Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3)
“You could write a whole book about a juniper tree. Not junipers in general, but just one—if you knew enough about it.” So wrote the naturalist Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, his account of living in the desert as a park ranger in Moab, Utah. His point was that even when it comes to something as ordinary and familiar as a juniper tree, we really know very little about it. How did it come to grow there, and not somewhere else? What has been the course of its growth through dry and wet years, through heat and cold? Who knows. And if we know so little about a juniper, Abbey reasons, how much more ignorant we are about much larger and weightier issues.
You would think, that knowing so little about so much, would make us quite reticent about what we say. It ought to give us a certain caution about what we assert, and about the judgments we make. Yet we live in an age when an uninformed certainty about who is worthy and who is not, and who is right and who is wrong—a fixed certainty even to the point of violent extremism—has become typical. That pattern has been on full display this weekend, when many people have already formed rather strong and fixed opinions about what the famous Mueller Report says, even though none of us yet really knows. Reticence and restraint be damned!
Do you remember the old saying that used to get brought out from time to time, in the midst of some disagreement: “There is so much good in the worst of us,” it went, “and so much bad in the best of us, it doesn't behoove any of us to speak evil of the rest of us.” I certainly heard my parents say that. But in the Twitter age, such cautionary words of restraint sound strangely anachronistic, even naïve.
How instructive, then, to turn to Moses today and his rather hesitant encounter with God in the burning bush. At first, he merely turns aside to see what this strange sight could be. But when God speaks to him out of the fire, he hides his face, afraid even to look on God. (No Selfie here!) His response is to be reticent, to recognize that he is face to face with something much greater than himself, far beyond his comprehension, and so he must be circumspect in how he responds.
His reticence only grows as God speaks to him again, telling him that he is the one who will lead his people out of their slavery in Egypt. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” says Moses, questioning at once both his ability to lead and his personal status for such a mission. “I will be with you,” God replies. “But who will I say has sent me?” questions Moses, doubting this time his own understanding of what he is being told to do. “I am,” is God’s answer. And if we were to read a bit further in the story than we did today, Moses’ reticence continues on. “But they will not believe me,” he worries. So God gives him a wonder-working staff as a sign. “Even so, I’m not eloquent enough for the job,” Moses objects. So God appoints Aaron to speak for him.
Moses’ reticence to trust himself, and even to trust the call he hears from God, betrays a certain suspicion of his own senses, a reserve toward simply jumping to conclusions. He needs time to reflect. Has he got it right? Is it really him God wants? Aren’t there other factors to take into consideration? How unlike the pace with which we make so many judgments about ourselves and others nowadays!
This need for time, this reticence before rushing to judgment, is echoed in the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading. In this case, a man has a fig tree that for three years has born no fruit, so he impatiently is ready to cut it down. His gardener, however, urges restraint: let it grow another year, give it some extra care and attention, and see if by then it doesn’t begin to produce. Let’s not rush, let’s hold off, let’s give it another chance.
You may know that in the very early church, many people went to the desert seeking a place of solitude where they could learn the practice of restraint. One of the most well known, Abba Anthony, is said once to have received several enthusiastic young monks who came seeking his interpretation of a difficult passage of scripture. One by one, he asked their own idea of what it meant. After they had all expostulated on their individual theory, Abba Anthony turned to ask another wise old monk, Abba Joseph, his opinion of the passage’s meaning. “I do not know,” was the response. “Then neither do I,” said Abba Anthony.
Wisdom sometimes comes from not knowing—or perhaps even more importantly, from knowing that we don’t know. And what we don’t know, we shouldn’t act upon. Now, that kind of reticence may sound unexpected, coming from a preacher. More often, people come to church expecting it to be a place to find answers to what have been called “life’s persistent questions.” And we are accustomed to think that Christian faith is a system that’s got its answers worked out pretty thoroughly—for better or worse.
But perhaps that assumption of a rush to judgment is itself premature. This time of year, as we journey together toward Jerusalem and the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, I’m always put in mind of the fact that when it comes to this central event in his life—and in our faith—the church is strangely reticent, silent even, about exactly what it means. Even in the creed, that ancient summary of faith, when it comes to the crucifixion—all it says is that Jesus “was crucified for us, suffered and was buried.” Exactly what that means is left for us as a mystery to contemplate, which is of course why we revisit and re-experience it year after year without ever quite getting to the bottom of it.
It has been said that this reticence, this reluctance to rush to judgment, is especially typical of our Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Born out of the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, our forebears in the English church developed a piety that was “freighted with a sense of the tragic” (Rowan Williams, Introduction to Love’s Redeeming Work). That is, English Christianity developed a pattern of faith and practice that was keenly aware, based on experience, of how easily people can get things wrong in ways that lead not only to indefensible judgments, but often violence against others.
How much we as 21st century people need to recover that kind of suspicion and reticence about ourselves! We have talked here in church before about the ways in which the Christian commitment to truth, human dignity, and fairness runs directly counter to the culture that surrounds us. To be reticent in our judgments, and cautious in our declarations, is yet another instance. Not that we should not stand up and speak out about injustices of all sorts—far from it! But we must first do the hard work of thoughtful, considered, reasoned judgment that takes time. Like Moses, our question to ourselves needs more often to be tinged with the reticence of, “Who am I?” Amen.