Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Several Excellent Excuses

Rev. Kathy Donley

09/17/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Exodus 3:1-15, 4:10-17

 

George Williamson is a Baptist pastor, now retired.  For 23 years, he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granville, Ohio.  He was also the first president of the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship.  Some of us know him from that context. His latest book is called Born in Sin, Upended in Grace which is part confession, part memoir. 

 

I know George as a radical Baptist activist and preacher, who never met a progressive cause he didn’t champion, starting from the time in his twenties when he was arrested at a lunch-counter sit-in in Winston-Salem.  But his  story begins in the Jim Crow South within a family and church life that subtly but steadily reinforced systemic segregation.

 

When he was three years old, George’s family moved to Atlanta, where his father became the treasurer of what would become the Lay’s Potato Chip company.  Every Saturday, George went with his Dad to the factory.  While his Dad did the payroll, George would roam the quiet plant, stealing chips from partly filled boxes, gazing out the windows at tall buildings downtown.  Nothing in his week was as thrilling as those Saturdays.

 

George’s family lived in a neighborhood in north Atlanta called Buckhead.  Between the Lay’s factory and downtown was a neighborhood known as Sweet Auburn.  Buckhead was White.  Sweet Auburn was African-American.  George never went to Sweet Auburn.  It was not in his world.  In fact, he was warned against associating with the people who lived there.    

 

Decades later, after he had been in recovery from racism, after intense involvement in peace and justice work, after he mourned the death of Martin Luther King Jr and marched with the sanitation workers in Memphis, he was invited to preach at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  It was not his first trip back to Atlanta.  He had been to the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and visited Dr. King’s childhood home with lots of other tourists.  But on this occasion, after worship was over, as he drove out of the parking lot, under the large brass sign making the entrance to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, he suddenly realized:  right there, across the street was his childhood second home the old Lay’s Potato chip plant.[1]

 

All those Saturdays with his Dad, he might have looked out the window and seen Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Junior was  growing up, 10 years his senior.  In fact, maybe he did.  But he never noticed, never knew that it mattered, until decades later.  All of which makes me wonder about what is right under our noses and how it happens that we notice or don’t.  And I wonder, does God hold us responsible for what we fail to see?  Or is there enough responsibility to bear in what we do see?

 

* * *

Some of us are more observant than others.  Some of us are more curious. Others are better at staying on task, no matter what.  It seems that Moses was one who noticed. Writing about God’s call to Moses, Barbara Brown Taylor says,

 

“What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside. Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he was supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait a minute. Moses could have decided that he would come back tomorrow to see if the bush was still burning, when he had a little more time, only then he would not have been Moses. He would just have been some guy who got away with murder, without discovering whatever else his life might have been about.” [2]

 

“What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside.”  I suspect he came to regret that.  If he hadn’t been curious about the burning bush, maybe God would have left him alone.  If he hadn’t turned aside to see what was happening, maybe he would not have gotten stuck with a bunch of whiners in the desert for 40 years. In fact, as soon as he heard God’s voice from the burning bush, he wanted out.

 

God wants Moses to go to back to Egypt and get his people out of there.  Moses immediately has several excellent excuses. 

 

Excuse #1 – “Who am I?  Who am I to go to Pharaoh?”

Moses looks at himself and sees a sheepherder, not someone who hobnobs with royalty.  He has probably always had an outsider’s identity, first as a Hebrew baby raised among Egyptians, then as an adult when he was rejected by his own people after he retaliated against the Egyptian who beat an Israelite, and then when he fled to Midian, the Midianites thought he was an Egyptian. Moses thinks, “Who I am to do this task?”   

 

God could point out that Moses was raised as the grandson of the Pharaoh, that he was educated far beyond any of his contemporary Israelites, that he had taken in from childhood the ways of the Egyptians and that now, in recent decades, he had learned the landscape of the wilderness, and survival skills for the desert.  God might have said that all of that made Moses particularly suited for the job.  God might have said “if not you, then who?”  But all God said was “I will be with you.”

 

Which leads to excuse #2  -- “Well then, who are you, God?”

God’s answer is expansive and elusive, specific and vague at the same time. “I AM who I AM”  God says, which clears things up about as much as a Yogi Berra quote. 

 

The ancient rabbis compared the sound of the Divine Name in Hebrew to the sound of breathing.  The Name of God is the verb

“to be” in first person.  It can be translated:

 I AM who I AM or

I will be who I will be or

I am the one who is. 

