What has happened to Moses? In Exodus 3, thirty chapters ago, he was tending sheep on a mountain and not very sure of himself. In the verse before our text today, God and Moses are “talking face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” From talking to a bush to speaking as friends. Why is Moses not tongue tied, stumbling over his words like before? Why isn’t he asking if Aaron can do the talking?
I believe what has happened is that Moses has experienced intimacy with God. This text is a beautiful view into the particular kind of power that God has—the power of vulnerability in relationship.
First, let’s look at what is going on here in terms of context. Moses is up on the mountain with God, having just received the 10 commandments on stone tablets that God has inscribed. God and Moses catch wind of what’s going on at the bottom of Mt. Sinai that we heard about last week—the golden calf debacle. The people are used to having a god they can see and touch—something tangible not intangible, so they make the golden calf to represent the god who brought them through the Red Sea, using the gold jewelry they took from Egypt. They haven’t seen Moses for a while and although they have experienced God through miracles, they desperately want a relationship with God, but they have made an object instead. Moses pleads with God not to burn with anger against the people, but then Moses completely loses it when he comes down from the mountain, breaks the tablets and makes the people drink the remnants of the melted down golden calf. So Moses and God have something in common—they’re both mad at the people.
Moses needs another set of tablets but decides it isn’t such a good idea to be up on Mt. Sinai with God so he sets up a tent close to camp that the people can see, and God comes in a cloud to meet with him there. Moses negotiates something here for us that has far reaching implications—he asks God to always be near,
to accompany them personally, not through angels or messengers. Moses has experienced the presence of God and does not want to let go. He now knows that his very life—not just physical but spiritual and emotional life—depends on the presence of God. In today’s text, Moses asks to see God’s glory, to see him in full. God complies but puts Moses in a rock cleft, shielding him with his hand so that Moses only sees his back.
This is one of my favorite texts in the Old Testament precisely because it gives us this insight into relationship with God, and relationships in general. We know that a spiritual life is about relationship, that the sweetest part of life is relationships, but we often don’t know what that means or what one looks like. Here with Moses we see two things that we can use as lessons in relationship: we are hardwired for connection and connection means vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a word that we don’t like. It sounds lame. Raise your hand if you think that vulnerability means weakness? Join the crowd. Being vulnerable means that we have a weakness that will be exposed. But vulnerability is exactly what God has shown us with Moses. He is talking with Moses as if with a friend, exposing his less glorious side, talking about his anger and frustrations and Moses is doing the same. Why is vulnerability important to look at? Because it is the bedrock of relationships. You can’t have an authentic relationship without being vulnerable. Brené Brown, who is a qualitative researcher, says that vulnerability is also the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change as well as belonging, connection, love and joy. Her TED talk on vulnerability has had over 17 million views.
If you’re like me, though, you’re already feeling a little uncomfortable. Marilu’s going to talk about vulnerability? Oh no. I don’t like that. But it’s probably the most important thing I can share today. Every time I get up here to preach or preside, I feel vulnerable. What if today is the day I have nothing to say? What if I’m not enough today to do what you expect of me? I don’t like being vulnerable. My Dad was a Navy officer—we didn’t do vulnerable in my house. We did bullet proof and perfect, but not vulnerable. One of the biggest lessons of my life has been to allow myself to be seen—
I mean really seen, in all my ups and downs, good days and not so good days. It can be painful—but there are big rewards. I think vulnerability is what Moses found that allowed him to be fully himself, to be who God saw him to be, to be the man who led the Israelites out of bondage.
So what’s so excruciating about vulnerability? Brené Brown says because it’s linked to shame. Her research showed that we are hardwired for connection and shame is the fear of disconnection. It looks like this, “If people know this thing about me, they will reject me.” or I am not _fill in the blank______ enough. Shame is not guilt. Shame says I am somehow intrinsically wrong, wrongly made. Guilt says my behavior is wrong. How many people here would say I’m sorry if you truly made a mistake? That’s guilt. Guilt is adaptive and helps us stay in relationship. Guilt opens us up to vulnerability. Obsessive guilt is shame.
Shame tells us not to be vulnerable—that vulnerability is weak. Shame scares us. When we are in a vulnerable place, shame tells us, “You’re not good enough. Your Dad never paid attention to you for a reason. Who do you think you are to do that? Your Mother was right about you.” The devil loves shame. Brown says shame is organized by gender, too. For women, it says do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat. For men, it says do not be perceived as weak, have control, work is first, pursue status. Shame is law. Law tells us we are not enough and God will not love us until we are perfect, until we are strong.
Vulnerability and shame are universal human feelings, everyone experiences them. How do we handle these feelings? We do one of three things—or maybe like me you do all three.
#1 We numb. We are the most obese, addicted, screen watching, credit bogged generation in history because we use something to numb these feelings. The problem is you can’t numb hard feelings without numbing all of your feelings. We numb our joy and gratitude when we numb our not-enoughness.
#2 We make everything that is uncertain, certain. We deal with the fear by concretizing it. Religion goes from faith and mystery, to certainty, which dismisses our connection to a living God. The more vulnerable we are, the more we are afraid, and the more we become certain.
And #3- We per-fect. We try and be perfect to all standards—ours and those of others, believing this will make us invulnerable. We especially can do this with our children. If they are perfect, it reflects well on us. But the word perfect we hear in the bible really means whole in Greek—so when we say that we are made perfect in Christ, it means we are made whole in Christ. Yet we think we can be perfect all on our own and, thus, invulnerable.
