Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Friends, this week we decided as a worship team to see if we could do something a little different this Jubilee Sunday. Thus, our intergenerational sermon. Back in March, when we had to close the building due to the pandemic, I don’t think any of us ever expected to be where we are this Sunday…still worshiping together by livestream. Yet here we are. Some of us grownups have been able to go back to work in sort of normal ways. Others not. My Plymouth children and youth friends, it makes me so sad that you are still not able to go back to regular school to see your friends and teachers. Or to come here to Plymouth and see one another and see us. We really miss ALL of you and it is tough to know that we are in this pandemic thing for a much longer haul than we ever expected.
It makes for a weird Jubilee Sunday, doesn’t it? Jubilee Sunday is usually a time for us to greet one another after being gone on vacations and trips during summer. It is a Sunday we come back to get ready for the programs of the year, the classes, the service, the worship. The Jubilee year in the Bible way back in the times after Moses led the people out of Egypt and back to their homeland promised to them by God was a year in which the land was not planted with crops. I imagine people had stored enough food to get them through the year. So the land was given a rest because it had been working so hard for the people for 49 years. On the 50th year it rested. And any land that had been taken from people because of a loan or debt payment was returned to the original owners. It was a do-over year. It was a time-out kind of year. Not for punishment, but for a time to calm down and maybe think about what was really important in the community.
2020 and into 2021 is an unexpected Jubilee year for us to rest, to reconsider and think about what’s important, even if we didn’t think we needed that or wanted it. It a time to reflect on how we can start again in new ways when we are able to be back together in person again here at church and at school.
I think during this kind of year stories are really important. Maybe we have more time to hear and deeply listen to them. Hopefully, during a Jubilee year the ancient people of God told one another stories about their lives with God, remembered their history. Our story today is about Moses, the Hebrew people’s first prophet. I think it’s one of the stories they might have told and remembered. I invite you to listen to it together. It has something for all ages.
Exodus 3. 1-15
Moses was a Hebrew boy who was adopted by the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh, king, and was raised as a prince in the palace. It’s a great story about how he hidden as a baby in a basket in the river by his sister to save his life; how the princess found him and then hired his real mother to take care of him till he was old enough to live in the palace and be adopted by the princess. When Moses grew up he saw how his Hebrew people were mistreated as slaves by the Egyptians and he was very troubled. He tried to help, but his anger at the mean treatment of his people caused a situation in which he accidently killed an Egyptian boss who was mistreating Hebrew slave. So he had to leave Egypt in a hurry or face arrest. This is why, in our story, he is living out in the wilderness away from Egypt. There he found a new tribe and family, married, had children. And went to work for his father-in-law as a shepherd. That’s where our story for today begins.
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian's priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, beyond the known wilderness, and he came to God's mountain called Horeb. 2There the Holy One’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn't burn up. 3Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn't burning up.
4When the Holy One saw that Moses was turning back to look, the Holy One called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" Moses said, "I'm here." 5Then the Holy One said, "Don't come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground."6He continued, "Moses, I am the God of your father Abraham [and your mother Sarah], your father Isaac [and your mother Rebecca], and your father, Jacob [and your mother Rachel]." Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the Holy One said, "Moses, I've clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I've heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8I've come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that's full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9Now the Israelites' cries of injustice have reached me. I've seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10So, Moses, get going! I'm sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."
11But Moses said to God, "Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" 12God said, "I'll be with you. And this will show you that I'm the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain."
13But Moses said to God, "If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' they are going to ask me, 'What's this God's name?' What am I supposed to say to them?"
14God said to Moses, "I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, 'I Am has sent me to you.'"15God continued, "Say to the Israelites, 'The Holy One, the God of your ancestors, Abraham's [and Sarah’s] God, Isaac's [and Rebecca’s] God, and Jacob's [and Rachel’s] God, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
After we hear a story it is good to think about it for a few moments. What are the pictures in your imagination that you saw as you listened to the story? Desert much like the high plains desert where we live…the grasses, the low trees, the taller ones by streams of water, the sand and rocks. Did you smell sage brush like we have in our wilderness? Were you daydreaming with Moses as he led the flock, your mind wandering as your feet wondered? I have had hikes like that.
What a surprise to see this strange bush! What did the bush that was burning but not burning up, look like? Are there green leaves in the fire? Crackling sounds? What did it smell like? Is it hot or not hot?
How does the ground feel on bare feet when you take off your sandals? Does holy ground feel different than other ground? What makes the ground ‘Holy”? If its God’s presence, doesn’t that mean that all ground is holy? If I asked my young friends where God is in the world….I think they would answer, “Everywhere!” Even in you!
What does the voice of God’s messenger coming from the burning, but not burning up, bush sound like? When you found out Moses was talking to God were you surprised again like Moses? Nervous? Scared a bit like Moses? Excited?
