The Death of Inevitability (Lent III)

There is a difference between memory – the impressions we are given and history – the connections that we work to make if we wish.

Timothy Snyder

Thinking of Snyder’s distinction between history as given impressions -what we might call collective memory fragments – and history as connections made (actions taken in the present) is helpful to us as we seek to unravel the complexities between collective memory and Biblical text – that is, between a story’s projected setting and the context of the written text that purports to remember back in time.  

originating among disparate and unrelated communities – later woven together into a written narrative to provide a coherent story of origins in support a later issue of national identity.

The O.T. lesson for Lent 3 2022 drops us into the scene of Moses minding his own shepherding business, leading his father-in-law’s flocks through a landscape – interestingly described as a place beyond the wilderness. It’s here, that Moses has his first encounter with God revealed through the phenomenon of a burning bush.

Moses’ curiosity is aroused, and he takes a detour from familiar route so that he can get a better view of this amazing sight he’s spotted in his peripheral vision. Moses, hearing  the sound of his name is immediately stopped in his tracks as God calls to him to come no further for first, he must remove his sandals, for he is about to tread on holy ground. This is the narrator’s way of alerting us to the fact that something really big is about to happen.

Reading between the lines we can note that Moses does not seem to know this God – requiring God to self-identify as the God of his fathers: Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Perhaps we can see here the skillful pen of 5th century writers reconnecting a break in the fragments of oral memory between Joseph and Moses to bridge a period during which because of their enslavement the Hebrews seem to have forgotten their God.

God asks Moses to reintroduce God to the Hebrews by carrying a message of hope to them. Moses tries to avoid God’s request. He anxiously asks God  – why will they believe me even if I take them your message?

God does something very interesting at this point. He gives Moses a new name to take to use – instructing him to tell the Hebrews that –I am who I am– has sent me to you. The God of their fathers resurfaces into Hebrew consciousness – not as a God of distant memories revived but  henceforth to be known as YHWHYahweh, a God of future hope and promise.

We often miss the distinction between the wilderness and a place beyond the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of lost dreams and broken hopes. The place beyond the wilderness is a new place of hope. This is where the work of history is done, not in the wilderness of memory, but beyond the wilderness where new connections are made – ones we wish for a different future.

Beyond the wilderness is a metaphor for a place that is no-longer-familiar to us – in which experience is no longer imprisoned within our familiar expectations. As we listen carefully, we can’t avoid the question: are we willing to enter a new landscape, one beyond the familiar, to encounter a God – no longer defined by fading memory – but a God of vibrant present-time hope and future possibility?

2019, the last time I preached on Exodus 3:1-15. 2019 was a very different world. It was a world in which we were still captive to what Timothy Snyder refers to as the belief in inevitability – which is the political propaganda promise of endless prosperity and well being.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we entered upon a set of assumptions that liberal democracy would inevitably spread prosperity well being. Through the engine of global capitalism the values of individualism and prosperity would advance through economic mutual self-interest.

Following upon the disruption of the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has up ended this phase of history.

In a matter of weeks our long-cherished belief in the inevitability of democracy’s onward march fueled by economic progress has collapsed.

We are shocked to awaken to find that Vladimir Putin does not share our belief in inevitability. We now suspect him of having lost his marbles simply because it’s finally dawned on us that he actually sees the world quite differently from us. How is that even possible, we ask? He must be irrational, we respond.

Putting suggestions about his mental state to one side, the situation we waken to presents us with the uncomfortable question: was our belief in inevitability mistaken – blinding us to the reality of the world as it is rather than as we wanted to see it?

The answer to the question seems to be a resounding yes. We thought Putin shared his own version of our concepts of the importance of geopolitical advantage and the economic security as the basis for a stable society. It’s a shock to find he doesn’t care about either of these things. His invasion is not about pushing back against NATO no matter what he says. He doesn’t care about the economic pain of sanctions on ordinary Russians. Ordinary economic realities are distorted when your own net wealth is in excess of one hundred billion dollars, and you are surrounded by a small sycophantic kleptocracy who owe their survival to you.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is fueled by his mystical belief in an enduring Russian imperium. To this end he seems to believe that Russia cannot be Russia without the colonization of Ukraine. Like all mystical delusions – his belief is impervious to inconvenient facts. On this subject, Timothy Snyder’s analysis of Putin’s motivating beliefs in his conversation with Ezra Klein is well worth listening to.

All of this is by way of reflecting upon how differently we hear the story of the call of Moses in 2022 from how we heard it in 2019. The blinkers of inevitability falling from our eyes invites us away from spiritually individualistic interpretations of scripture in favor of Biblical commentary as a spiritual reflection on the nature of society -as in – what kind of society are we committed to building for the future?

The I am name God reveals to Moses pulsates with ambiguity. Ambiguity of meaning is a wonderful characteristic of Hebrew – one completely lost to us in translation. The Hebrew I am who I am, suggests two ambiguous readings shimmering and oscillating between I am who I have been, and I am who I will be.  Freed from inherited memories passing a history we are invited to forge connections that open us to who God might now become for us. More importantly, who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future hope and possibility?

God declares his new name to Moses as a promise of hope for a beleaguered people – hope for a future different from their past.

There is a difference between memory – the impressions we are given and history – the connections that we work to make if we wish.

Timothy Snyder

The resistance of the Ukrainian people in the face of the Russian onslaught is not a defense of their impressions from past memory. They seem remarkably unburdened by impressions of the past. They are forging history through connections they are choosing to make in the present – to take them into a new future. In this sense Ukraine has a future in a way that Russia does not. Would that such energy and imagination revitalize our own jaded sense of national identity – all to vulnerable to manipulation by impressions from our past that distract us from choosing the connections necessary that will build hope in the future.

The call of Moses in 2022 is heard as an encounter with God beyond the wilderness of the recently known. In this new place like Moses, we hear God’s new name. No longer a God of inevitability -as in- I am who I have always been, but as I am who I am now becoming, a God of promised hope.

Who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future possibility? To God’s new name he attaches an invitation: will you come with me?

Who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future possibility? To God’s new name he attaches an invitation: will you come with me?

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