8/31/2014 Here I Am

Ordinary Time (Proper 17)
Exodus 3:1–15; Psalm 105:1–6, 23–26, 45c; Romans 12:9–21; Matthew 16:21–28

From the 2011 ForeWords archive:

Superheroes and summertime Hollywood movies have been a winning combination for quite some time. A long, hot summer is not when most people want to ponder the subtleties of serious, Oscar-worthy dramas. Just give us action, adventure, and escapism and we’re more than happy to put down our money at the box office, maybe buy some way-overpriced popcorn and soda, and put the (so-called) real world behind us for a couple hours.

With the daytime heat index (combination of temperature and humidity) hovering somewhere in the vicinity of 110 degrees Fahrenheit earlier this week, that’s just what I did. As a bonus, it didn’t hurt that matinees are cheaper than evening showings, too. My movie of choice this time: straight from Marvel comics, Captain America.

Now, the Captain is not your standard-issue superhero. The actor who played the role explained recently a bit of the challenge he faced in taking on the iconic role of Steve Rogers (aka Captain America):

“It’s a tricky line to walk when you’re playing somebody with good intentions, good motives,” Chris Evans says. The Captain isn’t quite as corny as Superman. But he does have a “truth, justice and the American way” ethos, a skinny kid who believes in “sticking up for the little guy” transformed into a muscular superhero. “He’s just good. Just good can become boring.”

In looking for that earnest, do-the-right-thing mindset, Evans found a real-life model from his past. “I have a friend that I grew up with in Boston who I consider one of the best human beings on the planet. And when I first read ‘Captain America,’ I said, ‘You know, this guy is a lot like Charlie. He just does the right thing for the right reason.’ I loved that kid, Charlie. He must have been doing something right, to be this good human being, with great motives and great values. So every time I ran up against a moment I’d have to play something that could turn corny in the movie, I thought of Charlie. He wasn’t boring and he wasn’t corny. I’d think, ‘What would Charlie do?’”

Hollywood likes its good-guy superheroes and typically presents them in direct opposition to bad-guy super-villains. When it works, it’s box-office magic. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. On occasion movie-makers have even dipped into the pages of the Bible, and one of their most successful (#5 on the list of inflation-adjusted gross receipts) is Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” which thrust a relatively new, young actor named Charlton Heston into the limelight as Moses.

Heston and Anne Baxter

The young-adult Moses in the movie certainly had a superhero look to him. This bold, brash, good-looking, sexy Moses lit up the screen although critics in 1956 (as now) were quick to point out how far DeMille and Heston had diverged from the biblical source in Exodus. Eventually, Moses did run away from his Egyptian upbringing once the going got rough. Next we find him, older and greyer, tending his father-in-law’s sheep on a mountainside. A day that probably started out like every other took an unexpected turn when Moses spotted a burning bush that 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 to see, 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 on which you are standing is holy ground.” [God] said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Scene from “The Ten Commandments”

And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” –Exodus 3:3-10 NRSV

What a great setup for a superhero to spring into action. But no, that’s not exactly how Exodus records Moses’ response: something along the lines of “Thanks, but no thanks. By the way, couldn’t you find somebody else? This isn’t really my thing.” Sure, I’m adding a little commentary between the lines. And so for those who prefer the actual (English-language) words used in Exodus:

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” [God] said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 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 shall 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 my title for all generations. –Exodus 3:11-15

Moses is, in fact, setting the pattern for later Hebrew prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al.) to respond to the call of God: “I can’t do that. I just don’t have the natural speaking ability this task calls for. I’m too ‘young/tongue-tied/nervous’ to be the guy you want, Lord.” Put another way: “Hey, I’m no Captain America. I have faults–lots of them. I’d just as soon run away when things get tough. Besides, nobody will listen to me anyway.”

That, of course, is not God’s point. God wasn’t looking for a superhero. Moses, with all his faults and shortcomings–maybe because of all his faults and shortcomings–was the right one at the right time and place to carry out the divine mission. And so in this entire episode the key phrase is not “You’re the one,” but “I will be with you.”

This is not to say there isn’t another Steve Rogers out there ready to be transformed into the next Captain America. But if the Bible is any kind of guide in this regard, God just doesn’t work like that. By our nature, we human beings are less than perfect, filled with shortcomings, faults, and foibles. We’re not gods–or superheroes–and we never will be. Yet God’s call may come to any of us, with the same promise as that given to Moses: I will be with you. And who among us can imagine what might happen next?

About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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