I invite any of my young friends to take their paper and crayons or colored pencils and draw what you experienced in this part of the story. At lunch you can talk more about it with your family. Maybe your parents want to draw to! You can draw and continue listening.
When God can tell Moses is really listening in spite of being nervous and scared, God asks Moses something very startling and important. God asks – well, tells - Moses to stop hiding in the wilderness and go back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh. About how the Hebrew people are treated so badly, how they are suffering and even dying. God says…I see and I hear the suffering of my people. I suffer with them. :Go, Moses and free them from Pharaoh’s bullying, his keeping them for slaves. Lead them out of Egypt to live in a land I will show them.”
Now Moses knows if he goes back to Egypt he could be arrested for killing the Egyptian boss who was hurting the Hebrew workers. How do you think Moses feels when God tells him to go back to Egypt and confront Pharaoh? (pause) Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. Moses would have to be really brave to do this. I don’t know that I could be that brave. What about you? What if you were asked to do this? To stand up to the President about the mistreatment of people in our country? Would you be scared? About being arrested?
I think I would ask like Moses…Who am I to do this? How can I do this? I might feel all alone…and very small and very powerless.
Did you hear what God said to Moses? “ Don’t worry! I Will Be With You. How will you know? When you return to this very place with all the Hebrew people!” You’ll know once you have done what I am sending you to do. Hmmm….I might want a better sign than that….Has anyone ever said to you, “Act like you are brave even if you are afraid. That is what courage is.
But, God, says Moses, how will the people even know to follow me? They don’t know me. Who will I tell them has sent me?
And God does something very important…God tells Moses God’s name. When we really want to be friends with someone, when we want them to trust us, we tell them our name, don’t we? Maybe, if we want to be really good friends we tell them our special name, “I’m Harry, but you can call me Hal. I’m Jane Anne, but you can call me Jane or Janie. I’m Carla and you can call me….well, Carla!” God says, “Moses, the people will know me by this name, “I Am Who I Will Be/I Will Be Who I Am.” And my Being is with you and the people. This God’s name is “I Am And I Am with You.” I have seen and heard you and suffered with you. I Am With You is my name. So get going, Moses! Tell the people and the Pharaoh my name and I will be with you and you will bring my people into freedom.”
So this is how God called Moses to be the first prophet for God. Inviting him to stand on holy ground….which could be anywhere and everywhere. Telling him God’s special name and saying I hear and see and suffer when my people suffer. And I will be with you always.
The first big job of prophets is telling the truth. We want to tell the truth, don’t we? Prophets tell the truth about injustice…which is a big word for being mean, selfish and not treating people as you would want to be treated with fairness and with kindness. Like the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you want others to do to you.” None of us want to be treated with meanness and unfairness. And all of you from preschoolers to grown-ups know how it feels to be treated meanly. And all of us know what it’s like to be bullied, to be called names, to be treated unkindly. Yes? At school, in the neighborhood, at work. Children and even grown-ups in grown-up jobs are bullied sometimes and treated meanly. The boss or a friend might not really see them, then say or do something that hurts so bad. And that makes us mad! Kids, I will tell you a secret, sometimes we are All – even grown-ups - tempted to do the same thing to others because we have been hurt so bad. Even when we know this is not the way the God wants us to act.
God called Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, “Stop bullying my people! Stop being so mean to them that sometimes they don’t have enough food. Or they have to work so hard or you punish them so hard that they get sick and die. Stop it, Pharaoh! Let them go free!
If you have ever stood up to a bully at school or in your neighborhood so that a friend of yours can stop being mistreated or even imagined doing this, you know it is a very hard thing! Scary thing. It’s also a God thing and God is with us when we do this really hard, scary and good God things. You are not in school right now, it’s a Jubilee time, so now is the time to think about Moses and his story while you are at home. It prepares you for when you might need to stand up and tell the truth to a bully and about bullying.
Grown-ups, the Black theologian, James Cone tells us, “… it is impossible to do Christian theology with integrity in America without asking the question, “What has the gospel to do with the black struggle for liberation?” That is a grown-sized question to wrestle with during this time of Jubilee. It a big God question and its in our faces and we can’t ignore it even if we can’t protest in crowds.
We all stand on the holy ground of our lives because God is with us and wherever God is…there is holy – wholeness and love. As you go into this week….this strange Jubilee fall…remember you are whole and holy is God’s sight, so God will ask Big things of you, just like God asked of Moses. May it be so. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May not be reprinted without permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is one of many stories in the Bible with a nameless female character…of course, she had a name, but the writer of Luke’s gospel doesn’t convey her identity, except that she was “bent over” and “unable to stand up straight.” I can’t fully imagine what it must have been like to live life doubled-over like that. It must have been painful to walk, to sleep, to do anything. [demonstrate] Can you imagine what the world looks like if you are bent over in that position? It would certainly be difficult to look at someone during a conversation. What would you see? You’d see the dirt and the dust on people’s feet. You might catch a glimpse of the sun or the sky if you turned sideways. Suffice it to say that your field of vision would be severely different that if you were standing straight and tall.
Did you notice that the woman doesn’t ask Jesus to heal her? He simply says, “You are healed from your ailment.” Perhaps she had given up hope of being healed. Perhaps she felt as though she was not entitled to a healing by Jesus. Maybe she didn’t know his reputation as a healer. I wonder if, after eighteen years, she had come to accept her condition as “her new normal.”
What are the parts of your life that need healing? Maybe, like me, you have a physical illness that is holding you back. Or perhaps you have a personality trait that you know is anything but helpful, but it just seems to be part of you. Could it be that you are experiencing a way of living that you’ve come to accept when in truth it could possibly be changed? Healing can take many forms, whether curative or restorative, as it was for the woman in this healing story, or it can mean coming fully into relationship with God, with self, and with others.
One of the things that plagues our congregation is the sin of self-reliance. We are a church full of real doers who are used to making a difference, and we are successful and accomplished in many different ways. Now, you may say, “Hal, that sounds like a blessing, rather than a sin.” And I think that our Protestant work ethic would affirm your assertion. And I call it a sin because I know it so well in my own life. I am so good at keeping things together, at maintaining control, at doing the right thing. I do that to such an extent that sometimes I forget to rely on God…at least until things begin to fall apart. One of the things that having a recurrence of cancer has taught me is that there are parts of our lives over which we are not in control.
There is an old Dutch aphorism that says, “If your little boat is about to be dashed against the rocks in a storm, row with all your strength and pray with all your might.” So, it’s not just a matter of letting it all be in God’s hands – we have a part to play and so does God. And the serenity prayer, written by UCC minister Reinhold Niebuhr, in its original form says, “God grant me the wisdom to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” I love that prayer, which doesn’t let us off the hook – it demands courage to change things when possible – and it asks God to be present in the midst of the process.
But what if the doubled-over woman had accepted with serenity that her physical ailment could not be changed? I suspect that sometimes God knows what is possible when we have already given up hope. Are there broken aspects of your own life that you have come to accept too readily? If so, what would it look like to give God a chance to heal that?
I know that if you read, watch, or listen to the news that it is anything but hope-filled and that there are aspects of our culture and political discourse in which we want to throw in the towel. Today, we mark the four-hundredth anniversary of African enslavement in our nation, and every American is living its legacy. We experience mass shootings, and then the memory of them sinks into the background, becoming invisible like so many other shootings. We have unproductive vitriol and flaming tweets instead of honest political dialogue and diplomacy and statesmanship. Have we given up hope of ever experiencing something different? Have we come to accept institutionalized racism and gun violence and rancid politics as the new normal?
I am never going to encourage you to stop trying to use nonviolence to change the system, but instead I am going to ask you to open yourself to the possibility of God working within us and among us — changing the way we think, feel, and act. I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of God healing you and healing the world.
What if we could be agents of God and God’s healing? What if we open ourselves to the healing power of God’s love and the realm that Jesus proclaimed in order to do what we cannot do on our own? What if God can heal the world – tikkun olam is the Hebrew phrase our Jewish sisters and brothers use for this – but what if God needs us to be agents of love and transformation?
Last week I read a wonderful meditation by the progressive Franciscan, Father Richard Rohr about nonviolent transformation. And he offered this observation: “It’s when we come to the end of our own resources that we must draw upon the Infinite Life and Love within us to do what we alone cannot do.” And if we do not draw from that unfathomably deep well of love, then we commit the sin of self-sufficiency.
Our openness to working together with God and to healing can call forth within each of us as individuals and as a congregation the transformative power of love. Emilie Townes, a womanist ethicist and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes that “Part of the gift of healing is that it can open the doors in the rooms of our lives, and healing encourages us to walk through these doors to discover the grace and hope and judgment that may be inside each room.”
Going Deeper means summoning the courage to open doors into rooms in our lives we wish we could seal forever. And Going Deeper means that we are not alone in any of those rooms, because even when we ourselves do not have the strength to face our brokenness alone, we have the healing power of God with us. And that is where we find humility as well as the grace of God.
If we are confined by our own brokenness, looking down into the dust all the time, it will be impossible for us to look forward, to envision what lies ahead, to blaze the trail that will lead us toward God’s realm of justice and peace and healing. So, let us open our hearts to God and to going deeper in the faith that binds us to reliance on the sacred.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Emilie Townes in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), p. 384.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.