If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, November 7, 2009

From every common bush: a sermon on Exodus 3:3-4

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. 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. Exodus 3: 3-4

A burning bush ignites everyday at Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In the small chapel of this ancient fortress cloister is a stained glass window of the burning bush. It flames in orange and yellow each day as the sun rises behind it. It is a reminder that the bush is still burning. God is still calling us from the common places of our lives.

God calls us from the midst of our everyday lives. The story of Moses' call from an ordinary bush reveals to us a God who calls out to us from within the world, from the midst of common places. The rabbis spoke of God's presence in the bush as "divine condescension." Moses was tending his sheep when God called him from an ordinary bush. Some have tried to explain the phenomenon of the burning bush as a case of St. Elmo's fire or that it was a particular desert bush that blooms bright flowers. What really made that bush burn was the fiery presence of God. An extraordinary God ignited that ordinary bush.

Moses encountered God in a common place. Moses was not kneeling with hands folded in a stained glassed sanctuary before a smoking stone altar. God called out to Moses while he was tending sheep. It would be like God calling us while we were typing on the computer or vacuuming the living room carpet. God shows up while Moses is on the job. And God speaks to him from an ordinary bush. The Sacred breaks in upon us from within our secular experiences. God speaks to us through that which is utterly human. We encounter God through that which is common and ordinary. It is God's presence which ignites the moment. Poet Elizabeth Barret Browning put the truth in this way:

Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only the one who sees
takes off their shoes.

God speaks to us from the midst of everyday life. Have you ever had this kind of experience? It's late at night. You sit alone in the living room. The light from the TV burns up the dark like a retreat campfire. A voice speaks: "Hundreds of homeless will spend this night on the cold streets of the city." At other times you might just Iisten to such news with half an ear. But this time the words of this matter-of-fact report burn deep inside you. You feel as if something or someone is calling upon you to do something, anything.

Or you get a call from a friend from work. It's late in the evening. She has been having problems with her husband. She asks you if you might be able to come over and talk. You tell her your children are all asleep in bed. A soft voice responds, "I understand." As you listen to the silence on the other end of the phone, a voice begins to speak to you. It’s not your friend talking. Neither is it just your guilty
conscience. Something calls from the silence and seems to speak your name. And you must respond.

If you have had such experiences, then possibly you can understand Moses'encounter. From out of ordinary places and common human experiences we sense we are being called forth. Everyday experiences burst into flame with the presence of something which is utterly holy. A voice larger than life itself calls us forth. And we must respond. From the midst of everyday life God calls us.

And often the reason God calls us forth is to send us to people in need. God needed a servant like Moses to deliver his oppressed people held in bondage. It's not a question of whether or not God could have delivered Israel without human assistance. God's modus operandi is through human instruments. God needs people like you and me who will express the intents and purposes ill God through concrete human actions. The divine always works through the human. God's care is expressed through human caring. God's compassion is expressed through human compassion.

There is a story of Moses that says that he was one day grazing his flock and noticed that a little goat had strayed away, so Moses ran after it for fear that it would get lost and die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness. Suddenly, from a distance, Moses saw the little goat stop and drink deeply from a stream. He then understood that the goat was thirsty and why it had left the flock. When Moses came near he said,"My dear little goat! Had I known that you were so thirsty I would not have ran after you." After the goat quenched its thirst Moses placed it on his shoulders and carried it all the way back to the flock. "The goat is weak and young," he caringly thought, "therefore I must carry it." When God saw what Moses had done, God was greatly pleased and said to him, "Deep is your compassion, O Moses. Because of your compassion to this little animal, I will use you to show my compassion. You will shepherd my people Israel."

God's lovingkindness is expressed through human love and kindness. God's power to liberate works in cooperation with human initiative. God needed a human deliverer to liberate the Hebrew slaves. So, God called Moses. God still needs people who will express God's compassion for hurting humanity. So, God continues to call and send forth people into the world God calls and sends people like Harriet Tubman, a woman called "Moses" by her people. She helped transport slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. At night you might have heard the low whistle of the train near the slave cabins, or a bit of the signal song "Go Down Moses." In the morning another group of slaves would have been delivered from Pharoah's plantations. God calls and sends people like Peter Dyck, the Mennonite Central Committee leader who helped transport a group of Russian Mennonites through the Red Sea of Germany to their new homelands in South America.

