Being a good person and a sinner at the same time: a sermon on Exodus 3

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

In today’s reading from Exodus, I love the idea that the presence of God is so holy, that Moses needs to remove his shoes.

What would it say, I wonder, about the worship service that we share in today, if we all of us took off our shoes when we entered the sanctuary?

Now, I’m not actually asking you to do take your shoes off.

Unless, of course, you want to, then by all means go ahead.

But culturally, the removal of our shoes when entering a new space isn’t something that Westerners typically engage in.

In other parts of the world, however, people do it differently.

The Bible is actually full of references to people removing their shoes as a sign of respect to the person or place they encounter.

And in Japan, for example, 98% of the population removes their shoes when entering a new space.

And not just private spaces, like taking off your shoes when you enter someone’s home.

In Japan, people also remove their shoes when entering public spaces too, like museums, shrines, or other public buildings.

And this happens not just when you walk through the front door.

Sometimes people will actually remove their footwear in between rooms in the same space,

like changing from house slippers to bathroom slippers.

What is interesting about this practice is not just how widely adopted it is, but also the reasons why people do it.

Sure, removing your footwear when you enter a space helps to keep the space clean.

But more than that, some 81% of Japanese say that they actually remove their footwear because it helps them relax and makes them feel more able to be themselves.

And here’s where the detail of Moses removing his shoes in the presence of the burning bush, might help to reveal something important about God…

and about our relationship with God as God’s people.

Is it possible that in calling out to Moses to remove his sandals, God wants Moses to relax and be his true self, rather than pretending to be someone else?

The Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is the largest rescue mission in the Old Testament, and God could have chosen anyone to do it.

But God choses Moses, and I suspect it is because Moses, as his true self, is uniquely gifted by God to do the work God has chosen him to do.

It’s not surprising that Moses initially protests when God asks Moses to bring God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses, as you may remember, has a dual identity and a complicated history in relationship to his people the Israelites and to Egypt.

Born an Israelite, but raised in the Egyptian court, when Moses grows up, the second chapter of Exodus says Moses “went out to his people and saw their forced labor.”

Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of Moses’ own kinfolk, Moses actually kills the Egyptian and hides the body in the sand.

And yet, Moses’ own people, the Hebrews, hear of the murder and bring it to Pharaoh, who then threatens to kill Moses.

So Moses flees to the wilderness, which is how he ends up in the region of Midian.

Midian was considered to be a geographically separate land, located in the Syro-Arabian desert,

You may remember that when Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, they sell him to Midianite traders, who are meant to carry Joseph far, far, away from his people.

Put another way, Moses runs far, far, away from his past and who he is.

Moses actually marries the daughter, Zipporah, of Jethro, a priest of Midian.

So not only has Moses committed a crime, and fled from it, thus breaking Egyptian law,

but he’s also married a foreign woman of a foreign faith, which is explicitly against Hebrew law.

Moses has broken relationships with all of his identities and he is far from home.

Is he an Egyptian or a Hebrew? Apparently, he’s not very good at being either.

He’s not particularly welcomed by either people, that’s for sure.

Is he a good person or a sinner? He is both, at the same time.

So it is no wonder that Moses protests when God speaks to him, saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

It’s Moses basically saying to God, I am too broken, I am not good enough, to do what you have asked me to do.

But Moses has taken off of his shoes.

Moses is who he is, his true self when he stands before the presence of God.

God sees all there is to see about who Moses is and yet God still choses Moses to do God’s work…

Because Moses is uniquely gifted by God for the work he has been given to do.

This is true of all of us.

And old Hasidic story makes this point.

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’

Rather, they will ask me, ‘’Why were you not more like Zusya?”

We are all uniquely gifted by God and worthy in the eyes of God to do the work God has given us to do.

It is who we are, when we are our truest selves.

When Moses protests his worthiness to do the work God has called him to do, God says to Moses, “I will be with you.”

We have all we need to be your true self in this world, to be the person God calls you to be.

Generations before the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God already promises God’s people that God will dwell with them in their journey.

This says something powerful about who God is, and the way God cares for God’s people.

Even God’s name says this.

Biblical scholars have written reams about the revealing of God’s name to Moses, and what the name itself means.

It can be offensive to some, especially those who are Jewish, to even try and translate what God’s name means…

because the name itself is so holy.

But the word for God’s name, transliterated as Yahweh, written in today’s scripture reading as “I AM WHO I AM…”

is actually virtually untranslatable from the Hebrew.

The word can be transliterated but not translated, because the word for the name of God actually has multiple meanings all at the same time.

The name for God is multivalent.

God’s name doesn’t have just one meaning, it has many meanings, all entirely open to the context in which the name is uttered and who hears it.

“I AM WHO I AM” is an inadequate attempt to capture the vastness of God’s name.

No wonder the name is considered to be unutterable by some.

But even the name of God, with its multivalent nature, says something about who God is—God is everything, everywhere.

And it also says something about who are are in relationship with God.

If God is “I AM WHO I AM,” then we are who we are when we stand in the presence of God.

That’s why God asks Moses to remove his sandals.

God asks Moses to be who he truly is, as God created and calls him to be, when Moses stands before God.

No matter what burdens we carry, no matter our past, no matter what identities we bring with us, those we wish to possess and those the world foists upon us…

When we stand before God we are who we are.

And God loves us and calls us to live into that, our true selves.

God’s beloved people, gifted, called and sent by God to do God’s work in the world.