Picking Up

Anna Hillaker — February 28, 2021

Picking Up: Pick Up Your Staff

Hello everyone! It’s great to be here virtually with you all. Last week, we heard from Pastor Marissa about our new Lenten sermon series about transformation. I love that we’re focusing on this topic now, because Lent can sometimes be a time where we find ourselves just trying really hard to be good, or maybe we just spend more time beating ourselves up over not being as good as we’d like to be. But as Pastor Marissa highlighted for us, the truth of what transformation looks like is a little more subtle, a little more gradual than we sometimes think. Rather than Jesus offering us a long list of nearly impossible things that we have to try really hard at and feel bad about when we don’t get there, perhaps transformation is more about gradually living into the new reality of the Kingdom.

This week, I have been watching The Black Church, on PBS, and finding myself tremendously inspired, challenged, and chastened by what I have learned. If you haven’t been watching, I can’t recommend it enough! I found myself particularly drawn to the stories of the black women who preached during slavery. As I have been reading their words and their stories, I found myself wondering, “In the face of all of the obstacles, all of the hatred, all of the systemic barriers thrown in their way, how do they get to this level of trust?” These women seem to trust God so implicitly, so readily. I think of Julia Foote, the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the AME church. She wrote about her ministry:

“It is no little thing to feel that every man’s hand is against us, and our against every man, as seemed to be the case with me at this time; yet how precious, if Jesus but be with us.”

“Though opposed, I went forth laboring for God, and he owned and blessed my labors, and has done so wherever I have been until this day. And while I walk obediently, I know he will, though hell may rage and vent its spite.”

Her words and her ministry illustrate such a deep trust in God’s partnership in her ministry, a sustained confidence in God’s presence and protection. For me, this level of trust can feel impossible. We see, we admire, but how do we get there? Today, we’re looking at the story of Moses’ call in Exodus 3 and 4, which thankfully gives us a very relatable way into this question.

Here is what happens. One day, Moses is walking along, tending his father-in-law’s sheep on Mount Horeb, which was known as the mountain of God. He sees a burning bush, and stops to get a closer look. The Lord speaks to Moses from the bush and tells Moses that God has seen the suffering of the Hebrew people, enslaved in Egypt, and declares God’s promise to deliver them. The Lord then says to Moses “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (3:10). And Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v.11)

From the get go, Moses objects to God’s plan. I find this so relatable! How many of us have said something along the lines of “If only God made it super clear to me exactly what God wants me to do, I would be totally on board!”, only to find that when God does make something very clear to us, then suddenly we find ourselves having a lot more questions. “Mmmmm, I don’t know God, that’s not quite what I had in mind. Are you sure that you’re sure about this?” This is exactly what happens with Moses. God gives Moses a very detailed plan about how it’s all going to work, but Moses still has a lot of thoughts and feelings. And Moses’ objections make a lot of sense! God is asking him to return to the land of his birth, where people keep trying to kill him, to saunter up to the man who has been keeping his people in slavery and under oppression for four hundred years and simply ask that he let them go. Not only is God asking Moses to do some hard and scary things, God is also asking Moses to believe in a future reality where things would be so monumentally different than the world he knows— a land of milk and honey, and freedom from oppression. I think some pretty heavy doubts are pretty understandable!

Moses shuts God down five separate times in this story of his call. And each and every time, God encounters his doubts, his fears, his insecurities, and his hesitations with love, compassion, and provision. God doesn’t ask Moses to simply trust the Lord and get on with it. Instead, God actively teaches Moses how to trust and gives him the resources he needs to do what God is asking him to do.

Let’s look at the third time Moses pushes back:

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”

2 Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

3 The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4 Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. 5 “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

Instead of saying to Moses “everything will be okay!” Or “Don’t you trust me?” God gives Moses a little bit of trust practice. Instead of expecting Moses to be ready to do the big thing right away, God gives Moses practical resources to meet his need. God actually goes above and beyond by offering Moses three tangible signs of power that would convince the elders. God picks up on what might seem like the slim resources that Moses has at hand, and transforms them into incredible signs of God’s power, and the authority and partnership that God has offered Moses. This to me sounds a lot like Pastor Marissa’s suggestion to us last week, to identify an area that the Holy Spirit may be working on in us, and to find a small way to practice.

Moses here is following along with God’s instructions as they’re being spoken to him, before he really knows what is going on or why. He throws his staff to the ground and is terrified to see a snake. But nonetheless, when God asks him to grab the thing by the tail, he does it! Moses may not be at “go confront the Pharaoh” levels of trust yet, but he does demonstrate his trust on a smaller scale. He follows God’s kind of weird and out of the blue instructions without knowing what they’re about or where they’re going to lead. He grabs the snake’s tail before he knows for certain that it won’t hurt him. YHWH then gives Moses two more signs and tells him that this will be enough to convince the elders.

