Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 3, 2017
I watched The Prince of Egypt six times while in high school. Somehow, in a Catholic school it made its way into the curriculum every year. Despite having been out of high school for some six years, I still manage to watch it at least once a year (though usually more). I listen to the music on my iPhone. I watch the clips on YouTube. And when I used to debate with my pastoral colleague in Dallas, I referred to the Exodus story as a defense for every line of my reasoning. You might say that I’m obsessed.
There was a time not too long ago when it was the Exodus story and not the stories of Jesus that defined faith, belief, spirituality, and religion for me. But the truth of the matter is that it was The Prince of Egypt adaptation of the Exodus story that was doing the defining. An adaptation that captures the wonder, the awe, and the ruthless power of God. That gives us insight into the characters, into the workings of their minds. And adaptation that is also something of a trap, because, in many ways, it answers more questions than it asks.
In the past weeks — and in the weeks to come — you may have noticed the inclusion of hymn texts not found in Voices United or More Voices for that second hymn, the one preceding the readings. We’ve made an intentional choice to engage the scriptures before they are heard, using the voices of poets to add another dimension of meaning to the words we read and hear. Some are more faithful presentations of the texts, while others seek to “wrench” us into thinking in a new way. Perhaps in doing so, we risk clouding how we interpret the scriptures, but the greater hope is that through musical text you will find images to grasp and wrestle with, some new perspective that you had not seen before.
The hymn this week is “In the desert, on God’s mountain,” by Lutheran hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien. Known to us in the United Church for her hymn “O Blessed Spring,” Cherwien is the author of numerous other texts, many of them richly sacramental and all of them concerned with uncovering the oft-forgotten truth about love and its role in binding us together.
This hymn, just like The Prince of Egypt, poses a problem. If you recall the scene in The Prince of Egypt, the overall sense is one of pure wonder. The colours are pastel and mystical. The music is serene and beautiful. The voice that calls to Moses is a gentle whisper, the wind that blows across the ground is a murmur, and yes God does cry out and throws Moses to the ground, but then Moses is lifted up in the spirit of God and weeps with the joy of the wondrous moment. Listen to the hymn’s language: “heard the crackling call his name,” “felt the pulsing of God’s presence,” “felt the message searing.” We call this poetic device hypotyposis, the use of vivid description to paint a realistic and experiential scene. It gives you a sense of Moses’ experience: the raw power of the flames, the roiling jolt of God’s presence in the ground, the bowling-over sound of God crying out, and Moses’ utter terror in the face of all of it. It tells us what it was like in a way that the biblical text never does. There’s nothing wrong with this, except when we stop at this place, when we allow the interpretation — whether film or hymn — to define our understanding. Susan Cherwien described to me why she rarely writes hymns that versify the biblical text so closely:
I don’t like to explain biblical stories... I would much rather that we all ask questions, because that means we are thinking. Wondering. Pondering, Contemplating. A story once explained is a story rarely considered again. That which we think we understand, we rarely again contemplate. Including God.
If we go into the text then, we faced with relatively few tangible details but a great of possibility in how we understand the meanings (plural) within. First, we see that Moses notices the burning bush. Then, God calls out to him and identifies Godself for the first time as the God of your father, of Abraham and Isaac, etc. So Moses is afraid. Then God says to Moses “I have heard my people crying and am going to take them out of Egypt. You’re going to do that.” So Moses is afraid, and asks God some questions to try and get out of it. So then God identifies Godself for the second time and says “I will be with you.” So Moses is afraid again and decides that he needs to get rid of this bothersome God and so he challenges God again and asks: “Well, who are you?” And so God identifies Godself for the third time and says “I AM WHO I AM.”
Now, if you look at the bottom of that page in your pew Bible you’ll notice at that “I AM WHO I AM” has a few alternate translations. There’s “I AM WHAT I AM.” There’s also “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” In the ancient world, names held immense power. This question that Moses asks God is potentially an attempt to gain the upper hand over God, to limit God through the name. The problem is: God doesn’t actually answer the question. God’s answer is fluid, circuitous, and indeterminate. God resists being limited to any defining characteristic, resists being reduced to the status of an idol. And, if you translate the Hebrew as “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” or “I SHALL BE AS I SHALL BE” you discover that the name holds a great deal of possibility. God IS nothing. But God could be everything. Catholic theologian Richard Kearney describes as the crucial moment in the story, one where God ceases to be a god (lowercase G) among the many gods of the ancient world and becomes God (uppercase G): one who is radically different from what God has been before. It is the possibility of who God is that thoroughly transforms God’s presence in the world. And it took Moses’ question to make that happen.
The point in all this is that God is thoroughly bound to a relationship with humanity. You might call that a covenant. Just as the Caananite woman in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark profoundly transforms the recipients of Jesus’ ministry, so too does the encounter between Moses and God galvanize the future of the relationship between God and the Israelites. Without humanity, there is no Exodus. Without us, God is not transformed. Without us, God can never be a possibility.
pause. Then, gently:
The hymn is about transformation. Cherwien brings us into the immediacy of experience not to define how we understand the story but so that we, too, may “wonder” and “notice” and “pause” and “hear.” The last two lines of every stanza are a prayer of transformation, one in which we parallel Moses’ experience with our own, and allow the hymn writer “to remind [us] of what [we] already know to be true, to call [us] to remember what [we] may have forgotten or mislaid, to help call it forth from the depths of [our] being.” The name of God is an ethical mandate to us. For as we do it, so too does God. As a congregation, we are all ministers of this church (little c in these walls, and big C out there). The story of the burning bush forces God to be at work in the world because it demands an ethical response from us. We are called to notice the bushes that burn outside in order that we might understand who we — and thus who God — might yet be.
During the Hymn of the Day:
God is always calling us to freedom
But we forget that we have a part to play in our own liberation.
We want to settle back and let a magical God whoosh us out of Egypt.
But God said to Moses, not “Poof!,” but “Go.”
Four excuses by Moses, four rebuttals by God
and Moses went.
Moses said to the people, not “Whoosh!,” but “Go.”
Complaints, hesitations, grousing, accusations
And the people went.
Moses could have remained.
The people could have stayed.
But liberation lured
and muddy feet slipped across the Red Sea
to dry land
 Susan Cherwien in personal email to me, discussing “In Deepest Night,” March 3, 2016.
 Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 27.
 Ibid., 28.
 Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28.
 Susan Palo Cherwien, “With Mind in Heart: Wholeness in Hymnmaking,” Cross Accent 13, no.1 (2005): 22.
 Susan Palo Cherwien, Crossings: Meditations for Worship (St. Louis, MI: MorningStar Publishers, 2003), 154.