Not surprisingly, Shame is linked to our fear that we are not worthy of connection, not worthy of love and belonging. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me. You can see shame in the Israelites. They want connection so badly they construct an ‘it’—a calf—but you can’t have a relationship with an it, a what. You can only have a relationship with a who. Moses had a connection with God. God is not an it, but a who.
What happened to Moses from Exodus 3 to Exodus 33? He goes from a murderer tending sheep to believing he is worthy of connection with God—that God truly loves him and he loves God. Worthiness is a birthright of being a child of God, not something you have to earn. Worthiness is grace. Worthiness allows us to be vulnerable—to take a risk and be who we are, who God made us to be. Moses was freed to become himself fully with God, to risk being face to face.
I believe Dr. Brown gives us some insights into this Moses and into us. Her research indicates that people who believe they are worthy, who have shame resilience, have three things in common: courage, compassion, and connection.
Courage- It’s not something we either have or don’t have. It’s something we practice. The root word of courage in latin is cor or heart. The original definition meant, “To speak one’s mind by telling all that is in one’s heart.” We think of being courageous as being invulnerable. But that is a misinterpretation of the word—it means talking honestly and openly about who we are, what we’re feeling, and what we’re experiencing on both good and bad days. It’s about putting our vulnerability on the line.
What does this look like? For me, it has meant saying I don’t know– instead of making stuff up to look smart or saying ‘I feel uncomfortable with that’ instead of just going along. Courage can be being the first to say I love you, asking someone out, having to ask for help because you are sick, telling someone you just got fired, having to fire people, initiating sex with your spouse or saying you’re afraid or lonely. This is vulnerability and vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. Moses spoke his mind by telling all that was in his heart to God.
Compassion- This means including ourselves in the circle of compassion. We cannot have compassion for others until we have it for ourselves, because you can’t give what you don’t have. God has compassion on us and thus we ask to see ourselves through God’s compassionate eyes. Dr. Kristin Neff, the author of Mindful Self-Compassion, best described this for me when she told a story from her life. She was traveling on an airplane with her son. He looks like a normal kid but he has severe autism and he started to flail and wail. She decided to contain him in the bathroom but when she got there, they were all full so she was stuck in the aisle. She felt the whole plane looking at her and imagined they were thinking, “What a terrible mother! She is not controlling her child. He is bothering the whole plane! A better mother would be able to help her child!” This made her more anxious and more controlling of her son, who responded with more wailing. Suddenly she remembered she was teaching self-compassion, and said to herself, “This is a very hard situation. You are thinking everyone thinks you’re a bad mother but you are responding to your child as best you can. You’re ok.” She calmed down enough to help him calm down. Our practice of self-compassion is living out the commandment to love others as you love yourself. Moses let himself be who he was, mistakes and all.
Connection- Connection is being willing to let go of who you think you should be, in order to be who you are. Moses had to let go of the idea that he was only a murdering sheep herder in order to live out the call that God had on his life. The Israelites needed to let go of their connection with things and embrace a relational connection with God. Connection is about allowing ourselves to be fully seen, believing that our vulnerabilities are our strengths and trusting in God’s relational power.
Courage, Compassion and Connection are God’s gifts of vulnerability. A way to experience what we truly want, which are deep, connected relationships. Like Moses, we experience the presence of God in our most vulnerable places. We know that our very life—our physical, spiritual and emotional life—depends on our connection to God. How do we experience this? When someone really listens to you and nods that they have been there, too. God is there. When you say you don’t know or you are feeling uncomfortable, no matter how it is received, God is there. When you hear that voice of shame saying, “You don’t count, no one cares what you think,” you can call on God’s grace to reassure you that you are loved and cared for. When you are rejected and feeling alone, God is there with you. Grace shows up in weak places.
In our text today, Moses asks that God show him God’s Glory. But God tells him that he will pass by so that Moses can see his goodness, which is his vulnerable back side and the trail that he leaves behind. This is an example of how our God is not a god of glory and gold, but a God of vulnerability, a God who allows himself to be seen. A God who takes great risks to let us know that we are loved and worthy of his love just because we live. A God that is so committed to vulnerability that he came as Jesus Christ to share in our own vulnerabilities. The law that tells us we are not enough and unworthy of love is met by the grace of God that says we are enough because Christ fills our gaps and makes us worthy by our very existence and belief. As 2 Corinthians tells us, “He was crucified in weakness yet He lives by the power of God.” and “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The Power that Christ has is, therefore, the power that finds its strength in weakness, in openness, in risking disapproval, in allowing yourself to be vulnerable and fully seen.
God will not leave you or reject you. Grace is sufficient for you because God loves you in your most vulnerable places so that you can love others in theirs.
Before I end my sermon this morning (evening), I feel that I need to acknowledge what happened last night. Finding the possible remains of Hannah Graham is both devastating and a relief. Devastating because we have lost one of our own and in such a hideous and frightening manner. A relief because finally her family may have some peace from the anxiety of not knowing where she is. Devastating because her parents, friends and fellow students have had the earth shake under their feet and the grief is, and will be, hard to bear. We pray a special prayer today for God’s loving embrace and care to surround all of us as we deal with this tragedy. May the Lord be with us as we try to make sense of a senseless death.
- Exodus 33:12 - 23