This sermon was preached on September 29, 2013 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Exodus 2:23-25, 3:1-15, 4:10-17. You can hear the sermon below.
Our story this morning is a classic one. Moses and the burning bush. One of those pivotal moments in the Judeo-Christian tradition…a story about the call of Moses. A story about the miracle of the burning bush that was not burnt up. A story about holy places that require us to take our shoes off. A story about learning the name of God.
And that’s generally how I’ve approached this story in the past. A story about a miraculous burning bush, and about Moses’s call by God; a call that he certainly didn’t feel prepared for and didn’t think he could handle. But one that God was calling him to nonetheless, and one that came with God’s promise to give him the support that he needed. And that works…that’ll preach.
But listen to what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes about this story, and particularly about the burning bush:
“The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”
Whenever we pay attention.
Maybe it’s because I’m married to a spiritual director, or because I have been in spiritual direction myself for the past three or four years, but paying attention…is something that I’ve been trying to do a lot more of recently in my life – I don’t always succeed at it, because…
…it’s not easy. With phones buzzing in our pockets, and email notifications on our computers, and telemarketers invading our home just as we’re sitting down to eat dinner…life is full of distractions and things that pull our attention this way and that…
“There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”
In the Jewish tradition, midrash is a form of rabbinic literature about the Hebrew Bible that attempts to fill in the many “gaps” left in-between stories in the Bible. I want to share with you a modern midrash that Rabbi Marc Gellman has written about our story this morning. It’s entitled “Watching the Burning Bush Burn” and can be found in his collection of stories called “Does God have a Big Toe?”:
I love this retelling of the story, and I think it speaks to exactly what Rabbi Kushner said regarding the burning bush.
Was it miraculous for a bush to burn and not burn up? Sure, probably.
Was that the point? Maybe not.
Perhaps it was indeed a test to see who would be willing to sit long enough to even notice that it wasn’t burning up…and perhaps that person would be the one whom God would choose to carry out God’s mission here on earth with God’s people.
During college, I decided I wanted really lucrative summer jobs, so I spent all of my summers working at Presbyterian church camps. Two of those summers were spent at a small camp nestled in the Sawtooth Mountains, just outside of Sun Valley, Idaho. We closed each day with a talk and singing around a campfire.
It was always the staff’s responsibility to extinguish the fire each night, and if we didn’t have to get back to camp immediately, we would just sit close to the fire and relax a bit after a hectic day with kids.
I’ve always been a bit mesmerized by watching fire…it’s such a beautiful thing, while having the potential to be such a destructive force as well. But we would sit there for 10, 15, 20 minutes, just staring into that fire…watching as it slowly got smaller and smaller…and eventually just turned into a pile of hot embers…
It was always a calming and peaceful way to end our days…with that time set aside to just be….to be still…and to be in the moment.
And maybe for us, during those summers, those campfires were our burning bushes. The moments in our days during the craziness of all that goes into planning and leading a week-long camp for 60 junior high youth, when we could stop and simply pay attention.
I think one question that we can all leave today thinking about is…what are the burning bushes in our own lives? What are those places and spaces that others walk by all…day…long…that might in fact be holy places, places that would cause us to take off our shoes, if we would only stop, and pay attention long enough to see it?
“There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”
When Moses stops to pay attention…it’s clearly a life changing moment for him. We see that he enters into this holy space, a thin place, a liminal place, as John talked about last week, and we see that it is in this space that we get into the back and forth dialogue with God that culminates in Moses’ call to be the one to bring God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.
When Moses takes the time to stop and pay attention, his thoughts turn inward and he begins asking himself, “Who am I?”
“Who am I to go to Pharaoh?”
“Who am I to be your messenger?”
“Who am I to carry that message, I don’t even speak good!”
In the midst of this conversation, Moses is clearly reflecting on who he is, what gifts he has, and doesn’t have, and how all of this fits in with his own vision of himself.
