A Sermon on Moses for the Moses Project by Reverend Nicole Woodley
Well, yesterday afternoon when Steve said it’s every preacher's dream or nightmare to be told to preach on whatever you want. It’s terrifying to be the second preacher and hear the first preacher start off and suddenly you think: OH NO, what if we picked the same thing!? I was definitely sweating for a bit. But thankfully, I don’t think you can exhaust the material on Moses. And it is the namesake of this program after all!
Moses has always been my favorite character in the Bible! He is one of the greats for sure! The story about the baby in the basket, the burning bush, leading Israelites to freedom, then leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Moses' whole life story seems to be captured in the pages of scripture, and you don’t get that with all Bible characters. And Each season of Moses' life is marked with God’s presence in different ways. There is something deeply comforting about seeing this in Moses' life, because it brings hope to ours.
I first came to love Moses' story in Exodus 3, when Moses exemplifies what it means to argue with God and doubt his own ability to fulfill God’s call. In this season of Moses' life, it would really be more fitting to call Moses, doubting Moses, because he is full of excuses! I chose parts of Exodus 3 for my ordination service because I could totally relate-I was full of excuses: I have never seen a woman pastor, I can’t do that. I hate talking in front of people, you can’t make me preach-I’ll be a chaplain, but I will NOT serve a church, I don’t have the emotional strength for leadership. I could go on all day, cause I was full of excuses why I wasn’t really a good pick on God’s part for pastoral ministry. Now, I don’t know if it’s a mom thing or a farm thing, both moms and farmers deal a lot with bodily functions, so plug your ears if you don’t like poop talk. We have a saying on the farm that goes like this: “excuses are like butt holes, everyone has them and they all stink.” Moses’ call story is an epic trail of excuse after excuse. Thankfully, God shows up in this excuse filled season of Moses life by matching each and every one of his excuses with some kind of reassurance, tangible reassurance, to help Moses move forward one baby step at a time.
God says “Moses, I have seen and heard the cries of your people. I’m sending you to bring them out of Egypt.” To which Moses promptly replies: “pfffttt, Me, Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Excuse number 1. God responds quickly with something like: “relax Moses, it’s not about you. I am with you!”
Moses, for the sake of consistency, comes up with another humdinger of an excuse. Excuse number 2: He says something like: Well that’s all fine and good that you are with me, but what if they ask me questions like ‘What is this God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” Tell them I am the God of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
Then God tell Moses, look, I’m going to deliver you like I have delivered my people in the past, it isn’t going to be easy, Pharoah will NOT want to let them go, so tell the Israelites that I know this, and I will show my mighty hand and perform wonders to make it happen. And what do you think Moses says...wait for it ANOTHER excuse! Moses says BUT, there's that word, BUT!! Excuse! “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’” So God goes beyond words and offers Moses three very distinct signs to show God is with him. A staff turned into a snake, a hand turned leprous, and water turned into blood. God isn’t just showing off, he’s showing Moses he isn’t afraid of his doubts.
Moses' life and witness are SO helpful to reflect upon because it captures leadership at its best AND at its worst and everything in between. In Moses we see the true breadth and depth of the human experience played out in the role of a leader, called by God, to accomplish the impossible task of leading God’s peoply people.
We also have a phrase at the Woodley farm that doesn’t include poop. We are a clergy couple, which means we do a lot of processing and communicating back and forth to cover the bases. This past year during a pandemic, our children, by no fault of their own, experienced these conversations that would normally have been private in the quiet of our home or office. And I gotta be real, the kids saw us burn out in real time. So, one of the more astute of our children said something about these interactions he was observing unbeknownst to us and said something to the effect of: “If church people are so hard to deal with, why do you do all of this?” Ooops, hadn’t been aware that those little ears that were supposed to be listening to a screen were actually listening to us. Oops. To which I responded….oh, well, the sooner you learn people are very peopley wherever you go, whether it’s inside the church or not, the better off you will be! It’s not just a church problem, it’s human nature. People are so peopley! Maybe I covered my tracks well, maybe I didn’t, but we have used that phrase ever since. People are so peopley! And we say it with all grace and compassion, because it includes us too...pastor people are so peoply. They say more than they should when little ears can hear them...ooops. They argue with God and make excuses. So peopley. So pastors, you can rest assured that those moments when your church people are so peopley, you gotta lump yourself in that category too.
And if Moses life were only good for helping us reflect upon the role of a leader, called by God, to accomplish this impossible task of leading peopley people, one of which is himself, that would be enough. But I think there is something else that is so rich in Moses’ story. Throughout Moses' experience of listening to God’s call, and responding, whether it was arguing and excuses or not, Moses experiences the true breadth and depth of God's presence throughout his journey. And God’s presence doesn’t just show up in one way. God’s presence shows up in different, life sustaining ways, depending on the season of Moses’ life. We don’t have time to look at all of them. We would be here all day. But I do want to look at one passage in particular that I believe can bring us hope and can forge that resilience that Todd spoke of yesterday. This passage is found in Exodus chapter 13. This is right after the 10 plagues and Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, but before Pharoah and his army decide to follow them, so before the parting of the red sea.
Exodus chapter 13: 17-22 The Pillars of Cloud and Fire
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.[b] The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. ...20 They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
God’s people are rescued from the Egyptians with these mighty acts and miracles by God, but then as they travel towards the promised land God’s presence changes. God doesn’t show up in these mighty miracles but in a sustaining presence, a presence that never leaves them. And God leads them on a long and winding journey, a journey that doesn’t include the miraculous, but the mundane. And when God’s presence shows up in the mundane, it’s a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of clouds by day.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment. Take a moment and think about the greatest unknown in your life, the thing that makes you antsy to imagine all of the possible ways it could turn out. Now, place yourself on a path, leading towards the resolution of that thing, whatever it is. I want you to notice that the path isn’t one that is straight, it’s winding. Now, let me introduce you to God’s presence on this path. You are looking at the path ahead, trying to navigate or see the best route and God’s presence sets in as a pillar of clouds. Your path is now looking more like a thick fog that shields you from seeing the whole path ahead. All you can do in trust that God’s presence is going to sustain you through the few steps you can see right in front of you. You can’t worry about the path further away, because you can’t see it. And the same is true at night with the pillar of fire. God’s presence isn’t a spotlight that allows you to see the whole path ahead. Instead that fire allows you to see what is near. Now open your eyes.
I don’t know about you, but these pillars of God’s presence, as maddening as they can be for all of us who would much rather have plans laid and peopley people not get in our ways, bring reassurance and hope. God’s presence is thick and it’s real, especially when we cannot see every step ahead. Because we have to trust in God’s presence not our own preservation instincts, pushing us to do more, to try more, to see more.
My hope and prayer for you as we end this year of life and faith and growth together is that this Moses’ thing, this Moses experience, has brought you to understand God’s presence in your life more fully as you walk the path ahead. There is something deeply comforting about seeing this play out in Moses life, and seeing it play out in each other’s lives as we walk together in our cohorts. May we all, as we leave this experience, trust, that no matter what season of life and ministry we may be in, no matter how we are struggling with God’s call, no matter how peopley our people are, no matter how peopley we may be...May we all go forth from here, knowing that God’s presence is here, is real and will never ever leave you alone. Amen.