Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Waiting for the Word”
Year A, Proper 17; Exodus 3:1-15
All Saints Parish, Brookline, MA (via livestream)
August 30, 2020
“I will be your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Ex. 4:11-12).
“The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50% discount to customers with breaks in the timing and fluency of speech, that is, the customers who have speech impediments.” These words were the introduction to a performance earlier this month on the program This American Life. Some of you may be familiar with the program. I listen to it sometimes when I walk. In this case, the speaker, a bilingual man named Jerome Ellis who is a musician and composer, began his performance with these words at something called the Poetry Project, an annual New Year’s Day poetry marathon which, interestingly enough, takes place at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan. While I speak these words in under 15 seconds, in his performance at the Poetry Project, Mr. Ellis wrestled with the same words for more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Imagine that. Standing in front of an audience, the people seated in front of him don’t know that he has a stutter. Two minutes and thirty seconds before he arrives at the end of his first sentence to reveal that, like these cell phone customers in Brazil, he, too, has a speech impediment.
I thought of Jerome Ellis and his performance when I read today’s passage from Exodus. In the passage, God draws Moses’s attention by appearing in a bush that burns yet is not consumed, then God instructs Moses to treat this place as holy ground, symbolized by removing his shoes. After God claims the identity of “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”; after God describes hearing the cries of the Israelites captive in Egypt and the desire to bring them out of enslavement and deliver them into a promised land, a “good and broad land flowing with milk and honey,” then God says to Moses: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” What is Moses’s response? He says to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
Through the next verses, Moses doubles down on his question, running through a list of excuses: Okay, God, who are you, anyway? What is your name? When they ask me who told me they should just stand up and walk out of Egypt, who do I say sent me? And when God gives a pretty compelling response to this question, Moses continues (this happens in the verses following today’s reading): okay, well, what if they don’t listen to me? What if they don’t believe you showed yourself to me in this burning bush? And then we sense that Moses finally gets to his real point. Exodus reports: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’” (Ex 4:10). In fact, scholars suggest that Moses’s phrase may indicate that he, too, is afflicted with a stutter. When Moses gets right down to it, he is asking: “How can I, as flawed as I am – someone ‘with breaks in the timing and fluency of speech,’ as Jerome Ellis describes it – how can I represent you?”
God responds to Moses: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf…? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Ex. 4:11-12). And then for good measure, God instructs Moses to bring along his brother Aaron, who speaks more fluidly than Moses (Ex. 4:14).
Moses isn’t alone. In fact, this scene sets a pattern that is repeated over and over in the Bible as people are called by God to prophetic witness. This scene with Moses establishes a pattern for prophetic call to those whom God calls to witness to “justice and righteousness”:,
- When God called Jeremiah, for example, Jeremiah’s response was similar to Moses’s: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer. 1:6). God’s response? Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:5). You have always been meant for this. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’” because I will go with you, I will speak for you (1:7).
Then God reaches out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says to him, “Now I have put words in your mouth” (1:9).
- We see a similar pattern with Isaiah, who upon seeing God’s call in a vision responds, “Woe is me…for I am a man of unclean lips.” With Isaiah, God’s response is even more forceful: a heavenly creature appears, takes a live coal from the altar with “a pair of tongs” and touches Isaiah’s mouth with it to purify his words. Then Isaiah hears God’s voice say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” To which Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me.” (Isa. 6:5-8)
- An again, a similar pattern appears when Ezekiel is called. In a vision, God metaphorically puts God’s own word into Ezekiel, saying to him: “Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” Then god commands Ezekiel to “go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them” (Ez. 3:1-4).
I am too young, I do not have words, my lips are unclean. Even the prophets of God, whose words and deeds still resound through the ages, even they stutter and stumble.
Moses’s attention was captured by a bush on fire. Here we are, our own world ablaze, both metaphorically and literally. California is burning – and, unlike Moses’s bush, it is being consumed. Violence and flames have erupted in the streets again this week. Protests continue, challenging this country’s past and ongoing racist practices. The pandemic rages on, threatening to surge again as schools and universities open across the country. Deep political divisions continue on full display during this election season. There is a lot going on in our world today. It feels like, as impossible as it seems, there’s more and more every day.
If you’re like me, you may often feel not up to the task at hand. We may think to ourselves, in words very similar to Moses, “who am I?” Who are we to think that we can have an impact on these crises that seem so much bigger than any one of us? Who are we to think that we can see a way forward? In my case, for example, who am I to stand here in front of you today and offer any consolation or hope or Good News?
Here’s the thing: it’s not just me. And it’s not just you. Of course we all stutter and stumble; fail to find the words or take the wrong path. Even Peter, in our gospel just last week was praised and blessed by Jesus for recognizing Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:13-17). Yet in the very next movement of the gospel Peter stumbles, prompting Jesus’ rebuke – a very strong rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block” (Matt. 16:23).
It’s not just you or me. God promised through the prophets, a promise that I believe can still hold true for us today: I will go with you. I will put words in your mouth. I will bless and purify your efforts.
I don’t know if Jerome Ellis, the musician and composer with a speech impediment, is a man of faith, but his philosophy of how he works through his own stuttering and stumbling is powerful. When he’s reaching for a word, his face is described as often turning upward and, as he describes it, his “body is actually—it’s a freezing” and “he stops breathing often, too,” and “part of it feels like [his] body goes into a kind of supplication or prayer almost.” He says he has “a friend who once referred to it as watching him ask for the word and waiting for it to come.” Waiting for the words to be given to him.
Just as God’s Spirit spoke through the prophets, just as Jerome Ellis looks upward and waits for the word to come, I believe that God is ready to speak through us, too. If we pause to notice God’s presence in our own burning world, if we accept the call to take off our shoes and walk toward holy ground, if we can set aside our fear of not knowing, of feeling less than up to the challenge, if we have the courage of Jerome Ellis to wait for the word to arrive, might God work through us to bring about greater justice in our own world, too? Amen.