“Who am I?” is a question we all ask ourselves at various points in our lives. As our young people get into high school and college, these question of identity are at the forefront of everything they’re doing and thinking. Young people go through a process of trying on different versions of themselves, trying on different beliefs and world views, and figuring out how all of those feel and what works best for them.
But it’s not just young people who ask these questions…as we go throughout our lives, we all encounter times in our lives when we still ask the question, “Who am I?” Perhaps it’s a change in jobs or careers, a change in a relationship, a death of a parent, sibling or child, or simply a moment in our lives when we acknowledge a desire for a change in some way.
“Who am I?” is one of those questions that lies at the depths of our core, and one that we are forever trying to decipher as we are on this journey of life. And it is questions like these that we begin to encounter when we take the time to stop and pay attention.
Now, I should confess to you that I didn’t really read a lot of John Calvin in seminary, and I certainly didn’t read the entirety of his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” – but I did read the first three sentences. Calvin opens up the Institutes with these lines:
“Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon his or himself without immediately turning their thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom they live and move.” (John Calvin: Institutes I: I, 1-2)
The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are intricately woven together…and it’s not easy to figure out which one comes before the other…and we see that in our story this morning.
Moses moves from a question of self-identity, “Who am I?” to another equally existential and core question – one of relationship: “Who are you?” And in this context, it is directed at the divine being he’s in conversation with.
Who are you?
I’m sure that many of us have asked God that question before…who are you? Sometimes it may come out of frustration, or doubt, or moments when we’re not quite sure we buy this whole “God” thing.
Other times it may come out of having what feels like a mystical experience of some sort, maybe something like a burning bush moment, one that completely messes with our pre-conceived notions and conceptions about who God is…
For Moses, he’s concerned about being sent out to lead God’s people out of slavery, when he doesn’t even really know who this God is…he says, “They are going to ask me, “What’s this God’s name? What am I supposed to say to them?”
Who are you?
And so God tells Moses…I am who I am or, more accurately, I will be who I will be. I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God…Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God…
Now, that would have obviously meant something to the Israelites…they had certainly heard the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…and remembered the ways in which God had made, and kept, promises to their forefathers of the faith…
And that’s good to remember how God has been active in the past…but what about now? Who is God NOW?
I think we get a bit of an answer to that question in the name that God gives, “I am who I am. I will be who I will be…” These are not names that are focused on the past…but they are present and future tense names…there is a sense of movement, that God is active, that God is up to something…
But even more than that, I think back to the first verses from our scripture passage this morning…the end of Exodus chapter 2:
“The Israelites were still groaning because of their hard work. They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God. God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked at the Israelites, and God understood.”
It’s always great when someone tells you something about who they are…but we all know that it’s easier, and perhaps more accurate, for someone’s actions to tell us about who they are…those four verses tell us that God heard…God remembered…God looked at…and God understood.
God heard their cries…their cries to God weren’t falling on deaf ears…God heard their cries.
God remembered God’s covenant…God wasn’t going to forget what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…God had made a covenant…and God remembered it.
God looked at the Israelites…God paid attention to the Israelites…God saw the conditions they were forced to live in, and God understood…and God did something about it.
God paid attention to God’s people.
Who are you, God?
A God who pays attention. A God who takes the time to stop…and pays attention to humanity, to us, to God’s creations…a God who cares for and loves God’s creations.
Who am I? Who are we?
We are people who are called to do the same…to stop.
To pay attention to God.
To pay attention to God’s creation…
To take a moment to step out of the craziness of our lives…
To pause during the shuttling of our kids to and from all of their many activities…
To sit down with someone over a cup of coffee and really stop, and listen, and hear their story…
To be on the lookout for the burning bushes in our lives, the ones that people all around us are passing by, because…oh, hey, it’s just a bush on fire…
To stop. To be still. To look at the burning bush long enough to see that there is really something special about it…to pay attention.
“For there is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”