This sermon was preached for the Feast of Christina Rossetti on Thursday, April 27 by the Rev. Dr. Randal Gardner. The readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-6, Psalm 84, Revelation 21:1-4, and Matthew 6:19-23.
What do we know about young Moses, the Moses we meet before this encounter with a burning bush? We know that he was:
- Born to Hebrew woman
- Rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter
- Raised in Pharaoh’s home
- Aware of his Hebrew heritage and saw the oppression of his people
We know that he:
- Murders Egyptian
- Flees from Egypt to Midian
- Meets the priest of Midian
Perhaps we can imagine the confusion Moses would have been dealing with in his flight from Egypt. Given the privileges of a royal upbringing, aware of his own Hebrew heritage, so troubled by the discovery that the good fortune of his own life rested on the oppression of his own family. When he enters Midian, he is recognized by the women he meets as an Egyptian, not a Hebrew. When he names his firstborn child, he gives the baby a cry of lamentation for his name – I have been an alien living in a foreign land. Moses does not know himself. He does not know what is true.
The scripture is often frugal with words, conveying powerful meaning in such shorthand that it slips by us. With whose household does Moses join while he is in Midian? — The priest of Midian, named as Reuel or Jethro. The priest of Midian.
Three times Jethro is called the priest of Midian, just so we are sure to see it. When Moses meets his father-in-law years later, after the exodus from Egypt, we can recognize tenderness and affection between them. We can imagine that Jethro was a guide for Moses, teaching him the patience needed for watching sheep – such a different occupation than that of a prince. We can imagine that Jethro would have offered insights into the ways of the spirit, insights into the wisdom of God. Perhaps Jethro taught Moses to pray so that, like Patrick of Ireland, Moses used those long hours of solitude with the sheep to deepen his spiritual life and attunement with God.
It may have been essential for Moses, born with a purpose from God to be the deliverer, also to have these years of exile in the company of the priest of Midian. It may have been essential for Moses to have this deep friendship and guidance from a holy man to be ready to see the burning bush, in order to have the curiosity to investigate this strange phenomenon.
To be in seminary is also to be a stranger in a foreign land. Those of you who are here for a while to study and prepare have left behind the familiar, and perhaps the comfortable, for the sake of a burning bush you have seen. Those who are here for a seminary career as teachers and staff support can also feel like strangers in a strange land, working to interpret afresh a church that is changing year by year, and often chaotically. Together we are all engaged in a conversation about the church and ministry that has become much more fluid than structured, much more complex than simple.
For those of you almost finished with seminary, who will soon be accorded titles as professional holy women and holy men, some of whom will sit down at the family dinner wearing a black shirt and white collar for the first time, you may do your best to imply that nothing has really changed. I predict that there will be a season when this new role can feel alien, foreign. I pray that it will always feel so.
The faithful news is that we are not alone, that our strangeness in the church and world is not a fruitless exile. Have your eyes open for the possibility to meet your own Jethro. The world abounds with those who are priests of Midian, many of whom are not officially leaders of the church. Watch for those who can teach you the way of the spirit and steady you for the work of self-risking ministry. The most important gift of a true priest of Midian will be the encouragement and companionship that will enable you to lose yourself, to venture beyond what is manageable, comfortable and successful into the realm where there is only Christ. Let your treasure be in heaven, Jesus teaches.
It is not enough, however, to reflect only on our own experience of strangeness and transience. We live in a relatively rare period in history when levels of human migration are creating political and economic upheaval. There are all kinds of reasons that people are leaving their homelands today, and the majority are moving because of relatively easy travel to take advantage of opportunity or to expand the influence of one culture in others. By far the greatest migration in the past ten years has been from India into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
What we see in the news are the millions who are all but driven from their homelands by war, violence, oppression, poverty, natural disaster and famine. As these refugees flee toward safe and stable nations, the host nations experience a groundswell of resentment, fear and antipathy toward the immigrants. Marie Le Pen is tapping that resentment in France, just as Donald Trump tapped into it here.
While Moses rose above his own distress at being displaced and uprooted, he also embedded that experience into the center of the faith and justice culture we inherit. To be a true participant in the faith story of Moses, Elijah and Jesus requires an identification with, rather than a disdain for, the immigrant and alien among us.
For the faith and the belief system that flows from Moses to our own time celebrates that alien status. The scripture reminds us over and over that we were once aliens and slaves living in the land of Egypt. We are one with Jesus of Nazareth, who exclaimed that he was no longer welcome in his own home. Jesus reminds us that our treasure is not the treasure of this earth, but that it is to be invested in that which transcends the transient.
“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” – many of us have exclaimed that on the Sundays of our lives. But the scripture quoted 1st Chronicles 29:14 rolls on into verse 15 – “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and in them there is no hope.”
As we strive to be faithful ministers of God’s Good News, our goal is not to become happily settled or comfortably familiar. If we are not occasionally lost or uprooted, we are probably missing out on relationships with the priests of Midian; we have probably stopped leaving the path to hear the voice of God in the burning bushes we pass. When we find that there are blessings in the times when we are lost and uprooted, our sense of connection with those who are aliens, strangers, and immigrants will be transformed. No longer merely advocates for the immigrant, no longer merely workers for justice on their behalf, the immigrant and alien will become companions and kin. Then we will not speak for them, we will speak with them. As David cried out on the temple mount, “For we are all aliens and transients in the eyes of God, as were all our ancestors.”
Image: Moses Stands at the Burning Bush BY YORAM RAANAN