A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law
Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he
came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger
appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the
bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to
himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t
4 When the
Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses,
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the
Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are
standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your
father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face
because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the
Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their
cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve
come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that
land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and
honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the
Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the
Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the
Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you
to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses
said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of
12 God said,
“I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After
you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on
13 But Moses
said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your
ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s
name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to
Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God
continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors,
Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my
name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Today we are beginning a summer sermon series, a three-week series called,
“Reaching for the Promise.”For this
series, we’re going old school – Old Testament, Hebrew scriptures, if you want
to be precise – as we retrace the Exodus story, starting with slavery in Egypt,
to wandering in the wilderness, to looking into the promised land.It’s an opportunity to be reminded that God
is always calling us into a preferred future, that there is some vision, some
hope, some promise out there from God, one toward which we are called to
stretch and grow in order to reach.
The Exodus is the central story of God’s deliverance in the Hebrew
scriptures.To this day, when our Jewish
friends celebrate Passover, they are remembering and commemorating God’s
deliverance of them as a people – from slavery to freedom.
And the story begins with Moses.Moses, the Hebrew child left in a basket in the river, picked up by the
Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a prince in the palace.When he killed an Egyptian slave-driver who
was particularly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, he fears being discovered and
punished, so he flees to Midian, where he marries and takes care of his
He led the flock out to the edge of the wilderness, somewhere out beyond
Stokesdale, probably, somewhere, well, we don’t know exactly where it was, but
it was someplace Moses knew quite well.But there, he saw a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed, and as he
approached, God called out from the bush, “Moses!Moses!”And when Moses responded, God told him not to come any closer until he
removed his sandals, for the ground on which he was standing was holy ground.
You ever stood on holy ground?Not
sacred ground, but holy ground.What’s
the difference?Simply put, we define
what’s sacred.God defines what’s
holy.I spend a lot of time in and out
of churches, and I can tell pretty quickly if it’s a sacred place or a holy
one.Sacred places have lots of rules
that protect the interests of those who are already there but can be
inhospitable toward newcomers, often a lot of signs that say, “Don’t:” Don’t turn
around here, don’t park there, don’t sit there, don’t run, don’t open, don’t
smile, don’t have any fun – be so self-conscious about every little thing you
do there’s no possible way you can really connect with God here.We don’t need any more sacred places in the
world; we already have too many!What we
do need, however, are more holy places, places where the presence of God is so
palpable there is no mistaking where we are.
When God beckons us toward the holy, maybe we take off our shoes as a sign of
respect, maybe as a way to connect with God all the way down to our toes.Last week at Annual Conference, at the
ordination service on Saturday night, one of our friends went across stage and
knelt in front of the bishop in order for him to lay hands on her and ordain
her, and she was barefoot, because she was on holy ground.I have friends who kick their shoes off
before they preach, a reminder that when they step behind the pulpit they are
standing on holy ground.
As Moses talks with God in the burning bush, he asks two foundational
questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”They are two questions we all ask when we come into the holy presence of
Though Moses questions what qualifies him for a conversation with and
calling from God, the whole thing has to do with something of Moses’
heart.Remember, Moses killed an
Egyptian slave-driver because he couldn’t stand to see him brutally oppressing
the Hebrew slaves.He saw injustice and
oppression, and something burned within him as if to say, “There must be more
to life than this, because this just isn’t right.”And God felt the same way.God saw within Moses something that reflected
God’s heart on the matter.
Moses had thought and prayed a lot about the atrocities he had seen.He was deeply concerned about them.And so, when God said, “I have seen the
oppression of my people, and I have heard their cries,” Moses was thinking,
“Finally!God is going to do something!”
but then God says, “Now get going,” and Moses realizes God’s not in this thing
alone; Moses is part of the plan.
You’ve got to be careful what you pray for.God just might answer.God hears,
but then God calls, God sends.Moses
tries to find any plausible excuse as to why God must be speaking to someone else – someone without his past,
someone with more time, someone with more skill.Things are finally going well in his life –
he’s just made a move, new wife, new job – he’s comfortable, and now God wants
him to leave all that?
Who is Moses?That’s what he was
asking.Simply put: Moses is the one God
called.No other requirement is
needed.And when God calls, the things
that break God’s heart will also break yours, and that holy discontent that
burns inside you is nothing other than God’s call to do something on behalf of
those who suffer injustice and oppression, because God is the ultimate
liberator; it’s who God is.
We tend to think that God is at work “out there” somewhere – God is
speaking and doing things somewhere strange and exotic, far away, among people
whose names we cannot pronounce.
People have made pilgrimages to such places – to visit shrines and kneel
before altars in places where God has shown up, and I have been among those
pilgrims, from time to time.In a few
weeks, I will take several of you to England to visit some of Methodism’s holy
sites as we re-introduce ourselves to John and Charles Wesley and walk upon
their holy ground.In February, I will
take some of you to Israel as we walk in the places where Jesus walked, and if
you want to go, let me know!I have
touched the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born, placed my hand in the
notch in the rock where the cross was placed, and it was truly holy ground.
Like many of you, I have been on mission trips to do God’s work in far away
places, arrogantly thinking I was taking
God somewhere only to discover that God was already alive and well and hard at
work long before this typically ego-centric American showed up on the scene,
and indeed, the faith of the people there was far more robust than my own, and
I know I walked upon holy ground there, too.
I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.I will continue to take spiritual pilgrimage
and lead others on them my entire life, as we seek out holy ground, but I can never
let such experiences blind me to the reality that God is not only “there;” God
is also “here.”
We simply miss it.Full calendars,
busy lives, boredom, familiarity, our own comfort – all reasons we miss God at
work right under our noses, walking past holy ground and turning aside from
burning bushes, failing to hear God speak our names or dream, for even a
moment, that God is doing anything out of the ordinary here or through us.
Greg Jones tells a story from his days as a pastor of dropping by the home
of a family who had visited his church that morning.He rang the bell, and their young son came to
the open screen door, looked at Greg for a minute, and turned back into the
house, yelling, “Mom!God’s here!”
Would it be that we could just as assuredly say, “God’s here.”God shows up in the places God is expected.Church, it’s time for us to have the same
expectation about God showing up “here,” and realize that God is already
calling our names, that every bush around us is already burning with the
invitation to respond and be about God’s mission, to leave what is comfortable
and familiar and step into something new and unfamiliar, not for our sake but
for God’s, not because we want to but because God wants us to, because all
around us are people who are oppressed and bound by forces they cannot control,
forces that control them, people who are alienated and isolated and alone and
wondering if anyone is even listening, if anyone even cares, and it turns out
that yes, God has heard their cries,
and has called and sent us to do something about it. What if we are the answer to someone else’s
prayer?What if we are following God so
closely that when people see us coming they turn back into the house and yell,
You don’t have to go far to get to work in God’s name.You can, and from time to time, you
should.But, you don’t have to go across
the world to love God and love your neighbor.Usually, you can just go across the street.God hears their cries too, you know, and the
bush that’s burning might very well be in their backyard or yours.You may be closer to holy ground than you’d
You don’t have to go far away to find those who are being crushed and
oppressed, whose spirits are bent and breaking, who are wondering, “Is there
more to life that this?” and if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that
you are the one God is calling to answer, “Yes, yes there is more to life than
this.There is so much more to life than
this!You have been heard, you are
loved, you matter – to God and to me – now, how about we go and follow God,
Moses encountered God as he was tending the flock of his father-in-law –
something he had done countless times.He knew these rocks and hills, every streambed, the lay of the
land.The bush was likely one he has
passed hundreds or thousands of times without giving it a second thought – it
was a bush like any other in the landscape.Not a sacred bush, not a magic bush – just a regular, ordinary, bush.
Yet how like God to encounter us in something we see every day as we go
about work we always do in a place we already know.How like God to call us to the holy through
something ordinary.How like God to use
ordinary people for holy work.
Is there more to life than the ordinary?More than oppression and isolation and loneliness?More than working to make a living, more than
working for the weekend, more than what we see and know?Absolutely, when God shows up.
Let’s expect God to show up, here and now, in the familiar and what is
close at hand – and let’s just see if God meets our expectation.Let’s expect God to show up.
When we put the expectation on God to show up for us, don’t be surprised if
God asks us to show up for God.We hear
our name called, and then we are sent.Better to be off about God’s business than stuck in place.If you stand on holy ground for too long,
your feet might get burned, so get moving.There’s work to do.God’s people
are crying out.
Who is God?Who are we?Is there more to life than this?