God also calls and sends ordinary people like you and me. God calls and sends people to assist the ongoing work of refugee centers like the Catholic Worker houses. God calls and sends people to do voluntary service work in low income areas in the U.S. God calls and sends men and women to enter pastoral ministries and to plant churches in places like Los Angeles or as agricultural development workers in Bangladesh or Africa. But, God may be simply be calling you to reach out to that co-worker in distress or to go to a Sunday School room where there are five or six children who need someone to teach them the story of Moses and about our mighty God who still liberates hurting and exploited peoples. God still sees the needs of people with eyes of compassion. It may the needs of oppressed people in Latin America or the simple needs of a neighbor. God sees. And God sends people to respond
to those needs.

The problem seems to be that when God calls us, we tend to make excuses. When God called Moses he had full deck of excuses up his sleeve. Moses responded to God's call with excuses like, "But...but God, I didn't get my name in Who's who. When I go to Pharoah he will say, "Who's he?” But...but God, I don't even know your name. Is it Harold? Harold be thy name? But, God…I'm always stumbling over my words. But...but...but. According to one Jewish Midrash it took God seven
days to convince Moses to go to Pharoah.

The call of Moses fits the typical literary pattern of the call of a prophet. God comes on the scene. God calls the prophet to perform a task. The prophet resists (most often with excuses). The call is repeated. Finally, a sign is foretold. Resisting God's call with excuses is a part of the literary pattern of the call of a prophet.

But excuses also seem to be a part of a human pattern when responding to God’s call. We all make excuses for our inadequacies and mistakes. We often give pretty lame reasons for why we went through the red light or were late for work or didn't prepare for the test. When we feel inadequate we make excuses for why we can't do this or that. When we do something wrong, we try to shift the load of blame off our own shoulders, We may excuse ourselves simply by how we word our responses. Like these awkwardly worded statements found on actual insurance forms reporting accidents: "The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck the front end." I didn’t realize that trees can attack cars. O how about this doozie: "To avoid hitting the bumper of the car in front, I hit the pedestrian!" Would want to damage two good cars!

Charles R. Snyder, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, has studied excuse making for six years. He says, "Excuses are a way of finding grace in a world in which we are imperfect." (1) Moses knows he is imperfect for the job God has called him to perform, so he makes excuses. God calls us. And we make excuses, "But God, I'm just too busy. But God, I don't have the skills or training. But God, I don't
speak gooder." "But, but, but. " But God… doesn't crush us for all our excuses. God is graceful. God knows we are imperfect. In spite of our imperfections and excuses, God still calls us.

We have the assurance that God will be with us as we go. God promised a reluctant and imperfect Moses, "I will be with you." Moses had the assurance that as he took upon himself the task to which God had called him, God would be present all along the way. God would be working through Moses. And the sign of GOD's presence was not the flaming bush. It was the simple promise that Moses would worship with God's people on that same mountain following the exodus. That's all Moses had to go on. A promise. In the end he would bring the people to the mountain. Not much to go on, but there was the promise. Moses had to respond to God's call with only a simple promise of God's unseen presence.

Jesus has told us, "Go into all nations and make disciples." We are to be instruments, servants of God, to go on Christ's behalf to a hurting world in need of the liberating news of the gospel. That is our calling. Christ is God's fiery presence calling us to go down to a people in bondage to suffering and sin. We are God's human instruments of liberation. And whether the task be great or small, whether or not we feel adequate for our mission, we still have the promise; "I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world." There’s the promise. Christ will be with us.

Whenever God calls, God also promises. God promises to be with you. Whatever God may call you to do for the sake of people who need your presence and compassion, you have the assurance of God's presence. God may not speak from a flaming bush. God may not show up as a cloud by day and a fire by night. God may simply be in the confidence we have from a simple promise like "wherever two or three are gathered..." or an assurance within you that says, "You will know I have been with you when you come out on the other side of this situation you are facing."

You may not be a Moses. You may not have such a dramatic encounter with God that you feel like taking off your shoes. You may not be called upon to face an empire. But, God still calls you. And God sends you. And God promises to be with you as you go.

Can you hear God calling? From the wildernesses of your life? From your common and ordinary routines? Even from within the crackling of the words of this sermon as common as a bush? Can you see the burning of God's presence? God calls out to you. The bush is still burning.

For earth is crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God
But only the one who sees
takes off their shoes.


(1) John M. Leighty, "Excuses, excuses, excuses: Everybody has a few," Houston Chronicle, August 16, 1987.

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