The Moral Mediocracy of Midian

January 15, 1995


The Moral Mediocrity of Midian


In the church I served before this one, the sermon title for the next Sunday was advertised on a signboard out front on a very busy street in hopes people passing by might be lured to come and listen. I’m glad we have no such signboard, with its pressure to come up with an irresistible sermon title, because my grade this morning would be an “F.” Imagine a car passing by this church earlier in the week, with the driver saying to family and friends, “See that beautiful building? I want us to go to church there next Sunday. Tell us what the sign says, Jimmy. What’s the minister planning to talk about?” And Jimmy looks — and does a double take — and says, “You’re not gonna believe this, Mom! He’s going to talk about something called ‘The Moral Mediocrity of Midian.’” Scratch one carload!
“Moral mediocrity” is bad enough, totally uninspired, but at least we can make some sense of it. We know what is. My guess is that most of us practice it. We’re not wicked, but we’re not Mother Teresa; we’re in the middle when it comes to morality — and in the middle means ordinary, barely adequate. It’s a “C” grade, and to get a “C” in morality means that we’re not very passionate about high and noble causes, that we’re content to get by, make ends meet, avoid taking dangerous risks.
So, dull as it sounds, we at least have some idea what moral mediocrity is, and that a sermon on that topic would probably make us uncomfortable, but what about that final, unfamiliar word in the title? Suppose I were to ask you, “What do these 3 questions have in common? Where is Samarkand? Where is Timbuctoo? Where is Midian? The only thing I know which they have in common is that if your travel agent suggested a trip to any one of them, your first question would probably be, “Where in the world is it?” So if a sermon about the moral mediocrity of Midian is to have any relevance at all, the first things you want to know are: where is Midian and what does it stand for? The location question is not too hard for a good student of the Old Testament: Midian no longer exists as an actual country, but once upon a time it was somewhere east of Egypt in what we now know as the Sinai Desert. As for what it stands for in my alliterative title, that will be the whole point of the morning message, which now begins.
If I could take you to the Transport Room of the Starship Enterprise and beam you down to just the right place in the land of Midian at a certain moment in time, say roughly 13 centuries before Christ, I could introduce you to a man named Moses who has been hiding for years after committing a murder. You might not know that just to look at him because he’s a strong, possibly handsome man who appears to be living a very conventional life. After barely escaping the Egyptian police, many years earlier, he has hidden himself away in the lonely desert land of Midian, married a girl named “Little Bird,” fathered a fine boy named Gershom, and gone into business with his father-in-law. His biography, in the Biblical book of Exodus, doesn’t tell us whether he had shared his guilty secret with his new family: that he had once been a rebel, and in a moment of anger had killed an Egyptian guard. But by now he has “settled down,” as we say, and life has been routine and uneventful for a long time….until one day, out by himself in the desert near a sacred mountain, he has a strange religious experience.
According to the one who tells this story, he sees a mysterious bush that burns without burning up, and since any interruption from the boring life of herding sheep is welcome, he walks over for a closer look….and suddenly he is in a conversation with God. You may read this in a very literal way, if you like, and be embraced as a member of this church, but as most of you would guess I do not read it or preach it as a purely literal event. I think the author has used symbolic language to describe a genuine, life-changing experience that happened to Moses one lonely day in a sacred place that awakened his conscience. The desert is a good place for that kind of thing: three of the world’s great religions were born in the solitude of the desert where one has the time and the silence to ponder the meaning and mystery of life. Without using the symbolism of magical fire to stand for God, as the Biblical author does, I would describe the experience of Moses that day like this: he has been remembering his own people, still suffering as slaves back in Egypt, and some unusual event — perhaps the sight of a burning bush — becomes for him a word from God, a call to go back to his first home and lead his people to freedom. I happen to believe in the natural laws of God’s world, so I take the magical part of this story with a sizeable grain of salt, but I also believe that any object, at any moment, may come to be more than itself….may become the vehicle of a new revelation. I used to see a burning bush for weeks at a time in my back yard, blazing with color, and for me it’s a very short step from celebrating that beauty to celebrating the author of it, and then going on to consider what kind of beauty the author intends for my life. I’m not much for the Cecil B. DeMille school of religion; I think Hollywood lets us off the hook by playing up the sensational and the incredible, instead of the miracle of the ordinary when we see it in the right frame of mind. The remarkably gifted Annie Dillard knows how the natural may become more than itself: “If you’ve ever been to Vermont in October,” she says, “ you’ve seen lots of burning bushes.” For her, there are miracles everywhere that have nothing to do with magic….sights that make you know God is reminding you to take off your shoes because the ground where you stand is holy ground.
