Homily for Sunday, March 24, 2019
“And [Moses] said, ‘Here I am.’” — Exodus 3:4c
What sets the astonishing Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie apart is two things, only one of which can be seen: The first, the thing that can be seen, is that Glennie performs barefoot. Though all on stage, including Glennie, are in concert black, she goes barefoot. Glennie performs barefoot not to make a statement or to make herself more comfortable (or her audience uncomfortable), but because—and this is the second thing that sets her apart, the thing that can’t be seen—she is entirely deaf, and the way she listens is, in her words, “through my hands, through my arms, through my cheekbones and my scalp, through my tummy, my chest, my legs,” and perhaps most importantly through her feet. By the vibrations she feels through the floor, she knows which note she’s playing and how loudly; she knows—she feels—the notes, the phrases, the music that those around her are playing. She can even without looking feel the audience clap, and know if they are clapping loudly like thunder or softly like rain or hardly at all, like snow. In a TED talk from February of 2003, Glennie said:
It’s amazing that when you do open your body up… to allow the vibration to come through… the tiny, tiny differences can be felt with just the tiniest part of your finger, there [points to the first knuckle of her index finger]. And so what [my teacher and I] would do is, I would pop my hands on the wall of the music room, and together we would listen to the sounds of the instruments and really try to connect with those sounds far, far more broadly than simply depending on the ear….
“We are all connected with sound,” says Glennie. “Sound is our daily medicine.”
But I don’t want to begin with Evelyn Glennie; nor even do I want to begin with Exodus chapter 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush that we just heard. Rather, to better understand the significance of the burning bush, both for Moses and for us, I want to go back to Exodus chapter 2 to the very first things Moses does and says.
Of the first verbs that Moses does in the Bible, four are variations of “to see”:
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew… He looked this way and that, and seeing no one…
So far so good. Moses is a “seer,” after all; so of course, to make sure we readers get the point, the text begins with repetitions of “to see.” But the next two verbs raise a red flag that suggest all is not well with our seer.
[Moses] looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
There is no attempt to settle differences; no words are exchanged. Moses, though he can “[look] this way and that” and is able to see things without, yet he cannot see within. Unable to see beyond his anger, unable to find his words, not seeing an appropriate, proportionate response, [Moses] reacts with excessive anger and kills and hides.
Of concealing and keeping things hidden, Dutch-born and Boston-based psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes that
As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself… — The Body Knows the Score
which Moses seems to be. For when Moses killed and hid the Egyptian, he killed and hid not just the Egyptian, but himself. Let me explain.
To this point in the text, Moses has been silent; he has said nothing. When Moses finally does speak, his first words are:
When [Moses] went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting… he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?”
Were Moses’ words intended for another? Or were they autobiographical, more telling about himself?
Moses’ second line is: “Surely the thing is known,” he thinks, just before fleeing Egypt. Moses wants not only to keep a secret, but to be secret.
Moses’ third line, delivered after he had fled Egypt, found work as a shepherd, married his employer’s daughter, fathered a son and named that son Gershom (which means ‘an alien resident there’), is, “[Moses] said, ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.’”
“Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” “Surely the thing is known.” “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” Moses the “seer,” who saw his people’s labor, who could “look this way and that,” who would later see God on Mt. Sinai and from Mt. Pisgah see the entire Promised Land spread out before him, is neither able to see within, nor does he want to be seen. Moses is “fundamentally at war with himself.” Moses is “an alien residing in a foreign land…”—which is himself. Moses has killed and hid… himself.
It could be that Moses suffers from trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, in The Body Knows the Score, says this about traumatized people:
Because traumatized people often have trouble sensing [seeing] what is going on in their bodies, they lack a nuanced response to frustration. They either react to stress by becoming “spaced out” or with excessive anger. Whatever their response, they often can’t tell what is upsetting them. This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes… to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.
There is a word for this condition. “Alexithymia” comes from the Greek and literally means “without words for the soul.” To this point in the narrative, Moses has no words for what is going on in his soul.
“People with alexithymia can get better,” writes van der Kolk, but
only by learning to recognize the relationship between their physical sensations and their emotions.
