any language, “to be.” We translate it as “I am that I am,” but it could also be “I will be what I will be” or even “I was what I was.” It straddles all forms of the verb “To be.” I am. God defines God’s self further by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” At one level that just makes which God this is more specific. “Of all the peoples and
tribes that came to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine, and who now labor together as slaves under Pharaoh, I am the god of this particular tribe—the tribe of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
What’s striking about this is that God doesn’t say, “I WAS the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” After all, that’s the way the question was framed: which God of which ancestors am I to say you are? It was framed as a question about the past. But God’s answer is not about the past, it is about the present: I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That answer, and the name I am that I am, tell us a vital thing we must know about God: God is not the God of the past, nor even the God of the future. God is the God of the present. God is the God of the here and now, not the where and when or the then and therefore. God is the God of the present.
Moses hedges and squirms and tries to push back against this idea. I’m not the right guy, God, he says. But that’s the wrong answer, because one thing God is not is the God of Never. Martin Luther King, Jr., put this point nicely in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he pushes back against white pastors who keep telling the Civil Rights movement to wait, to be patient, to cool their jets. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” he writes. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
God is the God of now, not the God of Never.
Nor is God the God of wait. Moses tries this path too. “I need to develop new skill sets so that I can do this thing you’ve tasked me to do. It’ll take time. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready.” No, this is the God of the present. When God calls us, God calls us NOW.
We Presbyterians, for instance, say that those who serve as elders or deacons in the church are called by God to their task, like prophets or pastors. I often tell potential officers that it isn’t helpful for us to ask ourselves whether we have the skill set to do the job. We should take it for granted that we don’t. But to be called means that God expects and enables you to grow into the job. God doesn’t call who we are, but who we are becoming. But we won’t become that if we don’t say yes to the call.
Moses the shepherd of Midian, wanted for murder in Egypt, should take it for granted that he is not qualified to tell Pharaoh to let his people go or to lead Israel out of Egypt or to receive the Ten Commandments or to lead the people in the desert for forty years or to get them, finally, to the Promised Land. Moses the murderous shepherd isn’t qualified for any of that. But the Moses who says “yes” to God can and will become all of that, and more.
When I was involved in community organizing one of the things that was constantly emphasized is that visionary living doesn’t mean living for the future, it means living fully right now. We talked about how change happens best when we live in an eternal now, when we’re asking not, “What do we need for the future?” but rather “What do we need right now?”
I was talking to my daughter Sara the other day about an organization she’s deeply involved in that provides free food for the hungry in New Orleans. We were talking about a vision statement for her organization. A vision statement should describe the kind of world that the organization envisions. So a good vision statement for her organization might be “To eliminate food insecurity in New Orleans.” Yes, that’s a statement about the future—but the problem is here NOW. They don’t need the elimination of food insecurity ten years or a hundred years into the future—they need it now, this moment. It just may take ten years or a hundred years to get there.
I think most of us see this in our lives as well. At various points in our lives, things have happened that made us realize that we needed to improve in some way. For many of us as teenagers, for instance, our extreme sensitivity to how other people saw us may have caused us to work on our self-confidence or our social skills or our athleticism or our appearance or our prayer life or our relationship to God. As adults we can probably say that the person I see in the mirror today is a much-improved version of the person I was when I was fifteen or eighteen. But it all started because those qualities I have now were qualities I needed then. And to complicate matters more, that person I see in the mirror now has a whole new set of shortcomings that need to be
addressed now so that in the future I’ll be a bit more the person I actually need to be right now. And so it goes.
To say that God is God of the Present puts a new and challenging spin on one of Jesus’ teachings that I think we trivialize. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow brings worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6: 34). I think many of us read this as the “Don’t worry, be happy” approach to life. In fact, it is a more Buddhist teaching than that—that we must live fully and completely in the now, because that is where God is—now, in this moment. We must look at the present moment with eyes wide open, rather than looking on the past with nostalgia or on the future with foreboding or false expectations that things will just magically get better.
Growing up during the Cold War, every so often our elementary school teachers would gather us up and take us down to the Pine Street Elementary School basement where we were told to hide under desks until we were told to come out. This was because my hometown of Spartanburg, SC, was within the blast radius should there be a nuclear strike on the Aiken Nuclear Power Plant, which was considered a strategic nuclear target. The truth is that all that ‘duck and cover’ wouldn’t have made a bit of difference had we really gone to war with the USSR. If our response to our nuclear fear of the future had been simply duck and cover drills, we’d all be toast now.
And then there were the handful of vocal leaders who believed that our fear of the future warranted making pre-emptive strikes on the Soviet Union—a path that most believed would lead to MAD, mutually assured destruction, which seems like a bad thing. Many strategists believed in the Domino Theory, the idea that if one country falls to communism then another and another and another would; and so we engaged in questionable actions to stave off that communistic future and ironically probably made things worse. All sorts of plans were made, and should have been, but very few believed that a plan for the future would in any way get us out of the quagmire we were in—there were just too many variables, too many unpredictable factors.
Ultimately, it was neither fear of the future nor planning for the future that got us out of the Cold War. What got us out of it was leaders who lived in the present moment—who saw opportunities when they arose and rose to the challenge. It was the day to day work of CIA Operations officers and State Department diplomats and smart politicians who had good instincts and made smart decisions whenever each unexpected and unanticipated variable popped up. When Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” it was a spontaneous response to the mood of the moment he was in right then and there—a man with the right instincts hitting upon the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. Planning and preparation played their role, but the end of the Cold War came in a way no one could have planned or predicted. It came because people living in the now saw clearly in the present moment and responded to it in exactly the right way.
My friend Greg is white and Christian and he decided about a year ago, even before the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement recently, that he was deeply troubled about his own confusion around race. But he didn’t know what to do about it. The more he learned the less adequate he felt to the task. So one day he just decided to go to Stop Six and meet people. Then he started to get involved in the community by just saying, “Just tell me what to do.” He ended up being in charge of social media for the annual Juneteenth celebration this year. He didn’t have a plan then and he still doesn’t. He just goes where the moment takes him. But he knows he’s doing what God calls him to do.
The God of the Present calls us in the present and our challenge is to respond to that call—to discern what that calling is and then take on the challenge of doing it. Pastor and writer Frederick Beuchner once defined calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a moment full of challenges and I can’t tell you what God is calling you to do. But if you have strong feelings about something going on in the world, but you feel unqualified or inadequate unwilling or perhaps even fearful to do what you feel is right, pray about that. Look carefully at how God might be calling you. Don’t wait until some future time when you’re better qualified or not so busy or a little more motivated. The God of the Present calls us now. If we say yes now, then we can trust the God of the present to use our presence the way its most needed.