(A sermon based on Exodus 3.1-15; Matthew 16.21-28)
I have a friend who loves fiddleheads. You know, the first green fronds of some ferns. They appear in the earliest spring, almost before spring it seems, while we’re still having cool nights and the ground is still too wet to do any planting. While winter might still reach back and grip us one more time. As the frozen ground has begun to thaw, the rhizomes under the earth have felt the warmth approaching. They’ve sent out feelers in the cold and dark. Up toward the light the new life thrusts itself through the soil and out into the daylight. And if you pick them while they’re still curled up like a fiddlehead, and saute them with a little butter and salt, well my friend says they’re just this side of heaven.
Simple things, really. Just baby ferns. They grow wild all around.
You just have to pay attention. You just have to know what time of year the earth sends them up. And suddenly you have a New England delicacy. A sweet gift from creation.
One thing about our heroes and sheroes in the Bible. When we first meet them, they’re not the people we’d expect would have big parts. They’re like the tiny fiddleheads in the forest understory.
Moses, floating around in a basket at the side of the river and getting picked up by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted. Jesus, born in a stable among the animals, then fleeing with his parents into Egypt to avoid being killed as an infant.
But here we are in this morning’s reading from Exodus, some years after the infant Moses was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses is an adult, out working. He’s just doing the same-old same-old, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. Maybe he’s getting a little bored. Work can be like that, no? You want some change sometimes. You get tired of the regular duties, the everyday places. And so what the heck!
Moses goes out a little beyond the places where he usually grazes his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes to a place called Horeb, which means “the mountain of God.” A name like that gives us readers and listeners a hint that something is up. Something’s going to happen in this story, and we should pay attention! So there he is, Moses, and he’s just going along, minding the sheep and minding his business. Then he sees a burning bush. But the bush is not consumed by the fire, and so he goes for a closer look. God’s got Moses’ attention!
Moses hears God speak to him from the burning bush. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard God talk to me out of any kind of shrubbery, burning or not. And if I did, I’ve got to tell you that I’m not sure I would reply, “Here am I.” I’m not sure what I would say, but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be that! But God continues to speak to Moses, and tells Moses to take off his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground. Now let’s look at this.
He’s out in the desert. He’s beyond the wilderness. It must be hot. Maybe he’s gone a little too far this time. Maybe he should have brought more water. Maybe he is too tired. Maybe he’s seeing a mirage. But he doesn’t just see something, he hears a call. God calls Moses by name.
Moses, who started life in a basket on the riverbank. Moses, the shepherd with a speech impediment. Called by God to do what? To speak to Pharaoh!! Oh, isn’t that just great. Moses hasn’t been called to care for an additional flock of sheep, or to tend to some sick lambs. He’s been called to an entirely new task. And he’s called to trust that God will be with him in what will be a daunting task for him who does not speak well: to speak to the Israelites and to speak to Pharaoh.
We can tell that he’s a more than a little apprehensive. “Who am I,” he says, “that you should send me to Pharaoh?” And God simply says, “Go, I will be with you.” Still concerned, Moses tries another tack. “Okay so, wait a minute, if I go to the Israelites and say the God of your Ancestors sent me, when they ask your name, what will I say?” And God tells him to say that “I AM” sent him. And we know the rest of the story. We know that Moses accepts the call and Moses goes. And we’ll hear more about it next week and the week after.
The Israelites were suffering in Egypt. They were slaves and in misery. They had been crying out to God to save them. And God was going to send them Moses. God was sending them Moses to tell them that they were going to be brought out of Egypt, their place of oppression and suffering and misery, and come into a “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Milk and honey. Simple things. Reminds me of the sweetness of my friend’s fiddleheads. After the cold and dark time of slavery, the Israelites will come into a land of milk and honey. This is the same land promised to Abram’s descendants in Genesis. Milk and honey flowing. There’s not just a lot of sweetness and fertile land sitting there stagnant. It is a place where fullness and sweetness flow out and overflow.
Our readings this morning begin from places of suffering: the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and the suffering of the disciples. Very different kinds of suffering, but suffering nonetheless. The disciples are distraught when they hear Jesus talk about his suffering to come. You see, when you live the way Jesus lived, when you question the status quo, when you love unreservedly people that the world thinks are unworthy or undesirable, people aren’t going to accept you. Run up against the wrong people, like Jesus did, and they’ll kill you. We may chide Peter for what he says, but many of us might say the same thing. We wish that Jesus didn’t suffer. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to suffer, either, or to go away. And they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about being raised in three days.
But Jesus calls Peter out on Peter’s comment, going so far as to say it is Satan putting that idea in Peter’s head. Jesus has just finished telling Peter (remember from our reading last week?): “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Because the church, the community of the disciples, is where Jesus appears after he is raised. The community of the church is where we – you and I – see God together. Sure, we see God in nature. It is an exquisitely beautiful world that God has created, and by the work we know the creator. But we see God most convincingly in the love of one person for another. The love and care and concern of a beloved community. That’s where the sweetness in people’s hearts can really overflow and multiply.
When, for example, this community opens its sanctuary to others in the community who’ve lost loved ones, there is the sweetness of the love of God, multiplied here in the little village of Bartlett. Or when the whole valley prays unceasingly for Abby Hernandez and her family, there is the overflowing concern of a beloved Parent eternally concerned for all.
Like bread and grape juice, milk and honey are simple but rich elements. In some early Christian liturgies, milk was used at communion. Often milk and honey were given to the newly baptized – adults back then – as a foretaste of the sweet life to come not just in the afterlife, but in the Christian community, following the sweet law of love.
Our lives today are complicated. Our world is fractured and dangerous. Wars and violence and hunger and injustice are all around. Yet in the midst of it, we trust a God who calls us by name. Moses. Nancy. Lee. Bert. Judy. Ben. Ellen. And when we say, “Here I am,” we respond to the God who has promised us sweetness not just in our life after death in the communion of the saints, but here and now, too.
I want to share just a taste, just a touch of sweetness for us all this morning. The sweetness of milk and honey to remind us of the sweet love of God. The sweet law of love of our God. Maybe you’ll recall the words of an old hymn, ‘tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. And so I want us to enjoy a taste of milk and honey this morning! Taste the rich sweetness of milk and honey and be reminded of God’s sweet love for you. Open your heart for a moment to the simple sweetness of your loved ones. Take some time for yourself while we’re together this morning, relax at bit, settle in. Take some time to just look around this morning and this week. Listen!
You know, I am a firm believer that 99% of the spiritual life is just paying attention. As Anne Lamott says, “Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.” (Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers.)
And so, taste this milk and honey. Give it your attention. There is such sweetness among beloved community members in Christ’s church. Milk and honey overflowing. Life is sweet. Love is sweet. Savor it. Remember how sweet our God is. Our God who always is with us, hoping good things for us, planning good for us, loving us. God bless you!