An interesting variation is

I will be who I am/I am who I will be.

 

This God will be not be contained in human language or anything else.  To the extent that this God is known, there will also be mystery and much that is unknown.

 

However, Moses is told a bit more than God’s name.  God says “I AM the God of your ancestors.”  And at the beginning of this conversation, God said, “I have seen the misery of my people . . . I have heard their cries, . . . I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

 

This God has a history with human beings, a history of faithfulness to Moses’ ancestors.  And this is a God who sees and hears and cares for the oppressed.  This is a God who enters history to shape it for God’s own purposes.

 

Moses goes on with his excuses:

Excuse #3, from chapter 4 –

“What if they don’t believe me?”

Excuse #4, also from chapter 4 –

“I’m no good at public speaking.”

 

If I were Moses, I could have come up with more.   “What about my family, God?  I have a wife and children.  Midian is the only home they’ve ever known. It wouldn’t be fair to uproot them now.”

 

Or “I’m too old for this God.”  Exodus says that he was 80 when he spoken to Pharaoh.  Acts 7, written thousands of years later, says that he was 40 when he left Egypt.  So Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in Egypt and now he has been gone as long as he lived there. I can imagine him saying, “That was another life time God, I’m too old and settled now.” 

 

All of these excuses are offered because Moses is afraid.  And he has good reason to be.   There are no guarantees.  In fact, if we look at the history of the people that God has called, we know their names because they did dangerous, unpopular things.  We know their names because some of them are martyrs, which means they got killed doing whatever it was that God called them to.  So Moses is right to be afraid.

 

There are no guarantees, which means that Moses has to take a huge leap of faith.   The answer to all of Moses’ questions and excuses basically boils down to God saying “Trust me.”  In Exodus 3:12, God says, “When you have done what I’m telling you to do, you will find your way back to this mountain and worship me, and then you’ll know it was me.”   You will know that it was God, when you’ve successfully taken the leap and done the thing and can look back.  Then you’ll know. 

 

Isn’t this the way it is for every one of us?  We all ask “Who am I?”  and “Who is God?”  We all tend to know God best in hindsight, don’t we?

 

Who am I?  Who are you?  Who are we to be called by God?  Who are we to do this hard thing, this scary thing, this necessary thing?  Who are we to speak, to march, to love our enemy, to pray?  Who are we not to?  Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “God uses everything.  There are no dead ends.  There is no wasted energy.”[3]  God is the great re-user and recycler.  All of our mistakes and misdeeds, the things we are most proud of and the things we most regret, God redeems it all.  The second half of Moses’ life was all intertwined with the first. 

 

Anne Lamott is a Christian author who shares her own unique faith journey quite compellingly.  If you have read her books or heard her speak, you understand that her take on life is in a category by itself.  At 62-years-old, she said,  “I’m here to be me. . . which is taking a great deal longer than I had hoped.”

 

Who am I?  Who are you?  I am the person God calls to be me.  You are the person God calls to be you. We are the people whom God calls to be ourselves in God’s service.

 

Who is God?  God is the irresistible I AM, the One who will be, the God of generations before us, the God who shapes history. 

 

How do we know when the call is from God?  Sometimes I know because the call engages my best gifts and all my creative energy starts flowing.  Sometimes I know because I am so angry at injustice that I must act. Sometimes I know because the call is to do something risky, something I would not do otherwise.  (But then, in those moments, I pause and ask whether this is God or just stupidity.  It is hard to know, and sometimes I don’t, until the thing is done.)

 

* * *

 

Who am I, God? 

Who are you? 

What if they don’t believe me?

What if I’m no good at this?  What if I fail? 

Surely I’m too old, too young, too dumb, too smart, too simple, too sophisticated, too rich, too poor, too emotionally involved, too detached.  We have several excellent excuses. 

Most of us chronically underestimate our own power, which in a way, also underestimates God’s power to work in and through us. 

When Moses says, “I can’t do this.”  God’s answer is not “Yes you can.”  God’s answer is “I will be with you.” 

 

Sisters and brothers, we are standing on holy ground.  Let us drop all pretenses, quit making excuses, and pay attention.  May we listen to  what needs to be heard,  notice what needs to be seen . . . so that we may honor the deep call of the Great I AM.  Amen.

 

 

 


[1] George Williamson, Born in Sin, Upended in Grace:  A Memoir,  published 2016 by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por La Paz

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, (New York:  HarperCollins, 2009). p. 25.

[3] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999).

 

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