The Rev. Barbara Lundblad is Associate Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Barbara was educated at Yale Divinity School, where she received several prizes for scholarship and preaching. Rev. Lundblad is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is the former pastor of Our Savior's Atonement Lutheran Church in New York City. She is widely recognized as one of America's outstanding preachers. Barbara has been heard on radio's The Protestant Hour for the past 15 years and is a frequent guest speaker at gatherings around the country. In addition to her active preaching schedule, her sermons are widely published in books and journals. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted.]
First air date March 5, 2000
[Transcribed from tape and edited for clarity.]
A reading from the Book of Exodus, Chapter three:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush. He looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up."
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!"
And he said, "Here I am."
Then God said, "Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet for the place in which you are standing is holy ground." Then the Lord God said, "The cry of the Israelites has come unto me. I have seen their oppression from the Egyptians. So I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt."
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' What shall I say to them?"
God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He said further, "Thus you will say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and this is my title to all generations."
It must be ten years ago now when I first saw the play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In the play, Lily Tomlin plays all the characters: a rebellious teenager, the girl's grandparents (both of them, the grandfather and the grandmother), a wealthy socialite, and the central character who holds the play together, Trudy, the bag lady. Trudy is indeed a character. She wears her wig inside out to keep the good side clean. And she talks to aliens from outer space, "her little space chums" she calls them. Of course, nobody else can see them, but Trudy has endless conversations with her alien friends as the play goes on. It is through them that Trudy shares her philosophy of life over coffee at late-night diners. This is the kind of play where you find yourself laughing out loud at one moment and suddenly reduced to silence, tears in your eyes at the next. At the very end of the play Trudy comes to the edge of the stage and talks directly to the audience in her usual raspy voice:
Hey, what's this? (She finds a note in her pocket.) It's a letter from my little space chums. Let me just read it to you.
"Dear Trudy, thanks for making our time on earth so jam-packed and fun-filled, but now we have to leave to go to a higher bio-vibrational plane. Just want you to know that the best thing that happened to us on earth was the goose bump experience" Did I tell you about that? I took them to see a play. There we were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden one of 'em tugs my sleeve, "Look, Trudy," he said. "Yeah, goose bumps," I said, "You definitely got goose bumps. You really liked the play that much?" They said it wasn't the play that gave 'em goose bumps. It was the audience. I forgot to tell 'em to watch the play; they'd been watching the audience! All those strangers sitting there in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things...that just knocked 'em out.
"When the Lord saw that Moses turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.'"
I can feel Trudy tugging at my sleeve: "Are you trying to tell me that if Moses hadn't turned aside God wouldn't have spoken?" I try to tell her that God surely could have found a way to get through to Moses, but Trudy is still talking...
"Is that like that riddle about the tree in the forest? You know, if nobody is there and a tree falls, does it make a sound?"
"No, Trudy, it's not like that--that's philosophy; this is theology. "
"Well, there is an audience."
Which brings us back to Moses: Moses was the audience. He was watching the play on the hillside where he thought his only job was watching the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. He looked up and saw an awesome sight--strange, impossible. a bush ablaze with fire, yet the bush itself whole and untouched. What will Moses do? Will he walk by as though he's seen such things a million times? Of course not! We've heard the story before, many of us. And even if it's the first time, we would expect him to be curious, to take a closer look. I mean, you'd turn aside, wouldn't you? I surely would. Yes, I would, at least, I think I would.
But I also know, and perhaps you do, too, if we're honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We're terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we'll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don't believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking.
But Moses turned aside. And when God saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him.
Is the audience directing the play? Now, we must be careful. We could walk right into the trap of those who scoff at religion saying that human beings have created God; we've made God up out of our own need. In theological terms we might end up with a God who is only immanent--close to us, one of us, within us--but no longer transcendent, no longer greater than we are, no longer beyond our human knowing, no longer mystery. Is Moses dictating God's actions?
Surely it is true that God who created the heavens and the earth would have found another way to speak even if Moses had not stopped. Yet, there is a clear sense in this story that Moses' turning aside brought forth God's speech. (Oh, we know there are other times when God spoke without waiting for anyone to listen: "Let there be light, and there was light." God didn't wait to see if anyone would respond!)
But here, God did not speak until Moses turned aside. It is one of God's great inefficiencies, this waiting for human beings to turn aside. "Immortal, invisible"...inefficient. Story after story in scripture points to God's inefficiency. It is an inefficiency born of relationship. Bound up in the very nature of God who longed not only to be, but to be with.
Could it be that if we turned aside more often God would speak more often? It is my calling as a pastor to spend time thinking about God, teaching scripture, praying with people in the hospital, comforting those who mourn. But I can tell you how very hard it is to turn aside, to find some time each day not only to think about God but to come into the presence of God in silence. To take off my shoes believing the place where I stand is holy ground. My days are consumed by my red "Minister's Desk Calendar" rather than turning aside. It must be harder still for you. At least my job description includes reading scripture; most likely, yours does not.
But what if we turn aside and God doesn't call to us? What if we hear only the sound of our own breathing? What if we don't know if it's God or our own imagination speaking? "Moses said to God, 'If I come to the people and say that God has sent me, and they ask, 'What is his name"' what shall I say to them?" Or we might ask: if I turn aside and believe I have come into God's presence, how can I talk about that--not only to someone else, but how would I talk to myself about the experience of God's presence? What words would form? What images or sounds? In a sense, there is no way to talk about it, to find words, to make the sounds.
"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am'...thus you shall say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you." I am who I am. It is the mysterious name. The name framed by Hebrew letters which have been translated as Yahweh in some Bibles. But this name is never spoken aloud by the Jewish people. It is too holy to ever be spoken aloud. In that sense there is no way to make the sounds, to form the words. Yet, this human limitation does not mean that God is absent. We can sense that God has spoken even if we cannot say the words or name the name.
But mystery is not God's only proper name. Transcendence is not God's only way of being. After giving Moses the great mysterious name, God went on: "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob--has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations." God is not only beyond all words; God's name is attached to human names: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King. The God of Barbara. And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name. You see, God has a very long name and by this name God will be known forever. Mystery and revelation. Majesty and earthiness. Immortal, invisible, and inefficient--the Holy God waiting for you and me.
And when God saw that we had turned aside to see, God called to us...
It's enough to give you goose bumps, or at least to stoop down and take off your shoes.
Conversation with Barbara Lundblad
Lydia Talbot: Barbara, you began your message with Moses and the burning bush with a brilliant illustration of Lily Tomlin as a bag lady. It gives us a text for understanding receptivity to God's presence in our lives and those goose bump experiences. When did that happen to you?
Barbara Lundblad: On the road from Iowa to Yale Divinity School. Well, probably many times, but I would say the first time really, I think, was on the farm and this witness of lying on my back, the sunbeams coming down through the clouds and the sense that God was trying to touch me. It was a very real experience that I can remember still today.
Talbot: So with that openness, that receptivity to God's call, you turned aside.
Lundblad: I did, but I think it's very hard, Lydia, to turn aside. I think we have all kinds of excuses for not doing it.
Talbot: And it's very hard to have to wrap this up. Barbara, you are wonderful to be on our program today.
Lundblad: Thanks very much.