St. Paul’s Congregational Church
Exodus 3: 1 – 15; Psalm 26
August 30, 2020 – Proper 17A
It’s been another week to keep our seatbelts fastened! Both political conventions are complete and here we go for about 65 more days of campaigning: I’m afraid it’s going to get pretty nasty at times. We hit 182,000 COVID deaths in the United States – close to 6,000,000 cases reported. Schools are still struggling whether or how to open for the fall – teachers, administrators, parents and our children are concerned. We know what we have to do to regather in person at worship but is it yet time to do that? One million more people filed for unemployment – small businesses are closing at heartbreaking rates. And the state of Louisiana, especially at the Gulf Coast, was slammed by a category 4 hurricane, bringing death and devastation along with a terrible chemical fire that forced people to lock themselves inside their homes, windows closed, told to leave their air conditioners off – if they had power at all. The state of Arkansas heard hurricane and tropical storm warnings for the first time ever! And we’ve had some effects from Laura this weekend too.
To top all of this off, yet another black man shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin – 7 times – this time leaving him paralyzed. The details are still being sorted out as to how this happened but then the next night a 17 year old white teenager, armed with an AK47, shot three protestors, killing two, injuring the third critically in the same community. We’ve seen videos of both of these events – haunting in their differences.
Maybe you watched some of the March on Washington on Friday – 57 years after that first time when we heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and where we met and heard a young John Lewis at his debut as a Civil Rights force of nature.
I suspect most of us are so very tired – maybe from not sleeping very well – but at the very least, emotionally tired. When does all this end? How does all this end? Will we ever experience the Beloved Community? Will we ever “get back to normal”, whatever that may be, whatever that may look like? Will we ever move out of this desolate wasteland?
Today we meet Moses in the story of the Burning Bush. Remember that Moses is a fugitive from justice here – he struck and killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating up a helpless slave. He had to run away to Midian to hide – and it’s here that we find him alone in a desolate wasteland of a place – a place named Mount Horeb which means just that: “wasteland, lonely, desolate place.” Fitting for our times too, isn’t it.
Here’s Moses tending sheep, trying to get his life together – he’s not in a temple or a church where we might expect to be met by God – in fact, he isn’t looking for or expecting to meet God – he’s no priest or prophet. But a bush near him bursts into flame – probably not uncommon in that area – it was and still is a terribly hot and dry area. But when Moses saw it, he must have sensed something different about this fire – the bush wasn’t consumed by the fire – it wasn’t hot. So he turns toward the bush, fascinated, curious at what he sees. God has created us as curious creatures – we want to know why, don’t we.
What makes this story speak to me is the fact that it happens to a very ordinary person in a very ordinary place – it’s a story that gives me hope.
The voice of God speaks and calls ordinary Moses – and he responds. And the voice of God and speaks and calls ordinary people like us: this story is about our own experiences too, both in dramatic and in quieter, more subtle ways too.
Sometimes God comes to us where we might least expect it. Sometimes God comes to us when we’re not looking. There may well be some of you here this morning who know first hand what that’s like – know exactly how Moses felt – to be on the run, hiding out, crouching in some lonely place. In a place where no one will find you. But, that supposedly hidden place was the very place where God found you, caught you, called you.
Something intrudes into our lives, something that we haven’t seen or noticed before, something that has no place within our usual experience – the question for us is, do we turn toward it and make some sense out of it just as Moses did?
Once Moses turns toward the strange, flaming bush, God calls out to him, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses responds, “Here I am.” And he’s told to remove his shoes – “You are standing on holy ground.”
God tells him: I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry: I know their sufferings; I have come down to deliver them; I have also seen their oppression; and then calls Abraham: So come, I will send you to Pharaoh; And God promises: I will be with you; Then we have the great Name for God: I am who I am.
It's easier to look away, isn’t it – we’re not good at intrusions into our routines – in these days of turmoil, though, we’re surrounded by burning bushes – and they’re hot – wildfires in California and Arizona, burning cities, peaceful protests turning violent, so much suffering, so many cries…it’s not so easy to turn aside, is it. Maybe that’s part of our exhaustion – it takes a lot of energy to turn away - when so much just plain seems wrong, against all that we say we believe as Christians.
Remember God’s words to Moses: I am who I am and I will be with you.
Maybe the question God is asking us in these times is “Who are you?”
As I saw parts of the March on Washington Friday and listened to the speeches, many by members of families of those black men and women whose names we’ve come to know, I was taken back to that first March 57 years ago: it wasn’t without risk to be there either – I thought again of the senior minister of my home church in Farmington who felt called to be there in Washington and nearly lost his job over it as a move to dismiss him from the pulpit arose from some people in the church. I wondered then and now what went through Mr. Lewis’ mind when he decided to go to the march even when he knew it could cost him so much – thank God it was unsuccessful. What a lesson for this teenager and my classmates to learn about the costs of discipleship, to learn more about ourselves, to wrestle with the question God asks each of us, “Who are you?” What was the vision that kept him on that path – the path of responding to God’s call?
Back to Moses: God has heard the cries of the oppressed people – Moses’ people – and is now on the move, beginning to overturn the present power structure, a move against Pharaoh. Who’s going to help God? God will take those gifts and abilities that Moses has, along with some of Moses’ weaknesses too – and use them for good in the world. And God will do the same with us. If we are open to it.
Later, Pharaoh asks Moses, “Who sent somebody like you to come and harass and command me?” Moses’ honest response: This is all the Lord’s directing. This is the Lord’s doing.
So Moses at the bush turns, listens and does what God instructs: he takes off his shoes. God with us. God calling a human to divine service. Here, on this sacred ground, God grabbed one ordinary man for extraordinary service.
So it can be for us too. Moses’ story is our story. Some of us have had God come to us at some wasteland place, when and where we least expected it. God called out the curiosity in you so that you dared to enter into conversation, into relationship with the divine. You weren’t out looking for God – to your surprise, God was and is looking for you.
You had a burning bush experience – you turned, and heard God calling you forth, enlisting you in God’s service. Maybe the voice came through your spouse, your child, a friend, a stranger, a newscast, words spoken in a crowd…or maybe it came in a quiet moment when you thought you were all alone. Or in the outstretched hand of someone in great need. I still have a picture in my mind of being with teenagers walking the streets of New York on a mission project weekend meeting a homeless woman struggling with her meager belongings to cross the street. Two of our youth, without a word but with compassionate smiles, reached out and helped her on her way. It was a breathtaking moment – holy ground on the sidewalk of New York.
You looked, listened, and acted: standing up and signing up to help with voter registration drives. Or taking part in a peaceful protest march. Or writing letters, emails to congress. Or working at a food bank, helping tutor children. Or responding to a racist remark made by a family member.
Somewhere, sometime, haven’t you have heard your name called? You heard God ask, Who are you? You, like Moses, had to say, “I’m maybe not the best person for the job, but I think I am the person you are calling to do this job.”
And all this was God’s idea – not yours. Later, if someone asked you, “What is a person like you doing in a place like this,” all you can answer is, “God called my name.”
Now, maybe this doesn’t ring true for you – this story of Moses doesn’t relate to some experience of call that you have had, just wait. It will. Amid all the nervousness, apprehension, exhaustion, excitement, wondering, maybe even fear that you’ll feel. Trust me on this – but even more importantly –trust God.
Those burning bush moments, those encounters with the sacred, are around us: as individuals and as part of the Body of Christ here at St. Paul’s Congregational Church – let’s not miss them. Let’s take off our shoes and experience God’s awesome presence together. And work together to answer the question God asks, “Who are you?” Amen.