This has been a difficult week. Last Saturday, a white man wearing a mask and firing an assault rifle emblazoned with a swastika gunned down three Black people in a racist hate crime in Jacksonville, Florida, again bringing questions around white supremacy and a lack of political action on gun reform to the fore. 

Then on Monday afternoon, we learned that UNC Chapel Hill and surrounding public schools were on lockdown for hours following reports of a fatal shooting on campus and a missing gunman.  It was the first day of the school year in surrounding Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools—that is how so many teachers and students will remember the beginning of their year, or even their very first day in the classroom.  As a former NC public school teacher and someone who has friends who work at Chapel Hill, this one was all too close to home.

Then on Wednesday morning, Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm, submerging neighborhoods and leaving a trail of damage and debris as it moved through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Before the hurricane made landfall, federal emergency management responders were already facing unprecedented demands as they respond to the ongoing disaster facing Maui following devastating wildfires that complete razed Lahaina and killed at least 115 with an unknown number of people still missing.

Not to mention the ever-deepening and partisan political tensions which are boiling over into broken relationships on social media and into violence between strangers in public spaces. Truth be told even on Thursday, I was struggling to figure out how or what I was supposed to preach today. 

And then on Friday, one of our collective Patron Saints of a Good Time, Jimmy Buffet, set sail for cheeseburgers in another paradise with his passing, leaving the world feeling a bit more dim and less vibrant.  But at some point late in the week, I came across these words from Parker Palmer—a Quaker author, speaker, and activist who focuses on issues in spirituality and social change—and they were a balm to me:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. 

For me the doubt and despair threatened to overwhelm as each passing day uncovered more loss, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that finding some good news and a word of faith and hope were a real challenge this week.  Heckuva week to be preaching for the first time following the recent tender-safe space of a queer clergy retreat with some of my dearest friends and colleagues, y’all… 

But at least the lectionary did me a solid and handed me a story to keep us afloat—one of God’s abiding presence and solidarity with the suffering, and one of God’s liberating love.

In today’s text, we find ourselves alongside a young adult Moses with his father-in-law’s flock, but a bit of context about how we got here: just before this passage begins, Moses has grown up in the royal household as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but he is Levite and an Israelite.  And somehow…the story doesn’t tell us how…he knows that he is one of the Hebrew peoples and not an Egyptian. 

So one day when he’s grown-ish, he goes out to the Israelite and sees an Egyptian beating one of his Hebrew kinsfolk.  Seeing no one around, he kills the Egyptian and hides the body.  Word of what has happened gets out and makes its way back to Pharaoh who decides to kill Moses, but Moses flees to Midian where he marries into Jethro, the priest’s family. 

So here we are. Moses and the flock are beyond the wilderness, out at the edge of the desert.  They are on God’s mountain, Horeb.  And so since this is God’s territory, a heavenly messenger appears in a flaming bush that burns but isn’t consumed.  Moses goes a bit closer to check out this incredible sight, when all of a sudden, God calls him by name: Moses, Moses!

Here I am.  I’m here, Moses responds.

Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals.  This is holy ground.

This is all a bit overwhelming for Moses, but God keeps talking.

I’ve seen my people’s oppression.  I’ve heard their cries of injustice.  I know about their pain.  I’ve come to save them, to bring them into a place that’s good and broad, brimming with all the goodness and flourishing they need.

So, get going!  I’m sending you to bring my suffering people out of their oppression.

And Moses is like, Ummmm…who me??

And God says, yes you…and me.  I’ll be with you.

Now, it’s not like Moses can really tip toe out of this divine conversation, because God has called him by name and he has responded.  Here, I am!  (Plus, he’s barefoot on a desert mountain beyond the wilderness, remember?)

At this point, Moses wants to know God’s name so that he can tell the Israelites in hopes that a divine sign or code word will get them on board with what will surely seem like a ridiculous plan: to follow a no-name shepherd right out of their oppression and bondage into Candy Land, basically. 

I Am Who I Am, God says.   Hebrew Bible professor Dr. Roger Nam offers another interpretation of God’s response here: What shall I say to them?  I am the one who causes things to pass.  In other words, I am freedom.  I am liberation.  I am flourishing.  The God of your ancestors sent me to you.  This is my name forever; THIS is how all generations will remember me.

If that’s not the word our nation and our world need today, I don’t know what is.  That God causes oppression to pass.  That God is liberation.  That God keeps saving God’s people from their suffering.

But what is our role in that work, friends?  Because what’s also clear from this story is that God doesn’t work alone.  God has a divine partnership with Moses, and I’d say God has a divine partnership with us, too.  We may just be barefoot teachers and preachers and parents and retirees way out of our depth beyond the wilderness, but God calls us by name.  Will we respond?  Will we say, “Here I am!  Use me for your work of abiding presence and liberation.  Use our resources for the same.”

If so, this text offers us some assurances that are encouraging as we head down the mountain and back across the desert.  Just as the burning bush is aflame but not consumed, we too will be sustained for God’s liberating work in the world.  Just as God assures Moses that God will be with him, God assures us by the ministry of Jesus and the witness of the Holy Spirit, that we, too, have solidarity with God, with one another, and with those who are suffering.  We don’t go alone, we don’t work alone, we don’t live in faithful response to God’s calling alone.

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.   

Friends, what we hold alongside those paradoxes, though, is kinship with the suffering and oppressed, the calling of God to be present with them, and the Spirit’s sustenance to do the work of liberation in the world.  And if we forget what we’re called to do and how we’re called to use our resources, we can always go for a barefoot stroll to remember—this is holy ground; it is intended to be used for solidarity with and liberation for all, especially the vulnerable and struggling.  Someone’s salvation—and our own—just might depend on it. 

May that word and this story be our truth and our guide and our encouragement to keep on keeping on.  One barefooted step, one new day at a time.  This day and each day.  Amen.