But enough of that, because it really isn’t the aim of this sermon to demytholo-gize Hebrew scripture. If a magical bush is substance for you, rather than symbol, then by all means hang on to it, but do please go beyond it with me to find a meaning that can put us in touch with some actual reality in our own lives. It is not always easy to know exactly what that reality is, because we fantasize and project an image and create a character by our words on stage until we buy into the role and are identified with it. Some of you remember when Robert Young played Marcus Welby, M. D. on the popular TV series by the same name. People would come up to Mr. Young in public and ask him for medical advice, unable to separate the role from the person. Mr. Young was not in doubt; he knew what he was, but that isn’t true of all of us, and one thing I want to say this morning is that Moses at the foot of the mountain had a revelation of his true self….and that the same thing can happen to us. These stories become remote and unreal , and fail to touch us, because Moses gets turned into some grand towering superman with whom our little lives have no connection. I preached one beautiful Sunday in a Congregational church in downtown Los Angeles where Charlton Heston used to be a guest speaker on occasion in years past— sometimes, I’ve heard, just to stand up and read the Ten Commandments. Surely I don’t have to explain why — not if you’ve seen that face and heard that voice when both were at their best. One woman at that church said, “My God, he sounds just like Moses!” Which means, of course, since she had never heard Moses, that she was sure Moses had sounded like Charlton Hesston.
So Moses becomes a matinee idol, handsome and eloquent — to which my response is: Piffle, poppycock, and balderdash! Moses had a lisp or a stammer or some speech handicap; he said himself he wasn’t much of a talker, so his brother was appointed to go be his mouthpiece. I doubt he was as handsome as Mr. Hesston, or as grand as Michelangelo’s statue, or even as impressive, physically, as some of the men in this room. What he had was a conscience and a deep sense of compassion for the people he left behind years before, and to such a person the voice of God may come in unexpected ways. I think it came to Moses, as it does to people often, in the form of a call he wanted very much to resist, and finally couldn’t. The storyteller puts it all in the way of his culture at the time: that is, God is anthropomorphic, manlike, conceived in physical human terms, so the creator of the universe “comes down” to visit and chat with Moses….and the point of the story is that God says, “I need you to go back and rescue your people.” I’ve said I felt sure Moses had been thinking about this for a long, long time — that the voice of God is the voice of his own conscience – but that on this occasion, something wakes him up and touches his heart until he finds it harder to resist.
Not that he doesn’t try. “Who am I to go that Egyptian godking and bring out my people — excuse me, your people?” But the God in his conscience this day won’t let him off the hook. “I will be with you,” God says. Not “I will do it for you,” but I will be with you, so get going!” Moses has a job and a wife and a child….and now, suddenly, he has a calling. I want us to pause for a moment and think about this business of a calling. We tend to restrict the idea to ministers, to whom we are likely to say, “When did you get your call? How did it come?’ — expecting some mystical or visionary story. Well, we need to demystify that experience. It isn’t something limited to professional clergy; it is part of the life of any person who has a passion, a vision, a dream that is above and beyond the physical necessities of life. We are in this place, presumably, because we have some sense of a calling. The word is used often in Christian scripture, where the people in Corinth are asked to “Consider your call,” and those in Ephesus are urged “to lead a life worthy of your calling.” “I pray,” the Apostle says, “that God may make you worthy of his call.” So-o-o-o-o-o-o,
What is yours?…………….I’m not asking what you do to make a living, or what you do for recreation, but what is the dream, the passion, the commitment to something beyond work and vacation that elevates your life? I was on the running track at the Y a few days ago when a young woman who was once my wife’s student, and knows us both, fell in step with me and started talking. I heard about her four children and her two miscarriages and about a wonderful trip she won in a contest, but most of all I heard about her husband. He has a factory job, which pays the rent but doesn’t satisfy him, and he is depressed so much of the time that, as she put it, “he may be only 37 but he’s an old man, with no life, no excitement in him at all.”
