Moses had climbed up a holy mountain with his flock, when a wondrous and miraculous sight caught his eye. There before him, a bush was on fire. Now, admittedly, in this time of wildfires, a bush that is on fire hardly seems noteworthy. Perhaps distressing, yes, but hardly worth mentioning. But this bush, though it was covered in flame, was not consumed and destroyed by the flame. There in the wilderness, this strange sight sat, as though waiting, its fire light playing on the landscape around it.
Moses, understandably curious, approached to see what was going on. Suddenly, from the flames, a voice called out. A voice that claimed to be the God of his ancestors. A voice who proclaimed that it had heard the people’s misery under the yoke of Egypt. A voice which commanded Moses to return to Egypt, return to Pharaoh, and set God’s people free.
The voice became silent, waiting Moses’ response. A moment passed in the wild stillness. “Um, are you sure you’ve got the right guy?” Moses asked, “Who am I that you would send me?” There in the wilderness, as the flock waited, Moses argued with a burning bush.
It is a scene almost comical in its absurdity. And it is a scene that is repeated throughout scripture. Time and again, as God would call prophets and judges into service, they would argue with God. This questioning of God’s call traditionally is interpreted as a sign of humility, a prostration of sorts before the divine, saying, “I am unworthy.”
And it is also a profoundly human response.
Perhaps there is an element of humility in it. Perhaps an element of self-doubt or fear, as well. But mostly we mean, “Surely, you don’t mean me! Certainly, there must be someone more qualified, better trained, and with the requisite experience! Who am I that you would send me?”
When I was in seminary, we all had to do a unit of clinical pastoral education, most often in a hospital setting. The semester before most of us were set to experience this pastoral education, we were enrolled in a classed titled, “Intro to Pastoral Care.” The anxiety in the classroom was high. We all knew that we were about to embark on an experience that would put us in direct contact with loss, and tragedy, and death. We knew that we were going to be interacting daily with people in one form of crisis or another, and we felt grossly unprepared.
We collectively gripped on to this class with white knuckles, desperately hoping to have some great wisdom and skill bestowed upon us. But that is not what happened. Sure, we learned a few tips and techniques, but they were mostly minor and very simple. There was a lot of role play, but that was largely a comical disaster. The class did nothing to bolster our sense of preparedness. It did nothing to allay our fear that we would mess up spectacularly. We were no less anxious about the start of our pastoral education at the end of the semester than we were at the beginning. In hindsight, I can now see that the class was mostly a swift kick out the door and into hospitals all over the city, to our great protest, so that we had simply to do it.
When we ask, “Who am I that you should send me?” we mostly mean, “I don’t want the risk of what you are asking me to do.” We don’t want the risk of responsibility. We don’t want the risk of social consequences for answering God’s call. We don’t want the risk of losing everything. We don’t want the risk of failure.
It was not an accident that Moses was leading a flock around on this holy mountain. He had fled Egypt, fled the wrath of Pharaoh. He had fled to this foreign land for fear of his life. Now God wanted him to go back, and not just go back, but confront, challenge, and even defy Pharaoh. It was hugely risky. Even if Pharaoh’s anger against Moses had passed and did not have him arrested on sight, Pharaoh rarely responded well to people making demands of him. Pharaoh was not a person who responded well to being ordered about.
But it is not just Moses. I wonder where God is calling you, individually, to confront the injustices of your world? I wonder where God is calling us collectively to confront the brokenness, woundedness, and injustices of our world?
It can be a hard question to discern. But here is a hint: where do you find yourself, where do we find ourselves, saying, “Surely, you don’t mean me?”
Because, and this is the good news of the story, God hears our cries. God hears our cries from all the places where we are in pain and suffering. But we do our best to avoid what God calls us to do in response to that pain and suffering. We come up with a thousand different excuses, a thousand different reasons why we can’t do what God commands, but they all mean the same thing: Surely not me! Who am I that you would send me?
In my experience, in our rush to find solutions to the many problems we face, whether as a congregation, a city, or a world, we spend a lot of effort chasing after answers that don’t actually help because they are answers to the wrong question. In my work with parishes and in dioceses, I have found time and again that spending enough time, perhaps even spending most of the time, figuring out the right question to ask, will lead us to the answers we actually seek, the answers we actually need.
All of Moses’ protests and excuses were getting him nowhere. So, he decided to change tact, to try a new angle, and accidentally asks the most important question. Gaining no traction with God by asking the wrong question, “Who am I,” Moses finally asks the right question. “Who are you?”
There are many, glorious names for God in scripture and in religion. Names that we use to denote the divine, names that we ascribe to God’s qualities. Perhaps our Islamic sisters and brothers have explored this aspect of God the most, identifying Ninety-Nice of Allah’s Beautiful Names, which have formed the basis for much artistic and mystical exploration of the divine.
Here in this story is when God names God’s own self. A simple word cannot name God. It is a whole sentence, a whole paragraph, a whole theological treatise. To Moses’ question, the right and most important question, God responds, “I Am Who I Am. I Am has sent me to you. The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.”
Who is God? God is who God is. And God is the one who sends me to you. God’s sending of us into the fray is fundamental to God’s identity. God’s sending of me, not someone else, is a part of God’s very name. Each and every person who ever asks who God is, will find that the answer is inseparable from being sent.
This is important! God’s very identity is the one who sends us. If God is not sending us, then it is not God who we worship. If God is not sending us, then we are worshiping a false god.
If we are not being sent, then we are worshiping the god of comfort, we are worshiping the god of the status quo. If we are not being sent, then we are worshiping the god of inequality, the god of oppression, the god of self-absorption and hedonism.
Do not give in to false gods! They are gods of wood and stone, they cannot hear our cries or see our struggles. They are dead gods that are consumed by moth and decay until they too return to the dust. My beloved, ours is the Living God. I Am Has Sent Me To You calls each of us by name and is sending us out into the world, out into the city streets, out into the businesses and marketplaces, out into city halls and parliamentary buildings, to bring God’s justice, to bring God’s healing, to bring God’s restoration, because God has heard our cry!
Is it risky? Is it dangerous? Is it terrifying? Yes. And just as God promises to Moses, so also God promises to us, “I am with you.”
God is with us. God is with us and we will stand before Pharaohs and emperors, we will stand before politicians and cabinet ministers, before police boards and planning and zoning commissions alike, and help give birth to the new creation.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates