God is a Verb

Justin Thornburgh
Sermon: Proper 17A
Sat. Sept. 3, 2011
North Shore Baptist Church – Crossings Service

God is a Verb

The story for today’s lesson is one we all know. We learned it in our most primary Sunday School Class. The story of Moses and the Burning Bush. I remember Mrs. White sitting us all down on the carpet with the alphabet on it – pulling Scott and me out from the fort we built Sunday after Sunday out of those cardboard bricks – she would take out the flannel board and stick up there Moses looking for the sheep. The burning bush. I heard the story, but was more fascinated by how those pieces stuck on that board. THAT was the real miracle – there was no tape. They weren’t velcro. They felt like the flannel shirt I loved to wear. She would tell us how the bush didn’t burn and how Moses had to take off his sandals. Mrs. White would tell us that God’s name was “I AM.” Again, I would get stuck there. What kind of name was that? “I AM that I AM.” She would never explain it. I have always been struck by the name of the Living God., “I AM.”

***

I try to picture what was going on on the that day when Moses met “I AM.” I imagine it was another sweltering day in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. A hot, dry day. The sun sitting high in the sky. Moses and the sheep of his father in law are huddled at the bottom a wadi – or valley – using the shade created by the wall of the valley to give them some respite from the mid-day heat. Moses leaning against the wall of the wadi – maybe sitting chewing on a piece of goat jerky. Counting the sheep. Partly to pass the time. Partly to make sure his dad in law’s sheep are all present and accounted for. 97,98,99, 100, 101,…where is 102? “How did I loose one? I was behind them the whole time. Alright sheepys…stay here. I need to go find BoPeep.”

He gets us. Knocks the sand off his robe. Places his keffiyeh back on his head to protect him from the baking sun. Grab his walking stick from its resting place – leaning on the wadi wall. He faces the east. The sun behind him causes his shadow to become a long silent version of himself pointing in the direction he is to head. He head east. Every hundred feet or so he stops. Closes his eyes and listens. Nothing. Moving forward he repeats the routine. Again and again. Finally, a mile away from where Jethro’s flock is resting, he stops again. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he closes his eyes and listens. He hears it. The bleating of the lamb. He listens again. The sound echoing in the valley makes it difficult to pin-point where the sound is coming from. Baaa-Baaaa. There is it is. Up that embankment. It is near the path they used to come down into the valley. He climbs the embankment, but sees nothing. Now on top of the valley – the dry wind blows sand and it burns his skin. He listens. Baa-Baaa. The sound is coming from the mountain ridge to his left.

Coming to the mountain Moses see there are crags and cliffs that are pretty treacherous. Baa-Baaa. The lamb on the mountain. They went by this place this morning. BoPeep must have wandered off when they made the turn into the wadi. Moses negotiates the crags and crevasses – gingerly. He isn’t a young man anymore like when he fled Egypt. It had been many years. Slipping on a rock he cuts his knee. Ripping a hole in the robe he was wearing. Getting back on his feet he sees the lamb. Caught in the branches of a small tree. He goes to it. The poor thing is dehydrated from the fight to remove itself from the branches. The shepherd reaches inside his outter robe and removes the water-skin and begins to put it to the little sheep’s mouth, but it refuses to drink. Precious water is spilling all over the ground – being swallowed by the dry rocks – evaporating into nothing. As he tries to calm the lamb it breaths its last. Having lost the struggle to keep it alive, Moses begins to try to remove it from the limbs of the tree – when out of the corner of his eye he sees something.

A bush is on fire, but it isn’t being consumed. Thinking he is beginning to be affected by the heat and the sun, Moses reaches for the water-skin – it is empty. Defeated, Moses returns to his haunches and works at the caught lamb again. Then, “Moses. Moses.” He turns to the bush. Still thinking he is seeing things, Moses steps into the shade and sits. Tears begin to well up in his eyes – How will Zipporah and the boys know where to find him, for he will surely die in this place. “Just don’t struggle like the lamb,” he mumbles to himself, “maybe I can hold off until evening and then try to make it to camp.” But this sun has just peaked over the cover he was sitting under. He begins to weep. He looks up with tears blurring his vision. He still sees the bush burning. “This can’t be a mirage. It would have changed by now.” Slowly, stiffly, he raises himself up. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he makes his way to the bush.

“Moses. Moses.”

“What is going on?” Thinks the shepherd.

“Moses.”

“Uhhh…Here I am.”

“Stop.”

Moses unsure if he is loosing his mind stops. Confused. After all, he is having a conversation with a bush that is on fire and not burning. “Take off your shoes, this is Holy Ground.” No loosing eye contact Moses removes his sandals. “Moses. I am the God of your fathers Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” It have been years since the fugitive shepherd had heard those names. The names of his ancestors hit him like a lead weight. He collapsed to the ground. Weeping he stretched out his hands toward the bush – his face buried in the sand and rock covering the crevasse, “Oh my God.”

“Moses, I have heard the cries of my children in Egypt. I have seen how they are beaten an abused. I see their homes destroyed. Their lively hood being burned. I have seen their suffering. I know their sufferings, and I am come down to save them from the Egyptians. I am showing them a new land – full of milk and honey. I have heard their cries, and I am sending you to Pharaoh – I am calling you to bring them out of Egypt.”

Getting to his knees, Moses stares at the bush. “I am a fugitve. They will surely kill me. How would I even do it? I stutter. I am old. I have a family. And what makes you think Pharaoh would listen to me. Remember, I grew up with him and he hated me then?”

“Moses, I AM with you. And when you gain the freedom of my people, you will return here to worship me. That is how you will know that I am with you. You will come to this place and worship.”

Still not sure, “Ok, fine. But what will I tell your people? I fled them, too. Remember? They probably hate me. I could have done something when I was in Pharaoh’s court. I didn’t. They will ask me what your name is.”

“I AM WHO I AM – ahaya asher ahaya . Tell them I AM has sent you. Tell them Elohim Adoni has send you. The God of your ancestors: of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent me to you. Ahaya – I AM is my name forever. It is my title for all generations.”

Moses and the LORD kept talking and when they were done, Moses – radiating the light of God turned to take the dead lamb and return to the rest of the flock to return them to the camp, but something was amiss. The lamb was not in the tree. Baaa-Baaaa. Moses turned toward the bush that was no longer burning. The lamb came walking from behind the bush. It came up to Moses, and it began to lead the way to the other sheep.

***
Moses was lost. The property of his father in law was dead. Though it was his duty to retrieve the lost sheep – he was leaving the others in danger. He was on the edge of dying. And it is this state of utter despair that God appeared to him. God made God’s self known to this man who was teetering on the edge. And Moses responded like most of us do when confronted by God. We try to bargain with God. We try to make sure God confronts us on our terms.

I know when I was discerning a call to ministry – I really tried to make sure it was on my terms. I would look at schools that I knew were too far away. I would looks at schools I knew were either too conservative or too liberal for me. I kept trying to tell God that, “Sure I hear your call, but I am going to do this on my terms.” See what happened? God said, “Ok. No you aren’t.” I looked at Lutheran school’s page, and found out that God was in control. I should not be at a Lutheran School, but God was working. God called me there because of my concern for the environment. But God had something else in mind and by drawing me to that school introduced me to the area of Urban Ministry to which I feel is what God wanted me to do all along. God is working all the time.

God is working and God is calling us to take steps outside of our comfort zones. Part of our vocation as followers of the Divine Name is to proclaim a world that the world tells us we shout not proclaim. We are called to move away from our came and into the troubled places. To the margins of society. That means going to the streets and witnessing, watching, observing what is going on and naming those things that are not in accordance with the Divine will of God.

We invite the homeless into our building Monday through Friday, but what would happen if they showed up at our service? Would we engage them and get to know them as beloved children of God? As children groaning under the oppression of a system that prefers they be invisible? Or would we acknowledge them and leave it at that? We are called to stand in the margins. To stand in the margins and in the face of the powers that have conspired to keep people oppressed. Will we stay at the bush in the comforting presence of the Divine, or will we go to Egypt? Will we go to Pharaoh and say, “Let God’s people go. Let them go to a warm bed. Let them eat a hot meal. Do not favor your friends who can pay to get you reelected over the needs of the broken on the street.

We are building a new service here. A service that has been called into being and namedGod by God. Will we stand her in awe of the unconsumed burning bush, or will we engage it? Hear what it has to say, and then, like Moses, go back to Egypt?

This story of Moses’ call is a profound one as we begin work on rebuilding this service. In the story we learn that God’s name is ahaya asher ahaya – I AM WHO I AM. The thing that we loose in the English translation of the divine name is the fact that it is a verb – not a noun like proper names in our language. The root of the name hyh means “to be, become, come to pass, exist, happen.” In revealing to Moses the divine name, God is telling Moses that God is constantly working in the world. God is telling Moses that God is a verb. An action. Never stopping. Since there is no past tense or future tense in Hebrew – God is and always is and always has been moving. God names the ancestors of the past. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The God of Miriam, Aaron, and Zipporah. The God of Deborah, Bathsheba, and Ruth. The God of Tamar, Jonathan, and Amos. The God of Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth. The God who came in the person of Jesus and worked on our terms to show us what the Rule of God should be. The God who was lamb staked to a tree. The God who died, yet walked from behind the bush that Sunday morning and greeted a grieving Mary Magdaline. The God who is with us tonight. The God who is with us as we worship.

Friends, we try to name God on the best terms we know. We call God many names, we try to name God. We need to name God, and that is why this name is so amazing.
When we are called to start a new service – we call on God. When we go to the streets in protest of unjust laws – we call on God. When we sit at the bedside of a dying friend – we call on God. When we are beaten down by the weight of uncertainty – we call on God. When we see our leaders acting like children – we call on God. When everything we hold dear seems to be taken from us, like Job – we call on God. We call on God – I AM – who is with us right when we need God.

God is working. ahaya is not going anywhere. And we will know this because, we will worship God in this place. Like the Children of Israel who came out of Egypt and worshiped God on the mountain. We have heard our names called by the one on whom we call. God says, “Sarah, I AM with you. Randy, I AM working. Leo, I AM by your side…”

God says to us all I AM the one who has defeated all that will hold you back. I AM the one who defeated death. I AM the one who loosed the chains that keep you from being who I called you to be. I AM. Do not be afraid. I AM. Every minute – every second – every nanosecond of every day I AM.

So as we re-launch this service, and we think back on that flannel board stories of Mrs. White, and as we see how God has worked in our lives – let us go forth proclaiming the Amazing Grace that I AM is alway working – for our God is alway in action. We have the lamb who came from behind the bush to lead us.

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