In response to Moses, God listens deeply with care and compassion, gives Moses practical experiences to help deepen his trust, and provides him with resources to accomplish what is being asked. Transformation doesn’t just happen when Moses finally agrees to God’s plan. It doesn’t happen when Moses confronts Pharaoh, or when he leads his people out of Egypt, though I’m sure it is still happening then, too. It is happening right now, in this conversation between God and Moses. It is happening when Moses is honest with God about his doubts and his fears. It is happening when Moses tries a small, brave thing. And it happens when Moses objects yet again, with perhaps the most vulnerable response yet:

10 Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue. 11 The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

I love this part so much. Moses thinks he needs eloquence to pull off God’s plan, and he says to God “I noticed that you haven’t made me very good at this” And God responds by saying, “Don’t you remember who I am? I am the Creator. The one who made all the mouths! Don’t you think I know how yours works?” I love this response in so many ways. First of all, God doesn’t try to placate Moses. God doesn’t say, “Oh Moses, you’re a great speaker, don’t be so hard on yourself.” But YHWH also does not seem to think that Moses’ speech is at all an impediment to the plan. God wants to partner with the real Moses— Moses as he really is, not some magically transformed version of Moses. God doesn’t tell Moses that he needs to be more trusting, more eloquent, less doubtful, less stubborn. God sees Moses honestly and clearly, and that is who God is choosing to partner with. And that, I think is honestly a much harder reality for us to accept sometimes. That God doesn’t want to partner with a better version of us. God wants the truth of us— who we really are, where we really are. I love how the ESV say it: “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” God doesn’t say “I will fix what you perceive to be a flaw” The great I AM instead says, “I will be with you in what you believe to be a deficit and I will teach you there.” That is how true transformation takes place.

Finally, Moses doesn’t have any specific objections left, and he has to face the truth: that he just really, really, really does not want to do what God is asking him.

13 But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

This rings so true for me! At the end of the day, sometimes we just deep down resist what God is asking us to do. God, with such mercy, and love, and tenderness, even while also being pretty angry, responds to Moses again with another beautiful gift: community. God has given Moses everything he needs to do what God is asking him, and yet he is not ready. But nevertheless, God is willing to compromise with Moses. Let that sink in. God allows Moses, in his fear, in his insecurities, in his inability to take the next step, to actually change God’s plan. God agrees to a tweak that actually kind of sounds a bit silly on the surface.

14 Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. 15 You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.

Basically, God agrees to play a divine game of telephone—God will tell Moses, who will tell Aaron, who will say it out loud. It is a little ridiculous! I would be so much simpler if Moses just did it. But God sees Moses’ hesitation, sees his fear. And instead of expecting Moses to somehow muster up enough trust and gumption on his own to pull it off, God instead gives Moses yet another gift. The gift of community. So often we get caught up in our transformation as a solo project. It is all too easy to forget that our stories, our growth, the things that God is calling us to do, are framed in a much larger picture. Our transformation is always within the context of our communities, and within the context of God’s larger story of making all things new.

We can actually see this sprinkled throughout this story— all of the ways that God is framing Moses’ call in the larger narrative. This is a Creator God story. A God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob story. A “God has heard the cry of God’s people and has come to set them free” story. I want to highlight this by looking at a few verses from the end of chapter 3 that often get overlooked in our focus on Moses. These are the last two verses of Exodus 3:

21 “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22 Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.”

This is such a wild thing to casually drop into a conversation! One of the incredible ways that God is equipping Moses and helping him to grow in trust is by telling him how God is already at work in his community. What an incredible journey of trust those women must already have been on to be able to knock on their neighbors doors and say “Hey, so we’re going to be getting out of here, and we need some cash. Want to give us your treasure and jewels?”  I can’t even imagine what that level of trust looks like! God is telling Moses that this journey already has financing, that God is already at work not only to liberate God’s people, but also to provide for them in the most improbable way.

The testimonies of our communities, the narratives of how God is at work in the lives of those around us to do incredible, impossible seeming things, is one of the many ways that God encourages us in our transformation. We are never doing it alone. God is saying to Moses, “these women are already at work! I have been laying the groundwork for this for a long time. This isn’t all up to you.” So much of the beauty of the Exodus story resides in how God is able to make a way where there is no way. God is making the impossible happen. I love how Kelley Nikondeha writes about these verses:

“It sounds unrealistic that enemies would be neighbors; it’s impossible to think that the Egyptians gave away their wealth freely. Yet this is what God dares us to envision as the story unfolds: wealth transferred through the hands of neighbors to rectify an injustice they both acknowledge. … God’s favor empowered neighborly relations so that reparations could happen hand in hand with emancipation.”

What an incredible and emboldening story! We don’t get to hear how Moses responded to this information specifically, or whether he is as inspired by these women as I am, but we do get to see how it is the promise of community, this gift of collaboration with Aaron, that prompts Moses forward at last. Perhaps not with confidence. Perhaps not completely filled with trust. Definitely being far from perfect. But it was enough for now. Enough to say yes. Enough to take the next step. I think it is so beautiful to watch how messy, how complex, how human Moses’ growth in trust is. And I think it says a lot about who God is that this is the story we are given. Not of a perfect, extra strong, super brave hero. Not of an eloquent speaker, confident in his own abilities. Not of someone unafraid and unhesitant, but Moses, in all his full, real Moses-ness. This is the process of transformation that God invites us into. One that is in partnership with YHWH, who wants to partner with us as we really are, who wants to teach us how to trust and give us the resources to take the next step.  And I love, so much, the humor, the gentle, loving sarcasm that ends this story. As Moses is finally ready to go, God reminds him in a tone that feels reminiscent of a parent reminding a kid not to forget their homework, “Hey buddy, don’t forget your staff! You’re gonna need it.”