September is the launching pad of congregational life — Sunday school, regular worship times, choir, council meetings, confirmation, Bible studies, etc., etc.
It is also the time when we wonder, again, “How are we going to bring them in? To reach them? To educate, to support, to challenge and tell God’s people the good news?” Every year at this time, we hope that maybe this will be the year! It is our perpetual quest for the Holy Grail of Ministry — engaged, involved, spirit-led, and grace-filled congregations.
If you’ve grasped this Holy Grail, you can stop reading.
In this ongoing quest, we order books and try out new curricula. Whether it’s the “Animate: Bible” series featured on the Augsburg Fortress website, which promises to “reinvigorate and deepen understanding of the Bible,” or books with titles such as, “The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community,” we are looking for new ideas, insights and approaches to life and learning in the church. Maybe this year, we think, we’ll discover the secret to creating the heavenly congregation on earth.
In our search for the Holy Grail of Ministry, we quickly dismiss materials that offer easy answers, instead searching for those that push us to frame the right questions. Asking questions — of ourselves, each other, our texts and traditions — is often more important in the life of faith and renewal than supplying answers.
But good Christians don’t ask questions!
In their evaluation of today’s passage from Exodus, commentators provide an almost universally negative assessment of Moses’ response to God’s demand that he bring the Israelites up out of slavery.Scholars, clergy, and laity have described Moses as “cowardly,” “conniving,” “wily,” “confused,” and “frightened.” They have also pointed out how he avoids, challenges, defies, opposes, resists, delays, doubts, evades, dodges, and ducks God’s will and command. One of my kids’ Bible storybooks sums up the situation by saying that when God asked Moses to go down to Egypt, Moses “argued, fretted and protested.” Not so unlike a child, the author implies.
Underlying all of these comments is the age-old sense in Christian tradition that when God talks, the model servant listens, without question, without doubt, without hesitation.
So, in today’s reading from Exodus, we are confronted with a dilemma. What makes for good theology — asking questions — seems to make for bad piety. In the life of faith, questions and the act of questioning are contrasted unfavorably with believing, trusting, obeying, and submitting.
Good Christians don’t question, says much of our tradition. But according to our texts, questions are at the heart of our faith.
So what do we do with Moses and all his inappropriate questions?
Moses, God and lots of questions
Let’s try to imagine that we didn’t have any preconceptions about Moses’ conversation partner — the voice from within the burning bush. Let’s further imagine that we are overhearing their conversation as if we don’t know how things will turn out. In short, let’s imagine ourselves in Moses’ place.
Tending his flocks in the wilderness, a burning bush attracts Moses’ attention. The bush isn’t consumed, though; it just keeps burning. Moses asks his first question: “Why isn’t this bush burning up?” It is his curiosity and his question based on close observation that bring him into the encounter with God in the first place. What if he hadn’t asked?
It is then that a voice calls out to him (from the bush) and commands that Moses come no closer, that he take his shoes off, and that he go down to Egypt to rescue the suffering Israelites. There is no indication in the text that Moses has had any contact with this God before or that he is even aware of this God’s existence. Yet a voice comes out of a bush, telling Moses to go to Egypt to rescue a few hundred thousand slaves and to lead them back through the desert toward freedom. Even if the voice sounded like Morgan Freeman, wouldn’t a few questions be in order?
What if Moses had said, “Sure, no problem,” and then headed south? Would that have served him better in the long run given the immensity — the absurdity, actually — of the task?
It is the questions that Moses begins to ask in this situation that allow him (and us) to place the mission in some sort of context, to think a little about what the assignment would require, were he to take it on.
“Who am I to rescue the Israelites?” he asks. “What do you see in me, God, that makes you so sure that I can accomplish this task?” “Or are you desperate and just don’t have anyone else to send?” Interestingly, God doesn’t answer the question directly, saying instead that God will be with Moses — suggesting that God may not have anyone else. Is it possible that God might need Moses more than Moses needs God at this moment?
Moses, thinking into the future, then poses some hypothetical questions of God. “What if they want to know who, exactly, sent me? On whose authority am I acting?” He needs to be clear on the credentials of the mission’s backer. Moses can’t just run down to Egypt and say that he is working for a talking bush. God’s answer to this question is one of the most debated passages in the Hebrew Bible — “I am who I am” (YHWH). Or maybe it’s “I am what I shall be.” Or perhaps “I am the one who is.” We still aren’t precisely sure what the name means, but Moses seems to come away with the sense that any language humans use for God is limited. God’s self-revelation of this particular name only points to the fact that no single word or name can contain God’s presence. But, if Moses hadn’t asked the question, he would never have known.
“What if they don’t believe me?” Moses then asks. If he himself is having trouble believing what he is being asked to do, why would all of those Israelites believe him, risking death to follow him? Moses understands that he’s going to have a tough audience, and for good reason. In response, God gives him some powerful signs to help persuade the Israelites (more proof), including a stick that turns into a snake. These are resources Moses wouldn’t have had without the question.
Finally, Moses gets more personal, and his question is implied. “How am I going to accomplish all that you ask, Lord, since I’m not a good speaker?” This has often been dismissed as a last ditch effort on Moses’ part, but if we put the best possible construction on his words, Moses is being realistic. Knowing that this job is going to require the rhetorical abilities of someone much more skilled than him, Moses is asking how he alone will accomplish what the Lord has in mind. God concedes and agrees to send Aaron, yet another important part of making the mission a success. What if Moses had never asked?
While Moses certainly gains some knowledge and acquires some important resources as the result of his questions, is there more to it? Asking questions — of our texts, of God, of each other — is critical to developing a relationship. At the outset, Moses didn’t know who God was, but by the end of the exchange, he is on his way to knowing more about who he is and about who God is.
God of all people,You remembered your children who were enslaved in Egypt, and by the power of your name you set them free. Remember us and free us from slavery to sin by the power of your name. Amen.
I heard the voice of Jesus say ELW 332 How sweet the name of Jesus sounds ELW 620 Dearest Jesus, at your word ELW 520
Here I am, Lord, Daniel L. Schutte