I didn’t particularly want to be a counselor on the track at the Y, but I became one anyway, and among other things I tried to explain that most of us, to be truly happy, need a calling, a dream, a passion that elevates us above the chores we do to feed the kids and pay the mortgage, and what was his? As you have guessed, he has no sense at all of calling or mission. He broods upon himself….on how the frenetic four boys wear him out, on how high the bills are, on how long the house payments will last, on how soon he can get a new pair of shoes. Somehow I think Moses may have gotten into that kind of rut before his call came, and when it came it almost scared him to death. Because it is the nature of a calling to involve some risks. Martin Luther King had a calling. Nelson Mandela had a calling. Even F. W. DeClerk, in South Africa, reached a point where he had a calling. Somebody on your block has a calling. Some of us in this room, I truly hope, have a calling.
It is not necessarily a comfortable thing. It’s easier to stay in Midian, to play it safe, to obey what for many of us is the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not climb out on a limb.” In our Biblical tale this morning, that may have been an accurate description of the life of Moses….before the burning bush! And then, abruptly, the call comes. His life needs to expand — not into a vacation on the coast, or a tour to the pyramids, but into a huge challenge that along with the good stuff will mean trouble, frustration, and occasional despair.
It’s meant to be a parable of our own lives, this story, the hope being that those of us who have seen no burning bush and heard no voice calling, will discover in some startling moment what it is we are meant to do with the very best part of ourselves. In George Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc, he put these words in the mouth of the Bishop of Beauvais, by then an old man: “I did a cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing. You must see it.” It’s easy to test wht he says: Take a drive. Pick any big city, get off the expressways that carry you over the slums on stilts of concrete denial, and see what’s under the bridge. The bumper sticker I saw last week read: “If you want peace, work for justice.” In other words, don’t accept the moral mediocrity of the Midian you may be living in at the moment.
People are constantly leaving Midian, to face the challenge to which the voice of conscience calls them. Lee Atwater, some of you will recall, lay on his deathbed and hoped the Willie Horton ad was not the defining moment of his life. George Wallace, Alabama governor and angry racist, got a bullet instead of a burning bush, and moved out of Midian never to return. People change. In the desert of their lives they stumble across a burning bush, and hear a voice, and they are never their same dull selves again. In the church we sing a hymn about such a calling: “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult/ Of our lives’ wild restless sea.” I thought about those words a few days ago when I did a funeral for a young man who died of a drug overdose, a guy who was fun to be with, lived recklessly on the edge of danger, but whose life, the family told me, really was a kind of “wild, restless sea.” Well, the imagery doesn’t matter much, does it? Restless sea, burning desert — it’s all the same: without a calling, either one is ultimately boring.
The ideal way to end such a sermon would be to define a calling for everyone actually listening in this room, but I can’t. I do well to know my own. You have to be your own Moses….herd the sheep, faithfully; ask yourself in the middle of the night, “Is there anything truly good which I am meant to do?; and in the land of Midian, where perhaps you dwell at the moment, watch for burning bush and listen for the voice. You won’t be asked to deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt….but you may be asked to deliver your family from misery you cause, or some friend from trouble, or perhaps yourself….from yourself.
I discovered just last night, and quite by lucky accident, exactly the right question to ask at the end of this sermon, a question I think you will not forget for a while. Listen: “If you were arrested for being Christianswould there be enough evidencew to convict you?”

We marvel, gracious God, at lives lifted up by “something more,” by loyalty to some calling that puts work and family and friendship in perspective, and makes them better than they can evere be if they exist only for what they give us, and never for what they can make it possible for us to give. Amen.