Which is what happens to Moses in today’s lesson from Exodus chapter 3; the burning bush is the turning point in Moses’ life.
In her TED talk, Evelyn Glennie tells of a time when she helped a young man through her music:
Some of the extraordinary things I’ve experienced as a musician, when you may have a 15 year-old lad who has the most incredible challenges, who may be not able to control his movements, who may be deaf, who may be blind, suddenly if that young lad… lies underneath the marimba, and you play something… like this [she played a few lush, slow-moving chords, “organ-like,” she called them]. Something that is so unbelievably simple. But he would be experiencing… the sound coming through the resonators [underneath the marimba], a fullness of sound that no one else, not even me, could experience…
Not seeing, not hearing, but feeling “in his hands and in his arms, in his cheekbones and scalp, in his tummy, chest and legs,” in his feet—all over his body—the young man suddenly was connected. “We are all connected with sound,” says Glennie. “Sound is our daily medicine.”
In the story of the burning bush, Moses lies underneath the marimba. Moses begins by seeing—“[Moses looked], and the bush was blazing”; “'[I must] see why the bush is not burned up’”—but in verse 4 God introduces Moses to sound by calling his name: “Moses, Moses!” It is as though Moses is suddenly underneath the big bass resonators, no longer simply seeing—which could be done at a distance or through glass—but “experiencing… the sound coming through the resonators, a fullness of sound that no one else… could experience”—but only, “Moses, Moses!” and that must have felt to Moses—blind, deaf and unable to control his limbs—like a release and a connection. Like medicine.
For what Moses says and does next suggests that his healing—a connection, an awakening, finding words for his soul—has begun. The next thing Moses says—the fourth thing Moses says in the Bible—is, “Here I am.”
- “Here I ” Moses uses the first-person singular—Moses is one. He is no longer “[striking] his fellow Hebrew;” he is no longer at war with himself.
- “Here I am.” “Here, right here!”—Moses is no longer hiding.
- “Here I am.” “I am no longer an alien residing in a foreign land. Here is where I am.”
- “Here I am.” “I am no longer in the past (reliving whatever trauma I was reliving); but I am present here, now.”
And the first thing Moses does after he hears the Lord call his name is to “remove the sandals from [his] feet.” As if to say, “Oh! This sound, this sensation, of God calling my name, vibrates, resonates, reverberates ‘in my hands and in my arms, in my cheekbones and scalp, in my tummy, chest and legs.’ I want more. Let me also remove my sandals so that I can feel it through my feet.”
Every Sunday God places us underneath the marimba, as it were, so that we can experience God in a full-bodied kind of way in the scripture and sacraments, and in the sights and sounds of our worship and each other. In Lent God places us underneath the marimba in a special way, with “The Great Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil being the big bass resonators at the far end. For in the story that we tell each Sunday, in the story that is most fully told in “The Great Three Days,” we learn to “sense what is going on in our bodies”—we learn to sense what God is doing in us, in our bodies right now, if we let God. Which is
- not killing and hiding, but raising up and giving new life
- not “striking our fellow Hebrew,” but growing ever more whole and connected
- not living in fear that “surely the thing is known,” but living in freedom
- no longer residing as an alien in a foreign land, but realizing “Here I am” and accepting ourselves as we are
- not functioning simply by sight and at a distance, but letting Love close—allowing “the vibration to come through”
- no longer speechless, but having words for our soul
- not dwelling in the past, but being here, now
- not “soundproofing,” but taking our sandals off and allowing God to awaken, surround, envelop and resonate every molecule within us—our selves, our souls, our bodies
- allowing God to hold us in love, just as we are…
…so that our entire selves—body, mind and soul—may like Moses hear God call our name, that we may hear God speak to us, that we may reverberate with God’s story, that we may know in our very flesh and blood that Jesus has come to deliver not just Israel but us and to set us free. So that we might become awakened, in-touch, full-bodied, vibrant “Moseses” to help lead this world out of its present “Egypt” and even now to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the freedom that God offers; to glimpse—no, to hear; to feel in our bodies!—that “broad land… flowing with milk and honey.”